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Making of Netflix Series Starring Andrew Scott

Making of Netflix Series Starring Andrew Scott

In 2018, when Steven Zaillian began writing a first draft of Ripley — his TV adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley — one item in his office made its way into his screenplay: the heavy crystal ashtray that (spoiler alert) kills Freddie Miles in the fifth episode.

But Zaillian’s foray into the story of con man Tom Ripley started long before 2018. Ten years ago, a unique proposal popped up on his radar — a TV series. “If it had been proposed as another movie, I would’ve said no,” he tells THR, “but as an eight-hour series, I thought, ‘This could be interesting.’ ”

For starters, he wanted the limited series — about a grifter, Tom Ripley, who covets, and then kills for, the lifestyle of his wealthy former classmate Dickie Greenleaf — to be in black and white. “When I first read the book, it’s how I felt it should look. Later, it was important to the story that it not be some kind of Technicolor Italy, that the story was more atmospheric than that, in a darker, more sinister way.”

Andrew Scott was promptly cast as Tom Ripley, says Zaillian. “I’d tried to cast him in a part in [the 2016 Emmy-winning limited series] The Night Of, but I didn’t know what he looked like because I’d only heard him in a movie called Locke: He played a character whose voice was on the telephone, and he created a rather full-rounded character with just his voice. He was my first choice.” 

Scott received the entire series of scripts, a “highly unusual thing,” from the get-go. “I knew it was going to be very arduous — there was just such a huge amount of acting. I learned Italian for three or four months. Other than that, I suppose a lot of my work were things I had to work out on my own. And that was fine because I was dealing with a character who has a lot of secrets.”

Dakota Fanning, Johnny Flynn and Eliot Sumner rounded out the central cast as Marge Sherwood, Dickie Greenleaf and Freddie Miles. “When Steve laid out his vision for a cold, dark, noir aesthetic and tone, I was absolutely sold,” says Flynn (who played David Bowie in Stardust). “Dickie is a casualty in the story — everything is seen via Tom’s perspective — and I really liked that. It feels like he’s not completely real in a stylistic sense. He is what Tom sees of him.” 

Fanning says she felt no pressure to mimic the performance of Gwyneth Paltrow, who played Marge in the 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley. “There was relief that we were not trying to remake any iteration of the story,” she says, “and that we got to create our own versions of the characters.”

Dakota Fanning as Marge Sherwood, Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf and Scott as Ripley, seated in Dickie’s Atrani villa, whose several floors featured artwork, including a Picasso, and a painting studio.

Courtesy of Netflix

Zaillian wrote the first draft in a “quick” 18 months (it takes him a year to write a feature film, he says), and in November 2019, he and production designer David Gropman started location scouting. Their work continued until the COVID pandemic shut down production in March 2020, pushing the production design work to January 2021 and filming to July. “When we went back to Italy, most of Europe was still in lockdown,” says Gropman. “We scouted the Piazza San Marco and the Guggenheim Museum in Venice with not a soul in it. Strangely enough, it felt like the mood of the film and the world Steve wanted to show: very lonely and empty.”

Location scouting all over Italy, Zaillian and Gropman covered enormous ground, ultimately choosing to shoot in New York City and Italian locations: Atrani, Rome, Venice, Naples, Sicily and Capri. Three researchers in Italy, one in England and one in the United States helped the production designer nail down the aesthetics of the 1960s. “Obviously, there was color photography, but we’re not just looking at 1960 — we’re looking at those worlds 10 years earlier, because of course everything isn’t circa 1960: It was created, used and worn before that, certainly in styles and architecture,” explains Gropman. 

Train stations figure prominently in the series as Ripley outruns his crimes by traveling through Italy, and Palazzo dei Congressi — built for the 1942 Universal Exposition — stands in for the exterior of the Rome train station. For the interior, 300 feet of platform was built at a train yard in Rome, and rotating columns differentiated the look of the Rome, Venice and San Remo stations. Five period cars were brought in from Milan. For Naples, Gropman used archival plans and photographs from the 1800s to re-create its station at a now-shuttered hospital in Rome. 

