An Emmy nominee for the first season of True Detective, production designer Mara LePere-Schloop reteamed with executive producer Cary Fukunaga on TNT drama The Alienist, where she set out after the extremes of worldbuilding, recreating 19th century New York on an expansive Budapest backlot.
Crafting eight city blocks in total, the production designer raised six-story tenement buildings in the middle of Hungary’s brutal winter, striving to do justice to the “rich, incredible world” of Caleb Carr’s crime novels, on which the series is based. Depicting a newspaper illustrator and a criminal psychologist on the hunt for a serial killer, The Alienist depended on a nuanced depiction of the Gilded Age, capably juxtaposing its opulence and its grime.
“When I was initially brought on, it was about providing a gritty, realistic take on that period, instead of a stylized version of the history. We wanted it to be textural and visceral,” LePere-Schloop explains of her marching orders with the series. “It was trying to open up the rules and make it much more cinematic, much less like a typical TV show.”
Building sets of epic proportion imbued with their own functionality, it would take an extensive research process, a long list of expert advisors, an assortment of handmaid carriages, and all the cobblestone Eastern Europe had to offer to bring the series to life.
“I think our own ambition is what at times probably also drove us to the edge of insanity,” the designer admits. “But it really was an incredible thing to be a part of.”
How did you go about capturing the essence of turn-of-the-century New York? Where did you look for research purposes?
Up front, I spent a lot of time looking at digital archives, whether it was from the public library or the public archives in New York. I had purchased, much to my husband’s chagrin, many, many books from the period; it was kind of the full spectrum of what could be found. Whether it was a Sears catalog from 1895, or books [with] illustrations from newspapers at the time, it just gave you an insight into humor, day-to-day living, what people were really communicating about, and the state of politics in New York at the time.
It’s funny, those illustrations really keyed us into how dark and dirty the city was. There was a lot of commentary about the lack of a public sewage system, or waste collection system, and we found illustrations that had trash piles two stories high. It’s this great detail that we knew we wanted to incorporate when we eventually started making the sets.
Did you end up looking to any artists of the period to provide further dimension?
There was an Impressionist painter, Childe Hassam, that depicted the New York of the period in watercolors, and I really fell in love with his style. I think more than anything, his paintings probably had a huge force in the palette and tone of our series. Once I started printing them and putting them up on our research board, a lot of people were really compelled by them.
Could you talk about the design and construction of your primary exterior sets?
In the end, we knew we needed four different street typologies. We wanted to represent the tenements, because so much of our storytelling had to do with the boys in the brothels, in the basements and the tenements. The bulk of our backlot was the tenement streets, and we built those to the full six-story height.
There were entrances off the street, there were basements that we excavated so people could come and go into the basements of the sets from the street organically, and then we had a neighborhood we generically called “Midtown,” where Luke Evans’ character lives—and that’s your standard brownstone townhouse, middle-to-upper class type of neighborhood. We also had what we called “Uptown,” where Kreizler’s house was. Then, we had a separate backlot that represented the Bowery, which was a much wider commercial street that had the two elevated train lines on them.
When I initially sat down to break down all 10 scripts and looked at the scope of our streets and what we needed, we went through and boiled everything down to these four types. There are outliers, of course—our police station is on a street in Budapest; Delmonico’s is on another street. There are other streets that exist in our fictional world, but for our meaty street scenes, we knew we needed to build this backlot.
Once we started isolating what scenes were going to go where, we created a bible that would explain to every DP and director, once they came to shoot their sequences, that when you stand at a certain point in the backlot, if you’re shooting Midtown, you need to put a green screen up at a certain point in the block to block off the tenements. There was a very strict strategy for making sure that we could extend and make our world bigger if we needed to, and protect ourselves for where we had character houses. We tried to be very thoughtful about the full run of the season—not just a great first episode, but how to keep our world big and dynamic.
When you’re building structures six stories high and imbuing your creations with functionality, is that primarily for the actor’s benefit?
For me as a designer, a large component of it is being able to give these authentic experiences for the actors. But it’s also for the technicians, the director, and the DP. With all the DPs that worked on this show, I can’t tell you how many conversations I had when they first walked on the backlot, and they just got so excited about the potential. Because you’re not [spatially] restricted, camera movement is so fluid. You can capture a performance and not be beholden to only looking above 15 feet, or not following a character into the building.
