Creating New Excess in Old New York

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with Amazon, for this edition we look at how composers Rupert and Harry Gregson-Williams, costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, and production designer Bob Shaw created the visual excess to portray New York’s wealthy elite in “The Gilded Age.” 

In art and in life, titles are important. When HBO launches a Julian Fellowes period drama called “The Gilded Age,” it’s not just putting out a series but a promise of conscious (if not quite self-conscious) opulence: sets sumptuous enough to sate a Rockefeller and gowns sparkling enough to light up old Broadway. The challenge of “The Gilded Age” is not just delivering on the promise of visual splendor, although it does need to do that.

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The challenge is to build an intricate world that, in its gleaming marble and sprays of lace, somehow illuminates the swirling internal drama of each character, the choices that could make their fortune or destroy their soul on the bustling streets of New York. The challenge is not just to see what money — regardless of whether it’s Old or New — buys in terms of jewels, carriages, and objects d’art. It is to feel real consequence in the environments the characters move through — that there’s power to be won and love to be lost.

“It’s all for display. It’s all to be seen. It’s all to make a statement about how rich and how important and how powerful you are, or at least you think you are,” production designer Bob Shaw told IndieWire. Those statements are promises on the characters’ part, too, some of whom are more confident and others more unsure about actually holding the power they claim to possess. “The Gilded Age” truly shines in the moments where the series is able to show audiences both the surface pretensions and the uncertain reality of the industrialist Russell family and the old-line Van Rhijn/Brook clan’s attempts to fend off challenges to their privileged status.

Injecting material importance into the series’ material wealth is a writing and acting challenge, but it’s also a challenge of craft: a test of how much storytelling can be build into the bones of a drawing room, slipped into the color choice for a ball gown, or injected into the tempo of a theme. In the videos below, you will see how composers Rupert Gregson-Williams and Harry Gregson-Williams, costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, and production designer Bob Shaw all wove the defining contrasts of “The Gilded Age” into the work they produced and carved layers of nuance into the period’s ornate surfaces.

The Score of “The Gilded Age”

For brothers Rupert Gregson-Williams and Harry Gregson-Williams, their choice of which “Gilded Age” characters get more melodic material and which get more anthemic, energetic material informs the emotion of individual moments but also reflects the central tension of the series: what changes in high society when individuals force their way in. “The Russells must be our main course of interest because they’ve been swung into town and they’re taking over,” Harry Gregson-Williams said. “What we’ve chased after with the Russell family, the new money, was power and energy. It’s a fair amount of confidence, and it’s fairly lush.”

The siblings call the main theme’s ostinato — a repetition of two musical notes — the “engine” of the show’s score. It drives the composition forward with the propulsive momentum of a steam train, moving the show along from scene to scene and swelling at key hinge points when power dynamics are poised to change. The arrival of the Russell theme in the ballroom sequence in the finale is the final word on Bertha Russell’s triumph to win over New York society, much more so than anything Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) deigns to say.

“I think we’ve more varied instrumentation with the new money, and then with the older money we were conventional,” Rupert Gregson-Williams said. “The Russells are powerful industrialists, but they could be 21st century [ones]. It is happening right now. We did talk about what was happening in the 1890s, 1880s, and the beginning of the turn of the next century, but we weren’t influenced by it.”

Sketching themes out on the piano but then recording them with a full 52-piece orchestra, the Gregson-Williamses could convey the lushness and even the excess of the period with the fullness of the score, but take perspectives on the characters that are more modern, more aware that the churning “engine” of the main theme also creates a lot of tension, that while they’ll never be stately or stale, they’ll also never be at rest.

The Costume Design of “The Gilded Age”

Costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s department is in many ways the most noticeable component of “The Gilded Age.” Because it is a costume drama, in a sense that so much of who the characters are and aspire to be, their insecurities and place in society, is sewn into the clothes they wear. Walicka-Maimone’s choice of just how modern to make characters, where they blend in with their environment and when they stand out, acts as a visual signpost for where the ambitious Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) stands in her quest to impress the old grandees, or for how apart the independent-minded Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) wants to stand in relation to her relatives.

“I do feel like we are trying to create a new vocabulary of representing the period without tipping over the balance, like without making things that feel too modern, with trying to find fabrics [and] patterns that feel period respectful,” Walicka-Maimone said. “Nevertheless, [we’re creating designs] that have that freshness that will excite us as the modern audience. So I keep saying, ‘We are not doing documentary.’ We’re doing something that honors the period and celebrates it.”

With license to spring forth from her period inspirations and research, Walicka-Maimone gets to organize each character by their relationship to the period. Anges Van Rhijn’s (Christine Baranski) dresses are deliberately of a slightly older style to show the ways that she might still be stuck in her heyday, while Bertha’s Continental style, undeniably sharp, never completely aligns with the dresses of the women she so wishes to impress. Watching the clothing of the characters on “The Gilded Age” isn’t merely a period drama pleasure. It’s the way to tell who’s winning.

The Production Design of “The Gilded Age” 

Production designer Bob Shaw meticulously researched New York in the late 19th century in order to give the show’s recreation of its setting a rock-solid (perhaps even a bedrock-solid) foundation of accuracy. “Prior to the late 1870s, everybody used brownstone. Edith Wharton famously said at one point that all of New York City had been dipped in chocolate,” Shaw said.

But from there, he and his team needed to build, and build, and build. “[The entryway into the Russell House] ‘the great hall’ as we call it, is definitely the biggest,” Shaw said. “I think the chandelier has close to 10,000 crystals on it.” Shaw didn’t just have to create at scale, but had to create textures that gave his 30-foot-tall ceiling a stately monumentality. “I keeping saying if scenic marbling were an Olympic event, our [scenic artists] would’ve been the gold medal winners. If you stood still too long on the stage, you would’ve been marbelized.”

The lush textures and miles of marble should be a production designer’s dream, and in many ways it was for Shaw. The show begins right in the middle of the Gilded Age period that defined the end of the 19th century and redefined the look of New York — at least for a little while. But it’s true you can have too much of a good thing, and Shaw found in his research that his real challenge wouldn’t be creating enough lavish details; it would be paring them down. “They would hang paintings like four levels high. And as much detail as we have, they had more — and more statues,” Shaw said. “They had more of everything. So for us, it’s a job of communicating the level of excess, without making it just an assault on contemporary eyes.”

Shaw created guiding principles rooted in character in order to focus his efforts and guide the viewer’s eyes on screen. For the Brook family clinging to Old World aristocratic pretensions, Shaw decided that they would adopt an aesthetic style influenced by English tastes. In their attempt to shove their way into high society, the  Russells, on the other hand, would be drawn toward much more ostentatious Continental styles, particularly French. Both houses are filled with detail that speaks to attitudes and anxieties characters would much rather not express. When we’re not looking at the Brooks sisters or the Russells, we’re seeing what the walls can tell us about them.

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