Toronto-based production designer Tamara Deverell is fluent in the cinematic language of the acclaimed film Regisseur Guillermo del Toro. Adept at his recurring visual motifs, thematic fascination, and detail-oriented mindset, she knows exactly how to satisfy his vision.
Ahead of their world building together on his latest release, the noir saga “Nightmare Alley”, Deverell served as art director on Del Toro’s first English-language film, Mimic, in 1997, and nearly two decades later completed the sets for four seasons of The Strain, an episodic horror project that Del Toro created and executive produced.
“We don’t talk much,” Deverell tells The Envelope of their creative relationship. “I find that my way of working with Guillermo is to sit next to him and draw.”
First, the director presents her with loose drawings of rooms created by concept designer Guy Davis. These aren’t designs she can replicate, but they do reflect the aesthetic that Del Toro is aiming for, she says. Based on these samples, she begins epoch-specific research. After sharing key elements of her findings with him, she draws the set plans with him.
Deverell built the first installment of Nightmare Alley, an adaptation of the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, about the mysterious Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) learning the threads of life as part of a traveling carnival in the 1930s and her team set the side scenes in the grassy parking lot of an agricultural fair surrounded by corn fields.
“It still amazes me that we found this,” she says. “Other than all the big lighthouses and rain towers, it really was like walking into this magical, sad Midwestern Mardi Gras.”
To assemble this important location, the production rented a colorful Ferris wheel, an original from the first half of the 20th century that’s still in use today, and found a 1920’s carousel that they embellished with calliopes. Circles and rotation were a prominent symbol throughout, not only on these rides but also in an early sequence in the geek pit and later in the film on the circular stage where Stan performs at Copacabana.
Deverell’s team bought, treated, and dyed the fabric for the tents on screen before sending it to a Midwestern company that had specialized in making circus tents since the 1890s. When the finished products came back they had yet to be weathered to achieve an age appropriate appearance.
While the appearance of most attractions was derived from historical references, the amusement house represented Del Toro’s personal addition to this parade of rarities. Deverell recalls the original idea with cautionary scenes depicting Heaven, Purgatory, and finally Hell.
But given the lack of space, as the interior had to be built within a soundstage, they focused on the darker elements. “It was about looking at your reflection: ‘Are you a sinner?’ and the heavy Catholic themes that Guillermo likes to play with,” she notes. Design pieces included large, carved carnival devil heads and a skull.
In homage to their first outing together, Deverell and Del Toro decorated Nightmare Alley with Mimic-themed Easter eggs. The most notable comes during the opening act when Stan and Clem (Willem Dafoe) dispose of a Salvation Army man.
“For Mimic, I designed a Jesus Saves cross that’s actually modeled after a neon cross outside a church here in Toronto,” she says. “And when we walked into ‘Nightmare Alley,’ he said, ‘Let’s do the same cross.’ It was Guillermo’s idea.”
When the story later introduces Stan, a charming charlatan, to the high society of the city of Buffalo, Art Deco becomes the dominant architectural style of Deverell’s sets. The office where seductive psychologist Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett) treats Stan was the highlight.
“This was one of the more complicated sets I’ve ever built,” she remarked. “I hope you don’t realize it when you look at it, but it certainly took a long time to design and put together by our superb carpenters.”
Largely inspired by the Weil Worgelt study in the Brooklyn Museum, Lilith’s practice exudes a powerful seduction. Long and narrow to allow Del Toro to choreograph the actors, the room features Rorschach wood veneer walls and real marble floors. A skylight and a huge window provided lighting for cinematographer Dan Laustsen.
“There were a lot of difficult things to build: little secret drawers and panels, she had to pull out a recorder and there were buttons under her desk, one door was a safe that Guillermo wanted to shoot through and there was a door that went outside a back hall,” says Deverell. Ultimately, she was pleased that throughout the scenes of Cooper and Blanchett, the director showed every angle and meticulous characterization of that space.
“Cate complimented me that she really loves the set,” she adds. “To have it work so well for an actor of her caliber was a real thrill for me.” Deverell recently wrapped up Del Toro’s upcoming genre anthology series, Cabinet of Curiosities, for Netflix.