'The Alienist': DP P.J. Dillon on Creating a 'Visceral Connection' to 19th Century Murder Mystery
The cinematographer took inspiration from paintings and photography from the period to create the look of the series.
Though set in nineteenth century New York, and steeped in the heady, sprawling, excessive atmosphere of that time, the images at the heart of the TNT limited series The Alienist have a piercing, shocking clarity to them that transcends period. One of the very first of these is an eyeless child's corpse, a crucial element of the procedural to follow. As the camera moves in, we stare more deeply at the haunting, blank face, and everything around it, teeming and surging as the backdrop might be, falls away.
The story takes place in the infancy of psychiatry, tracking Dr. Laszlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), an early forensic psychiatrist, or "alienist," New York Times artist George Moore (Luke Evans), and Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning), a secretary for the NYPD, as they search for the person behind a string of murders of male child prostitutes. No Film School touched base with The Alienist series DP P.J. Dillon, who has previously worked on Penny Dreadful and Game of Thrones, to learn about the work that went into creating this series' taut and disorienting cinematography.
No Film School: The story is multifaceted—it's a crime drama, a story of the beginnings of detection (e.g. with fingerprints, profiling, etc.), and a journey into a shadow-world of sorts in its exploration of the world of the male prostitutes. How did this mixture affect the way you approached filming the story?
P.J. Dillon: One of the themes of the story is the rot and corruption behind the facade of the "Gilded Age," and that idea—the juxtaposition of the opulence that surrounded the privileged few with the squalor and grinding poverty experienced by most—defined many of our aesthetic choices. The challenge was to explore and do justice to these wonderful sets we had to work in without having everything feel too "classic," while also maintaining a visceral connection to both worlds. With that in mind, we decided to avoid long lenses and shoot "close and wide."
We shot 16:9 on Arri Master Anamorphic lenses and used either the 28mm or the 40mm the majority of the time (field of view roughly equivalent to 21mm and 27mm spherical). We also used the 60mm (equivalent to 40mm spherical) for close ups but rarely went longer than that. We also carried wider spherical Master Primes (14mm, 16mm and 18mm) and used those when the 28mm Anamorphic wasn’t wide enough. By staying "close and wide," even for close-ups, we felt we could connect more closely with the characters rather than observing them from a distance. We were also conscious that we would have to shoot an amount of storytelling coverage (inserts of clues etc.), but we decided that we would also try to make these visually interesting in their own right rather than merely functional.
NFS: How did you work with the director on developing a visual approach to the series?
Dillon: Jakob Verbrüggen had already been on board for a while before I became involved and he had a lot of eclectic film references relating to cinematography (e.g. M, Last Year at Marienbad, Enter the Void and many more—no television references interestingly). We talked about what aspects of those specific films attracted him and also spent a lot of time looking at and talking about painting and photography from the period (Cornoyer, Chase, Whistler, Steichen, Stieglitz etc.) Those discussions informed the decisions we made later.
Apart from knowing that Jakob wanted to keep the camera active, that POV was important to him and that he wanted to avoid falling into default shot-reverse shot coverage whenever possible, we didn’t have too many "rules." We just did what we felt was right for each situation and generally our instincts were in sync. We discussed every scene in detail beforehand, but Jakob has a very intuitive approach to blocking and coverage, and point of view is always what dictates the coverage of a scene for him, so often the original plan went out the window in rehearsals. That was never a problem though as I generally had a very good idea of his intention for a scene even if the detail changed.
NFS: It's hard not to think a little bit of the work of James Hawkinson on Hannibal when watching these episodes, particularly given the subject matter. Were there certain films or cinematographers whose methods played through your mind when you were working on this show?
Dillon: High praise indeed! Hannibal wasn’t a reference we actually discussed for the show, but The Silence of the Lambs definitely was, Demme’s approach to POV and tight eyelines was a very conscious influence. Darius Khondji’s work on Se7en was a big influence for me also. I am also a huge admirer of what DPs like Kramer Morgenthau and Jonathan Freeman have achieved on television shows, so their work would definitely be an influence. Mostly though, I was influenced by paintings and photography from the period.
NFS: Full-frame close-ups dominate the visual style of the episodes. How did you arrive at the use of this technique here?
Dillon: As I’ve already mentioned, we felt that "close and wide" close-ups would help give the viewer a visceral connection to the story and The Silence of the Lambs was a big influence. From the beginning, we decided to favor full-frame close-ups rather than over the shoulder close-ups.
NFS: There are a lot of moments in the film that work because of their truly harrowing nature—the shots of the corpse in the first episode, for instance, or the frightening experience Moore has in the bordello. Could you say a little bit about how you approached shooting those particularly rough scenes?
Dillon: These are delicate because of the nature of the scenes and also because of the practical restrictions of what you can or cannot show. The story deals with sensitive subject matter and that is something that everyone involved in the show was acutely aware of. The aim is to serve the requirements of the story without ever being gratuitous. Scenes like that are discussed in detail in advance of shooting so that we are all well aware of the sensitivities and parameters, and that process continues in post production after we have shot the scenes.
NFS: Overall, what would you say was the most engaging or gripping part of this story for you? Put another way, what element got your imagination working?
Dillon: The element that most interested me in narrative terms was the developing relationship between Kreizler, Sara and Moore rather that the mystery aspect of the story, although I did find that intriguing. In practical terms, shooting a period drama is always attractive for a DP, but The Alienist was unique. Mara LePere-Schloop, our production designer, built amazing sets and an incredible New York street set on our backlot. It was an amazing canvas to work on. In my first discussion with Jakob, he described a night carriage ride through the streets (in episode one) where we would be able to run the entire length of streets and turn corners in one shot without ever cutting or shooting off the set and I was sold. The technical challenge of the show that attracted me most was shooting so much night exterior work on an 1896 New York streetscape. I wanted to establish a look that avoided conventional hard backlight/blue moonlight which was a hugely challenging but rewarding creative experience.
The Alienist premieres tonight, Mon. Jan. 22, on TNT at 9pm EST/8 pm CST.