Production designer Mara LePere-Schloop talks about all the hours of research and the painstaking amount of detail it takes to recreate a city for The Alienist.
When Mara LePere-Schloop signed on to recreate 1890’s New York City, not even she knew what she was in for. A lover of research and history, the production designer (whose feature film credits includes Django Unchained and Split) took probably the largest job of her career. The execution is one of the most accomplished and detailed sets I’ve ever seen. If she doesn’t win an Emmy for her work, I will personally knock on every voter’s door and ask what’s up.
LePere-Schloop recreated 10 cities blocks in Budapest for The Alienist, and she had the opportunity to design a wide variety of sets. Not only did she create spaces like Delmonico’s and New York Police Department offices, but the outdoor scenes are brimming with life. She was even tasked with recreating the Williamsburg Bridge for scenes in the pilot episode.
With that exceptional groundwork laid out, The Alienist could only succeed and become one of the most impeccably designed shows of the year. This New York City is alive and dangerous. You can almost hear its heartbeat or dark intentions. LePere-Schloop has a great respect and enthusiasm for what she does. It comes through with every set piece.
Were you intimidated by all this?
Oh my gosh, like 1000%. With the history of the novel and the fan base and the time period in New York and the players involved…I think in the 2 years of preparation I had about…five restful nights?
Two years of research? Where do you start with all that? Do you just dive into it?
I read the book a long time ago. I was initially brought to the project with Cary Fukanaga, and when Cary first mentioned that he was involved, I was driving back to New Orleans from a project in New York and I listened to it on tape again. Talk about when you start to feel the nerves. I thought, “This is impossible” and it cannot be done. It also just made me really excited about the possibility to be involved. The novel has so much scope as did the scripts. It was just a constant adventure. The research never ended. Once I officially started on the project, I did a month of intensive research just on my own using my own resources from the New York Historical Society and other places. I probably bought $3,000 worth of books. With every project my husband probably thinks, “Oh god, what are we about to get into?” because I always seem to inundate myself with books. I spent a month of going really deep into the period just on my own.
You can tell that the attention to detail was on the forefront of every person’s minds. From the sets to the costumes to the lighting.
I come from the film world—I don’t do a ton of television. Historically with television you are affected by schedule and by budget and so many things. The common thing is, “it’s for the small screen, so no one’s going to see it” but that really isn’t true anymore. For me, the design of any project is just as much a character or part of the character development as the story. For instance, in the police station, we filled every drawer with period elements so they could open the drawers and explore. It’s stuff that’s never seen on camera, but it’s stuff that people really just dive into that experience with being engaged to the process. It’s the same with the Kriezler Institute. You could spend days just exploring the little oddities and all the books on the shelves. Everything is curated to help set the mood and tone.
One of my favorite sets is Kreizler’s home. From the artwork on the walls and the artifacts in the background, that must have been so much fun to create. You can tell that Dr. Kreizler could give you a tour of his house and spend 10 minutes on every single piece that you see.
That’s what we really wanted. In his house we went through the artwork meticulously and tried to come up with the character development. We knew he is half German and half Hungarian, and he is fairly cutting edge with his thoughts and viewpoints on psychology. We also wanted to get him engaged with the Avant-garde and the folk art of America, so the paintings on the walls are this mixture of these fine artists from Europe and Hungary and Germany but then also these cutting edge folk artists in the States. Literally everything in the house, we painstakingly thought about and cared about. We created this whole back story of him going on a world tour and the collection was curated along the way. Since he’s such a fascinating character, it’s easy to get consumed by him. He’s such a cool person to embody in that way.
You worked on True Detective with Cary Fukanaga (and you received an Emmy nomination along the way). Did working on that show prepare you in any way to tackle The Alienist?
