Inside the disquieting art deco design of “Nightmare Alley”

Nightmare Alley is a seedy, film noir world of greed, regret, and psychosis.

The movie tracks the story of the down-on-his-luck Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who walks onto the screen as a mysterious stranger. His chance arrival at a dirt-ridden carnival in 1939 snowballs into a rising career. Using trickery to appear omniscient, his act takes New York by storm.

This Depression-era world was constructed by production designer Tamara Deverell (Cabinet of Curiosities, Star Trek: Discovery), who has been nominated for an Academy Award in Production Design for her work on Nightmare Alley. Deverell led the film’s design, recreating environments with extreme historical accuracy, capturing the sickening reality look of Midwestern carnivals of that time and the rich influence of art deco furniture and architecture in New York.

(Yes, you should expect spoilers ahead.)

Tamara Deverell [Photo: Searchlight Pictures]

While uncredited for the work, Deverell actually developed a few of the sets on director Guillermo del Toro’s previous Oscar-nominated film, Shape of Water. Del Toro is famous for films that range from high art to comic book, all tending to focus on otherworldly creatures as either the heroes or oft-misunderstood villains.

“For Guillermo, [Nightmare Alley] was a different film,” says Deverell. “It wasn’t a creature movie. The monsters were all men and women, really.”

Indeed, from the film’s opening scenes, Nightmare Alley is stomach-churning to watch. From the earliest frames, I suspect Carlisle has just arrived in purgatory. Even as he escapes poverty and finds himself surrounded by riches, a sense of foreboding fills every scene and set. Because sometimes your dreams end as nightmares.

[Photo: Searchlight Pictures]

The carnival that circles back

The film begins with Carlisle arriving by train to a dusty carnival somewhere in Middle America. This is not a fantastical wonderland. It’s soiled, with tents stained the same dull brown as the ground.

“Quite honestly, we started just digging into a lot of research. We had great sources with the Library of Congress and Smithsonian of original carnivals in the 1920s and ’30s. I wanted to make it as real as possible,” says Deverell. “My historic memory, the memory you make up when you think about that time in history, had it as very dusty and dirty and a sad place. I was being informed by photographs, paintings, and illustrations of the time.”

To construct this carnival and just about everything else in the movie, the team really built it. Rather than computer-generated graphics, the film relied on physically building sets and furniture in the period style. That meant hand painting the carnival banners and distressing the tents to give them that aged look.

“Given that it was a morally dark movie, I just embraced that,” says Deverell. “It means richer colors to me.” Indeed, the film is saturated across the board, with similar contrast but infinitely more color than a classic, black-and-white noir film.

Deverell also used the carnival to introduce the key motif to the film: circles. Circles play out visually, likely as a way to cement the circular nature of the plot itself.

She points out that this circle motif begins in the geek pit, a grotesque-but-real place in carnivals, where a geek—an otherwise unskilled carnival worker (who was often an alcoholic paid in liquor)—would be tossed a live animal and bite the head off. The pit is designed as a circle, a hint that Carlisle will, in effect, circle back to it at the end of the film. Deverell peppers more circles throughout the carnival, but its other most-notable placement is in a simulated electric chair designed by Carlisle for the carnival show.

Behind the chair spins a large circular web, which does nothing in the film to drive the electricity, and is meant to serve as a bit of extra theater to the public. As it turns out, this bit of sly showmanship is built on some historical accuracy.

“I directly took that from a photo of the inventor Nicolas Tesla—there’s a photo that has this,” says Deverell. “I showed it to Guillermo, we tried that in illustrations, and we made it so you could twirl it.” Later, Carlisle performs his show at a swanky supper club that Deverell designed to be one big circle (or, a fancier geek pit).

[Photo: Searchlight Pictures]

The perfectly imperfect vintage neon

A second visual motif introduced in this part of the film was neon, and it’s admittedly a bit jarring on screen. While the carnival is in tatters, its entrance is an intricate, glowing-red neon arch—a touch that feels too grand for the dilapidated state of the fair. (Again, making me wonder if this carnival was a reality outside of our own.)

“That entire neon entrance was very much a last-minute, mind-bending request of Guillermo’s, to do an homage to Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, which has a carnival [with neon],” she explains.

