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HomeProduction DesignEmmy Nominee: Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities Production Designer Tamara Deverell...

Emmy Nominee: Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities Production Designer Tamara Deverell on Collaborating with Eight Different Directors for the Anthology Series


Guillermo del Toro with the titular Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

Fans of Guillermo del Toro‘s work are well aware of the filmmaker’s relationship with production design. Two of his movies (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water) have won the Oscar for Production Design, and one other (Nightmare Alley) was also nominated.

In fact, earlier this year, the Art Directors Guild (ADG, IATSE Local 800) honored del Toro with the William Cameron Menzies Award for his “extraordinary distinction and exceptional contribution to the art of motion pictures or television, a champion of production design, who therefore merits special acknowledgment for outstanding service to the entertainment industry.”

The most recent Oscar nomination mentioned above went to his Nightmare Alley Production Designer, Tamara Deverell, whose designs and work with Set Decorator Shane Vieau to create a fully operational carnival, as well as other period art deco designs, followed in her forebearers’ footsteps. Deverell previously designed for del Toro on his vampire series, The Strain, so when the filmmaker decided to create an Outer Limits-like anthology series for Netflix – Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities – Deverell was one of the first people he brought onto the project.

The idea was to tell eight distinct and separated stories, directed by eight specific genre and horror filmmakers. Despite those different directors and their visions, the series still maintains del Toro’s vision and use of production design to create the appropriately creepy environment for each story. Locations range from a cemetery to an expansive storage locker, from a mortician’s autopsy room to what can only be called “The Witch House,” with Deverell designing for the likes of Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Panos Cosmatos (Mandy), Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and others.

Below the Line spoke to Deverell about her work on Cabinet of Curiosities, and what was involved with such an extensive amount of design work, essentially for what amounted to eight hour-long movies. (Note that Below the Line still has one more interview with Prosthetic Emmy-nominated Makeup Artists Mike Hill and Sean Samson, which was referred to in this interview, but hasn’t run yet.)

Tamara Deverell
Tamara Deverell

Below the Line: The last time we spoke for Nightmare Alley, you mentioned Cabinet of Curiosities, and you were already working on it at the end of 2021. Mike Hill and Sean Samson gave me a lay of the land in terms of the show and how it was shot. They both mentioned you in glowing terms, saying that the amazing look for the show couldn’t have happened without your designs. So you designed all eight episodes and were hands-on for all of them, too?

Tamara Deverell: Yeah, it was a killer. It was a tough one. I don’t think any of us want to do it again. It was just really hard. It started out being a designer’s dream, because there were so many opportunities, different periods, great stories, Guillermo with his vision. And then it was madness. But we survived. It was a lot to do.

BTL: Did you start it right after finishing Nightmare Alley? Was it that close together that you finished that and Guillermo was already planning this show?

Deverell: Kind of. I had some time off, but the seed was already planted. Actually, the seed was planted even before Nightmare Alley, Guillermo was talking about doing this anthology series. That’s what we were supposed to be working on, and then at the last minute, he said, “Oh, I’ve got this Nightmare Alley remake I want to do. Let’s do that instead.” [chuckles] That’s how that came about, and yeah, I think I had a little bit of time off, which was nice ’cause Nightmare Alley, shooting through the pandemic and stopping during the pandemic was a tough one.

We started, and some of the stories weren’t even decided upon, some of the stories change. There was one that we were going to do, I can’t even remember the name. Maybe it was another H.P. Lovecraft story. We had renders and stuff, and then, at the last minute, we changed and did something else. It really evolved quite a bit from when Guillermo’s initial curated… he had many, many ore stories that he wanted to do, and then we sort of selected it down. Part of that was, depending on the directors that were involved.

BTL: Were the Lovecraft stories always some of the jumping off points for the series? I think there’s at least three, maybe four.