An attempt was made to make it more like one long film than episodic. You really have to think of things comprehensively. Like what am I doing on day one of shooting on the set that will affect episode ten? It’s not your standard network procedural where every week they make a new show. With that there’s not a lot of overlap and the audiences are coming in and out. With both True Detective and The Alienist, they were both like two gigantic movies. That’s how the production approached both. As a creative person, it’s a much more interesting way to make things because it really allows you to get pretty deep into character. I’d say that other fundamental difference is that both projects involved Cary Fukanaga. He’s so passionate about history and accuracy and character and story. He demands an explanation for everything, so you can’t just haphazardly fill a space and expect to not have reasoning behind it. It’s a little different than the normal process can be. He’s intense creative person and partner to work with.
The first episode–“The Boy on the Bridge”–has a few scenes on the Williamsburg Bridge. Did the design of those scenes feel different since it’s not a traditional space?
Totally. That’s something that was so overwhelming at first about with The Alienist. Not only is this amazing character study but it’s also a story about class in New York and the city as a character. And then you have the crime scenes that are actual places—most of which exist today. You also have this huge challenge of recreating those spaces that not all people are familiar with now. My background is in architecture. For the crime scenes we spent a long time combing through historical drawings, blueprints, photographs—if we could find them—of the period. One of things we found out rather quickly is that Caleb’s book is really incredible, but it’s not exactly historically accurate. The Williamsburg Bridge was not under construction when Teddy Roosevelt was Police Commissioner. It gave us a little bit more liberty to say that it’s the construction site of the Williamsburg Bridge, but we are not bespoken to a specific moment as to when that construction was happening. We got to be able to create what we thought would be the most dynamic.
The photos that we found showed these precarious stick catwalks that ran up to the main support systems in the middle of the river. We thought, “Wow wouldn’t this make it a harrowing experience” to have our actors to walk up these catwalks and have the body suspended in the middle of this platform. We had concept artists and 3D modelers painstakingly recreating from drawings and photograph, and we actually built the first crime scene about 50 feet in the air. It’s funny because on the first day, I could hear the actors cursing me (laughs). It was scary. For me, that’s part of the experience. You want people to physically inhabit the space, but you want them to have that fear when needed. By building it outside, it definitely achieved its effect! We had our engineer actually build it so it would sway.
Oh, wow, really?
I think Luke Evans was ready to kill me, because he’s afraid of heights. But any time you went up there, you could feel it. Any time you went up there it was lie, “Whoa this is intense.”
Wouldn’t you want that, though? It has to only add to the experience when you are trying to act in a scene.
That’s how I feel, and I’m going to go on a little tangent about visual effects. There’s really, really incredible things happening in the world of visual effects these days, but as an actor you’re not really experiencing what’s really happening when you’re on a green screen set. You don’t have anything to interact with which, to me, is a fundamental problem. Beyond that, typically in the art department we are coming up through architecture or interior design or building trades where we have a physical connection to things to what we build and design. We understand scale. A lot of times with visual effects companies, they are coming from gaming or slightly more nontraditional methods. For me, there’s a distracting lack of sense of scale. Sometimes when you see these visual effects environments they are disorienting, because the people that are designing them don’t truly understand what they are being built out of if that makes any sense.The more I can advocate on a show I’m working on to build something and allow the actors to be in a physical space, the better it comes off in the end. It’s a tough argument to win these days because we’re at that weird point in the industry because visual effects costs are becoming comparable to building. So it’s not as expensive as it used to be to make a 3D world. It’s a strange time for design.
I always appreciate the physical dynamics of a practical set–as someone watching.
Yeah, it’s not just about the actors. It’s about the audience too.
A lot of the scenes are so dimly lit. Do you feel like you have to put more detail into some of the sets in order for the authenticity or detail to come through? For instance, I’m thinking of the tunnels in the finale.
