'The Alienist' Producers Talk Challenges of Depicting Gilded Age Onscreen, Potential for New Season
Though TNT's drama follows a trio hunting a serial killer in New York in the 1800s, the series also touches on contemporary questions about female identity with Dakota Fanning's character representing a "woman in a man's world trying to find her voice."
The Alienist, starring Daniel Bruhl, Luke Evans and Dakota Fanning, is set in the late 1800s and follows an alienist (the term used for psychologists at the time), a newspaper illustrator and a police secretary who team up to solve a string of grisly murders plaguing New York. A rich period drama, the show also explores such themes as class divisions and feminism that still challenge American culture today. Director and EP Jakob Verbruggen spoke to THR about making the TNT limited series and what could be next.
Were there challenges in having real historical figures like Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan in your story?
We wanted to be truthful to history, of course, but it's a fictional story, so we had to take a few liberties. With Roosevelt, we always talked about his storyline as an origin story — not that many people are aware of him being police commissioner. He just lost his wife, he remarried. The tragedy that he was facing already at a very young age is hopefully something that Brian Geraghty brings to the part in a very subtle way.
Have there been discussions about possibly doing another season?
We set out to make a series based on the first book by Caleb Carr, so we give closure to the story and to the characters. But we also all fell in love with our characters. There is a second book, there are more adventures for these characters to go on. But I don't know anything about our plans. I think it's up to Paramount and TNT.
You've worked on Black Mirror, The Fall and The Alienist. Would you say you're attracted to darker stories?
I think I'm a very happy and funny guy — but what fascinates me in all these series is that all these characters, they carry secrets like all of us do. They have a dark shadow. It's some kind of way into the evil side that lays dormant within all of us. That's something we can all relate to because we all have inner demons.
What's another nominated show you've enjoyed?
The Handmaid's Tale because it deals, like The Alienist, with things that are still relevant today. It discusses femininity and what it means to be a woman in society. There's some connections to the way we address Dakota Fanning's character — a woman in a man's world trying to find her voice, which, with everything that's going on now, makes it very relevant.
Who has the most difficult job on the show?
[Production designer] Mara LePere-Schloop for re-creating Gilded Age New York.
What's one note the studio gave you that was surprising?
Oh dear, they can't fire me anymore, so, that's fine. The first note is when I got this job is somebody telling me, "Whatever you do, do not fuck it up."
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.