HBO’s “The Gilded Age”: Creating New Excesses in Old New York

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work that we think is worthy of recognition. In collaboration with Amazon, for this issue 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 capture New York’s wealthy elite in The Gilded Age to represent.

In art and in life, titles matter. When HBO brings out a drama from the Julian Fellowes era called The Gilded Age, it’s not just a series, it’s a promise of conscious (if not entirely self-confident) opulence: sets luxurious enough to make a Rockefeller to satiate, and dresses sparkling enough to shine up old Broadway. The challenge of The Gilded Age isn’t just to deliver on its promise of visual splendor, although it has to.

The challenge is to build an intricate world that, in its lustrous marble and lacework, somehow illuminates each character’s swirling inner drama, the choices that could make their fortunes or shatter their souls on the bustling streets of New York. The challenge isn’t just to see the jewels, carriages, and art objects that money can buy, whether old or new. It’s about feeling real consequences in the environments the characters move through – that there is power to gain and love to lose.

“It’s all on display. It’s all there. It’s all to make a statement about how rich and how important and how powerful you are, or at least think you are,” production designer Bob Shaw told IndieWire. These statements are also promises made by the characters, some more confident and others more uncertain of their actual powers that they claim to possess. The Gilded Age really shines in those moments where the series is able to present audiences with both the superficial claims and the uncertain reality of the Russell family of industrialists and the old-line Van Rhijn/Brook clan’s attempts to challenge their to ward off privileged status, to show .

Giving material meaning to the series’ material riches is a writing and acting challenge, but also a crafting challenge: a test of how much storytelling can be built into the bones of a salon, slipped into the color choices for a ball gown, or into the pacing added to a topic. In the videos below, you’ll see how composers Rupert Gregson-Williams and Harry Gregson-Williams, costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, and production designer Bob Shaw all infuse the defining contrasts of The Gilded Age into the works they produce and carve left layers of nuance in the ornate surfaces of the time.

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 shapes the emotion of individual moments, but also reflects the series’ central tension: what changes in high society as individuals make their way. “The Russells must be our main concern because they’ve been swung into town and are taking over,” Harry Gregson-Williams said. “What we were chasing with the Russell family, the new money, was power and energy. It’s quite a lot of confidence and it’s quite exuberant.”

The siblings call the main theme’s ostinato — a repeat of two notes — the “engine” of the show’s score. It propels composition with the propulsive momentum of a steam train, moving the show from scene to scene and swelling at key pivot points when the power dynamic threatens to shift. The arrival of the Russell theme in the finale’s ballroom sequence is the final word on Bertha Russell’s triumph in winning over New York society, much more than anything Caroline Astor (Donna Murphy) deigns to say.

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

The Gregson-Williamses outlined themes on the piano but then recorded them with a full 52-piece orchestra and were able to convey the lavishness and even excesses of the period with the richness of the score but looking at the characters from a more modern perspective, more aware that the churning “engine” of the main theme also creates a lot of tension that while they will never be stately or stale, they will never be quiet either.


The Costume Design of The Gilded Age

Costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s department is in many ways the most distinctive part of The Gilded Age. Because it’s costume drama, in the sense that so much of who the characters are and want to be, their insecurities and their place in society are sewn into the clothes they wear. Walicka-Maimone’s choices about how to modernize characters, where to blend into their surroundings, and when to stand out serves as a visual guide to where the ambitious Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon) stands in her quest to impress the old grandees. or for how detached the independent-minded Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson) wants to be from her relatives.

“I feel like we’re trying to create a new vocabulary to represent time without losing balance, without making things that feel too modern, by trying to find fabrics [and] Patterns that feel respectful,” said Walicka-Maimone. “Nevertheless, [we’re creating designs] that have that freshness that will delight us as modern audiences. So I keep saying, ‘We’re not doing a documentary.’ We are doing something that honors and celebrates time.”

Licensed to emerge from her inspirations and research from the period, Walicka-Maimone is able to organize each character according to their relationship to the period. Anges Van Rhijn’s (Christine Baranski) dresses are intentionally dated to show she may still be in her prime, while Bertha’s continental style, undeniably sharp, never quite matches the clothes of the women she desires to impress. Seeing the characters’ attire in The Gilded Age isn’t just a historical drama treat. It’s the way of telling who wins.


The Production Design of The Gilded Age

Production designer Bob Shaw meticulously researched late 19th-century New York to give the series’ recreation of the show’s setting a rock-solid (perhaps rock-solid) foundation of accuracy. “Before the late 1870s, everyone was using brownstone. Edith Wharton once said that all of New York City was dipped in chocolate,” Shaw said.

But from there, he and his team had 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 almost 10,000 crystals on it.” Shaw not only had to scale, but also create textures that gave his 30-foot ceiling an imposing monumentality. “I keep saying that if scenic marbling was an Olympic event, it’s ours [scenic artists] would have been the gold medal winners. If you stayed on stage too long you would have been marbled.”

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 in the midst of the Gilded Age period that defined the late 19th century and redefined the look of New York—at least for a while. But it’s true that you can have too much of a good thing, and Shaw’s research revealed that his real challenge wasn’t creating enough intricate detail; it would belittle her. “They would hang paintings like four stories high. And as detailed as we are, they had more — and more statues,” Shaw said. “They had more of everything. So for us it is a job to communicate the level of excess without making it just an assault on the contemporary eyes.”

Shaw created guiding principles rooted in character to focus his efforts and direct the viewer’s eyes on screen. With the Brook family clinging to Old World aristocratic pretensions, Shaw decided they would adopt an aesthetic style influenced by English taste. On the other hand, in their attempt to carve their way into high society, the Russells would be drawn to much flashier continental styles, particularly French. Both houses are filled with details that address attitudes and fears that characters would rather not express. When we’re not looking at the Brooks sisters or the Russells, we see what the walls can tell us about them.

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Lindsay Lowe

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