Tom moves through various train stations in Italy to escape the aftermath of his crimes. Production designer David Gropman reconstructed Rome’s train station at the Palazzo dei Congressi, and re-created the Naples train station in a now-shuttered hospital.

Courtesy of Netflix

The baroque sets gird the atmosphere of dread and beauty. Tom’s Rome apartment and its building’s stairway and elevator (the sites of some athletic body dragging), the interior of Marge’s Atrani apartment, and a Palermo pensione were all built on a Rome stage. Tom’s Venice palazzo was filmed at the Palazzo Polignac, while the American Express building was shot at the Palazzo delle Poste in Naples. Most stylish of all is Dickie’s Atrani mansion, which is the actual Villa Torricella in Capri. Fans can Airbnb it (sadly, there are no openings for months, though the fee is, unexpectedly, less than $300 a night). 

The exterior of Dickie’s mansion. While filming a scene on Capri, Zaillian noticed the beautiful villa from across the harbor and wanted to use it for both interior and exterior shots.

Courtesy of Netflix

Costume designers Giovanni Casalnuovo and Maurizio Millenotti scoured photography books, vintage family albums found in street markets, and major archives across Italy. In the process, says Casalnuovo, they discovered “a treasure trove of unpublished photographs capturing everyday life, providing invaluable insight into the social fabric and atmosphere of each location.” 

For Tom’s New York style, they researched fashion magazines and street photography to ensure a clear distinction between the American and Italian aesthetic. His initial wardrobe is modest, with off-the-rack clothing in simple cuts that “establish him as an outsider,” says Casalnuovo. By the end of the show, Tom is “clad in impeccably tailored suits, in luxurious textures that hint at a higher social status, and sports flashier accessories” — including plot-critical Ferragamo shoes — “all carefully chosen to project an image of success and belonging.” 

“What makes this image so striking, aside from the look of the space, is the costume,” says DP Robert Elswit. “If it were shot in color or a gray, it wouldn’t read as well. It’s the perfect version of what the shot could be.”

Lorenzo Sisti/Netflix

Dickie Greenleaf’s ring, which establishes his privilege and propels the narrative as Tom takes on his persona, was created by a jeweler from detailed sketches inspired by 1950s magazines. Out of a series of prototypes, Zaillian selected the final (damning) ring.

Ripley was initially set up at Showtime, but moved to Netflix in February 2023 after the network decided not to proceed with the series. “Both Netflix and Showtime wanted to do the show, and Steve [initially] felt Showtime would be easier to work with,” cinematographer Robert Elswit explains, but then “he felt that they weren’t ever going to be comfortable with black and white [considered to be art house, and less commercial], whereas Netflix said, ‘We’ll release it in black and white, but as per your contract, you have to deliver a color version of the show.’ ” (Netflix has no plans to release a color version.) As such, the series was not shot with a black-and-white camera, but with a standard Alexa LF that recorded color information; the filmmakers had the lab remove the color from the image files and create only black-and-white images for the dailies. “The lab essentially turned the color dial to zero,” says Elswit. “At the end, Steven was contractually obligated: The two of us made a color version of Ripley, which we hope nobody will ever see.” With black and white, the DP continues, “Steve wanted to emphasize the play of light and shadow, not just in the world but also on people’s faces — the emotional reason why things wanted to [be felt] in monochrome.” Elswit says Caravaggio, the artist whose work is prominently featured throughout the series and is known as a master of light, was an inspiration. 

Meanwhile, knowing their work would be seen in black and white presented a challenge for the costume designers. “We had to forgo the initially chosen vibrant vintage garment and fabrics. Instead, we focused on using shades of black, white and gray to create a distinct atmosphere for characters and scenes,” says Casalnuovo. 

Scott, who notes that Zaillian doesn’t do rehearsals, says the first scene that was shot took place in Tom’s New York boarding house, in which he is defrauding somebody over the phone in episode one. Shortly after that, they filmed the Dickie Greenleaf and Freddie Miles murder scenes. “My biggest job was to keep my playfulness alive and to not get too overwhelmed by the enormity of the task,” says Scott. 

