Tamara Deverell’s TV and Movie Sets Are Creepy in the Best Possible Way

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Tamara Deverell’s TV and Movie Sets Are Creepy in the Best Possible Way

When production designer Tamara Deverell wrapped up her work on Guillermo del Toro’s 2021 film Nightmare Alley, she left with a workplace memento far stranger than a branded pen. Her swag: a silicone sculpture of a pallid, alien-esque baby that now resides in the basement of her Toronto home. Deverell is the person responsible for envisioning a movie’s overall visuals, including its many sets, locations and props. Previous mementos include Rosanna Arquette’s leg brace from David Cronenberg’s 1996 pyscho-sexual thriller Crash. (Deverell’s two kids used to play with it when they were young.)

A fixture of the Hollywood North film industry for three decades, Deverell has a particularly close working relationship with del Toro, whom she met more than 25 years ago in Toronto. The Mexican-born neo-noir director has a house in the city and has produced many of his projects there. Deverell collaborated with him on the 1997 film Mimic, the FX show The Strain and the much-anticipated Netflix series Cabinet of Curiosities—a collection of eight standalone horror stories—out later this year. She also has a broad portfolio of lighter TV fare like Star Trek: Discovery, Degrassi: The Next Generation and Suits. “Working on something straightforward like Suits was great when my children were a certain age and I needed more balance,” she says. “Now that they are grown up, I want to be more focused on creatively challenging projects.”

“Canada has some of the best film crews anywhere”

Nightmare Alley, by contrast, was a massive effort in world-building. The film, about a murderous carney, had a budget of US$60 million and is one of the biggest projects Deverell has worked on as a production designer to date. Set in the 1930s and ’40s, it required the construction of the kind of immersive, dystopian carnival that makes people afraid of circus acts. The majority of the movie used built sets as opposed to either computer-generated backdrops or existing locations. A 1920s carousel was sourced from somewhere in the Midwest, but a new engine had to be built for it to turn, and each horse had to be repainted by hand to have the exact right patina.

Architectural Digest said the film looked like a melancholic Edward Hopper painting, and Deverell was nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA for her work on it. She caught Covid a few weeks before the Oscars, so she couldn’t attend but wasn’t fazed. “I was well enough past my infection to watch it at a neighbour’s,” she says. “Everyone dressed up and ate mac and cheese, and I think we had a better time than we would have at the actual event.”

Growing up, Deverell didn’t dream of hobnobbing with celebrities. Born in Saskatoon and raised in Vancouver, she was a self-described “lost soul.” She loved art, which she studied at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. “I was always drawing,” she says. But she didn’t know what she wanted to do after school. It was her father, the crime writer William Deverell, who suggested she go into the film business. “He was a lawyer who became a novelist,” says Deverell. “He understood the importance of following creative passions. But he also recognized that it was possible to make a living in film.”

Film production might seem like an American monopoly, and Deverell has had stints in California, but she worked her way up largely in Canada alongside other Canadian talent. Montreal-based production designer François Séguin was an early mentor, as was Toronto-based Carol Spier, a long-time collaborator of David Cronenberg’s.

“Canada has some of the best film crews anywhere,” says Deverell. “We have top-notch film technicians in all areas: carpentry, paint, grip, lighting, camera. We can build and do anything.”

Five things she loves

The designer’s essential sources of inspiration

Women photographers

Deverell collects photo books that she uses as mood references for her film design. Favourite snappers include Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Dorothea Lange.

A photograph of an old camera
(photograph: iStock)

Sourdough bread

Inspired by Canadian poet and family friend Susan Musgrave and her book A Taste of Haida Gwaii, Deverell has been on a baking kick for the past couple of years.

A photo of sourdough bread
(photograph: iStock)

The Brooklyn Museum

The Weil-Worgelt Study display at the Brooklyn Museum was the inspiration for the character Lilith’s office in Nightmare Alley.

A photo of inside the Brooklyn Museum
(photograph: Brooklyn Museum)

Cape Breton

Hiking the trails in Cape Breton Highlands National Park is a source of relaxation and new ideas for Deverell and her husband, a photographer.

A photo of a Cape Breton landscape
(photograph: Getty)

Orville Peck

Deverell listens to a wide range of music and lately she’s been especially into Orville Peck (even though she generally doesn’t like country).

A photo of the cover of an Orville Peck album
(photograph: Sub Pop)