Back in 2017, the little picture that could, The Shape of Water, made it all the way to the top of the film world by nabbing Oscars for Best Picture and for Best Director for its inventive creator, Guillermo del Toro. Among the movie’s nominations was one for Costume Designer Luis Sequeira, who was awarded the Costume Designers Guild Award for excellence in period film. Given his success, it is no wonder that Sequeira agreed to work with del Toro on his latest period project, Nightmare Alley, the Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett picture about a mentalist grifter. Whatever else critics are saying about the story, there is little denying that the film’s production and tech values are as excellent as anything we have come to expect from the attentive director.
Last week, we spoke to Sequeira about how he created the film’s glamorous looks, as well as the shoddier carnivals ones. We also attended an event held at New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue, where there were costumes on display inspired by the costumes from Nightmare Alley.
Below the Line spoke to Sequeira about working on the film, the filming schedule being interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and more.
Below the Line: You have worked with Guillermo before, but how did you come to this project, and what was the creative process—did you look at old pictures or the old film or what?
Luis Sequeira: Yes, I did. When I got involved with this project, Guillermo said look at the old movie and then never look at it again. There were certain style notes from that film that he just did not like for his project. After that, we spoke about his own visuals and I went to task on coming up with imagery based on my own ideas, my own library and magazines, and some stuff online, and from there I started with the storyboards for the characters.
BTL: I was interested in costumes towards the end when some of the characters are in tatters. How do you create those? Do you make them in tatters or do you make them and then roll them through the mud?
Sequeira: I am lucky to have a very talented crew of agers and dyers, so they take what we make out of the sewing room and make it look like it came out from the back of a truck. In the case of the coat you are thinking of, that was on Bradley, it was already a very old coat. It was already saggy, it had that sort of old quality that was perfect for the character. We just took it to task and made it even more. And surprisingly there is still clothing from that period that looks remarkably fresh. They are in rental houses and have been greatly taken care of, or they are in attics.
BTL: What is the percentage of the movie that you made in the sewing room and the proportion that you got from attics and trunks and the like?
Sequeira: For the main characters, it was 90% made by us. I had a remarkable team of cutters and sewers working around the clock. We had other artisans—shoemakers and hatmakers. It is hard to find things that look fresh. Most of the carnival characters needed multiple copies for the many rain scenes, so we just had to make them ourselves and make several copies. There were one or two choice pieces that were original but most of it we made.
BTL: What are some examples that stand out to you of vintage or original items?
Sequeira: Rooney Mara’s character, Molly—her dressing gowns were original. One was in impeccable condition, the other in tatters. I was in love with this burlap velvet. We remade it by resurrecting the velvet on to new garment, to give it its last hurrah. More generally for Rooney, we were trying to convey her clothing choices—the clothing she wore in the city was bought by Stan [Cooper’s character] as a part of creating a façade of fanciness. So there was a disconnect for her because she kept her carnival sweater but had the new city clothes. Stan, by contrast, would have burnt all of his carnival clothes. Molly would have kept something of her roots.
BTL: I was really into the old lady played by Mary Steenburgen. Her funeral look was excellent—how did you design that one?
Sequeira: We definitely wanted a woman of mourning. So we had a black and white dress and I found some cool lace at a market in London so I incorporated it onto the gown. That is the first costume. For the second one, she is no longer in mourning. She’s crossed a line, and that is why we selected the subtle dress that is not about mourning anymore.
BTL: What materials did you use for Bradley’s suits, most or all of which were three-piece, right? And what about the hats?
Sequeira: Yes, and they were all wool. Again, I was fortunate to go to Rome and Spain, also London and New York and collected fabrics for the entire film and a big part of that was fabrics that resonated with the period. The textures and fabrics from the period are thicker. I had some 1939 dated suits, with tags intact, never worn in fact. We were able to put them into the designs for him. I had some people who did not want to sell me the suits but they lent them out. The shoulders were broader, and manufactured in that time period.
The hats were mostly purchased from Milano Hat Company (Bradley’s), Del
Monico Hatter, Village Hat Shop in CA., and JJ’s in NYC. Obviously, everybody wore a hat back then. We had to find a multitude of vendors to get the variety we wanted.
BTL: Did you do most of your work before the Covid shutdown?
Sequeira: No. We finished the lion’s share of the city work first, including the costumes. We were starting to suit and work our carnival costumes and fitting all the background when we suddenly shut down in literally one day. That Friday was our last day, we came back Monday to cover it all and protect it.
BTL: Cate Blanchett—she has such a unique figure. How do you do it to come up with the right size and forms for her?
Sequeira: She is a goddess. I had all the measurements obviously from the beginning and the cutters worked towards getting a great fit for her. She was just finishing Miss America, so we had a chance to see her and measure her there. We had the perfect fit before we started designing her blouses. That was a good head start. Most of the time the actors come a week or two before they play and you have to find the right size, but here we had that extra information.
BTL: Were you trying to convey any information about her character with the choices that you made?
Sequeira: With her character, more than anyone else, we played on the reflective quality of the clothing. Her black suit had a reflective twist to it. Also, everything had a texture to it. We were dealing with gloss, the silks, the satins, using the film noir style but then reflecting the little light we had. It was pretty unique to her character. The other characters did not have the same reflective qualities to it.
BTL: Generally, talk to me about the carnival. What was the process for those?
Sequeira: When we started the filming for the movie, the period we were covering was completely sold out and rented in North America. The rental houses all said we are out. Guillermo told me to go to Europe. But this turns out to be a good thing because the stuff from Europe is more unseen than the stuff you rent in America. I was lucky to rent out from some great garment houses in Europe. So I had Tirelli, Annamode, Pieroni, and Pompeii in Rome, and Manji, Academy and Cosprop in the UK, and Cornejo and
Peris in Madrid, Spain. These are all formidable, high-class companies in their own countries, with award-winning clothes and prestigious projects behind their stock. The collection that I got there to support what I was building for the lead was great, and it includes the general populace that was going to the carnival. You’d be surprised—there is a lot of American clothing sitting in European houses.
BTL: Last, tell me about the collaboration with your other friends in the crew?
Sequeira: [Production Designer] Tamara [Deverell] and I had worked on previous projects together. We had a great open dialogue from the beginning. There was a mechanism that we went through, running through sets with fabrications, talking about colors, and the environments. We also talked to the set decorators. With hair and makeup, it was the same—discuss what they had in mind. It may be 1939, but the character is probably stuck in 1932. The clothing is antiquated but so is the makeup and the hairstyle. So we would discuss where each character was sitting. For example, Toni Collette’s character Zeena was stuck in the 1920s, her heyday was back then, so we did that together. They had sort of a riches to rags story. There was wear and tear as they had lived everything in suitcases and trunks for years.
Nightmare Alley will be released in theaters nationwide on Dec. 17, 2021.
All Nightmare Alley photos courtesy and copyright Searchlight Studios. All other photos as noted.