When award prognosticators and critics got a first look at Guillermo del Toro’s newest film, “Nightmare Alley,” in early December, the response to the project’s impeccable crafts work — particularly its production design — was ecstatic. “The race for best production design may have just ended tonight,” Variety awards expert Clayton Davis suggested in his piece on the film.
Credit the success of the sets and design work to Tamara Deverell, the acclaimed production designer of “Star Trek: Discovery” and “The Strain,” who built the elaborate settings of “Nightmare Alley” — from its roadside carnival to its art deco offices — from scratch with the help of her team.
“Everything was built,” Deverell tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview. “We did crazy things like look at this movie ‘The Funhouse’ from the 80s. We were looking at stuff like that and my own memories of my childhood. We made a bunch of it up — the devil heads, the idea of purgatory and sin, those are favorite ideas of Guillermo.”
“Nightmare Alley” focuses on a con man (Bradley Cooper) who forges his skills of misdirection and manipulation in roadside carnivals in the late 1930s before moving to Buffalo, New York, where he takes his biggest risks yet in an effort to procure money and romance. The film, effectively split into two parts, painstakingly recreates the era — with Deverell building numerous memorable sets with her team while also creating elaborate design flourishes.
Del Toro “wants to bring the architecture into the frame, he’s always looking for that proscenium angle he’s always looking for that perfect composition,” she says of the filmmaker.
Production on the Searchlight film was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, meaning Deverell had to account for wear-and-tear on the sets from the environment. But the lengthy shoot was worth it because of the opportunity to work with del Toro again.
“Because he’s so creative and artistic there’s an instant language there. Because he’s an artist himself and I’m an artist, there’s just a shorthand there,” she says. “His expectations are so high. He just wants to achieve excellence with everything. All of his creative heads go to his level. He holds such a high bar. He doesn’t want to think about money — he leaves that producer part of it aside. He’s like, ‘let’s not talk about how much it’s going to cost, let’s just do the best we can.’ Sometimes the best we can doesn’t even cost that much. But let’s just go for the dream.”
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