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Interview: Hair Designer Cliona Furey and Makeup Designer Jo-Ann MacNeil Discuss the Look of ‘Nightmare Alley’

Nightmare Alley (reviewed here) is a visually-stunning film that showcases both the carnival underbelly of society in the 1930s and the sleek city glamor of the 1940s. Hair designer Cliona Furey and makeup designer Jo-Ann MacNeil did a lot of remarkable period-specific work to create memorable looks for the cast– from Rooney Mara’s 40s curls to Toni Colette’s pencil-thin eyebrows. In this interview, we talk to Cliona and Jo-Ann about meticulously crafting looks for each character, their collaboration with Guillermo del Toro, and much more.

Congratulations to both of you on the success of Nightmare Alley! How were you two brought on to the film?

Cliona: 

Thank you so much. I’ve worked with Guillermo for many years now, and currently I’m designing hair for his Netflix Anthology Series, Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Jo-Ann:

This was my first Guillermo del Toro film. J. Miles Dales, the executive producer, reached out to see my availability, and Cliona and I had worked together previously on several other projects. I’m also designing the makeup for Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities.

What did your collaboration with Guillermo del Toro look like?

Cliona: 

You have to bring your “A” game as Guillermo does. I love collaborating with him. It starts with an in-person office meeting between Guillermo and me – just the two of us where we’ll exchange references, discuss wigs to be constructed and I leave the room with a clear vision of what he wants. We have several meetings on all the characters throughout prep and filming.  All cast are hair, makeup, and costume tested prior to camera. There are no surprises.

The expectation is the highest but I get to create exciting looks complimented by Jo-Ann’s masterful makeup. I feel like a kid in a candy shop and a grade sixer on report card day all at the same time if that makes any sense. 

Jo-Ann:

I too love 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 if you are working on a GDT 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 intricate backstories to all the characters that really help us define and bring the characters to life. We had constant meetings and feedback not only in pre-production but also throughout filming. We also created look boards, and did a lot of show and tell in addition to camera tests.

How did you design the period-accurate hair and makeup for the character’s in the film – what was your research process?

Cliona: 

I’ve been collecting period research for years. This includes old magazines, books, photos, film clips, or news clippings from the time.

I prefer research of real events happening and found a one minute film clip from a 1939 jazz festival in NY with people in a casual outdoor setting. You can see the hair and the realness of it. This was my vision for the carnival-goers. Guillermo watched it on my iPhone and said “You’re exactly on the right page!”. I also researched burlesque 1930s dancers like Faith Bacon and Sally Rand which inspired me for our peep showgirls at the carnival.

I review research and from there I’ll get a vision of a character in my head, then create it. With Rooney Mara’s 1940s look I literally dressed those waves around her cheekbones. My hair trailer walls are full of period hair pictures and film storyboards. 

Jo-Ann:

When I got the script I dove right in. I started researching the time, era, and what was happening in the world around them and how that would affect not only their choices of makeup but what was available to them at the time. The carnival was set in 1939 at the end of the Great Depression and the city was set in 1941 when most of Europe was on the brink of war. 

I research magazines, online, and old news articles in addition to pulling from old Hollywood classics. I also read the original book and watched the 1947 film. This really helped me to build a really clear vision of what I wanted each world to look and feel like.

Do you each have a favorite look and a most challenging look?

Cliona: 

They are all my favorites yet I have a thing for Molly (Rooney Mara) and Zeena’s (Toni Collette) looks. The Zeena wig was my longer 1930s bohemian waved look and it was probably the most challenging to upkeep for 12 hours a day in cold, wet, and sometimes windy Canadian exteriors. I love my Snake Man wig too. 

Jo-Ann:

I was really happy with all the looks in the film but Zeena’s performance look was one of my favorites. In her backstory, Zeena was a star in the early 1920s and is still holding onto her fading fame 15 years later when we see her in the carnival. We stuck to her 20s style in her performance makeup and accentuated it by drawing her pencil-thin eyebrows higher to create a more expressive look on stage. We used cake mascara to create luscious lashes and lip colours 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.    

My most challenging and other favorite look was probably Molly’s “Dorrie look”. I loved this ghost look but the combination of blood, makeup, and the cold Canadian winter made it a real challenge.

There’s a lot of rain and other weather elements in the film – how did you work to maintain the character’s hair and makeup?

Cliona: 

We never sat down. We were constantly running around clipping waves on all of the cast between set ups. Wave nets and rain bonnets on and off all day. The rain and atmospheric smoke are so beautiful on camera but don’t lend themselves to 1930s finger waved hair and wigs.

Jo-Ann: 

As Cliona said, we never sat down. Constant upkeep and paying close attention to the details. Making sure everyone was kept under cover between set ups and ensuring everything was really well sealed. It really was an amazing set to work on but definitely had its challenges. 

Is there anything else we should know about your work on Nightmare Alley?

Cliona: 

I have to thank the hair team: Jacqueline Robertson-Cull, Sondra Treilhard, Rossana Vendramini, Connie Agawain, Jenny Arbour, and also Lori McCoy-Bell and Kay Georgiou who were Bradley Cooper’s and Cate Blanchett’s personal hairstylists.  

Jo-Ann:

I want to thank my amazing makeup team: Iantha Goldberg, Amber Chase, and Sandra Wheatle, in addition to Jordan Samuel and Morag Ross who were Bradley Cooper’s and Cate Blanchett’s personal makeup artists.

I’d also like to add that we shut down for 6 months because of COVID in the middle of filming. We established scenes before the shutdown that we had to create direct continuity with 6 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.

We are very proud of the work we have all done on this film and I feel as though we made a real homage to the original but also made a stand-alone classic.   

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Written by Betty Ginette

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