Production design of "Nightmare Alley" by Tamara Deverell, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Production design of “Nightmare Alley” – interview with Tamara Deverell

June 3rd, 2022
Production design of "Nightmare Alley" by Tamara Deverell, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Tamara Deverell. In this interview she talks about the art and craft of production design, the transition of the industry from film to digital, production shifts as more stories are told on streaming platforms, doing research in the digital age, and the impact of the ongoing pandemic on her industry. Around these topics and more, Tamara dives deep into her work on the recently released “Nightmare Alley”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Tamara: I was an art student, studying just about everything I could manage to put my hands on in art school: printmaking to painting to sculpture to photography to filmmaking to art history. I had incredibly wide-spread interests and talents, I was lost looking for some kind of career wherein I could explore and use all my creativity. My father, a writer, thought that somebody with my all-encompassing skills and interests could do well in the film industry – and he was right.

I started working in film in the costume department on a small Canadian production, and through that experience I was exposed to the art department that I never really thought about. Some crew member saw that I was artistically inclined and talented, and I was introduced to the production designer François Séguin, a Canadian designer. I got my start working with François in Montreal and then, after a move to Toronto, with another Canadian designer, Carol Spier (of David Cronenberg fame). I worked my way up from set and graphic designer to Art Director as part of Carol’s team working on the David Cronenberg films: “eXistenZ” and “Crash”, as well as Guillermo del Toro’s “Mimic”. That was my beginning.

Kirill: If I can bring you back to late ’80s or early ’90s when you were starting in the industry, and then jump all the way to the present day, are there any big differences between how feature films were made back then and now?

Tamara: The sentiments of the storytelling process are the same, but the process and the logistics of creating films now are very different from when I’ve started. I feel that my generation has witnessed a tremendous transformation of the way everything is done, and movies in particular.

I’ve seen the rise of the digital age in my work in the art department. As an example: back then we were doing Letraset, cut and pasting and photo processing to create a prop newspaper. Everything was hand drafted, and I’m still one of the few people in my industry that does still can do hand drafting. However, I don’t do a lot of drafting these days, as I have a team of excellent set designers who I work with to create final models and plans. When I first started, I was hand drafting and hand illustrating from start to finish. I still do the hand drafting, but these days I tend to do it on a digital platform, like drawing on an iPad on an emulated “gridded” paper.

It’s been an exciting time to have a career in film as our worlds have expanded so much. There’s AR (Augmented Reality) walls and all sorts of digital technology. When you’re designing a film, you have to know just as much about VFX as your VFX team partners and leaders do. It’s a new world of digital information and technology.

Still though, we’re still trying to tell stories that are epic, or human, or fantastical, and those parameters of good storytelling will always remain the same.

Production design sketches and notes for “Nightmare Alley”, courtesy of Tamara Deverell.

Kirill: Speaking of the new worlds, you’ve done a few episodic productions in the last several years. Did it catch you by surprise how quickly the industry has expanded into the premium streaming / episodic space, perhaps at the expense of mid-budget feature films?

Tamara: I’m not really surprised about that. The platforms are changing radically. I hope people will always want to see movies in theatres, but TV screens keep on getting bigger and better, and this pandemic certainly changed a lot of things. People want access to entertainment in their own homes, and now it’s become even more prevalent because people have been stuck at home.

It’s shifting, and the best thing for filmmakers is to shift with it, and not to fight it. Cinema and television have become so closely entwined, both can provide high quality visual experiences. When I work in television, I try to imbue it with the same level of detail as I would on a feature film where you see it in that large-scale format, because a lot of people are watching that largescale television. I worked on “Star Trek Discovery”, an episodic television production, and it was the same level of detail, and desire to create new worlds and present audience with fantastic sets as I would in a feature film. It’s not a huge difference for me anymore.

When I first started in the industry, there was this clear line between the two. You do TV, and you can get away with things. You do a movie, and you pay attention to every minute detail. Not anymore.

Kirill: Would you say that a movie like “Nightmare Alley” needs to be seen on a big screen?