One hundred percent and I think that’s something we’re very cognizant of. Everyone creatively from the get go wanted a very naturalistic lighting strategy. We didn’t want it to be this over lit, blown-out show. Part of the reality of this time period was how dark it really was. Only three of our characters would realistically have electricity during this time—it was at the Met Opera, Delmonico’s, and at JP Morgan’s—but it would have been too cost prohibitive. Knowing that, it was this kind of leap for television. I hear people complaining to me but they are trying to pay me a compliment by saying, “I couldn’t see your sets!” But that was the objective to convey that intensity of the period and how dark and how that can affect mood and character. One of first things we did when we built those 10 city blocks in Budapest was lay underground lines for gas so that all the street lamps could be lit with practical gas lanterns but you wouldn’t see any of the cabling that needed to happen. On the stage sets all of the sconces and fireplaces were practical and there was a lot of thought as to where they were placed for sources of lighting and contemplate how to set the tone of the scene. The other huge part was providing natural light so a lot of windows were set. It’s a pretty common strategy to have this kind of blown out, diffused background with windows in the back to see a lot of the characters in silhouette. That was very intentional.
Between the first season of True Detective and the first season of The Alienist so much of the story is about how these investigations affect our character and how personal decisions are made as to whether someone is good or bad. On a conceptual level, the lighting compounds that concept. How you see someone or how much you see is manipulated. The lighting of every set was a constant battle, because most of our sets were in basements of brothels and the tenements where there would be almost no light in real life. And most of the time it was at night. We were always trying to make sure we were staying true to being naturalistic but to provide enough source light that every scene wasn’t just black.
On the other side of the coin, you get to design these gorgeous, bright sets like the opera house or the recreation of Delmonico’s. Was that a nice change of pace from working in these very dark environments?
When you watch the full scope of the ten episodes, you see that the first episode is very dark and depressing and kind of over-the-top but by episode four and five we starting to Central Park and there’s more daytime exteriors. You kind of take a breath, because we’re out of those oppressive places. It was always trying to temper everything. If we spend most of the episode outside during investigation, it’s going to be dark and oppressive and there’s horrible things happening to kids, so we think how do we come out of this? Whether it’s with the opera or Delmonico’s or the park. Episode 8 is basically travel by map and everyone is all over the place. You get these little episodes to take a breath and then we plunge back into episodes 9 and 10. From a design perspective, that’s what’s so amazing this show. There are such different levels of design. You get to do the ornate detailing of Delmonico’s where every dish was meticulously researched and recreated and all the waiters went through weeks of training so they were serving in a historically and class accurate way. Just in those Delmonico’s scenes there’s so much. The same with the opera. Part of why we ended up in Budapest is because we did an international search for an opera house that was the most similar to the Met Opera from this time period in New York. The one we initially found before Budapest was on the radar for filming was this opera house. Sort of by coincidence we got the best case scenario opera house for the show. It’s a very busy opera house and we just happened to be there when they were closing down for a week for renovations, so we got to squeeze some shooting in there with stage sets. It was cool that it all ended up working out that way.
With the characters, just getting to do Kreizler’s house and Sarah’s house (even we didn’t get to see a lot of it) and Moore’s house we get to go on some interior design adventures with the period. We wanted Moore’s house to be kind of lighter and slightly more middle of the century because he was living in his grandmother’s house. We got to make it more feminine. In building that back lot was a career dream to create that much scale with that much detail. Mini horrible nightmares of not completing that set, but such an amazing thing to be a part of.
A lot of people are realizing there’s another book by Caleb Carr. Audiences are always hungry for more–especially when it’s a show they really connect with. Sometimes we can’t just let it go! Would you be down to build another 10 city blocks and revisit that world?
The next novel focuses on Sarah Howard, and it’s I think ten or fifteen years later. If they did follow up with it, I think it would be great to have a female driven series—especially with everything that’s going on right now. That’s a really compelling step, and Dakota was so amazing. I’m not sure if they’d stick with the jump in time or not, but that’s the other fascinating thing about it. So much happens in ten years. There’s cars, electricity, and it’s the beginning of the skyscrapers. It’s fascinating from a design level. If it happens, but I think it’d be an incredible design challenge. Bring it on.
The Alienist is available now online.