New York on the Danube

With matchless attention to detail, costume  designer Michael Kaplan and executive producer–director Jakob Verbruggen brought the Gilded Age to life for TNT’s The Alienist.

Michele Shapiro
  • Daniel Brühl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, known as “the alienist” for his studies of mental illness

    Katalin Vermes
  • Michael Kaplan (center) with Dakota Fanning and Daniel Brühl

    Katalin Vermes
  • Fanning and Brühl with Luke Evans

    Kurt Iswarienko
  • As Kaplan’s sketches suggest, he is a stickler for period detail and made sure every button and cufflink was true to the era. “The actors appreciate the details,” he says.

  • Fanning

    James Minchin III

It’s no wonder costume designer Michael Kaplan is known as the go-to guy for sci-fi.

His credits include Blade Runner, two Star Trek movies and the three most recent Star Wars features — plus he’s at work on the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX.

But Kaplan’s talents are wide-ranging. He’s also created the costumes for four films with director David Fincher, including Fight Club and Se7en. Still, Kaplan longed to immerse himself in a large-scale period piece. He recalls reading Caleb Carr’s crime novel The Alienist shortly after it came out in 1994 and thinking that it was “a designer’s dream.” He told his agent that he wanted to work on the movie.

“It had everything,” he says of the story, set in New York City in 1896 during the so-called Gilded Age, the period between the Civil War and World War I. “[It had] very rich people and scenes at the opera and [the historic restaurant] Delmonico’s. Then, there were the Jewish and Irish tenements. I love the different strata of humanity that existed in New York at that time. It was such a rich project.”

Paramount had bought the rights to the book and planned to make it into a motion picture, but the project never got off the ground and Kaplan eventually forgot about it.

Nearly three decades later, a call came out of the blue: would Kaplan be available to outfit the 19th-century New Yorkers for TNT’s version of The Alienist?

Paramount Pictures had turned the project over to Paramount Television, which adapted it in partnership with Anonymous Content. A 10-episode event series was planned, starring Daniel Brühl as Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (aka “the alienist,” because he studies mental illness), Luke Evans as illustrator John Moore and Dakota Fanning as Sara Howard, a secretary at NYPD headquarters.

The timing actually worked out for the designer, who was on a break between Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Episode IX.

“I couldn’t turn the job down,” he says. “I’ve been waiting 25 years to do this. I didn’t ask about budget or logistics or crew. I just said yes.”

Had Kaplan known at the time that he wouldn’t be able to bring a crew from L.A. to Budapest, where filming took place, he might have responded differently. “But we found the best local people we could. Sometimes being put into positions that you’re not used to, you find resources that are unexpected,” he says.

Reimagining Carr’s book for television made sense to executive producer Jakob Verbruggen (The Fall) , who directed the first three episodes of the series, which debuted in January.

“Because of its complexity, The Alienist needed more than 90 minutes to be told,” he says. “Being able to spend 10 hours with the characters is why it worked out well as a series.”

It also didn’t hurt that, as Verbruggen points out, “we’re living in the golden age of television. There are studios, networks, big budgets.” When Verbruggen was hired, in September 2016, crewmembers including production designer Mara LePere-Schloop were already hard at work turning modern-day Budapest — the Hungarian capital on the Danube River — into turn-of-the-century New York.

“It was a baptism by fire,” recalls Verbruggen, who got a crash course in New York’s Gilded Age from Richard Zacks, author of Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, which looks at the future president’s years as police commissioner of Manhattan. T.R. is also depicted in The Alienist, which blends historical figures such as Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan with fictional characters.

Among the many stops that the author and director made together were the Morgan Library and the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side, which, Verbruggen says, “was very inspirational. It shows how immigrants lived in those days. The contrast couldn’t be bigger between the rich and poor immigrants, who lived together like sardines in one apartment.”

From Manhattan, Verbruggen hopped a flight to Budapest, where he met Kaplan for the first time. “We were both obsessed with details,” the producer recalls.

Though thousands of miles from Manhattan, the city was a natural choice, since many of its well-preserved mansions look similar to those from New York City’s Gilded Age. What Budapest lacks, however, is tenements.

“We literally had to build them from scratch,” Verbruggen says of the six-story structures that rose on a backlot adjacent to Origo Studios. Ironically, the faux turn-of-the-century city enhanced the authentic feel of the series. “Building the sets at full height allowed the camera to turn 360 degrees without being limited by blue screen. In fact, 80 percent of the world you see on The Alienist is real,” Verbruggen notes.