Tamara: I would. It was such a particularly intense experience, such a heavily art directed movie, and the visuals are so important. That goes for all of Guillermo’s films, they have this intrinsic visual value that is worthy of a large screen. There is so much detail in aging, textures and tones, and I want people to be able to look at that on a big screen.

Kirill: And then on the other end of the screens spectrum, you have some people that watch these stories on their phones, perhaps not even in one go.

Tamara: If I see somebody watching “Nightmare Alley” on that tiny, badly calibrated airplane screen, I know that they didn’t really see it. I would be disappointed for them, as it’s such a fundamental difference. When I’m doing a project, I’m still paying the same amount of mind and attention to it, there is no difference between TV and big screen films in the level of strong visuals that I wish to create.

Production design sketches and notes for “Nightmare Alley”, courtesy of Tamara Deverell.

Kirill: Is it easy or difficult to talk about what you do for a living with people who are not in the industry, to explain all the complexities and all the dimensions of what you do?

Tamara: I’m used to it now, because so many people don’t know what an art department is and what they do. I’m used to trying to explain that I’m like an architect, but in the film industry. I say that I design and build things, and that I’m responsible for the overall look of things.

But on the other hand, I don’t want people to be distracted by all the details of a built set. I want people to just feel the story through what I do visually. It’s the art of illusion, so I’m trying to get them to just feel the world, and not be aware that it’s designed and painted and built to these specifications. When I started, even I didn’t know what an art department was, I was immersed in the storytelling and the spaces into which the design took me. I didn’t think: who built that? Who designed that?

Kirill: Now that you know, does it diminish in any way your enjoyment as a viewer?

Tamara: I try not to let it. When I watch a show, I try to let myself be immersed in it like any audience member. Sometimes I will catch myself thinking about the details. Often, if it’s a movie where I really like the production design, I’ll watch it again to see what it is that I’m reacting to. But otherwise, I honestly try not to let myself be distracted by my own knowledge of how a film is made, especially as it pertains to the art department.

Kirill: Moving closer to “Nightmare Alley”, was it exciting to get a feature script after you’ve done a few back-to-back episodic productions?

Tamara: A well-written feature is always going to be more exciting than television. There’s so much more in it. It’s like reading a novel as opposed to a series of short stories. There’s just a lot more detail and intention and focus on excellence. This is not to diminish television, but things in the TV world are done quickly, it simply doesn’t allow you the time that it takes to make a feature starting from the story.

Production design sketches and notes for “Nightmare Alley”, courtesy of Tamara Deverell.

Kirill: It also feels that a lot of episodic productions feel forced to make an opening for the next season, while features get to tell the whole story, or even as in the case of “Nightmare Alley”, a story that loops into itself.

Tamara: It’s a full circular journey, and that particular film is an endless loop. The main character Stan ends where he began, and there is no transformation for his character. It’s a story of a man’s downfall. He is what he is. He goes into the world and out of the world carrying the same sins and character flaws that he had at the beginning. In a sense, that’s the theme of “Nightmare Alley”.

Kirill: What is your approach as you read a script? Do you stop and take notes on how you envision it? Do you start sketching or scribbling in the margins, or do you wait until you’re done reading the whole thing?

Tamara: I try to not get distracted by my own desire to design when I first read a script. I really want to understand the stories and characters, and I want to design from that, from character and story. I’m trying to serve the story. I’ll purposely push myself away from trying to figure out what it should look like, what should be built and what is location, and other logistical decisions. I’ll do a full pass at reading it just for the story and characters, and then I’ll read it again with more thought to what my design process should be. That’s when I start doodling on the side. Now sometimes I can’t help it when I first read a script. I will look things up or scribble things down in the margin, but mostly try and make an effort to comprehensively understand the full width and depth of the story.

Kirill: How did it go with the script for “Nightmare Alley”?

Tamara: Guillermo sent me the script, I read it, and I started researching and breaking it down to present some initial ideas. I try and give Guillermo inspiration in whatever form that comes, and some of my thoughts on what that should look like. It can be initial research, or models, or sketches. As a director, he is extremely visually oriented.