Deverell: “Dreams of the Witch House,” “Pickman’s Model,” and there’s one more that was a Lovecraft. They’re just stories that Guillermo had been collecting for years and had in his head. One of the stories, which was initially called “Some Other Animal’s Meat,” which was renamed, “The Outside,” the one that Ana Lily did, that was based on a graphic novel that a woman in London, Ontario had done. It had been brought to Guillermo’s attention, and this is a great story. It was really just a short graphic novel, and he stretched it into [a full] screenplay.

BTL: Were you involved as the stories were being decided and screenplays were being writter? What was the first thing that came your way in terms of a finished script or treatment?

Deverell: “Pickman’s Model” was one of the early ones. Ones like “The Murmuring,” which Jennifer Kent wrote with Guillermo, that evolved, and then, “The Viewing,” that Panos Cosmatos did, Guillermo was very interested in his work as an upcoming director, so he was offered one, and he was like, “I’m not really interested in any of these stories.” So Guillermo said, “Why don’t you pitch us your own story and you can write it and give it to Tamara” —  because I’m always the first person involved. “If you have a DP you want to work with,” he chose Michael Ragen, who he had a history with, “Let us know.” That one sort of evolved. Panos didn’t have a story right away, so we sort of worked on it together, almost like we workshopped [it]. Each one has a different beginning.

I think “The Autopsy” by David Prior, the one that Tas Michos [shot], is one of my favorites. David really wanted to do that story, and he was heavily invested in it. I think some of the directors got to choose the stories and some of the directors were sort of assigned stories, but mostly, I think Guillermo and Miles Dale, the producer, tried to work with the directors to see which was a better fit for them. In the case of Panos, nothing fit, because that’s Panos, in a word.

Paul Weller in “The Viewing” ep. of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

BTL: For many of these, there’s not only stage stuff, but a lot of locations, so where did you build the sets?

Deverell: Actually, Netflix has its own stage and offices. It used to be a big Marine Terminal warehouse, and they converted it with Cinespace into four different stages. We had all four and a big carpentry shop in the middle of the four stages. We just kept revolving sets and evolving sets as well. We used some sets in a couple of the episodes with some major renovations.

BTL: I got the impression from talking to Mike and Sean that each episode was still a five to seven-day shoot with pickups afterwards. Was that generally the case?

Deverell: No, they tended to be on average a 10 to 15-day shoot, depending on the length of it, and then, we would have two to three crossover days for most of them. I forget the schedule, it was crazy. That that was the killer, bouncing from one to the other. We had great directors, but each one has their own personality, so that was a tough one for the entire crew, just the balancing act, and for us, the chess game of moves we had to do, transforming sets and taking sets down and then building new ones. Just the timetable of it all.

Rupert Grint in the “Dream in the Witch House” ep. of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

BTL:  I think they mentioned there was an A and B crew also, so there were two separate units.

Deverell: And we would have an A and B assistant director. The shooting crew was the shooting crew, but sometimes there’d be a crossover, so we’d have a splinter unit or a second unit situation where you’d be shooting on one stage, and the next stage over, we’ll be finishing up the last episode. It’s standard for television, but in this case, it was just a little more difficult, because each show was such a separate entity and a separate look and a separate series of sets.

BTL: Were there any cases where construction was trying to build a set on one stage while they’re shooting on the next stage over, so eveyrone had to be quiet and not hammer during the shoot?

Deverell: Definitely. There was a lot of having to adjust the schedule and hoping that they would shoot later and later and later, so that our carpenters could be building during the day, often in the same stage, where they were shooting bits and pieces of the last episode later on in the day. There was a lot of juggling. Brent Gordon, who I work with, is the art director; he’s a mastermind of schedules and timetables and putting it all together.

BTL:  When you’re doing a show where each episode is so specific, when do you know that you can tear down or redress a set for another episode? 

