When I started watching The Alienist: Angel of Darkness, my eyes bugged out from how gorgeous everything is. The first season was lauded for its attention to detail, but Angel‘s designs feel darker and even more steeped in history. Production designer Ruth Ammon was tasked with showing how New York City has changed from the events of the first season, and her designs show us how a booming young city can leave people in the shadows.
When you look at the sets from Season 1 to Season 2, it feels like ten years have passed. In reality, Angel picks up shortly after Sarah Howard, Laszlo Kreizler, and John Moore solved the mystery of the boy on the bridge, but New York has changed so much that Ammon couldn’t rely on the designs from the original season. She had to change almost as quickly as the city itself.
Awards Daily: There was a lot of press for the building of the first season’s set design. Was that a good framework to start off with or did you have to start from scratch all over again?
Ruth Ammon: Yes and yes.
AD: (laughs) I wasn’t sure if they used the same set or not?
RA: It was a real combo platter. Going into Season 2, I always want to bring my vision to a show. I work on creating a look of a show, so I was kind of hesitant taking over. But it’s a whole new book and whole new vision other than the actors coming back. It was all new, and the great thing was that we inherited a well-designed back lot that happened to be a simpler time. We definitely used it as a framework but we had to rethink everything in terms of creating new neighborhoods and feelings. We had to create a more grownup New York with a burgeoning middle class. We took those facades and we worked mostly the first two floors and added more architectural detail. They were kind of flat and I mean that in a nice way because it was meant to be more tenement. We created a more upper-scale, middle-class world, especially in the Broadway area where there were more proper businesses for working men and not little hovels.
RA: It was a massive project. We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that had we had to build from the ground up. In one way, I inherited a wonderful thing and another way it does have its limitations and there’s only so much you can bend steel and iron. (Laughs)
AD: I know it was only one year later, but I kept wondering how much New York City has changed from 1896 to 1897.
RA: I think it was quite a bit, especially in that area of Broadway. In the first season, it was a hovel with one light. By 1897, there was a lot of electricity in New York and it went in faster than one might expect. We tried to use electricity as one of the important visual changes from season one. Now we have characters who have it and it shows the difference from the have-nots who might be using candles and gas. We built out big punchouts or architecture to create our Pierre Hotel which was around the corner from where 808 really is. We did more complex, architectural turrets to change the look. There were accountants and lawyers and real estate brokers and typewriter sales. We wanted to keep that street middle class, upwardly mobile business and businessmen serving businessmen, essentially.
AD: What did you most want to accomplish with Sarah Howard’s office? I love that in season one we get to see a lot of Laszlo’s working space but this time around we see a young woman owning her own business.
RA: Sarah would be the sole proprietor on that street. I think there were women running business in other places, but as part of this male-oriented, middle-class, she was out of place because of her social standing. She shouldn’t have been there. Showing her being rogue and determined entrepreneurial spirit and her drive. Office buildings were another thing that were new to this period, but we wanted to put her around other men. Sarah is serving of society who had to feel comfortable going there but knowing that it would be private enough that their friends wouldn’t see them showing up there. We couldn’t put her office in the Upper East Side.
AD: Oh, I didn’t even think of that.
RA: Her office is a combination of male and female details. The architecture would lean more towards the male. Architecture at that time was pulling away unnecessary details and becoming more functional with the birth of the elevator and shared lobbies. On top of that, we laid some feminine details in a smart, tailored way since she’s not a frivolous person. She is, however, a woman working mainly for other women. One of our biggest challenges was creating horror in the daytime since a lot of our story takes place in bright sunshine.
AD: I loved that about this season.
RA: That’s a real challenge. We talked about that a lot. We purposely created shadows wherever we could, so the windows in her office are very deeply set. We used very dark William Morris wallpaper that had a smart pattern on it—it’s a smart flower pattern instead of some frilly. We wanted something refined. One of my favorite things that we did—and I can’t believe it actually worked—was our DP allowed us to put scalloped awning on the window. Season one featured a very young New York, so a lot of it was very flat—that’s not a criticism of the first season. We started putting tons of these awnings out and our DP encouraged us so when you’re in Sarah’s office you get these shadows and translucency through the windows from the roller shades. It’s a kind of layering up which is such a New York to do that. Normally, a DP wouldn’t let us do that because it would block the light.
AD: That’s definitely a first that I’ve heard of.
RA: He used it so well and utilized it very well. Another feminine detail was the etched glass that we used was an American Eastlake pattern. It’s slightly masculine but it has some floral motifs to it. That was kind of crossing that male and female line.
AD: That’s so interesting that you incorporated those details, especially because we see the women protesting in the first episode.
AD: I feel like there’s a lot of pathetic men who are threatened by Sarah Howard this season.
AD: All the men made me so mad! There’s that scene where Byrnes undermines Sarah when they get involved with the Vanderbilts.
RA: Even John Moore says things that can be rather annoying.
AD: He’s always so vocal about telling Sarah that “this isn’t a good place for a woman.” You do get to design a very distinct villain’s lair by the end of the series. What was it like to create such a sinister space?
RA: I read the book and it really created a visual in my mind, especially being a former New Yorker and understanding Greenwich Village and understanding the earlier American colonial houses. They were basically sunken into the mud at that point. The book is very detailed in what this house looks and feels like, so that was my driving force. What happens in the house was a subject of more discussion than just about anything. How that all got worked out. The final reveal I think I dressed and redressed multiple times. Stuart Carolan, our showrunner, had a vision for it, and it took a few misses to get it right.
AD: It’s such an important place for what’s going on.
RA: Sometimes you overthink it. In the book, she kills the guy who built that for her. Even the day of filming, we kind of stopped and pulled things out and put things back in. It wasn’t until the cameras rolled, that particular room was being discussed.
AD: Let’s move away from that so we don’t spoil anything else. (Laughs) I have to ask you about that engagement party.
RA: Okay. (Laughs)
AD: That episode is gorgeous on every front. The production design and the costumes had my eyes bugging out. I already went nuts on Rudy about the clothes.
RA: You just made my day, because I was so scared about that episode.
AD: What’s it like designing such an opulent space when everything surrounding it was so dark?
RA: That was a real challenge because we were filming in the Ethnographic Museum. We planned on using all real live plants which we ordered. Two or three days beforehand, we were told we couldn’t use live plants and I didn’t know what to do.
AD: Why couldn’t you use real plants?
RA: Even though it’s a closed-down museum, they had wings and rooms full of historic, archived materials. We scrambled and we are usually doing things at huge proportions every day. Everything was huge. The Gilded Age has this vulgarity and this ridiculousness to it and then you have the other side where you have women who have nothing to do except see who can design the biggest party. This is truly the precursor to the selfie and the step-and-repeat. It really is.
RA: I thought the most ridiculous thing to do was create a Marie Antoinette moment. Something utterly tone deaf. We actually used that as the party theme, and people did those things in The Gilded Age—that didn’t come from us. I was also combining the use of usurping culture in the faux Asian motif and that’s something Marie Antoinette did in her gardens. That cake is based on an actual building in her garden in Versailles. She would have these little follies and I wanted to have nods to those moments in history.
AD: It’s actually kind of infuriating. There are other people having their kids snatched and these people are having this most over-the-top parties.
RA: It even parallels now with people having too much time on their hands and constantly being on their Instagram accounts.
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness will have its 2-hour season finale on August 9th.