He’s so much into the look of the film, that he’ll have a lot of his own references and research. He will reference painting styles, or photographers, or films and film sets. It’s a lot of back and forth.

Production design sketches and notes for “Nightmare Alley”, courtesy of Tamara Deverell.

Kirill: How do you do your research nowadays? Is it all on the Internet, or do you still go to physical places like archives and libraries?

Tamara: For “Nightmare Alley” in particular, there were some books that I ordered that Guillermo had pegged as references. Some of them were from Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, noted photographers during the Depression Era. I have a big photography book collection and I rely on that heavily, and I ordered some more for this one. I already had some design books on Art Deco architecture and Carnivals of the 1920’s and 30’s. There’s something nice and tactile about books.

I do an enormous amount of online research as well. If it’s a period piece like “Nightmare Alley”, we’re looking at the Smithsonian Archives and the Library of Congress online, and anything that we can get our hands on. It’s a combination of many different things. We used to go to the library a lot more, of course, and now you can Google so much. But you can get lost in the Internet. If you have a good book on Art Deco architectural furniture, it really helps to be able to focus your research.

Kirill: Do you get access to certain archives or parts of the libraries that the general public doesn’t get access to when you work on these productions?

Tamara: Only if I ask. As a concrete example, I was heavily influenced by the “Weil-Worgelt” Art Deco study displayed in the Brooklyn Museum for Lilith’s office. I wanted to know more about how it was built, so I contacted the curators specifically about the details: the lacquered wood that they use and the type of wood. It’s not that I wanted to copy it, but I wanted to recreate a feel of a Deco office that’s made out of wood. I had been at this display for years, and was very much inspired by it.

Over twenty years ago, I was working on “Mimic” (another Guillermo movie) as an art director with Carol Spier. A lot of the movie took place in the New York subway system, and I did go through the subway research and archive people, and had a full tour of tunnels and subway systems in New York City with someone from the MTA, something not a lot of people get to do. If you really want to do some good research and you can find the people to take you places, do it. It’s worth it.

Production design of “Nightmare Alley” by Tamara Deverell, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Kirill: Do you think that it’s becoming a lost art how to navigate physical archives and libraries, and that people are gravitating towards the internet as their only option?

Tamara: I do. There’s a lot you get by going to an archive and looking at books, maps, or photos. And if you’re doing a period piece that is set in 1700s, you have to be looking at paintings in a museum. You can look at them and even zoom through museums on the internet, but I think one can get so much more inspiration by looking at the physical painting in a museum, if you can.

Good research is a bit of a lost art. Google is great and the internet is a fantastic tool, but you can get lost on that great highway of information. Archivists and librarians who know their stuff can really help you. There are people there who have way more specific knowledge. There’s just too much out there on the Internet.

Kirill: Was it clear from the beginning how much of physical builds you’ll be making on “Nightmare Alley”?

Tamara: That’s one of the first things I’ll get into with both the director and the producers on a film. What is it that we’re going to build? Guillermo had very specific ideas, even as there were a couple of unknowns. He wanted to build the night club to get specific camera angles, even though there was an option to shoot in a beautifully restored Art Deco club in Toronto, the Carlu. For a while, it was uncertain if we were going to build it or shoot on location. We ended up building a large riser at the historic location for the Copacabana Club so that we could make it into a space that worked for how Guillermo wanted to film and frame it. Other sets are often pretty obvious. We knew we had to build the carnival because, well, a 1930s carnival doesn’t really exist [laughs], so that was obvious. We built the women’s washroom in the bus station, but the rest of the bus station was on location with big VFX for the exterior. That was in Toronto, and then we went to a location in Buffalo for the first interior, and then the men’s washroom was built on stage. It was three different locations for one interior / exterior set. We spent some time to figure out how to make it work logistically and visually.

Production design of “Nightmare Alley” by Tamara Deverell, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Kirill: How long did it take to build all the carnival pieces?

Tamara: It’s hard to say because we were interrupted by the pandemic. We had started the design work in May 2019, and then as we started ordering tent parts and other pieces. We were building it in the winter, around January and February 2020, and then we had to stop. Everything in the film industry shut down for 4-5 months, as were we. We then picked it up again later in August, which happened to be much better weather for us.

