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Transfixing style in spaces, clothing and lighting create the artistry of ‘Ripley’

A man stands on a stone stairway that splits off to the left and right between two buildings in "Ripley."
Quiet but picturesque Atrani, Italy, captured production designer David Gropman’s eye as a key “Ripley” location partly for its “incredible network of stairs, alleys and passageways.”
(Lorenzo Sisti / Netflix)
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What would “Ripley” be without its transfixing style, from the palpable isolation of a squalid New York apartment to the shadowy charms of ancient Italian streets?

Writer-director Steven Zaillian’s acclaimed eight-hour Netflix series isn’t merely a new adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s enduring thriller about an American tourist in coastal southern Italy embracing deceit and murder: It’s a coolly gorgeous black-and-white pleasure bath of sights, shades and textures. Beauty with darkness. Modern touches in ancient spaces. Art for con artist’s sake.

To achieve his vision of a 1960s Italy that would sweep viewers away right along with Andrew Scott’s dangerously impressionable protagonist, Zaillian assembled a murderer’s row (ahem) of design collaborators: Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit, who’d worked with the director on the miniseries “The Night Of”; production designer David Gropman, an alum of Zaillian’s 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer”; and Italian costume designers Maurizio Millenotti and Gianni Casalnuovo.

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Elswit makes no bones about how important everyone’s set contributions were to the look and feel of “Ripley.” “It was such a clear ensemble of decisions based on Steve’s original ideas that we pursued for the whole [show],” he says. “We wanted to underlie the drama, be part of the storytelling, part of the emotional life of it.”

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The production design

“A dream job” is how Gropman describes working on “Ripley,” starting with what Zaillian’s 400 dialogue-sparse script pages evoked, and ending with myriad locations across New York, Italy and at Rome’s fabled Cinecitta studios.

Early research led Gropman to the kinds of images that called out to be re-created. “When you’re doing Tom on the train from Cherbourg to Naples, and you pull up David Seymour’s photograph of Ingrid Bergman going from Naples to Cannes on the Orient Express, you know exactly what that train car looks like in black and white.” Another inspiring source was Piergiorgio Branzi, revered for his naturalistic postwar pictures of life in Italy. “Any photograph of his would fill a moment in [‘Ripley’].”

Months of scouting the Amalfi coast for the sleepy town holding Dickie Greenleaf’s villa led Gropman to quiet but picturesque Atrani. Three elements cinched it: The views from the road above were stunning, the piazza charmed, and what would become something of a location star for rapt viewers, “the incredible network of stairs, alleys and passageways.” The actual villa, however, was discovered in Capri, and completely outfitted in midcentury furniture and assorted antiques and artwork.

A man sits in a cramped and messy room writing on paper next to a typewriter in "Ripley."
Tom Ripley’s (Andrew Scott) hovel of a New York apartment was built at Cinecitta studio in Rome.
(Philippe Antonello / Netflix)

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You can get to 200 locations and sets easily when a character is constantly on the move, and the norm is to crib from many places to suggest one. “For the Excelsior hotel in Rome,” says Gropman, “the exterior was the Hassler, the lobby was the Plaza, and two suites were an amazing 16th century palazzo in the middle of Rome.” And where exterior period authenticity couldn’t be counted on, CGI filled out plenty of backgrounds. “Train platforms, views out windows, and ferry docks were all big visual effects set extensions,” Gropman says.

As for what was built at Cinecitta, two favorite sets for Gropman were Tom’s New York hovel and his well-appointed, furnished Rome apartment. For every set, though, walls were never moved for the camera’s sake, “so you’re true to the claustrophobia,” says Gropman, and in the case of the dingy New York SRO, “the meanness of that space.”

Props were nearly as important, and Zaillian spent two days looking at demos. One story item, however — a Murano glass ashtray whose importance won’t be spoiled here — had already been chosen. “The ashtray is on one of Steve’s side tables at home in California,” says Gropman, laughing. “That will tell you a lot about Steve, and his ‘Ripley.’”

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The cinematography

“Steve is the most meticulous, focused, precise director you could ever work with,” says Elswit of his “Ripley” writer-director. “He had a very clear concept of shooting in black and white, making a designed movie formally organized around tonal structure and graphic images.”

Elswit, who’s previously worked in black and white (“Good Night and Good Luck”), explains why cinematographers love the monochrome palette. “You can exploit the extremes between the brightest white and the blackest black. You exaggerate the contrast in their faces. You can feel it. Sense it. You really do create tension and anxiety through lighting. It’s been done since the beginning of movies.”

