Tamara Deverell on her oblong distortion of spaces in ‘Nightmare Alley’

True to the Guillermo del Toro signature, the Oscar-nominated production designer talks about converting surreal dreams to nightmares in the eponymous classic tale of desire.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Apr 07, 2022

A strange albeit confident duality shrouds the film Nightmare Alley's proceedings and the brilliant, macabre design of its world. Guillermo del Toro's adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s original novel of the same name published in 1946 is at once visually arresting and almost entirely distinct from the numerous adaptations that came before it. However, despite being a del Toro production through and through, wherein even the last eon of the on-screen imagination screams a signature, Tamara Deverell’s production design on the film, for which she also earned a nod from the Academy, becomes its soul - more than the dubious characters and its relevant-to-day themes. In a vibrant conversation with STIR, the Oscar nominated production designer takes us behind the scenes of what it took to bring del Toro’s dreamscapes to life and to their nightmarish conclusion.

  • The film’s first half takes place in a gypsy carnival setting | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    The film’s first half takes place in a gypsy carnival setting Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
  • The film’s second half moves to Buffalo, where an Art Deco setting and motifs reign heavy over the proceedings | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    The film’s second half moves to Buffalo, where an Art Deco setting and motifs reign heavy over the proceedings Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The world that Deverell creates, tinged heavily in amber and emerald, hues that became motifs that became whole characters, not only propels the narrative forward in unexpected directions, but also constitutes visions more than realities. Through some strange awakening, you know of the unreal, dream-like nature of this world and its events. As viewers, you are engrossed as well as detached. Much like a waking-dream, you know what is happening may be just that, but you refuse to snap out of it.

  • Aerial view of the carnival and its planning | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    Aerial view of the carnival and its planning Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell
  • The spaces of the carnival and its city-like scale was determined by the relationship between individual tents and attractions | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    The spaces of the carnival and its city-like scale was determined by the relationship between individual tents and attractions Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell

The duality that I spoke of earlier bodes very well for the film in that sense, and works much in favour of evoking a dusky, tonal surreality. The film’s near-precise shift in location at the half-time mark - from a gloomy carnival to the art-deco lined halls of Buffalo is dreamy - both in the fulfilment of Stan’s aspirations and the suddenness of it for you, as a viewer. Not only are these two settings darkly gorgeous, they convey what I believe to be the two toughest emotions to put on screen through spaces - deceit and deception. That, primarily, is because the emotion of deceit, of dubiousness, and of unreliability in characters warrants concealing rather than overtly displaying. In Deverell’s spaces, however, dotted with carefully chosen, often handcrafted props (especially in the carnival), something lurks in the purposely created shadows.

  • The foggy bylanes of the carnival were designed to evoke the feeling of a fever dream | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    The foggy bylanes of the carnival were designed to evoke the feeling of a fever dream Image: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures
  • A number of hand painted and designed banners were placed along the carnival’s attractions | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    A number of hand painted and designed banners were placed along the carnival’s attractions Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell
  • A visualisation of the geek pit as a manifestation of the circle motif | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    A visualisation of the geek pit as a manifestation of the circle motif Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell

Stanton's rise as a character (played by a heavily nicotined Bradley Cooper) begins as he crosses the carnival and its many eccentricities and characters in the first half of the film. The carnival, for Deverell, essentially a place of joy, was given a dark twist, something to reflect the neo-noir definition of the film that del Toro was sure of. A circular motif, as shared by Deverell in her interview, looms large in this setting, starting from the geek pit, the mirrors, the carousel, and the carnival’s merry-go-round, to a particularly eerie manifestation of the motif in the rotating barrel in which Stan steps on while finding the geek, surrounded by at least a hundred hand-drawn and painted eyes. According to Deverell, the circle serves as an apt representation of Stan’s character and his arc in the film. What goes around, comes around, and the ending being (similar to) the beginning is also how this manifests in the narrative structure of the film.

