Guillermo del Toro’s vivid imagination and flare for fantastical worlds has made him a master of fantasy. His latest, Nightmare Alley, transports audiences to a sprawling circus in 1939 and a city on the brink of World War II in 1941
Hair designer Cliona Furey and makeup designer Jo-Ann MacNeil worked closely with del Toro to bring the filmmaker’s vision to the screen creating hair and makeup designs for Nightmare Alley’s 73 main cast members and hundreds of extras—crafting each look with characters, story arcs, and the film’s distinct settings top of mind.
Furey and MacNeil’s work has been shortlisted for a nomination at the 2022 Oscars and the duo joins AwardsWatch contributor Shadan Larki to detail their inspirations and techniques for transforming Nightmare Alley’s vast cast of characters.
Shadan Larki: Cliona, you mentioned that Guillermo del Toro had a very specific vision for what he wanted the characters to look like and was very involved with the initial planning. How did his input shape your work?
Cliona Furey: You have to bring your “A -game” as Guillermo does. I really love collaborating with him. It starts with an in-person office meeting between Guillermo and myself where we exchange references, discuss wigs to be constructed, and I leave the room with a clear vision of what he wants. We have several meetings throughout prep and filming, and he shares his breakdown for all the characters.
Jo-Ann MacNeil: I loved collaborating with Guillermo. It’s a makeup artist’s dream. He’s so involved with every aspect of the film; on every level, it’s inspiring. You know you are working on a Guillermo del Toro film straight away. He has a way of creating these larger-than-life worlds and characters that jump off the page. In our first meetings, we talked about creating a specific look and feel for each of the two worlds in the film. He has intricately written backstories for each character he shared with us, including birthdates, star signs, and even parent backstories that helped us define and bring the characters to life. He had huge mood boards, reference pictures, and posters of the world he was creating all over his office. We had constant meetings and feedback in pre-production and throughout filming. We tested and retested until we got it just right.
SL: What can you tell me about your research and sources of inspiration?
CF: I’d been collecting period research for a while, including old magazines, books, photos, film clips, or news clippings. One of my primary sources of inspiration for this project was a one-minute film clip from a 1939 jazz festival in New York with people in a casual outdoor setting. It feels very authentic to how people would style their hair at the time. And I showed the video to Guillermo, and he said I was on exactly the right page for what he wanted for the carnival scenes. I also researched burlesque 1930s dancers like Faith Bacon and Sally Rand for our peep showgirls at the carnival.
JM: When I first got the script, I knew I had to create two unique worlds that could exist in the same film. The class struggle drew me in and focused my research. I wanted to see what makeup was available to the people and classes of the time, and also what was going on around them and how it affected them. I started researching the time, the era, and what was happening in the world. The carnival was set at the end of the Great Depression in 1939, and the city [scenes] were when most of Europe was on the brink of war in 1941.
I researched magazines, old news articles and pulled on old Hollywood classics. I also read the original book and watched the 1947 film. This helped me build a clear vision of what I wanted each world to look and feel like. Guillermo wanted [Nightmare Alley] to not be a remake but his version of this story, pulling more from the original book as source material. He made that very clear in early meetings. We created looks on 73 main cast and day players. We also created looks for the hundreds of background performers.
SL: How did you evolve the looks throughout the film? Were there any changes to your original plans?
CF: The central evolution among the looks in the film is between the carnival and the city. We had to evolve the looks of all the characters to reflect the time period and also reflect where they were in their life at that time.
At the carnival, we kept everyone a little more tired-looking, with sort of real-looking hair. We gave each of the characters day looks and performance looks. I purposely designed the day looks for the carnival-goers and the carnival performers to be on the simple side because that’s how people’s hair looks walking around in the elements.
In the city, we went for high octane shine, slick waves, and very formed hair. All the men were slicked and pristine and the women were very glam.
An example of this transition is Molly [Rooney Mara] ‘s look. Molly is a young, small-town, vulnerable girl at the carnival. I gave her a short, soft, and simple bob. For the city, I have Molly trying to look more mature for Stanton [Bradley Cooper], now she has shoulder-length, 40s waves on stage, yet her hair is tied back softly in private.
JM: In a film like this with so many moving parts, we had to be very prepared. We spent a lot of time in pre-production working through things so there weren’t any major changes to the original plan.
As for evolving looks, both Stan and Molly have dramatic transitions throughout the film. I always work from back to front; I figure out where each character ends up and work back to where they start.
Molly has quite a transformation from when we first meet her. In the carnival, she is fresh-faced. As she falls for Stan, she follows him to the city, where we catch up with her two years later. She has matured and embraced the city, which is shown through her makeup choices. She has a cooler skin tone with a paler complexion. She has a more glamorous look with medium brown toners, beige highlights with false eyelashes, and strong red patriotic lips stick reminiscent of the era. As Molly feels Stan pull away from her and toward Lilith [Cate Blanchett], we pulled back her makeup and lipstick, a precursor to her “Dorrie” ghost look that symbolized the death of her innocence.