When the pandemic started, we were told to walk away. Make it safe and just walk away. The whole carnival was half up and the parts we had built stayed outside for a few months, so it got naturally aged, especially some of our tents. That added 4-5 months and we started filming around November 2020. Maybe all together it was 4-5 months build including ordering the tents, and having them built and then aged. We had to age the fabric, build the tents, age it again, put them together, so possibly it was six months to build the whole thing.

Kirill: What went into making the glass jars with all the creatures in them?

Tamara: We called them the “pickled punks”. Our prop master Christopher Geggie was handling the prosthetic creatures with his team, and we had to find jars that were going to be perfect [laughs], and we ended up making them because you can never find such big jars. I think we had them made in Mexico, in a place that does great glassware, and then shipped to us. We custom made all the different types of lids for different jar sizes, and then we had to figure out a system to have the floating creatures in them. They don’t just magically float very well [laughs]. We tested the viscosities of the liquid. We did camera tests so we got the amber of the liquid just right. It was a lot of work to figure those out.

And then we had to keep them warm. We couldn’t let them freeze as the carnival was getting cold at night. Our props people used to wrap them up every night [laughs]. We had a whole team of people that had to deal with the jars and making sure that they stayed in a good shape.

Kirill: What happened to that Enoch baby after the movie was done? Is it somewhere in a safe place in Guillermo’s house? Did you get to keep one of those jars for yourself as a souvenir?

Tamara: Yes, Enoch is in Guillermo’s house [laughs]. I have one of the jars for myself in my basement. Actually, I just finished doing another Guillermo show and I wanted a perfect jar for it. It’s a Netflix anthology series that will come out next year called “The Cabinet of Curiosities”, done by a number of Directors with Guillermo as the Executive Producer. He curated eight different stories for the show. For one of them, “Graveyard Rats”, the Director wanted to shoot through a jar. I just knew that the jar in my basement with that little pickled punk in it was perfect, so I took my pickled punk out and used it in the show. The little pickled punk baby hasn’t been properly replaced back in its original jar yet, sadly!

Production design of “Nightmare Alley” by Tamara Deverell, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Kirill: What happened with all those carnival tents and buildings after you were done? Were they torn down? Is it painful to see that process, or is it part of your work life?

Tamara: I’m so used to it now. It was painful at first to see my work destroyed.

We destroyed all the tents, and they were pretty much done by the time we were finished with them. They were already falling apart. They were so heavily aged and cut up. We had done a lot of repair patches, and by the time it was over, they were falling apart.

We found the actual 1930s carousel and we had our special effects people rebuilt it, reengineer the motor and make it spin. A couple of the carousel horses from it are now in the Producer’s farm, set in his garden. The Ferris wheel was a real one from 1920s, that we rented and did some work on to bring it back to period accuracy. It still tours at fairs and carnivals, believe it or not, still kicking around. We were lucky it was a pandemic, in fact. We got to keep that Ferris wheel even when we shut down. In normal times they would have had it booked up and be traveling to different carnivals, but nobody was going to carnivals. So we were able to keep it for the duration of the filming.

Kirill: What about the vehicles from the ’30s and the ’40s? Is it becoming more difficult to procure them?

Tamara: We had so many good vehicles. We did a lot of work making them into carnival vehicles, and we had to age them which was not something that collectors who take such good care of these vehicles like to see. We had to be so careful and treat them with kid gloves. When we were aging, we had to do a number of aging tests to make them look like dusty carnival vehicles.

They’re around and I hope they stay around because we always need good period vehicles for films. They’re all getting older, but the film industry still needs to have access to them. Short of building them from scratch, they are irreplaceable. The car collectors are pretty faithful to maintaining the original cars and trucks, and the film industry benefits from it.

The vehicles we had were special. I was so excited to be next to some of these vehicles. It’s such a thrill to be by something so old. I actually got to drive a couple of the trucks that we had, and there’s a photo of Bradley Cooper in his full “hobo” costume from the end of the movie helping the crew to push one of the vehicles up a hill. It was stalled and we needed to get it in the shot, so everybody ran over to push it including Bradley Cooper in costume. Fun times!

