‘Nightmare Alley’: Find Out Why the Design of Cate Blanchett’s Office Gives a Clue to the Film’s Title

TheWrap magazine: Production designer Tamara Deverell explains her motives behind creating the Guillermo del Toro film’s most dazzling set.

20th Century Studios

A version of this story about “Nightmare Alley” first appeared in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” like the 1946 novel on which it’s based and a prior 1947 film adaptation, tells one story split into two parts. The first half focuses on a traveling carnival in the late 1930s and the second relocates to the aristocratic and polished – though no less creepy – elite of Buffalo, New York, in 1941. Visually, from the big top tent down to the finest details of a silver gun with a marble handle, the movie is a flabbergasting feast for the eyes.

Much credit for that belongs to production designer Tamara Deverell, whose collaboration with del Toro goes all the way back to 1997’s “Mimic,” the Mexican director’s first American film. She was too busy working on “The Strain,” the FX series co-created by del Toro, to work on his 2017 Oscar winner “The Shape of Water,” but received a special thank you in that film’s credits.

“We don’t talk a lot, Guillermo and I,” explained Tamara Deverell with a smile. “I mean, we do talk but we speak a visual language. I knew that he was going into a different realm as a filmmaker here, where it was about a lot of the themes he’s interested in but it wasn’t a monster movie. The real monsters are men.”

For the carnival scenes, which were constructed on a field outside Toronto, Deverell and del Toro looked at movies such as Todd Browning’s scandalous 1932 “Freaks” and the 1946 noir “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” an influence on the farmhouse bungalow where the hobo Stanton (Bradley Cooper) is drawn into the carny world.

“But we were more interested in paintings,” said Deverell. “Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, Henri Matisse, Picasso’s Blue Period. They all influenced our color tones and compositions.”

In fact, it was in a museum where Deverell first encountered her inspiration for the movie’s most dazzling piece of production design: A lacquered, elongated office belonging to psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who Stan meets in Buffalo.

“At the Brooklyn Museum in New York, you can see The Weil-Wargolt Study,” said Deverell, “which is a room that was designed by a Parisian architect for a Manhattan house in the late 1920s. It’s a beautiful study, made up of olive wood veneers, somewhat of a different path from typical art deco. And whenever I’d see it, I’d think, ‘One day I want to build this as a set.’”

Del Toro was thrilled by the idea. “I showed photos of the room to Guillermo and he said, ‘This is Lilith,’” remembered Deverell. And his enthusiasm emboldened the designer to dig even deeper, weaving subliminal Jungian imagery into the wood panels of the walls: “I wanted something that would be a sort of Rorschach imprints of Lilith’s persona.”

Floorplan of Dr. Lilith Ritter’s office in “Nightmare Alley” (Searchlight Pictures)

Deverell continued, “The office was a very complicated build in the technical sense, because there are all these hidden doors and buttons and keys and locks and props, which all work to work to tell the story. The cabinet doors are all curved because, God knows, Guillermo loves his curves and arches in the sets. And the more we designed it, the longer it became in size, so that Cate could move through the space like a dancer.” 

And it’s also a locale which can be read as one deeply ironic meaning behind the film’s title: “Dr. Lilith’s office is an alley,” said producer J. Miles Dale, who won an Oscar for “The Shape of Water.” “Many things are alleys in this film. And in the office, everything is hidden. Her safe is behind a door, the recording equipment is behind a door. Lilith has secrets, to put it mildly.”

And for all the ingenuous props on display in the film’s carnival half, from tarot cards to disturbing pickle jars, Deverell cited an object from later in the movie as her favorite prop she has worked with in her career.

“The lie detector machine, which [concept artist] Guy Davis illustrated and we then drafted,” she raved. “It was an intense, beautiful prop, made with natural wood and those complex reels and needles. We were working on it the day when the production shut down for COVID and it worked again five months later when we resumed. It was pretty intense. It blew my mind to see it finished.”

Read more from the Below-the-Line Issue here.

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Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap