Emmys: Limited Series Lean Into Period Piece Worldbuilding

Sweeping international shoots, comprehensive historical research,
meticulous costume and music selections, a complex dance between writers and producers — the sheer amount of thought, research and money that went into building the complex and intricate worlds for this year’s limited-series Emmy nominees was infinitely large in scope despite the shorter screen time.

Creating such rich landscapes for the characters was no small feat. From the 1960s to 2000s decades-jumping saga of Showtime’s “Patrick Melrose,” to the gritty streets of New York at the turn of the 19th century in TNT’s “The Alienist,” to Pablo Picasso in National Geographic’s “Genius,” and Andrew Cunanan’s killing spree in the mid-1990s for FX’s “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story,” these series’ showrunners all agree on one thing: research was fundamental when it came time to bringing these worlds to life.

“Versace” showrunner Tom Rob Smith read all of the (admittedly limited) material he could get his hands on and also went on a San Diego tour in order to enter Cunanan’s mindset and visit the places he lived. “Picasso” boss Ken Biller and his team combed through his title subject’s life and performed “a constant and ongoing research process” in order to get the costumes and environments right across each country they filmed in. And when “The Alienist” set up shop to film in Hungary, showrunner and director Jakob Verbruggen decorated the set with elements that might not even be captured on camera, all in a bid for his actors to immerse themselves more fully into the world.

“The paintings on the wall are a combination of classical paintings from Europe, but we also have some more avant-garde painters and artwork from that day, just to create insight on characters,” Verbruggen says.

“Once you open a drawer, stuff would be in that drawer. Things the camera would never see, but to have that authenticity helped us get into that period of time and transport ourselves into 1896 New York.”

Verbruggen also considered where things such as pipelines might go in their sets. He wanted to make sure they were in the right place so that the lanterns would have gas and the lighting could be as authentic as possible for that time period.

“You need all these right ingredients in place: the gas lights, real carriages, real mud,” he says. “The streets literally stank like horse s—, but we left it there just to create a sense of authenticity. That’s what the audience responds to, because they themselves are transported to a different time.”

In the case of the other three dramas, production moved on an international scale in order to remain true to the characters. Biller says one of the most challenging things in creating Picasso’s world was bringing the period with them to each country, but in order to keep things as authentic as possible they filmed in real locations wherever they could. That meant a constant stream of communication between the writing and production teams.

Showtime’s five-episode “Patrick Melrose” adaptation spanned decades and countries.
Robert Viglasky/SHOWTIME

“We shaped the story before we started writing the episodes; it changed as we were writing it and we’d make modifications but we knew where we were headed,” he says. “We knew that at the end of Picasso’s life he was going to be living in a giant chateau in the South of France. That environment didn’t just pop up.”

Noting that the man was “very much defined by the times he lived in,” Biller says they knew they had to travel to Malaga, Spain, to shoot the birth of the character. They shot that in the house in which the real life artist was born, and they also filmed in the bullring where he used to watch bull fights with his father, as well as the church where he was baptized.

“So many of these environments really defined who he was as a person, so we approached it from a character standpoint and then placed him in the world that he lived in as authentically as we could,” he says.

“Patrick Melrose” showrunners Michael Jackson and Rachael Horovitz wanted to create five episodes with varying tones, time periods and vibes that captured Edward St. Aubyn’s original tome. To do that they relied on film influences including “Trainspotting” and “Gosford Park” for cinematic scope.

“It’s a saga that takes place at the start of the 1960s and ends in the 2000s, so a big challenge was conveying a real sense of changing time in very different periods and in different countries, from France, England and New York in the 1980s,” Jackson says. “We thought achieving those periods would be critical to the emotional truth we wanted the series to express.”

The series spans years, as well as locations. It starts in the world of the “high-end drug addicts in New York in the 1980s,” Jackson continues, and then moves back in time to the “very aristocratic world of Brits in the South of France in the 1960s.” Later it tells the story of the titular character in London, as well.

“Achieving those periods would be critical to the emotional truth we wanted the series to express.”
Michael Jackson

“It was like a jigsaw puzzle where we had to express those worlds in as much [brevity] as possible, but like any good jigsaw puzzle the pieces had to fit together into a cohesive whole,” Jackson says.

Intertwining the lives of Gianni Versace and Andrew Cunanan for the FX anthology series “American Crime Story” wasn’t a linear task either, but according to Smith those worlds came together thanks to details big and small.

“One of Andrew’s houses in San Diego was at the end of the street and it was like, clinging on,” Smith recalls. “There was this sense that it had a slight incline and it went up and the houses at the top of that small hill were clearly in a much better state of repair and much more expensive. And then the other end of the street dissipates off into a sort of dirt path. It’s really striking how this house, which is unchanged, really captured that sense of Andrew being aspiring, of wanting to climb the hill.”

Smith says that was key to keeping the show “true to character and what story we were telling.”

Other period details that Smith felt were “so important” included Darren Criss’s ill-fitting wardrobe that reflected Cunanan’s on-the-run lifestyle, to making use of the special Oroton fabric Versace famously created to design that gold dress.

“When we were reconstructing the show, we were looking at the storytelling — that was the primary drive,” Smith says, “rather than just a presentation of nostalgia or taking the audience down the past to something they might remember.”