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Living (And Dying) In The Past - 'The Alienist' Team Holds A 19th Century Mirror Up To 20th Century Anxieties

Posted By Kevin Perry, Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A transgender hate crime. A demonized immigrant population. Politics vs. police vs. the press. Female empowerment in the workplace.

This is 1896. And this is the lurid landscape of The Alienist.

The breakthrough TNT series follows a fledgling psychotherapist, journalist and police secretary as they hunt a ravenously depraved murderer of children. Along the way, the show also tackles many of the most visceral issues of our time by transposing them to a vastly different era. It’s a challenging proposition for the audience, to be sure, but an even more daunting task for the show’s creative team, which includes, among numerous talented producers, PGA members Rosalie Swedlin and Marshall Persinger.

“The hardest part was the time factor,” confesses Persinger, a co-executive producer on the series. “Originally it was supposed to come out in 2017, but there was just no way.” That’s an understatement, given the fact that they didn’t start shooting until March 16 of that year. The date is indelibly set in Persinger’s memory. “When people would come in and they would see what this entailed and what was going to happen— what was needing to happen— before March 16, they would get this look of terror on their face for like two days. We just called it ‘the look.”’

The crew was justified in being daunted. They had less than a year to replicate 19th century New York City from scratch and thus began the weekly production meetings. “Those meetings were so terrifying on one hand, because it was like, ‘How is this ever going to all come together?’ But on the other hand, it did really help everyone learn what was needed.” Persinger assesses, “It really was a massive undertaking. It took everybody—the network and the studio— everyone together. It really was a great team experience. We were under a lot of pressure, because there was a lot riding on it.”

These great expectations for The Alienist date back to 1994, when Caleb Carr penned the celebrated novel of the same title. Blending gruesome fact with historical fiction, Carr’s story has been a proverbial white whale for producers throughout the past two decades. As Swedlin explains, “While we wanted to be respectful of the novel, which had a huge international following, we had to obviously make some dramatic changes and story changes to make it work as a 10-part series.” The eternal optimist, Swedlin alchemized those obstacles into opportunities. “I knew the book from when it was initially published and acquired as a feature film. I think one of the reasons that it never got made is that one of the great pleasures of the novel is all of the great texture and historical background. When you try to do a screenplay and reduce it to two hours, it’s difficult to retain what people loved about the novel. In that sense, I think it lent itself perfectly to television in terms of storytelling and not losing all of the sense of what New York was like at that time.”

And that historical moment seemed eerily familiar. “Some of the issues that people were dealing with at the end of the 19th century parallel many of the issues that are problematic today,” observes Swedlin. “Immigration; the disillusionment in institutions–the church, government, police; feminism–the suffragette movement was in full force; and the technological revolution... there are a lot of parallels to today’s world that make the series that much more interestingly relevant and accessible.”

Well before Persinger was circling March 16, 2017 in red on her calendar, Swedlin and her team at Anonymous Content was engaged in pulling together the eclectic staff of writers and producers who would bring The Alienist to life, including Hossein Amini (Drive), Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), E. Max Frye (Foxcatcher) and John Sayles (Lone Star).  “Along with our partners at Paramount, we went after writers together.  Hossein knew the book; he wrote the first episode and the series bible.  Cary was involved from a very early stage.”  But while Amini and Fukunaga were a key part of the development and writing, schedules prevented them from taking the reins on set as a showrunner/director duo.  “By the fall of 2016,” Swedlin continues, “Cary had another commitment, and we had to find another filmmaker.  That’s what led us to Jakob Verbruggen.  He was supposed to be on vacation, taking a drive up the California coast, but somewhere along the way, we caught up with him for a long conversation and he came on board.”

Swedlin and Persinger relax outside the Anonymous
Content offices in Culver city.

Meanwhile, location scouting was continuing apace.  We scouted Montreal and New York,” Swedlin recounts, “to see if we could find enough of 1896 New York left in either of them to make shooting possible. Ultimately, we built the streets of New York on the backlot in Budapest. Budapest provided us with a lot of other locations, buildings that were intact from the same period in which a lot of the upscale 19th century New York buildings were built.” Even when the season one narrative sprawled from NYC to upstate New York to Washington D.C., the wildly resourceful crew found all those locations in Budapest. “It’s a wonderful city to shoot in,” she concludes, “with great infrastructure for production.”

Finding the locations was the first step, but the on-set team supporting Verbruggen wasn’t yet in place. “Max Frye was illing to come back,” recalls Swedlin, “and essentially be our on-set showrunner. He had never run a show before and so he brought on Marshall; she stayed on through the entire shoot.” 

Persinger recalls arriving at the Budapest backlot mere weeks before shooting. “We came in and everything was just plywood,” she confesses, praising the diligence of production designer Mara LaPere-Schloop. “I still don’t know how she pulled it off with all the people she had answering to her.” Growing conspiratorially concerned, Persinger whispers, “I don’t think anybody slept very much, to tell you the truth.”

The set really started to take shape with the arrival of some props from Mad Men art department veteran Ellen Freund. “She was in Austria and Germany,” recounts Persinger. “She went everywhere to find what we would consider the smallest prop, just so that it was realistic.”

Freund wasn’t the only crewmember scouring the globe for period perfection. Costume designer Michael Kaplan was “designing everything the principals were wearing—traveling around and getting the fabric from everywhere in Europe.” Persinger continues, “There were two incredibly huge warehouses full of wardrobe for extras … The faces on those extras were just unbelievable. It was such an amazing representation of New York, but all in Hungary. That was a huge job for the costume department, dressing them.”

