You can watch The Alienist: Angel of Darkness on TNT now!
How did you get involved in the show?
I had worked with executive producer Rosalie Swedlin (Anonymous Content) on another project. I was asked to pitch for this, specifically what direction I would take with it, what changes there would be from the book and so on. So I pitched my ideas on a Zoom call with TNT and Paramount — in the pre-Covid days before we were all on Zoom.
What are the main changes you made with the first season?
The biggest change is the more prominent role that Sara Howard plays in the story compared to last season. This comes from the original novel and was a great opportunity to see her character develop and forge her independence while also following Dr. Kreizler and John Moore, who are each following their own passions. It’s also a completely different story, it’s 1897, a year after the first season, and there’s a whole host of new characters as well as returning favourites.
The first season was set in the middle of winter with much of the story taking place at night, so the visual language of that season was dark and chilly. Angel of Darkness takes place over the course of a sweltering summer and a great deal more happens in broad daylight. So to achieve this we had to update the visual language of the show to convey all the amazing atmosphere and tension that the first season had, but to do it in the light of day.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting the book into a series?
By far the biggest challenge was just the enormous depth, richness, and scope of the original novel. Angel of Darkness could sustain a 20-episode series, and we had eight episodes. The medium of television moves so quickly that we had to do a great deal of streamlining, so it was important that we identify and preserve the emotional core of what makes the book work so well.
Beside the book, what was your main influences during the writing process?
Caleb Carr’s book has an extraordinary amount of research that went into making it so immersive, so while this was an enormous benefit, it also encouraged us to dive into the complex period ourselves. We consulted a wide variety of source material about the era, like Richard Zacks’ “Island of Vice”, Kenneth Whyte’s “The Uncrowned King” about the rise of William Randolph Hearst, J. North Conway’s biography of Thomas Byrnes “The Big Policeman”, and the work of the Bowery Boys Podcast. We really immersed ourselves in the period.
We also went back to primary sources from the period which was hugely inspirational, like Nellie Bly’s “Ten Days in a Madhouse” where Bly went undercover in the “Lunatic’s Asylum” on Blackwell’s Island to uncover the horrific conditions there. We dug through the New York Times and New York Journal issues from the period we’re depicting and it puts you right into what the feelings of the moment were for ordinary New Yorkers in the summer of 1897. Additionally, Thomas Byrnes’ own book “Professional Criminals of America” where you can get a sense of his worldview by seeing crime in 19th Century New York through his own words.
Visiting the Tenement Museum in New York was a hugely moving experience. Standing in the same rooms that the immigrants of a century ago lived in and struggled in makes you feel not only great sympathy for the people that helped make New York what it is, but also a responsibility to depict their world as best you can.
In getting a sense of how the people of the time would have talked, novels from the era like Edith Wharton and Henry James were a great way to be immersed that kind of language. But one of the joys of Caleb Carr’s original book is that you’re not just seeing conversations between people in drawing rooms, it’s also got a sense of the street to it, and a spirit of fun in how the characters interact. Films like The Favourite were a great inspiration for modernizing little elements of the language so that our characters seem like real flesh-and- blood people to a modern audience.
There’s a glorious sense of fun in the Caleb Carr novels – he’s recreated New York City but you can see he’s really having a ball with the story and characters. So tonally it was important to get this right. So we looked to Polanksi movies for how you might do horror on a summer’s day, and also Raiders of the Lost Ark for how you keep a lightness of touch. It’s a dark story but there’s a lot of joy there (for example the Isaacsons are a classic double act) and we wanted to preserve and expand on those elements that work really well. In terms of the genre I think one movie that stands head and shoulders above all others is The Silence of the Lambs. It’s fascinating to look at how the story changed from book, to script, to screen. It also has that sense of a woman in a man’s world. But ultimately the main influence is obviously both books, “The Alienist” and “The Angel of Darkness”, and they served as our creative North Star in everything we did.
How was your collaboration with the directors and actors?
It was wonderful. I had worked many times with David Caffrey and we work very hand-in- glove. Clare Kilner was a joy and brought a great sensitivity to her understanding of the characters as well as having a wonderful visual flair. Dakota, Daniel, and Luke have such an incredible chemistry on set, it’s fantastic to behold. They had very clear sense of who their characters were and how they would or would not behave. So a large part of this was listening to them and seeing what they thought. You have to remember that these are characters that they themselves created last season, so they know them better than anybody.
