On set with The Alienist: Take a trip behind the scenes of the lush new period drama
Snow is falling softly on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge, wafting to the ground in a swirl of winter white. Inconveniently, it’s also starting to drizzle, because this is actually Budapest in April, and the paper-chemical compound the “flakes” are made of really isn’t designed to get wet. That means a pivotal scene in TNT’s lushly ambitious new period drama The Alienist will probably have to take a literal rain check. But the far-flung location and swank production values are also a sign of how committed the basic-cable network is to making its mark in the prestige-programming arena: Almost no expense has been spared to bring Caleb Carr’s best-selling 1994 novel — set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York and centered on a series of gruesome child murders — to the screen.
Which screen is one of the reasons it’s taken more than two decades to get here; for years after producer Scott Rudin purchased the rights with Paramount, a team of writers worked mightily to wrestle its sprawling narrative down to acceptable film length. Eventually the studio pivoted to a 10-episode TV arc (debuting Jan. 22 at 9 p.m.) but kept the cinematic feel, and booked the movie stars to match: Daniel Brühl, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Evans, all of whom have rarely, if ever, appeared in TV roles. Their characters, and several supporting players (see sidebar), join forces to form a sort of extrajudicial Justice League, racing the clock to find a ritualistic killer the local authorities seem in no rush to track down on their own time.
Brühl (Inglourious Basterds, Captain America: Civil War) leads as the titular alienist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a proto–criminal profiler whose methods still land on the far side of accepted medical science; Evans (The Girl on the Train, Beauty and the Beast) is the well-bred, hard-drinking newspaper illustrator who provides entrée into the city’s elite; and Fanning is Sara Howard, a lone female in the testosterone trenches of the NYPD. “I’m such a fan of what’s happening on television now,” says Fanning, who at 23 has an IMDb résumé more impressive than most actors twice her age. “And the first couple of scripts really grabbed me. I saw the episode of Black Mirror that [director] Jakob [Verbruggen] did, and he’s so immersed in making it all as authentic and realistic as possible. I mean, I think the last time I worked on a set like this was War of the Worlds, which was Steven Spielberg.”
Authenticity is something TNT was clearly ready to pay for: Production designer Mara LePere-Schloop (Split, Django Unchained) built elaborate full-scale sets from scratch, including the Gangs of New York-style tenements and Kreizler’s curio-filled home; prop master Ellen Freund spent five seasons at Mad Men under the exacting eye of Matthew Weiner; the costumes are by Michael Kaplan, whose award-winning work stretches from the original Blade Runner to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And Fanning wasn’t the only one to take note of their obsessive eye for detail. “For fun I opened drawers on the first day,” Brühl recalls, “and you would actually find something in each one—and not, like, a cup of tea or a McDonald’s bag, but actual props from the 1890s, and that helped so much to dive into that period. It’s not just a thrilling crime story, but a portrait of New York at that time, the Gilded Age, with all these social differences and these worlds, that melting pot.”
Verbruggen too was drawn in by the opportunity to take on such a transformative era in American history. A thirtysomething Belgian best known for atmospheric European dramas like The Fall and London Spy, he stepped in when True Detective mastermind Cary Fukanaga (who is still credited as an executive producer) bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. And he was keenly aware of the challenges specific to the genre. “We’ve all seen crime scenes, going from Se7en to CSI, so we have to make it fresh for the audience,” he told EW between takes. “It’s a psychological thriller, but it also shows the horrors of child abuse and mutilated children. And there is of course this interesting triangle between Dakota and Luke and Daniel—these loners standing out there by themselves. To me, it’s a dark descent into the underbelly of a city in transformation, and we allow the audience to look into worlds they normally wouldn’t. We go to fancy restaurants, we go to the opera, but we also go to brothels, even the male ones…. Luckily I’ve had all the support [from the network] to push it in a very David Fincher, David Lynch-ian direction.”
Sarah Aubrey, TNT’s executive VP of original programming, acknowledges the show is a big leap, and a purposeful one: “It’s definitely by design that we’ve been working on getting a bigger world onto the screen, this kind of heavily serialized, ambitious storytelling. The level of detail and scope is incredible, and you want to populate it with people who can stand in that and not get swallowed up by the costumes and sets. It really works to have these big actors, because the book is so iconic and the characters are so well drawn.”
What you won’t find is many flashes of the intuitive, almost supernatural genius so common to crime shows now. “We have a main character who is not a detective,” explains E. Max Frye, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose credits include Band of Brothers and Foxcatcher. “Kreizler’s someone who uses psychology as a way to hunt down killers, which is pretty standard now but in 1896 was just starting its rise to prominence. And he’s not Sherlock Holmes, which is why he manipulates other people to do all that detective work for him.” Look elsewhere, too, if you’re hoping for the flashy anachronisms of popular period shows like Peaky Blinders, with their newsboy caps and Nick Cave soundtracks.
“We wanted to be loyal to the book,” says Evans. “Caleb Carr was a historian before he was a novelist, and we have real historical people — Teddy Roosevelt, J.P. Morgan — characters who were actually in the New York scene. That’s what we wanted to do, to present an authentic 1890s Lower East Side and make it feel almost like a true story, a factual portrayal of Manhattan at that time.” Which doesn’t mean a few liberties weren’t taken with the text; Frye acknowledges that certain relationships were altered to add dramatic tension (a pre-presidential Roosevelt, for one, is no longer the easy ally he was in the novel), and Evans says he was glad to let his character’s drunken escapades—including one memorable scene involving an ill-timed mickey in a whorehouse—occasionally make him the fool. “The show is super dark and terrifying at moments, so you have to have a balance and some levity. The characters all have their moments of being these quirky, very competitive kids.”
“For me,” says Brühl, “it goes back to The West Wing and shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad. There’s such a rich variety and diversity, and there’s so much love put into it. I was telling Luke, ‘Even if I wasn’t involved, I would watch it.'”
If viewers do tune in, they won’t be teased; from the outset TNT pledged not to drag out the novel’s central mystery. “We always planned to do this in 10 episodes,” Aubrey says. “So for fans of the book, we didn’t want to string people along, [like] ‘Oh, it’s gonna take three seasons!'” Not that it spells the end of the show, necessarily: As any Carr loyalist with The Alienist‘s 1997 sequel, The Angel of Darkness, on their shelves can tell you, there’s still more crime, and Kreizler, waiting for its close-up.
The Alienist premieres Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. on TNT.