Great production values don’t just pay off in visual impact—they improve performance. Daniel Brühl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning sported some killer threads to evoke the fashion of the era. Swedlin notes, “Dakota had to wear a corset that was pulled tight at the back under every single outfit. Her clothes had far more buttons than you would ever find on any female garment today. All the men wore detachable collars, vests under their jackets, and cravats … That, in itself, transported our actors back in time.”

The uncomfortable garments, however, didn’t put a crimp in the stars’ style. Swedlin assesses, “Our actors genuinely had a wonderful time working with each other. I think they’ve all become lifelong friends now.” Persinger adds, “They were like an independent film troupe from the very beginning. So we breathed a sigh of relief, because our actors were so committed and excited and working well together. I think we lucked out.”

In addition to these still-rising talents, the cast of The Alienist includes one of our nation’s most celebrated presidents: Teddy Roosevelt. “One of the great pleasures of the novel and the series is the recognizable historical characters,” remarks Swedlin. “We kind of imagined it as a Roosevelt origin story. This is not the Roosevelt that everybody knows. This is a young man who, before the series begins, has suffered two horrible losses—his mother and his wife died within hours of each other. He’s a much more understated Roosevelt than the larger-than-life Teddy Roosevelt that people know.”

Rosalie Swedlin (right) at The Alienist premiere in New York with (from left) fellow exec producer Jakob Verbruggen, Paramount Television President Amy Powell, TNT President Kevin Reilly, cast members Dakota Fanning,
Daniel Bruhl and Luke Evans. 

Bringing such luminaries into the fold requires a presidential level of research. Action sequences are complicated enough for any production, but the team had to do a lot of thinking before the shooting started. Persinger remembers obsessing over the costume details, “When Roosevelt issued guns to the police officers … Y’know, where do they carry them? Their uniforms weren’t made for that. There would always be those little emergencies.”

Now multiply those emergencies by two and you’ll start to get the bigger picture of Persinger’s dilemma. “There were literally two full crews shooting their blocks at a time throughout this period,” she explains. “And we were editing. Luckily we were editing there in Budapest, on the lot. It was pretty extraordinary. And then to have it come together as it did is a tribute to the teamwork that was going on.” Summoning up her vast reserve of self-awareness, she quips, “I’m a ‘control freak’ producer, but at some point you have to give up. You just couldn’t be on top of everything … My philosophy was to make sure that lines of communication were open and everyone was expressing what they needed and determining how we as producers could help them achieve what they needed to achieve. I think that’s my overriding philosophy. Luckily, everyone else believed the same thing.”

Persinger still reflects upon the crystallizing moment when she was able to appreciate the scope and scale of The Alienist’s production successes. “I remember the day that we went to shoot on [the] 300 Mulberry Street [set]. We had to do it on the weekend because we had to take over a public street in Budapest. That actually happened at the same weekend the Hollywood Foreign Press came down to visit, plus a lot of the people from the network and the studio were there.” So, no pressure. Go on. “It looked like 1896. There were pig carcasses, chicken carcasses hanging, there were street carts, any and every kind of cart, there were 250 extras out there, there were horses and carriages. This was an extraordinary experience. You really felt like you had stepped into 1890s New York.”

Persinger beams, harkening to her indie feature roots: “To get everybody to come together and speak this language of high-end filmmaking–because I’m not even gonna say people were making television, it was like filmmaking. Everybody was striving for the best of the best.”

As story with so much immersive subtlety required a team with just such a pedigree. “We were telling the story that Caleb Carr created but very conscious that we were telling it in a time when these issues again are very much in the news … It speaks to the fact that America was made by immigrants who contributed enormously to the growth of the city and to the country.” Swedlin concludes, “It’s organic in the narrative.”

But how does that narrative fit within the larger context of pop culture? And how would the audience receive it? These questions were central to the make-or-break nature of bringing such challenging material to the masses, and Persinger wrestled with them endlessly. “I think now people are so used to seeing stories about serial killers and getting into the mind of the serial killer that I think the harder thing for us now is to make sure that it seems fresh. Especially when The Alienist is a precursor to all of those serial killer shows, movies, series, all of it.”

The intermingling of psychoanalysis and ritual murder has been a creative goldmine for TV producers of late. Dexter plumbed the morality behind the mask of death, Hannibal blurred the line between head-shrinker and scalp-taker, and Mindhunter pinpointed the moment when behavioral sciences awoke to the pathology of serial killers.

This thriller/therapy hybrid subgenre is apparently Marshall Persinger’s wheelhouse. She has been fascinated with the twisted subject matter ever since she was baptized in blood (metaphorically speaking) in the early 1990’s, earning one of her first major screen credits on the Citizen Kane of serial killer movies: The Silence of the Lambs. During her time working for the incomparable Jonathan Demme, Persinger bonded with writer E. Max Frye and Buffalo Bill himself, star Ted Levine. When the three of them reunited on the set of The Alienist, Rosalie Swedlin captured the moment on camera. “Rosalie actually took this picture of Max, Ted Levine and me, and we sent it to Jonathan [Demme] and we wrote him, ‘We wish you were here and we’re thinking of you.’ He wrote us back and said, ‘I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.’ And then one month later he died. We were so grateful that we got to do that. This is the emotional part of the interview.” Persinger pauses, acknowledging her grief and mustering up considerable strength. She repeats for emphasis, “We were so grateful that we got to do that.”

The producers of The Alienist have found killer success exorcising the darkest demons of history, but their personal bonds continue to light the way forward.

*Theater and stair photos by Kremer Johnson Photography

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