In the beginning, Stan is a simple man with simple things. He was a drifter, and we styled him that way. He was disheveled, worn down, had a few days’ worths of stubble. The city is where Stan reinvents himself; he now has new hair, new clothes, and a sleek mustache. His world then crumbles around him; he is drawn down into the depths of despair, leading to his fall from grace and a rapid breakdown in his appearance through his tattered beard, weathered-looking skin, overgrown and unkempt nails. We collaborated with Bradley Cooper’s personal makeup artist, Jordan Samuel, to make sure we had a cohesive character that fit into this world and also made sense with the other Geek [Paul Anderson].
SL: What else can you tell me about how you both approached the men’s makeup and hairstyling.
CF: All the men’s hair was colored and barbered every other day for maintenance to keep continuity as the hair grows. We used a combination of modern and vintage men’s pomades, especially for the 1940s city slicked looks.
JM: In the carnival, we had a lot of period-correct facial hair that we either provided (mustaches), or we shaped and barbered their own facial hair and sideburns. On almost all our male characters, we applied little to no foundation. In the city, the men were much more manicured and precise, we had detailed groomed mustaches and manicured fingernails, and we evened out their skin tones for a more polished look.
SL: Jo-Ann, you mentioned the makeup being period specific. There’s also a lot of variation in the colors and textures. How did you differentiate each character? Did you ever steer away from or update the makeup?
JM: We have very detailed breakdowns for each actor in each world. We had specific color palettes for each world that had to cohesively exist in the same film. I had a warmer color palette for the carnival of peach tones, yellow undertones, and reds. For the city, I had a cooler color palette of plums, taupe shadows, and blue-based red lipsticks. We stayed historically accurate throughout the film.
We wanted to represent The Carnies and their struggles, so we made most of the men broken down, weathered, and dirty. We used soot powders, dirt poofs, and grime sprays.
SL: Cliona, how did you approach historical accuracy in terms of the hairstyling?
CF: It was important that I remained accurate to the period, but I also took liberties and backdated some of the characters. Particularly with Toni Collette’s Zeena the Seer, who was our fading star. Her costumes, hair, and makeup were designed to be more 1920s style when she was in her prime, and she had a hard time letting go of that. I gave her a more bohemian hairstyle with longer waves.
SL: How did the makeup, costume design, and hairstyling inform one another?
JM: We had a very collaborative relationship between our departments, including production design [Tamara Deverell] that started all the way back in prep. We were always popping into each other’s offices to share, which continued during filming. I think that’s why we ended up with such a cohesive film.
CF: Luis Sequeira, the costume designer, and I keep in constant dialogue. The hats had to be sized to fit over the wigs, and the wigs and hair needed to be styled and shaped to work with the hats. They were dependent on each other – it’s like a relationship.
SL: Which looks, or scenes, from Nightmare Alley were the most challenging?
CF: The carnival scenes were probably some of the most challenging. We were filming in a real fairground field in Ontario in the fall where it was cold, with rain, snow, and moist air. This made it challenging to upkeep the 1930s waves in the women’s hairstyles. We ran around with clips in between takes to try and keep up with those elements and had wave nets and rain bonnets on and off all day.
The Zeena wig was probably my favorite and one of the most challenging. It was my longer 1930s bohemian waved look, and it was perhaps the hardest to upkeep for 12 hours a day in cold, wet, and sometimes windy Canadian exteriors. When Zeena was doing the bath scene with Stanton, I let her waves be a little looser, sexier, and down in her eyes. She had that turban for her carnival performance look, and we just kept it simple. Zeena wouldn’t conform to what society was doing. That’s how I saw her.
JM: I was really happy with all the looks in the film, but Zeena’s performance look was one of my favorites as well. As Cliona mentioned, Zeena is holding on to her past. She was a star in the early 1920s and tried to carry that 15 years later when we see her in the carnival. We stuck to her 20’s style in her performance makeup. It was accentuated and enhanced by drawing on pencil-thin eyebrows higher to create a more expressive look on stage. We used cake mascara to create luscious lashes and lip colors in the dark reds and maroons, with a pale ivory foundation resulting in a soft, delicate look. It really worked to make her character memorable.
Another one of my favorite looks was Molly’s “Dorrie look.” I loved the ghost look, but the combination of blood, makeup, and the cold Canadian winter made it a real challenge. We had to make blood that had a wet look to it, but wouldn’t freeze and get all over the antique cars.
The other challenging look was Stanton’s dad [Bill MacDonald]. We had to make him look old, broken down, and ill. We started with a bald cap and Cliona gave him a fabulous receding hair wig. We aged him with stipple and hand-painted aging with illustrator palettes that included age spots and broken capillaries. We had cloudy lenses made and used dirt poofs and soot powders to break him down even more. Even though you don’t see a lot of Stan’s dad in the film, he was a very effective and rewarding character.
You know, we shut down for six months because of COVID in the middle of filming. We didn’t even know if we would come back to finish the film. When we returned, we had established scenes before the shutdown that we had to create direct continuity six months later, and it had to be perfect. In one scene, we shot the master on March 12th and had to come back to shoot coverage on the scene on September 12th. One of the actors had come back 40 pounds lighter, and Mike Hill, the prosthetics designer, had 48 hours to do a life cast, sculpt and apply prosthetics to make sure it matched for his last 3 days of filming.
Nightmare Alley was such a wonderful collaborative effort in a very tough situation, and I feel very grateful.
From Searchlight Pictures, Nightmare Alley will begin streaming on HBO Max and Hulu on February 1.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.