Working on ‘Nightmare Alley’ a dream for Canadian Oscar nominees

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Published February 9, 2022 at 3:16 pm

TORONTO — If anyone loves shooting in Canada more than your favourite hometown filmmaker, it’s Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, whose freshly Oscar-nominated film “Nightmare Alley” became his fifth feature to be shot in the country, specifically Toronto, where he also owns a home.

The neo-noir thriller is based on the 1946 novel of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham. It follows the twisted tale of a manipulative grifter, played by Bradley Cooper, who poses as a mentalist and meets his match in a mysterious psychiatrist, played by Cate Blanchett. The two team up for one big con in 1940s New York City. 

It’s a classic del Toro tale with a melancholy centre, fantastical backdrop and haunting characters. But more than anything, it’s the attention to detail that has become his signature, from makeup to hairstyling to costume. 

That’s thanks in large part to del Toro’s dedicated Canadian collaborators, who include costume designer Luis Sequeira, production designer Tamara Deverell and set decorator Shane Vieau, all up for Oscars this year. 

In addition to the shared nomination for Deverell and Vieau and one for Sequeira, the film also received a nomination for best picture, and best cinematography for Denmark’s Dan Laustsen. 

“It’s been a pretty fantastic adventure and honour,” the Toronto-based Deverell says over the phone from Costa Rica, where she is on vacation.

“(Del Toro) is a maestro, he really is a visionary. Working with him is very different from working with other directors because …. he’s an artist. 

“He knows what he wants and how to draw the best out of people to get it. He’s very thorough that way, making everybody around him excel and go to his level.”

The Saskatoon-born production designer has worked with del Toro several times before, including on 2017’s “The Shape of Water,” and the upcoming Netflix anthology series “Cabinet of Curiosities.”

In fact, most of del Toro’s Canadian crew have become regular members of his team. Halifax-bred Vieau also worked with him on 2015’s “Crimson Peak,” along with “The Shape of Water,” for which he was nominated and won his first Oscar. 

For his part, Toronto’s Sequeira has been working with del Toro since 2013’s “Mama,” also earning an Oscar nomination for his work on “The Shape of Water.”

“It’s such an amazing group of talented individuals that all have a shared view towards filmmaking,” Sequeira says by phone from his home in Toronto. 

Vieau described “Nightmare Alley” as a “labour of love,” when reached by phone in Chester, N.S.

He credited much of the film’s artistic success to the many Canadians behind the scenes. 

“Toronto is at the forefront of craft in a world market because … we really know how to do it and it really shows,” says Vieau.

“Nightmare Alley” hops from a gritty post-Second World War setting to a shinier era several years later and features incredibly detailed period costumes on Cooper, Blanchett and co-stars Rooney Mara and Toni Collette.

A significant part of the film takes place in the rain so relying on vintage pieces was out of the question, says Sequeira. He and his team crafted 90 per cent of the costumes for the core cast and day players, with multiples of everything. 

“(It was) a huge design challenge to be able to work (with) a tapestry of colors, textures and styles with so many characters and in the city because everything was beautifully fashionable, expensive, of the moment,” says Sequeira. 

“With the help of my stellar team, we built evening gowns, lingerie, suitings, coatings, shirts and ties. It was really a huge in-house design machine that we put together (with) colour palettes, colour stories, textures and whatnot for each of the characters to give them their individual style.”

In building the set, Deverell focused less on genre and more on the history of the period. 

The carnival that functions as the film’s key set piece was built in Toronto from scratch, with Deverell’s team of artists studying everything from what kind of ferris wheel would be accurate to how to age the space.

Vieau says it helps when the director has a “clear vision.”

“All I need to do is embellish and make it better. It’s just an amazing relationship to have because to get into the groove with (del Toro) is everything, you go above and beyond.”

The appreciation appears mutual. 

Following the Oscar nominations announcement Tuesday, del Toro and his co-producers Cooper and longtime Toronto collaborator J. Miles Dale specifically thanked their creative team for their “commitment, creativity and determination.”

Sequeira points to a team “shorthand” and shared aesthetic that has developed over several del Toro projects.

“I love the sense of camaraderie, I love the teamwork,” he says.

“I love the fact that we walk into a space that is completely empty, we bring in everything that we need and create whatever world is given to us. It is presented to the world and, at the end, we tear it all down. I think that’s kind of wonderful.”

 — With files from David Friend in Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 9, 2022. 

Sadaf Ahsan, The Canadian Press

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