Deverell: Sometimes, you hope that you’re done. There were a couple of times we had to rebuild some of them. One of the more difficult sets we had to rebuild, the Witch House set, which was very complicated, post and beam crooked little structure. It was easier for us to build the second time, and luckily, one of the carpenters kept all the big posts and beams. They were actually huge posts and beams, they’re valuable pieces of wood, and he kept them, and we hadn’t done anything with them yet, so we were able to reassemble it.  That just happened because the story changed. It had some issues, and it wasn’t tying together and we just needed to redo some small sequences. Mostly, you go through great pains to make sure everybody’s okay, “We’re gonna tear down this set! It’s gone, it’s kaput. ” Sometimes, we don’t know, and we will store a set. You’ll disassemble it and carefully store it.

BTL: Netflix has space to store such large sets?

Deverell: We usually put them in trailers and just park them outside.

Essie Davis in “The Murmuring” ep. of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities

BTL: I want to get into your designs for some of the bigger sets, like the cemetery, but also, on the locations, you found a lot of amazing buildings and houses. Like in “The Murmuring,” that house in the middle of nowhere…

Deverell: We built that. Fooled ya! [laughs] What was really good about that one, in particular, was we found a site where there used to be a house. We needed water for the birds, so we found this location in advance of Jennifer arriving, and thankfully, she went for it. It had the stonework leading up to the house. When we built it, it really felt grounded. There was something there, because there was the footprint of the previous house, and we were able to use it. Full disclosure, we only built the first floor of the house and the second floor we designed it, but it was all VFX.

Wycliffe College (photo courtesy the University of Toronto)

BTL: Did you spend a lot of time scouting for all these episodes, or did you do that for each episode one at a time before they came up. How was your time spent between prep and shooting?

Deverell: As I recall, we were scouting for multiple episodes as an initial pass. Because I’m from Toronto and I really know it well. That’s an advantage for me and for the production, because I already knew that art studio existed at Wycliffe College. We’ve shot there before – full disclosure, it’s a popular spot. They’re a really good location to shoot at, in terms of opening their doors to us and knowing where we can put the lights. There were a few contenders, but that’s sort of a go-to.

A scene from “The Viewing” ep. of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

BTL: Panos has such a unique style and vision. When I saw that amazing space for his episode, “The Viewing,” I had to do a double take, because I thought maybe he brought in his own designer.

Deverell: I watched his films, so I kind of got a feel for what he wanted to do. He didn’t want to do what he’s done before, but he did have some very distinct ideas. Literally, he was tasked by Guillermo with getting visuals together to share with me. He said, “You need to talk to Tamara, since this is so much about the set.” It really was the two round set areas connected by a long hall, and we shot one or two days on location with the creature and at the university as  the entrance to the mansion. Panos was like okay, “I want brutalism, it’s ’70s. I have this color palette I want to explore of oranges and a lot of cement.”

In a very different and interesting way – I mean, I loved doing it – we literally workshopped in a series of Zooms, because he was in Vancouver at the time, discussed the set. I would bring on the set designer, Etienne Gravrand, who drew most of the set, which I don’t usually do. And Andy Tsang, who was doing the 3D model of the artifact. Sometimes, Michael Ragen who was the DP, would join us.

We would just talk about it and look at the model and adjust things together and look at the research. It was really like a bit of a group hug in a nice way. It was like workshopping. “Okay, we’re gonna make this film together.” I wasn’t saying it had to be this way, and Panos wasn’t seeing it had to be that way, and it kind of organically came together. We experimented with a perspective in this long hallway between the big round room at the beginning and the other room.

Shane got involved with the furniture. We had very little furniture, but it was a big deal, like this round couch we made had to be just just the right leather, just the right softness. You’ve got a huge long scene of people talking in that. And the table in the middle of that had to spin, everything was just so. Panos had some interesting references with his mother’s artwork. His mother’s an artist, and we replicated these sculptural heads around the room from one of his mother’s pieces. It was the little Easter eggs I really enjoyed as a designer.

A scene from The Viewing ep. of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

BTL: I love the work Shane did on the show, because each episode is so very specific, so did he end up redressing sets for different episodes and time periods?