Luke Evans character’s is a journalist. How did you use your personal experience for this character?
Most of the work of a journalist is very unglamorous! But we catch glimpses of the research that John Moore has to do to help put the story of the Lying-In Hospital together. But in addition to the reality of the work of a journalist, we also wanted John to fit into a classic heroic image of a reporter seeking the truth, sparring with his editor as he gets closer and closer to a scoop, like an 1897 “All the President’s Men”. The truth in journalism is that people want to break stories – and I think that was especially true in 1897. It was a time of intense competition. It’s the same now in a way. Journalists care about exposing corruption or righting a wrong, but they also want to get there first, get the scoop!
We also show the dedication Joanna displays as she contributes to the investigation as a journalist herself. We partially based her character this season on pioneering 19th Century journalists like Ida B. Wells, the first African American journalist to write for a white- owned newspaper.
Your New York at the end of the 19th century is beautiful! How did you recreate the city?
Our starting point was the amazing sets. We had the gigantic backlot set of New York Streets from the first season, but our production designer Ruth Ammon expanded and in some cases overhauled it to show all the different neighborhoods of New York our characters visit. So we were able to move the story between the professional white-collar world of Sara’s office on Broadway, or the leafy elegance of the neighborhoods near Central Park, to the more gritty world of the docks and Gansevoort market, and even further to the dangerous and neglected Hester Street area where the Hudson Dusters prowl.
Many of our interiors were also Ruth’s magnificent sets inside our stages, and we filled those spaces with meticulously chosen objects from Ellen Freund our propmaster and Missy Parker our Set Decorator. So we had this incredible team of artists who paid attention to the smallest of details. Ruth also worked very closely with our Director of Photography Cathal Watters and they were so on the same wavelength that it seemed at times they were one person. But really it’s all down to this incredible team, working crazy hours in the baking heat of a Budapest summer.
Another crucial ingredient was making sure that the costumes conveyed the amazing elegance and diversity of the period, and our costume designer Rudy Mance really knocked it out of the park. Not only do our heroes have a wonderful range of looks that all convey their personalities, but there were a staggering amount of background artists who all had to be clothed to convey the wide range of New Yorkers we see. And all of these pieces were meticulously made with period-correct materials.
Where was filmed the main locations for this series?
While much of the series was shot on our backlot or in our studio sets, the local architecture of Budapest also featured heavily. Budapest was a stunning place to work in, and the city has many buildings from the late 19th Century that were designed by some of the leading American architects of the era, so these buildings wonderfully evoke the look that New York at the time would have had. Some of the highlights were the elegant Café Gerbeaud, which was a 19th-Century coffeehouse that was our stand-in for the Siegel Cooper Department Store, or the Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library, which is now a public library, but was originally a neo-baroque palace that perfectly evoked the opulence of Delmonico’s.
And we didn’t just seek out the pretty and beautiful places. For our scenes outside Sing Sing Prison, we used the imposing walls of the Citadella, a fortress on a hill overlooking the city.
What was your favorite location of your 1897 New York?
That would probably be Newspaper Row, which at the time was where all of the major newspapers were headquartered, near City Hall in Manhattan. Seemingly everyone in the newspaper business was based there, from the New York Times, New York World, New York Journal, and so on. And a detail we were able to recreate was the giant chalkboards outside of the newspaper offices. “Newsboys” would be up there all day writing out and updating all of the day’s latest headlines in chalk for people walking by. It really was like Times Square before the real Times Square existed, and seeing it come to life with so much scale and energy was really thrilling.
Also the Brooklyn Bridge – it’s my favourite landmark in New York so it was quite wonderful to see it come alive on screen.
What is your best memory of this series?
It was an intense experience. Very tough going at times, 16 hour days, seven days a week, so you had to have a sense of humour. So what kept us going was friendship and camaraderie. I made some incredible lifelong friends – it was almost like going to war.
And when things got crazy we would occasionally dance! So one of the best memories is dancing with wild abandon to Umberto Tozzi’s 1979 hit “Gloria”!