Kirill: You mentioned that you took over an existing nightclub in Toronto. How was that?

Tamara: I wouldn’t call it a nightclub nowadays. Originally it was a high-end nightclub in the 1940s designed and built by a French architect Jacques Carlu, with his wife Anne Carlu’s beautiful murals that are all around the round room. It’s called Carlu, and it was an entertainment venue, a nightclub and also a wedding venue back in the ’40s. Then it fell to waste through the ’60s and the ’70s, and then they restored it in the ’90s back to its original state. Lucky for us, it wasn’t a renovation, it was a restoration.

We had shot there before on “The Strain”, a TV series that I did with Guillermo, and we ended up building a version of the famous round room, which is why he wanted to build it again. The set was also used in “The Shape of Water”. We had lowered the ceiling to fit our film frame ratio, the height of the ceiling in the location was is one of the issues Guillermo had with it. Guillermo is very specific about his framing, and he wanted to bring this ceiling into the shot, so on location, we brought the actors up to the ceiling architecture by building a series of gigantic “wedding-cake” tiered platforms.

It was a massive decorating job in the Carlu, and we built all kinds of statues and tables and custom lights and other things. The bones of the space were great, but it was big job for us. It was challenging for our cinematographer Dan Laustsen to light the space because it wasn’t a built set where you can hang the lights where you want. So we had to disguise modern movie lights as part of the 1940’s nightclub. It was a challenge for all of us.

Kirill: Is it difficult to remove these modern elements from locations and bring it back 70-80 years into the past?

Tamara: You’re always building things to hide modern things like switches, or changing the switches out depending on how close you are. Sometimes you can get away with just putting the right colour box over it, and then getting VFX to help paint it out after. Then sometimes we have to go through all the process of taking out a switch or a firebox. It’s an endless amount of work for the art department to cover and hide and make locations into period era sets. In the Carlu, in particular, there was very little to hide. We were so lucky because it was really restored. It’s like a museum.

Kirill: What about Lilith’s office? Was it built on set?

Tamara: Yes, and it gives us more freedom to do all the details down to the switches and that safe that we built to shoot through. We custom built everything in that room, and it was technically very difficult carpentry. All the doors needed to slide open in a seamless smooth fashion but still had to be period correct. The safe had to be built so that the camera could shoot through it. There were rounded corners with doors. There was a secret door in the back. And Dr. Lilith Ritter, played by Cate Blanchett, had a display with all her client tapes and a fabulous actual tape recorder that our props people found and made work.

Everything was built just the way they would have built it, except as a set with walls that could move and fly away. That’s where I spoke to the curators of the Brooklyn museum about the type of olive wood veneers that they would use for that period look and replicated that. It was extreme carpentry [laughs], our very talented carpenters with a great deal of experience that focused a lot of attention on that. We used real marble for the floors because it was just right for the click-click of Lilith’s heels and the shine that we’re going for.

Production design of “Nightmare Alley” by Tamara Deverell, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Kirill: What about the furniture?

Tamara: Some of the furniture was custom made. Shane Vieau, our amazing Set Decorator, found an image the reclining sofa settee. We showed the period reference to Guillermo and we all agreed that that was the way to go. So we drew that up and built it, and it was key to a lot of the scenes, as the actors were continually moving, almost dancing, around that settee. Along with that, it was a mix of actual Art Deco furniture found in many places. We were sourcing furniture from Pittsburgh, from London, from other places in Europe, from Montreal, from New York. We were getting really fine Art Deco pieces from all over the world, and then we would augment them. Lilith’s desk was built, and there was a table that we had to build to match the chairs, because you can’t find all these things perfectly.

The hotel room was another built set, and we were very lucky with the furniture. The furniture really informed a lot of the design and the feel of the room. We found Art Deco furniture that needed a little bit of cleaning and fixing, but we used it pretty much “as-is” with the upholstery intact. We had to re-upholster so much of the furniture that we found, but we got lucky with those pieces.