For Deverell, delivering this neon was a major challenge because it was all custom work. “This takes time! It was complicated. We broke it several times,” she says. “Even Bradley Cooper leaned on it once, and one of the bulbs cracked.”

[Photo: Searchlight Pictures]

The neon was especially fragile because it was fashioned in its traditional, early 20th century style, to capture the authentic luminosity of neon of that era. “Now it’s all plexi block,” explains Deverell, alluding to the use of composite blocking to stabilize neon signs as opposed to delicate, hand-twisted glass tubes. “We built it with our neon guy, the real old-fashioned way without it being boxed, which is part of the reason we were so nervous about it, and it can present problems. But to do a period movie, you have to do it in a period way.” Even the color of neon, its particular red, was a color that existed in the era.

Neon is used later in the film, too—though a large neon sign for the film’s supper club never made it to screen. Most notably, you can spot a large neon cross in an alley where Carlisle dumps a geek who is sick and close to death.

The cross was actually inspired by events of decades earlier, when Deverell was art directing on del Toro’s 1997 film Mimic. That film features a neon cross, which del Toro had spotted on a Jesus Saves sign in Toronto. The director asked Deverell to bring it back for Nightmare Alley, saying, “Remember that cross? I love that cross.”

“It’s our own little Easter Egg,” says Deverell.

But filming the neon cross—especially in a scene where it’s raining at night—was tricky. “I got a phone call from our producer that the [electric technicians] were having a hard time controlling the neon. It was flickering,” says Deverell. So the lovingly made sign was going to be replaced with digital effects—that is, until editors, and presumably del Toro, saw the results. A sign that was half burned-out added a haunting element to the scene, which a fully functional sign couldn’t.

[Art deco hotel. Photo: Searchlight Pictures]

The office that is really a nightmare alley

After Carlisle leaves the carnival behind, the film’s backdrop changes entirely. We’re ushered from the dusty Midwest into the ritzy world of the coastal upper class. Given that this was the era of art deco, these environments are filled with this rich, embellished style—one that celebrates humanist curves and proportions right alongside hard, industrial angles.

One setting of particular focus was the office of psychiatrist Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who, after being publicly humiliated by Carlisle during his mentalist show, works hard to win his trust, only to destroy his life. Her office is an expansive, marble-floored tomb. Her desk, however, features a rich wood-veneer wall that’s both completely real and painstakingly handmade.

“When I first put pen to paper in my sketches, [the office] was half the size it ended up being. We literally stood there at the computer, our set designer [and I], and kept lengthening the set. ‘Let’s make it longer, let’s make it longer!’” says Deverell. “Guillermo really wanted this alley. It became a theme. Everything is long and narrow.” Creating the perfect furniture to fill such a large space was tricky in itself, though it also created the opportunity for jaw-dropping objects like the office’s custom-built chaise lounge, which anchors the space like a looming black hole. Deverell also notes how effortlessly Blanchett works her way through that large set after carefully choreographing every beat.

[Psychiatrist office. Photo: Kerry Hayes / 20th Century Studios]

As for the wood-veneer wall behind her desk, that was inspired by an installation in the Brooklyn Museum, where Deverell visited, nose-to-glass, studying an art deco office that’s on display. She credits the museum curators, who answered all sorts of questions she had about the use of wood in the era, as making that wall possible. By the time Ritter shows up on screen, she inhabits anything but another stereotypical, wood-and-brass psychiatrist’s office. This wooden facade anchors the era and the character at the same time.

“It was really happenstance that the veneers turned out to be these sort of Rorschach visuals,” says Deverell, noting how the parallel design of the book-ended wooden backdrop mirrors the inky blots of Rorschach. “I wasn’t intending it.”

The wooden wall contrasts against the office, with a cold marble floor that keeps the entire scene on edge. Truthfully, Deverell had always imagined that floor to be carpeted, since carpeting was in fashion in Europe, and Ritter’s character would have been up to date on trends.

“We almost finished the set, laid the carpet down, and it looked elegant. But you wanted this hard edge for this hard-edged woman, who is as much a monster as anyone in the film. She’s a con woman who out cons the con man!” says Deverell. “In the end, we just took it out because of the click, click, click of her heels.”

Nightmare Alley is streaming on HBO Max now.

Anita Shire

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