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A black-and-white close up of Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley.
Cinematographer Robert Elswit delighted in shooting black and white. “You exaggerate the contrast in their faces. You can feel it. Sense it. You really do create tension and anxiety through lighting.”
(Netflix)

It’s even baked into Zaillian’s script. Ripley’s fascination with Caravaggio allowed the Italian master’s famed tenebrism — intense darkness and pockets of equally intense light — to also become a guiding aesthetic for Elswit. Caravaggio “was also obsessed with quality of light, its direction and the reality of it. Like a spotlight on what was interesting.”

Elswit says Italy’s very physicality lends itself to such extremes of light and shadow. “There’s so much texture when you’re looking at walls, streets, the surfaces of buildings, the cobblestones, stairways. It’s granite, plaster, rock, marble, whatever it is, and in black and white, it emphasizes the texture.”

Caravaggio and his era’s peers influenced the show’s look in another way. Elswit and Zaillian gave themselves an unusual rule in framing, to keep Renaissance and Baroque art’s straight-ahead perspective and avoid converging vertical lines, as would happen if a camera tilted up or down. It’s why so much of “Ripley” is a crisply edited procession of static shots, with only humans providing movement.

 A man walks up a staircase lit by a hotel sign at night in "Ripley."
“We were going to have the picture plane parallel to the walls of structures we were shooting, always. The buildings couldn’t have converging lines. Steven [Zaillian] wanted that formal graphic design,” says cinematographer Robert Elswit.
(Philippe Antonello / Netflix)

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“That was built into every setup, indoors and out,” Elswit says. “We were going to have the picture plane parallel to the walls of structures we were shooting, always. The buildings couldn’t have converging lines. Steven wanted that formal graphic design.”

Zaillian also preferred overcast days, to avoid any sun-kissed hint of romance and warmth. But Elswit made great portentous use of a hot sky for when Ripley first encounters Dickie and Marge, lying on the gravel beach. “We had a high shot where we had Tom walk by them, and his shadow goes over them,” Elswit says. “I was thrilled. I’m not sure if Steve was at the time, but he ended up being happy with it. That was a wonderful advantage to a sunlit day!”

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The costumes

Italy in the ‘60s may have been a fashion mecca, but that wasn’t how Millenotti and Casalnuovo saw the job Zaillian set out for them. “There was a focus on subtlety,” Casalnuovo wrote via email, speaking for the duo. “The costumes shouldn’t be flashy or distracting. Steve’s vision emphasized creating a sense of character and story through the clothing.”

Casting a wide net in their research — with a little over four months of pre-production time — the pair pored over photo books, archives, even vintage albums found in street markets, “searching for a nuanced understanding of the period,” Casalnuovo says. Their rummaging unearthed one socked-away trove containing unpublished pictures of everyday life in the story’s key cities. “This provided invaluable insight into the social fabric and atmosphere. This allowed us to create costumes steeped in authenticity and narrative depth.”

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That meant capturing a moment when the world was turning away from formality, while areas like southern Italy still reflected class divisions. Lighter fabrics such as linen and cotton are presenting themselves, and yet the privilege Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn) represents hasn’t gone away. “Dickie’s wardrobe would be more tailored and polished. In contrast, characters of lower social standing would wear simpler, more practical clothing.”

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A man stands in a large lobby wearing tailored clothes and an overcoat in "Ripley."
The privilege Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn) represents hasn’t gone away. “Dickie’s wardrobe would be more tailored and polished. In contrast, characters of lower social standing would wear simpler, more practical clothing,” says Gianni Casalnuovo, costume designer on “Ripley” with Maurizio Millenotti.
(Netflix)

With a black-and-white palette, however, certain scenes needed extra consideration, as when Tom Ripley’s swimsuit needed to set him apart at the beach. Highsmith wrote about a garish yellow/black checkered pair of trunks, but, says Casalnuovo, “a color contrast wouldn’t translate.” (As the final decision ultimately showed, an eye-opening fit and pattern humorously did the trick.)

Of course, when it came to Ripley overall, charting his sartorial trajectory, not surprisingly, was the designers’ most enjoyable project. “Ripley’s wardrobe is a chameleon’s act. Initially, his casual American style clashes with Dickie’s European flair. He subtly incorporates elements like polo shirts and loafers, mirroring Dickie to gain acceptance.” Getting from high-priced mimicry to Tom’s own personal style toward the end was a particular challenge, but the kind costume designers live for. “It was a process that demanded focus and a deep understanding of the character, but seeing it all come together was incredibly rewarding.”

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