Kirill: Going back to her office, how does it feel to see it transform? In the beginning it’s warm and inviting, and then it gets colder and darker as they are conspiring. As you’re standing behind the camera, does it feel that it’s transforming before your eyes?

Tamara: Very much so. It was all planned and carefully orchestrated. Our cinematographer, Dan Laustsen, created those different lighting looks, and there wasn’t much on our end that we had to do, except designing it with a mind to the cinematography and coordinating all that with Dan, his gaffer Mike Hall and the rest of the lighting team. We had a giant skylight that Dan could effectively use to change the lighting mood as the story would progress, so we see a lot of that. When we went from day to deeper night tones, Dan changed a lot of the filters on the lights and the camera to give it a colder tone that helped tell the story as it progressed. There was a whole evolution of mood in that set, and we worked closely with Dan to get those notes right.

We found all these great Deco practical lamps and they were all vetted by Dan. We had to rewire them all so that he could put modern LED lighting so he could control the tones and the intensity of all the lights in the room. He is a master of fine mood lighting.

Kirill: And you also got to do a lot of work in the Buffalo City Hall.

Tamara: We were welcomed with open arms to Buffalo, and it was fantastic. There’s so many great Art Deco buildings in Buffalo, and I went there many times early on. It was really intrinsic to my process in designing the rest of the film, even though there are buildings that we didn’t use in the end. There were details: phone booths and built-in desks, and I was photographing everything I saw on my various visits, as it was such a perfect research for me for the look of the film.

Production design sketches and notes for “Nightmare Alley”, courtesy of Tamara Deverell.

Kirill: And the last big set was Ezra Grindle’s house. Was that one location, or multiple ones for different parts of that estate?

Tamara: His office with the lie detector scene was a studio build. The area leading up to the exterior was a location at a beautiful Art Deco building in Toronto, a historic water filtration plant called RC Harris. We designed it so that they go down this long hall and then put green screen and connected the location to the set with some help from VFX.

Grindle’s actual house was a combination of two different locations. His garden is an existing Art Deco garden in Parkwood Estate in Oshawa. It’s basically a museum space that we augmented. There’s an old pavilion that they use as a snack bar at the end of the long garden pool that we made into a mausoleum [laughs]. We created a number of sculpted pieces and topiaries for that location.

The inside of his house is another famous and often used period location, Casa Loma, in Toronto. Guillermo had shot there before on “Crimson Peak”, and I did the first “X-Men” in there as well. We built a giant table in the library for Grindle’s dining room and used the long hallways. We had to do a lot of building there because they had some awful exposed drywall vents and non-period columns. That’s the case for most locations in film in general. You go in there and you cover things up. This time, we we able to cover up the non period elements permanently with proper oak to match the rest of the oak walls and leave it in place. Now I feel we have improved that historic building, and if I ever go back, I don’t have to do cover the columns again. It’s a bit of a gift to the Toronto film community and the public, and nice to leave a space in better shape.

Production design of “Nightmare Alley” by Tamara Deverell, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Kirill: Looking back at all the sets and locations after some time has passed, is there such a thing as your favorite piece?

Tamara: I want to say Lilith’s office was my favourite, because it was such a work of art for all of us involved in it. It’s really hard to have favourites. Doing the carnival was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I don’t think I’ll ever get to do a carnival from the ’30s again. Just ask me on any given day, and I’ll have a different favourite.

We built a phone booth that was on a location, a historic mansion in Hamilton Ontario. We shot Molly in her red hat and her red coat against this greenish wood phone booth that we built – and I just love the look of that. On a Wednesday that’s my favourite, on Thursday and Friday it’s Lilith’s, and through the weekend the carnival is my favourite. It’s cruel to make me choose one over the other [laughs].

Kirill: Do you read reviews? Do you want to know what critics say about your work?

Tamara: I read them. I read the New Yorker review which was critical, and I had to agree with a lot of what they said that it was almost too much about the design itself. I sort of felt that a little bit myself. It was too rich, like having too much of a rich dessert.