  • The streets of Buffalo, New York, constitute the beginning of the film’s second half, parallel to Stan’s rise and renown | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    The streets of Buffalo, New York, constitute the beginning of the film’s second half, parallel to Stan’s rise and renown Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell
  • The design of the Copacabana Club where Stan and Molly perform their feats of mentalism | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    The design of the Copacabana Club where Stan and Molly perform their feats of mentalism Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell

Complemented by aesthetics borrowed from the film's essential identity as a neo-noir feature and period piece, the film’s second half shifts to Buffalo, New York - a stark urban contrast to the gypsy carnival, dotted by a plethora of era appropriate details doused in the Art Deco style. According to Deverell, the circular motif manifests in this half of the film more organically in the architecture itself, since a lot of the ornamentation in the era’s architecture and the Art Deco style of designing and building involved organic use of the shape. The aesthetics went hand in hand with a number of opulent materials used in different settings in the second half which were much more confined and limited in scale this time around. Lacquered wood, marble, and gold reliefs line these intentionally oblong spaces, as a means of evoking the eponymous “alley”, and the pitfalls that lie along the way. It is Stan who traverses through this dubious alley, from nightmare to nightmare.

  • The oblong distortion of lilith’s office to signify an alley | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    The oblong distortion of lilith’s office to signify an alley Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell
  • Visualisation of the alley where Stan and Clem drop off the geek - the most direct manifestation of a nightmare alley, compounded by the neon | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    Visualisation of the alley where Stan and Clem drop off the geek - the most direct manifestation of a nightmare alley, compounded by the neon Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell
  • Visualisation of Grindle’s office space, full of gold reliefs and art deco features | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    Visualisation of Grindle’s office space, full of gold reliefs and art deco features Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell

A noir would be rather incomplete without the presence of a femme fatale, and opposing Stan’s amber, Lilith’s calm but mystical emerald fills that role. Their personal conflict, that of the mentalist vs. the psychologist, finds spectacular fruition in the design of Lilith’s office, one of the best sets in the film. Apart from the numerous ‘alleys’ featured in the film, including the railyards and the narrow corridors Stan runs through, the actual dark alleys of Buffalo, and the meandering ways between the pitched tents of the carnival, Deverell purposely elongated the expanse and extent of Lilith’s office, for that space to manifest as the film’s title: a literal nightmare alley. The green of the upholstery tussles for attention against the warm tint of the veneer, as the femme and homme fatale “dance through” the space. 

  • A dual colour tone - emerald and amber - collided in Lilith’s office as a way of showcasing a tussle between characters | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    A dual colour tone - emerald and amber - collided in Lilith’s office as a way of showcasing a tussle between characters Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell
  • Visualisation of the Copacabana dressing room | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    Visualisation of the Copacabana dressing room Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell
  • Lighting too played a major role in highlighting the film’s neo-noir aesthetics | Nightmare Alley | Tamara Deverell | STIRworld
    Lighting too played a major role in highlighting the film’s neo-noir aesthetics Image: Courtesy of Tamara Deverell

Deverell remarks that she and her team had to physically create most of these sets and designs from the ground up. Sharing an additional interesting perspective on how building by hand worked towards adding to the dream-like vision that del Toro wanted to manifest, Deverell stated how she imagined all of us to be artists somewhere deep within our psyches, and how seeing something handcrafted evoked and activated that space in our minds, to feel like it was a dream, as opposed to the very mechanical aspect of machine-based production. In that way, the victory of Deverell’s design is that it seems intrinsically married to del Toro’s film, and possesses its own powerful, consuming persona, despite Nightmare Alley being, so distinctly, a del Toro film. Whether her work stands out or fits like a glove is what I find incredulously tough to decide.

Watch the full interview by clicking on the cover video.

Mise-en-scène with STIR:
In a series of conversations with this year's Oscar-nominated production designers, STIR attempts to decipher the genesis, visualisation, and the process of breathing life into fantastical cinematic landscapes. From the dusty depths of Arrakis, to the uncanny concrete landscape of Inverness, the rustic barns of the West, and a dubious fever-dream disguised as a carnival, discover new worlds in stimulating conversations with Oscar winner Patrice Vermette, and his fellow nominees Stefan Dechant, Grant Major, and Tamara Deverell.

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