Crafting a Noirish ‘Nightmare Alley’ Through Costume and Production Design

·3-min read

Guillermo del Toro’s visually striking “Nightmare Alley” straddles two worlds, the grit and grime of a post-World War II carnival that has suffered wear and tear traveling from city to city, before jumping a few years ahead to a lush and sleek world.

Connecting the two is Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle, a down on his luck guy who uses the carnival as his ticket out. As Stanton plots a new con, he encounters Cate Blanchett’s Dr. Lilith Ritter, a mysterious psychiatrist, in whom he might have met his match.

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Renowned for his lavish world-building, del Toro called on production designer Tamara Deverell to build the look of the film. Deverell has yet to land an ADG or Academy Award nomination, but things could change for her as she gains praise for her work. Deverell says she and del Toro didn’t talk about film noir, but rather paintings and painters such as Andrew Wyeth, who inspired the country shack that burns in the film, and Edward Hopper for the general aesthetic. “I approached it from a place of art history,” Deverell explains.

The carnival was built on location in Toronto from the ground up. For Molly’s (Rooney Mara) electric stage, Deverell brought in the spinning wheel, a carnival classic, inspired in part by the original Tesla, inventor Nikola.

The space is filled with eye-popping banners. Her art department learned about the technique of behind them and how to draw them. Once they were drawn, they were painted over to “age them” and give them that traveled feel.

For Dr. Ritter’s office, Deverell found that del Toro’s precise character work, which detailed smells and traumatic events that could have damaged such a character, helped her design of the office. “So much of that office is about her character,” Deverell says. “I based it on a study in the Brooklyn Art Museum, which is all lacquered wood panels. I saw the Rorschach effect, and we built that out of real veneer wood.”

Sharp-eyed viewers will note the alleys in the film, even in Lilith’s office. “Everything has a long length to it,” Deverell says.

Del Toro’s long-time costume designer Luis Sequeira happened to see the fabric for one suit Blanchett wears. “I was in London and it had this unnatural sheen, with a little bit of a texture to it. Even in low light and noir, it was going to sing,” Sequeira says. There wasn’t much material, but enough for him to make a two-piece black suit.

That was the key to his designs, finding fabrics that would sing in low light against Deverell’s sets. As for Stanton’s arc, the decision was he would shed and burn everything he ever had from his carnival days. “When he goes to the city, it was about impeccable suits and tailoring,” he says.

Sketches and concept art by Luis Sequeria - Credit: Courtesy of Searchlight
Sketches and concept art by Luis Sequeria - Credit: Courtesy of Searchlight

Courtesy of Searchlight

Sequeria says he was gifted original 1939 suits with the tags still on, issued by the British government. “They had never been worn, and I had my tailors pull a sample from it, and that’s where we started building his suits.”

Integral to helping with the 242 costume changes was isolating each year and understanding how each character lived in their reality wearing their clothing from different times. “We have a jacket we love that we’ve worn for seven years, and I wanted to have that. But it was also understanding what a 1935 suit was and a 1941 suit was.” Whereas the carnival’s look is made from cotton twills, wools and over-dyed denim and velvet. “Everything had to be worn out. Each piece had to be aged to look like they had lived in a trunk for 15 years.”

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