I like to hear what people have to think and say. You’re so invested in it when you’re doing it. It’s hard to step back, although it’s been years now since I was actually doing “Nightmare Alley”. It is a little bit easier now, but when you’re doing it, you’re just so focused. It’s hard to get a sense of what you’re doing. I work like a machine. The hours are long, and you’re not thinking of much else. You’re just going and going, and trying to do the best you can. Guillermo is a very visually invested director, so it can be exhausting working with him and trying to get it right in his vision. It’s a lot of focus and a lot of attention, so stepping back and looking at reviews and looking at the film again is interesting.

I’d love to see the black and white version, which I haven’t seen. It’s been out and around, and I just haven’t been in a city where I can see it, but I would like to.

Production design of “Nightmare Alley” by Tamara Deverell, courtesy of 20th Century Studios.

Kirill: Looking back at your productions from 10-20 years ago, what stays with you?

Tamara: It’s more about the people I’ve worked with than the actual sets. I do like the experience itself. I’ve done lower budget Canadian films that weren’t huge design shows the way “Nightmare Alley” was, but they are still important to me. I did a film called “Still Mine” in 2012 directed by Michael McGowan, and it really stayed with me because it’s such a beautiful story. My parents that live on a small island the West Coast of Canada, and they did a screening of it to which I was invited to speak. I was so touched because the film moved so many people I know. You want to know you’ve made films that, somewhere along the line, mean something to people, move them.

That’s what I tend to remember – the people involved, and how people are moved by the stories you’ve told. I’ve worked on “Star Trek” and I went to WonderCom, which is one of those big comic book and sci-fi film conventions. We had a huge audience of around 1,500 people, and after our panel was done, this young woman came up and thanked us for adding LGBTQ+ characters to the story. She said that it changed her life as a gay person, and it gave her hope that she wasn’t alone in the universe, because “Star Trek” is about a universe that is open the world to include LGBTQ+ characters. She was literally standing in front of us in tears, thanking us. I was so, so moved by that. I will never forget that in my entire career that I was part of that, and it really meant something to me that we’ve helped this young person find her place in the world.

Kirill: Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, but it feels like we’re almost at the tail end of this pandemic. Do you feel that it will have long-term impact on how these stories are made, or maybe that it will go back to business as usual?

Tamara: I think this will have long-term impact. We’re already seeing it in some of the stories now, and TV shows are incorporating the pandemic in their stories.

It’s changed a lot of people’s thinking, and it’s also come at a time when our technology is such where we’ve been able to Zoom. We’ve become creatures that can communicate through different means not being together. It’s changed workplaces, and maybe shown us that there are other ways of doing things. My optimistic hope is it will change people for the better, to be more considerate of other people, but it’s also showed a lot of ugliness and vulgarities in the human condition.

In terms of the entertainment world, I think it’s going to have a vast impact. There were already so many stories before about possible pandemics, and then it happens, and it’s just changed people. Especially younger people. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like to be a teenager or a kid going through a pandemic at the time where you were just starting to create your social worlds. I’m old enough and I’m set in my ways, but young people have been through so much isolation. I think that’ll be reflected in the stories we tell for a long time to come.

Kirill: Are you happy that the movie exhibition business is slowly coming back?

Tamara: I think movies will survive. Where else are you going to go on a date [laughs]? There’s going to be fewer people going to movies, but I can’t see it dying out. Who doesn’t love to go to the movies?

Kirill: If you could go back in time and tell your younger self as you were just starting in the industry to not worry about X, what would that X be?

Tamara: Probably to be confident and to go with your gut. I’ve been doing this for so long now it’s more natural, but when I first started there were lots of times I didn’t go with my gut. I over thought things and I didn’t look to my natural inclinations and my gut instincts. It’s important to learn to trust your feelings and go with them sometimes. Don’t overthink and worry about things.

The passage of time builds confidence, and I’ve certainly gotten enough confidence now to stand up. But back then as any younger person, I was very shy to speak out and to let my voice be heard. Now I’m a loud mouth [laughs].

Tamara Deverell on the set of “Nightmare Alley”.

And here I’d like to thank Tamara Deverell for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing supporting materials. The movie is available on a variety of digital platforms, as well as in the traditional physical formats. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.