Guillermo del Toro’s ghoulish “Nightmare Alley” was really two movies in one for Oscar-contending production designer Tamara Deverell with its carnival and Art Deco environments. But both were constructed as places of entrapment for Bradley Cooper’s ruthless grifter, Stanton Carlisle, who gets in over his head with his mentalist “spook show.”
“Once you decide to build something with Guillermo, it gets bigger, and Guillermo’s theme is we’re all in a prison,” said Deverell. The first part takes place in a traveling carnival in 1939, which afforded the production designer the opportunity to build her own carnival from the ground up in the parking lot field of Markham Fairground in Toronto. The color palette resembled the stark hopelessness of Edward Hopper’s paintings, while the shape language consisted of circular patterns and hallways as dead end metaphors.
The banners, meanwhile, were patterned after Fred Johnson, who was the Picasso of that design world. “We bought some actual [Johnson] banners to replicate and we put our own characters in,” continued Deverell. “We got the language of drawing and painting them, and printed them and painted over them to make them even more [authentic]. And then we aged them and painted them and aged them again. We hung them up and let the weather age them further. Then when we shut down for five months during the pandemic that helped age them more.”
But the most imaginative design went into the surreal fun house where Stanton chases after the deranged geek. At first, del Toro wanted a descent from heaven into hell as a reflection of sin. Yet that design was scrapped in favor of total hell. “This was based on Guillermo’s inner angst and upbringing,” Deverell said. He was always fooling around with the morality of man versus the devil and God. But we got rid of the fluffy things and went straight to hell.”
The movie’s second part shifts to two years later in Chicago, where Stanton establishes a successful nightclub show as a mentalist, which becomes even more lucrative and dangerous when he hooks up with the alluring and well-connected psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchett). For her elegant, wood-paneled, Art Deco office, Deverell designed a different sort of fun house of entrapment.
The geometric style of the wood paneling was based on the Weil-Worgelt Study at the Brooklyn Museum. “I talked to the curator about the nature of the wood and the veneer, and we built it the way they did in the ’30s with actual wood veneer, and creating these Rorschach shapes in her office,” Deverell said. “I thought a lot about Cate acting as Lilith and bringing that character to that space of a powerful woman living in the ’30s and ’40s. What we learn is a difficult path, but very sharp and competitive and willful. As we designed it, I almost had it not feminine enough and Guillermo asked me to put some more arches and curves into it because I had it more square and angular and it grew and grew.”
In other words, Lilith’s office resembled her physique and how she moved through the space, and by making it longer, they gave the actress more room to perform in. “We made it more like a train car,” Deverell said. “And I kind of thought of it as that because Stan goes into a train car and it’s an alley scene and it’s alleys in the carnival that they walk through. The long hallways that we built and the hallways that we shot [in the city hall] in Buffalo were very much a theme in terms of the physical spaces.
“Stan is a drifter and lives in a hotel room, where we kept expanding based on an Art Deco bedroom, and Lilith is fortified and controlling. It came back to that prison motif that Guillermo kept talking about.”