Costume designer Michael Kaplan gets the job of a lifetime by stepping into The Alienist‘s Gilded Age.
Even though you are being scared out of your wits during The Alienist, you definitely take into account the beautiful costumes. The attention to detail is stunning, and the juxtaposition between that and the carnage on screen is particularly impressive.
The size of this television project was not lost on Mr. Kaplan (who usually designs for feature films), but he has followed the evolution of the adaptation of Caleb Carr’s novel since it was released. Kaplan’s ability to inject personality into every frock and every garment allows us to understand the character’s motives, history, and relationships even if we are watching the show on mute.
Instead of infusing The Alienist with loads of color, Kaplan uses the grim atmosphere to his advantage. The costumes almost seemed drained of color–as if we’ve seen something ghastly and the blood has been drained from our face.
You costume a lot of feature films. Why did you want to step into television for this?
Well, it was a dream come true, because when I read the book when it came out, I just kind of thought it would be an amazing project to costume. There were different false starts where I thought it was going to be a film—a lot of people did—with a lot of different people attached. Each time it would fall apart. I followed it for a while to maybe be a part of it which was a long shot because I was quite young. Then I kind of forgot all about it. But then it fell in my lap.
The aspects I loved about it besides it being a potentially beautiful period piece was it just had every aspect of society. The rich people and the downtrodden and prostitutes. It’s an incredibly vivid portrait of New York City in 1896. It was well worth the wait. What was so exciting was to do so many different things on one project. That’s unusual. There were the big ball gowns for scenes in Delmonico’s and then the rags for the people who live in the tenements, but there were also period police uniforms and can-can girls.
The Alienist is massive in terms of scope. How does this compare to what you’ve been working on lately? Is it the biggest project you’ve been involved with?
I don’t think so. I’ve been working on Star Wars which is pretty massive. I haven’t done a lot of episodic TV other than when I worked with Michael Mann earlier in my career with a show called Crime Story. I mainly work in features, and there you are sort of blessed with time and money. The budget wasn’t bad on The Alienist, but the time was relentless. There was never a day without fittings while we were filming and new script pages were coming out every day. It was a different pace than what I’m used to, and I wasn’t willing to give up all the details that I am so fond of doing in features. I kind of drove everyone crazy.
I wanted to talk about the color palette. A lot of the costumes are really subdued in terms of color. Was that a thematic choice, or was that solely based on the costumes of the time period?
There are so many scenes shot by candlelight and a lot of night scenes, and It’s such a dark subject that I didn’t see bright colors coming into it. It didn’t seem right for any of the men—it would feel inappropriate at that time. For Dakota, she was basically dressed in the same colors as the men wears. She wouldn’t want to go to work and call a lot of attention to herself and wear a lot of frilly, girly clothes. I kind of put her in feminine clothes but being a woman in a man’s world, she would want to fit in and not call attention to herself. Her palette was a bit more somber than it would be in a different kind of film.
Everyone had a color palette. With Luke’s character, John Moore was a bit more colorful. It all has to do with the character and how I wanted to paint them as. Moore is a bit of a dandy and coming from a money background his clothes should reflect his social type and status. With Daniel, there’s a more conservative feeling about him being a doctor and his clothes reflect a more European feeling in his color palette. I tried to emotionally reflect who they were. With Roosevelt, I went with more earth tones because it seemed right with everything I’ve known and read about him and his time with the Rough Riders. It was right to put him in browns and olives and earthy colors.
I loved seeing the color in Luke’s vests. My eyes would always go to them, because they had more ornate patterns or colors. You could really tell that John Moore likes clothes.
That’s what I was after, so I’m glad I was successful!
On the other side of The Alienist we have the lower class and the young boy prostitutes. How did you talk with the actors about their costuming?
Because a lot of the boys were so young, it didn’t feel appropriate to talk to them about the specifics to what they would be doing. With Jakob, we wanted to dress them as kind of we saw them and as he cast them and also have them contrast to one another. We wanted them dressed as best for their physicality and their look. There were a couple boys that were tougher that wouldn’t look right in a dress, so we put them in boy’s or men’s long johns or a little worker’s cap or something like that. I tried to bring color into that. It was an interesting balance to strike. Where did these clothes come from? These boys don’t have any money and it wasn’t like they were being dressed by the proprietors. Maybe there was a chest of old things that they could go through and find things. There could be things in there that would attract youthful minds. There was a naïveté about them as well. They needed to make some money to support their families—or even themselves on the street. I also wanted it to be something that was visually interesting and creating a look in its entirety. There are accessories like strange bits of jewelry or bangles or beads around their neck. It was art directed but in a way that wouldn’t look like they were expensive.
You mentioned Star Wars before, and you were nominated for an Oscar for costuming Blade Runner. You do a lot of feature film work in the fantasy realm. When you costume a lot of projects that have a lot of creative freedom like that, how do you infuse a specific period piece with that same kind of freedom?
I was also very excited doing this because it’s a period project, and I’d done some small stuff before. But never this size or this scale and nothing in this Victorian period. It was thrilling to work with JJ Abrams on Star Trek and then Star Wars and now I’m working on my third Star Wars. I’ve worked with David Fincher on some hip and trendy pop culture movies like Fight Club and Seven and Panic Room. I’m not able to choose what jobs are offered to me. To do this at this point in my career is wonderful. To do this one that had this many walks of life, I really savored doing all the research and being immersed in another time. It didn’t feel like I was giving up any freedom, to be honest. I loved recreating a period and going back into time, especially because I do it so rarely.
When I speak to costume designers, I am always curious about the pieces he or she likes the most. I am currently living in upstate New York, and I just survived my first winter here. Kreizler has that huge, gorgeous coat in the beginning of the series that I would’ve loved to have stolen. Is there a piece that you were tempted to take home from the set?
That coat you’re talking about is right up there in top five list that I’d wear myself. I love the formalwear. I kind of long for that kind of period menswear. I wish there was a return to that. I did have coat made by the same tailor who made that coat. He actually has a shop in Budapest and he made lots of our principle’s suits and coats, and I had him make me a very heavy charcoal double-breasted wool coat without the fur collar. I did come away with something from that time period and that experience in Budapest.
The Alienist is available now online.