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Jakob Verbruggen Wants to Terrify You

Executive Producer Jakob Verbruggen talks about setting the stage for TNT’s massive hit, The Alienist.

If you want someone to handle a story of murder and mystery–with a dash of history–you should hire Jakob Verbruggen. The Alienist was a massive hit for TNT, and Verbruggen directed the first three episodes as well as served as executive producer.

As I talked with the Belgian director about his involvement, there was a noticeable enthusiasm in his voice. You could tell that he thrilled to speak about every detail about making this limited series as successful as it could be. And, yes, he loved making your heart pound as you watched our heroes catch a killer.

You directed the first three episodes of The Alienist, but you’ve also worked on episodes of Black Mirror and The Fall. I have to ask, do you like scaring the crap out of everyone?

Yes, I do! I love making thrillers and researching history. I’m very intrigued by the secrets that we all carry with us.

Does that mean you relate to Dr. Kreizler?

Oh, I definitely relate with Dr. Kreizler and how he wants to understand and confront inner demons. There’s something very timeless about learning how an upbringing can shape and influence the person you end up becoming.

(Verbruggen, right, with Luke Evans on set)
(Photo: TNT)

What were your thoughts about joining this project? There’s such a cult following from the book, and the best word to describe The Alienist is huge.

It was intimidating because of the scale of the project, but it was honestly a welcoming challenge. Here we had to recreate New York City in the Gilded Age, so it was all about world building. I took a lot of history lessons about New York in order to understand the time and understand what really happened there. And the cool thing was to select a cast that could breathe life into this intriguing story. It was such a joy.

You worked closely with cinematographer PJ Dillon and Mara Lepere-Schloop (the set designer) to create the world of New York City. How important was it to set the tone from the beginning?

You can add costume designer Michael Kaplan into that as well. We were all responsible for creating a visual grammar. To me, New York City at that time was a city of contrast—the gap between rich and poor, and we got to open the doors for the audience to things not normally seen to them. So you have the contrast between the rich and poor but also the difference between light and dark. The brightness of Delmonico’s contrasted with the boy brothels. The authenticity is key, and you need that visceral feeling in a lot of the street scenes.

The pilot introduces some incredibly mature themes involving children. I was honestly taken aback when I watched the first few episodes. Do you have to approach directing children any differently?

There was a LOT of preparation to create that world. They need to understand the characters and what they stand for. We cast a lot of young actors and dancers, and then we put them in a boot camp because these boys don’t know each other. We hired Alexandra Reynolds as a choreographer—she assisted Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl—to help with movement in the brothel. It’s important that they feel confident because when they are together, they become a pack of wolves and they have to become strong to survive. It’s only when we see the boys alone do we realize that they are just kids. They have no protection. We needed everything planned out so there was never, ever a surprise and worked with the parents so they knew everything their kids were doing. It’s all about mutual respect. The last thing we want is for anything to feel exploitative.

I was surprised by how much the themes resonated to things happening today when dealing with women’s rights and immigration.

I think you mean the story feels…classical and I take that as a compliment. The audience is in the middle with this story. There are even moments where the actors are talking directly into the lens and pulling them even further into it. They are a participant in the scene.

Oh, yeah! You feel that from the very beginning with one of the first interactions with Sara and Conner.

The camera can overstay its welcome as if it’s in a moment of contemplation, especially in the scenes where Kreizler is observing. The audience becomes a voyeur.

I keep asking everyone about that opening sequence where we first see the boy on the bridge. It’s such an intense and dramatic way to open the series. You automatically want to know what happens next with this story.

I was looking for the best visual way to open the show, and I was looking into the genre of horror. We have this very young roundsman and we almost have no idea where we are when the show first opens. He makes that horrific discovery and sets the time of the show. Even David Lynch was an influence. It’s not exactly surreal but very Lynch-ian. I wanted it to feel timeless.

The show is a massive hit. Why do you think it’s connecting with audiences so well?

The power of the show comes from Caleb Carr’s book. We all know New York. The elite is trying to keep the status quo and the immigrants have just escaped Europe, so there’s that gap between rich and poor that I mentioned earlier. There are new ideas, so do we embrace them or resist them? There’s also Mara LePere-Schloop’s detailed production design. We get walk through those hidden door and those overcrowded tenements and those boy brothels—my God! We also get to see JP Morgan dwarfed by his luxurious surroundings. But most importantly, the audiences are responding to the wonderful chemistry between Daniel, Luke, and Dakota.

The Alienist is streaming now online.