As a person that appreciates television and film, I think it translates to the final product, being able to have these organic, sweeping moments. That’s what really captivates me in storytelling, not feeling like I’m watching people getting away with something, but just being completely immersed in the experience.
Could you explain some of the contrasts that came into play, designing a diverse assortment of interior spaces? The series moves fluidly between the elegant and the gritty.
Again, diving into the research, that’s what was so overwhelming and fascinating about the period, just the scope and broad spectrum of storytelling that exists. Not only do you have these opulent, decadent Gilded Age interiors, like Delmonico’s and the opera and J.P. Morgan’s house, but then you also have these sweet, tender, interior tenement moments. For me, each one as a design conceit is just as exciting, getting to do the research into how people cooked in the tenements, how they went to the bathroom, occupancy, all of those types of things—and that’s just skimming the surface.
Then, we get into the medical world with Bellevue and the prisons. That time period is fascinating because, in some ways, it’s like you were coming out of the dark ages. We’re right on the cusp of electricity being a public service, and public sanitation happening in New York City. At that time, there were no street signs, no traffic signals, so you think about the general chaos that exists, and how that would affect everything, even down to how the hospital functions.
What period details did you explore, getting into props and minor visual details? The first season examines everything from early methods of fingerprinting to penmanship and early movie projection.
Our prop master—Ellen Freund, who did Mad Men—is just this genius miracle worker. Any time I was overwhelmed by something or feeling defeated by the scope of it, Ellen would come in with some new, magical insight that would get me motivated again. When we talk about the props—the rigor that went into the investigation side, all of the early forensic pathology and the tools that were being utilized—there’s a lot of research that went into it because we didn’t want to inaccurately portray what could have been happening at the time.
In terms of the investigative side of things, we had experts across the board, whether they were forensic specialists or doctors talking about medical practices. We had a fingerprint expert; we had a handwriting analysis expert. We had all sorts of people informing us of what was historically accurate, and where we could make some jumps in assumptions. It’s not like there was extremely accurate information on exactly what was happening with forensic pathology at that time, but based on technology that was available, we were able to cobble together our own best estimate about procedures that could’ve happened to help the story along.
There’s a scene in the Kreizler Institute where the Isaacsons are projecting a fingerprint. Ellen’s husband, who’s this jack-of-all-trades guru, made this projector that works by candlelight, based on blueprints that he found online. He basically made it overnight because it was a last-minute request by someone.
At Delmonico’s, all of the waiters went through went through weeks of training so that they were properly informed on etiquette and serving style. We had food stylists and consultants that worked on recreating all of these dishes from Delmonico’s that were actually made during that time period.
The attention to detail was excitingly intense, and we ended up having to make the projector that’s in the scene when they go to the movie theater. That’s a completely fabricated prop. Because we couldn’t access the actual piece from the time, Ellen spent a lot of time working with a bunch of different prop makers and manufacturers to recreate the best version of it that we could.
Part of what I feel is so successful about the look of the show is that we have these huge, epic sets, but down to the smallest detail, there’s so much thoughtfulness that was put into everything. We had this amazing guy in Colombia who was our animal wrangler and our carriage maker, which is a little nontraditional. As we sat down, I gave him a wish list that had illustrations and photographs of carriages that we wanted to have for every character and broke down color palette and what we wanted—and a huge portion of the carriages that you see on screen was handmade or cobbled together from different pieces. We had wheels brought in from the United States because European wheels and American wheels aren’t the same; we had people fabricating in Germany and all over.
What have been your biggest challenges with The Alienist thus far?
Probably just the time constraint we were under. The backlot was built in six months, by three separate construction companies—and that included trying to break ground in Hungary in the middle of winter, when the ground was frozen, and pour foundations for six-story buildings.
There were definitely days where we were like, “These streets have to meet each other and be cohesive. Are they all going to line up?” We brought in this incredible charge scenic named Richard Riggs, who was in charge of the overall consistency of all of our sets, overseeing the final look to make sure we weren’t getting a completely haphazard finish.
Probably 70% of the backlot is real cobblestone, and we ended up buying all of the cobblestones that existed in Eastern Europe. The reason it’s not on more of the set is we couldn’t get any more. We literally bought Slovakia and Hungary out of all their cobblestone. Every single piece had to be laid by hand, and not only that but beneath the cobblestone, we had designed an entire irrigation and lighting system for the set. Just trying to incorporate these master plan design intentions was very challenging.