In turn, this afforded the actors a lot of freedom. “We wanted the series to be a visual time machine that transports the audience and puts them on the streets of New York.”

As the first of five directors working on The Alienist, Verbruggen had a hand in casting. “We needed strong and solid actors,” Verbruggen says, and Brühl, Evans and Fanning “embrace the complexity of the three [characters]. Apart from having the nail-biting elements of a thriller, the series’ greatest strength is the chemistry between the three actors.”

With his designs, Kaplan helped the trio develop their roles, starting with a personal color palette for each.

Dr. Kreizler’s was limited to dark greens and black to “give him a more European feeling,” Kaplan explains, while John Moore’s was both more colorful and more modern, with a mix of reds, blues and grays. “He’s a bon vivant and a dandy. You can see that in the kind of fabrics he wears.”

When it came to dressing Sara Howard — who chose working in a man’s world over attending society galas — Kaplan avoided some traditionally feminine choices. “Dakota’s character is from a wealthy family, yet she’s not frivolous. There was a lack of ruffles and frills.  At the police station, she wears gray, taupe and cream.”

In a scene at Delmonico’s, she’s ill at ease in an out-of-character dark green velvet gown. Of course, her tightly laced corset also could have been a factor.

A scene in which Sara removes her corset, leaving indentations in her pale skin, illustrates what it felt like to be a woman at that time, Verbruggen says. “We wrote the scene into the script after I saw the marks on Dakota’s skin.”

But she’s not the only one constricted by her apparel. “Dr. Kreizler is, as well. The clothing is so restrictive. It makes you stand in a certain way to portray whatever society wants you to be.”

The wardrobe for the principal actors and many featured extras was designed and sewn at the costume workroom in Budapest. Hats, gloves and even some shoes were custom-made. Police uniforms as well as servants’ outfits were also created from scratch, as well as many of the ball gowns for scenes in Delmonico’s and the opera house.

For the background extras, the team scoured costume houses in L.A., London, Rome, Madrid, Paris and Vienna. A stickler for detail, Kaplan made sure every last button and cufflink was true to the time period. “Coming from features, you see those things. On TV, they can get lost. But for myself, I need to do it, and the actors appreciate the details,” he says.

In dressing the child prostitutes who figure prominently in the story, Kaplan had little historical context.

“The brothel looks were a total invention,” says the designer, noting that patrons of such places weren’t apt to write about them in detail. “I knew the boys had to be semi-dressed in women’s clothes. They wouldn’t be expensive, like the clothes at the French Town brothel that Luke’s character frequents.”

The scenes shot in what Kaplan calls “the boy brothel” have an eerie quality, which Verbruggen achieved by channeling one of his favorite directors.

“I asked, ‘What would David Lynch do?’ We wanted to create reality in which something is off or odd. Low camera angles were used,” he says, adding that his goal for the episodes he directed was to unsettle the audience. “The camera sometimes overstays its welcome.”

The series budget (some $9 million per episode) was the largest Verbruggen has ever worked with. “Being able to have all these resources and access to the talent was amazing,” he says, adding that the support he received from Paramount, Anonymous Content and TNT stayed strong during the eight-month shoot.

“There was rarely a no. They wanted us to make this story in the best way we could.” Still, the long days on set were intense, leading Verbruggen to call the project “not only my biggest undertaking, but my biggest challenge so far.”

Did Kaplan find the shoot more challenging than, say, the Star Wars trilogy? In some ways, yes. “We were in Budapest for many seasons. There was extreme cold and extreme heat. Also, while the budget was ample, TV works at a different pace than feature films. The number of setups you do a day — the actors coming in and out that you have to fit — is intense. You’re working 24/7. It’s pretty exhausting.”

Is a sequel in the cards? While Fox announced late last year that it’s developing a one-hour drama series based on Caleb Carr’s novel Surrender, New York, no talk has surfaced yet of a series based on The Angel of Darkness, Carr’s 1997 follow-up to The Alienist. But if it comes to pass in less than another quarter century, Verbruggen and Kaplan say they would be open to reuniting.

“It’s amazing when you’re on the same wavelength with a director,” Kaplan says. “I had this with David Fincher, Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne — you can work together on a vision and all be aligned. That’s how I felt working with Jakob.”

Credit Roll: Executive-producing The Alienist with Jakob Verbruggen were Eric Roth, Hossein Amini, E. Max Frye, Steve Golin, Rosalie Swedlin, Chris Symes and Cary Fukunaga. Verbruggen’s fellow directors were James Hawes, Paco Cabezas, David Petrarca and Jamie Payne.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2018