“The sheer amount of screen time and acting, just the amount of time you spend with this character, is really unusual and unprecedented, certainly for me,” says Scott of his role as con man Tom Ripley.

Courtesy of Netflix

Elswit says the most technically difficult sequence to shoot was Dickie’s murder on the boat. Because Zaillian wanted the scene to look overcast rather than lit by direct sunlight, the team shot the killing scene in a large swimming pool south of Rome, where they blocked the sky with charcoal silk, using a greenscreen to replace the sky and water, which were filled in by Weta FX in post. Editors Joshua Raymond Lee and David O. Rogers say they had about 2,500 VFX shots in the series, “significantly more than had been initially anticipated.” The boat itself remained stationary — three cameras and three cranes created the movement through and around it. 

The 20-minute scene in which Tom murders Dickie, filmed in a pool in Rome

Courtesy of Netflix

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Despite the motorboat being still, “I was scrambling, trying to not drown myself,” says Scott. “This is, literally, trying to sink that boat with a little exhausted Irishman. And you’re not just doing it once. Steve likes to get a lot of coverage.” Flynn adds, “Some of the stuff of Dickie underwater is really me. They had me on a winch, pulling me down for a take. That was quite scary!”

As Tom disposes of Dickie’s body, there is no dialogue and no score, only Tom’s labored breathing, the whir of the motor, the wind humming and the water slapping against the hull of the boat, courtesy of sound supervisor Larry Zipf.

The 20-minute scene in which Tom murders Dickie, filmed in a pool in Rome, proved challenging for everyone. “The physical stamina of that [scene] was very difficult,” says Scott.

Courtesy of Netflix

That murder scene, and an ensuing one ­­— in which Tom deploys the ashtray as a murder weapon, drags Freddie’s body down his building’s stairs, into an elevator and through the streets of Rome, all the while treating the corpse as a drunken comrade — “were the most interesting and rewarding to cut,” says Lee. “Both of those scenes are essentially 30-minute silent films that land by surprise in the middle of the normal flow of the narrative.” 

For Sumner, playing Freddie, who is dead for more than half of the episode, the choreography of being dragged around necessitated a week of rehearsals. “It was about four months of being known as ‘The Body’ on set,” says Sumner, laughing. “As bizarre as it sounds, because I was just lying there, it was physically quite taxing, the dragging around and not breathing for minutes on end. I’m sure they could have fixed that in post, but I wanted to do it properly.”

Elswit would often shoot scenes from above or below, including on staircases: “Everywhere we looked, we tried to find a way of seeing Tom that wasn’t like someone was spying on him, but like someone looking down on him.”

Courtesy of Netflix

When sound is present, it becomes its own character in the show, through Tom’s footsteps echoing in a church, the clacking of his typewriter and the mechanical movement of the elevator. “Steve clearly planned the show with sound in mind, and really left room for the environments and ambiences to breathe and support a tone,” Zipf says. “Steve was always looking for opportunities for sound to give the impression of life outside the frame, whether it’s diegetic or in Tom’s mind.”

Gropman worked with set decorator Alessandra Querzola to place Tom in 1960s Italy while immersing him in the wealthy lifestyle that he cons his way into. “Alessandra brought all of that furniture to us, and Dickie’s art was created by set painter Valentina Troccoli. She also created the unfinished Caravaggios and did the finishing touches on the Picasso, which was a digital print that she then over-painted.”

Courtesy of Netflix

When Jeff Russo’s score — consisting of chamber strings, winds, English horn, harp, piano, mandolin and accordion — did come into play, it added to the tension and mystery of Ripley. “I envisioned music like what you would hear in a 1960s movie, something Ennio Morricone or Nino Rota would have done on noir thrillers,” he says. “We talked about threading Sicilian-style music and modern thriller-type music into the classic way of telling this story.” 

Russo adds: “This is the first time I’ve ever done anything on this scale in black and white, and it makes the whole thing evocative in a way that color cannot.”

This story first appeared in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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