Deverell: Oh, for sure. One set, which is this very plain set we had on Nightmare Alley, we kept in a trailer, and we reused it twice on Cabinet, once for the old man that has the raccoons in “Lot 36,” and then we reused it in “Graveyard Rats. Oh, there’s a director — Vincenzo Natali —  wonderful director, a master of storyboards; that’s his background. He actually storyboards the entire thing like a graphic novel. You really know what he wants by the time you’re doing it. And that was, technically, a very difficult show to do.

Fortunately, it was our last show, because masterminding these tunnels and the actor crawling through the tunnels. The camera had to be on a special rig of track above the actor in the tunnel, following the actor. That was really complicated series of technical moves that we had to do with the grips and the electrics, and how do we light them? We had one lantern to light this guy in the tunnel, really as a source light, that was the only thing we could use, so that was a tricky one.

BTL: You have eight directors and I think six DPS. During the prep stage, are you scheduling Zooms every day, where you have an hour with each team? 

Deverell: I would be prepping one, while they would be shooting [another] one. And then the director would come, while they were shooting the other, so there’d be days where I’d be opening up a new set for the one shooting and then we’d be going out scouting and doing meetings for the other one. But that’s the usual craziness of television. Maybe this was a bit crazier, but in some of the instances, like with David Prior, he didn’t really come on board The Autopsy until after I had to design the main set, the morgue room, which was an old ice factory. I really had to conceive it, design it, and we had to start building it, or he wouldn’t have a set to shoot in. He came, and I had to hand him this set on a platter, but at least I had Guillermo to look at it with me and approve it and for me to consult with. I remember David saying, “Oh, yeah, this is really Guillermo’s set. You’re Guillermo’s designer, I get it. It’s good. I can make it work.”

He didn’t have the full experience that some of the other directors, had where they [joined] earlier on, and they were part of me designing the set. There’s a little bit of that. [For] Guillermo Navarro, we built that entire interior storage locker. All he said was just, “Give me as much as you can.” It was one of our biggest stage sets, and it was just filled with this endless storage locker.

Ben Barnes in “Pickman’s Model” ep. of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities (Netflix)

BTL: This seems like a good segue to talk more about Guillermo’s involvement as showrunner. You said he got more involved with “The Autopsy,” but otherwise, he just let each director work with you and the art team to come up with their own things?

Deverell: I always show [Guillermo] stuff first – I have a good shorthand with him. I’ll show him stuff before I show anybody, just to get his approval, his thumbs up, and then I’ll start to show the directors. He’s the show’s creator, so I wanted to honor that. Obviously, the Cabinet, which was like the ninth episode, building that cabinet, was totally just with him designing that.

Some things he really cared about more than others. The creatures he’s always very involved with. He was very involved with Pickman’s paintings, the artwork. He wants to see everything, there’s no fooling Guillermo. I show him everything. I’ll just show him stupid stuff that sometimes he ignores, but at least I know I’ve shared it with him, and I can tick it off my mental list.

Guillermo, if he doesn’t like something, he’ll say it. Otherwise, he trusts his team, and he’ll just say, “Okay, great. Good,” Sometimes, I’m like, “Did you actually look at that?” He’s like, “Yes, I looked.” [laughs] He’s so very brilliant with tying things together. We were not trying to tie each story together. There’s naturally a thread, because I’m the designer, and Luis [Sequeira]  is doing all the costumes, and Guillermo has his vision that we share. There’s a natural tie-in, but we weren’t trying to do a color code or a palette between all of them. They were all very different.

BTL: Congrats on your Emmy nomination, and thanks for taking the time to talk. I look forward to whatever you do next. You now have eight more directors that might call you to design their next projects. 

Deverell: There’s only one I’m working for right now, and that’s Guillermo, who I’m about to get on a call with.

All eight episodes of Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities can be streamed on Netflix.

Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas
Edward Douglas has written about movies for print and the internet for over 20 years, specializing in box office analysis, reviews, and interviews. Currently, he writes features for Below the Line and Above the Line, acting as Associate Editor for the former and Interim Editor for the latter.
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