“We knew we had to create these two worlds that had to exist in the same film, and the class struggle really drew us in,” makeup designer Jo-Ann MacNeil shares about where she and hair designer Cliona Furey started their research for Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley.” Set in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the noir thriller follows Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) as he works his way from carnival worker to upper-class medium and conman. Furey and MacNeil had to navigate those two vastly different settings seamlessly, and they studied sources from the Ringling Bros. Circus to burlesque dancers to ensure their work was period accurate. Furey and MacNeil are shortlisted for a 2022 Oscar nomination. Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Their attention to detail comes through vividly in the film’s carnival scenes that featured “hundreds” of background actors. “The background is very important to us,” MacNeil shares, “because it really does sell the worlds. All the hard work that we put into the main cast can be undone by an incorrect background performer, so we did spend a lot of time getting them right.” “I made little storylines with some of them,” Furey adds about the background actors in both the early carnival scenes as well as the metropolitan settings such as the Copacabana, where Stanton later performs. Furey notes, “It was a big range of work and a vast amount of people.”
They have collaborated on numerous projects in the past and they discuss how closely they worked together on “Nightmare Alley.” “Once we’re physically there together in prep, it’s every day. We strongly collaborate together with our costume designer Luis Sequeira as well,” Furey says, emphasizing, “The creative process was beautiful with Guillermo.” For Toni Collette’s character Zeena the Seer, they three designers leaned into the details of the character’s backstory. Since Zeena is past her heyday in terms of fame, Sequiera chose costumes from the 1920s rather than the late 1930s. Furey and MacNeil worked to “backdate” their hair and makeup designs, too, to reflect the performer’s faded glory.
They also discuss some of their other character designs they found particularly important. For Cate Blanchett’s sophisticated and affluent Dr. Lilith Ritter, Furey reveals, “Guillermo gave me a picture of Lauren Bacall” as inspiration. Blanchett just earned a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for her performance, the 17th of her career. For Rooney Mara’s carnival performer Molly Cahill, Furey opted for a “little bob” for her early scenes because she felt it would “look more vulnerable” since Molly is “the ingenue, she’s the only pure one.” When Molly runs off with Stanton for the city, MacNeil shows how Molly adapts to urban life through her “makeup choices” as she “moved to a different color palate.” MacNeil adds that she studied the screenplay “from back to front” in order to best reflect Molly’s character arc in her work, especially the climax that is “symbolic of the death of her innocence.”
MacNeil’s “absolute favorite scene” in the film is the very last, in which a homeless Stanton begs for a job at a carnival and accepts through tears and laughter a cruel twist of fate. “I waited from the beginning of first day for that scene,” she comments, because “it was the end of Stan, basically.” Furey shares that Guillermo wanted Cooper to have “longer hair” for the long final closeup, which she thinks “worked out perfectly, because he’s the new geek. That was a beautiful scene.”
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