How black ‘Nightmare Alley’ got her bad dream couture look
You’ve never seen a film noir like “Nightmare Alley”.
Of course, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film – about a little carnival worker (Bradley Cooper) who makes his way through high society pretending to read minds and commune with the dead – has all the attributes of the genre: degenerate. drunk and femme fatales; dimly lit streets and stalking shadows; greed, lust, murder, pride and a creeping existential terror. And it’s based on William Lindsay Gresham’s outrageous 1946 noir novel of the same name.
But stylistically, it feels more like a lush costumed drama than a harsh crime film.
“We decided we didn’t want to make a film noir out of it, but really base it on reality,” production designer Tamara Deverell told The Post of the film’s intoxicating atmosphere. “We really wanted to give that feeling that you can smell dust and rain and dirt and everything.”
“Nightmare Alley” follows Stan Carlisle (Cooper), a taciturn man with a mysterious past who joined a carnival in the late 1930s. The touring show features a colorful sideshow character cast of a strongman clad in leotard and leotard an acrobat who can turn into pretzels at – the most horrible – the “geek”, an almost savage alcoholic who crowds can watch a live chicken eat for a dime.
Stan begins sleeping with Zeena, a seasoned psychic (Toni Collette), and chases after Molly, the girl who can withstand electric shocks (Rooney Mara). He and Molly later take their “mentalist” act to the big city, where Stan meets a glamorous psychiatrist (Cate Blanchett), who has a host of ultra-wealthy patients he can tap into.
“It was almost like working on two movies,” Deverell said. “From the carny world where everything had a faded patina and was a bit rough around the edges… to high society, where we wanted everything to be really rich and lavish and alluring.
For the carnival scenes, the film crew built their own fairground in an abandoned field in Ontario, complete with a true 1920s lighted Ferris wheel and 1930s carousel.
“We lovingly repainted each horse and remade the murals because it had been used until the 70s and had a horrible 70s paint job,” Deverell said.
But almost everything else was made from scratch, from Molly’s fake electric chair and hellish funhouse based on Dante’s “Inferno” (a popular trope at the time that also nicely foreshadowed Stan’s descent into depravity. ) striped tents and carnival banners, at the Spidora Attraction, featuring a monster with the head of a girl and the body of an arachnid.
“It was straight from [del Toro’s] childhood memories, ”Deverell said. “When he was 6, he went to a carnival and he saw this spider woman, and so we did some research, and we found out how they did it – she sticks her head through a plank with it. [spider legs attached to it] that you can puppet from behind.
Costume designer Luis Sequeira also built much of the film’s wardrobe from scratch, looking at photos of rural America in the 1930s and studying vintage catalogs to lend authenticity to scenes from carnival.
“I wanted to create a collection of more realistic clothes that people would wear for years and years to come, so everything in that part of the movie was well worn and dated,” he said, adding that he wanted to, say, the 1920s of Collette. bohemian fortune teller outfits or Molly’s nubby sweaters and soft calico dresses, to look crumpled up like something hastily thrown into a trunk, pulled out again and put on.
To achieve this look, the costume department would hand tear every new shirt, jacket, and dress made for these scenes. “There are stains, airbrushing, sanding – highlighting the ripples along the edges of the seams – it was all about giving the garment a certain story and making it believable not only for the actor but also for the viewer. “
For the city scenes, Sequeira looked to haute couture publications from 1940 and 1941 to outfit her characters in the most modern styles.
“We decided that Stan would have burned all of his carnival clothes as part of his reinvention” into a good-natured mentalist in posh nightclubs, said Sequeira. So he ordered a series of luxurious tuxedos and suits from her, worn with gaudy decorative patterned ties. Molly would mix some of her favorite sweaters and shirts with her new, more glamorous clothes, including a sequined strapless dress and a stylish scarlet coat – and cling to her red color scheme.
But Blanchett’s psychiatrist, Lilith, would epitomize that alluring glamor of high metropolitan life that Stan wants so badly, with her tight dresses and exquisite black suits.
“Even though we weren’t doing a film noir per se, I wanted its pieces to have that same kind of reflective quality that would give us a black vibe,” Sequeira said. “So even his black suit had a textured weave that reflected light in that low-light scenario. As for the lines of his suit, I took inspiration from his office with soft round walls and put round seams. Sure, [Blanchett] is one of the most stylish women on the planet, so everything looks great on her.
As for its lacquered and wood-paneled deco desk, Deverell said it was probably the most delicate set in the film, taking three months to design and three months to build.
“It was so complicated because there were so many sliding doors where she hid her recording device,” Deverell said, adding that she was inspired by an elegant 1930s room at the Brooklyn Museum. But it was worth it.
“I just want to do the most beautiful thing possible, especially for Guillermo [del Toro], “she said.” He truly is an artist and pushes us all to another level. With him, every little detail counts as much as the big picture.