If Looks Could Kill: How 'Ripley' Recreated Midcentury Italian Glamour

ripley netflix shooting locations sets
How 'Ripley' Made Midcentury Italian GlamourCourtesy of Netflix

When it came to designing the look of Ripley, the eight-part series (streaming on Netflix now) that once again tells the story of Patricia Highsmith’s charming grifter Tom Ripley and his murderous misadventures in some of Italy’s most beautiful cities, David Gropman was never without a clear vision. “I don't think there was any question in my mind,” the production designer for the series says, “what a single moment of the design would look like.”

For anyone who’s seen the Steven Zallian-directed series, that’s not likely a surprise. After all, the entire thing is shot in black-and-white and leans into sinister beauty, from unsettling Caravaggio paintings and crumbling churches to grand train stations, rambling seaside villas, and prime palazzos. The locations and sets do more than work as a background to the story of a striver who befriends and brutally betrays an ex-pat shipping heir, they help express the things that the characters themselves can’t ever quite say.” The amazing thing about the script is that a lot of the storytelling is not necessarily verbal,” Gropman explains. “It's about what Tom's thinking and the mood and the details, which for a designer is an incredible roadmap to be able to follow.”

ripley netflx sets filming locations
Andrew Scott and Dakota Fanning in Ripley, streaming now on Netflix. The series filmed across Italy and in New York City to tell its story of greed, desire, and murder in the 1960s.PHILIPPE ANTONELLO/NETFLIX

The series begins in a 20th-century New York City, where Ripley—getting by on quick scams, living in dumps—is tracked down by a private detective working for the Greenleaf family, whose son Dickie has run off to Italy and who, they’re hoping, Tom can convince to come home. Dickie wasn’t the only one stuck in Europe, however. “The interior of Tom’s SRO was built on a stage in Rome,” Gropman explains. “The series begins in New York in 1960, and there’s so much incredible photography from that period, all of which can be transferred into what you’re putting in front of the camera. We looked at a lot of photography by Vivan Mayer, Leonard Freed, Bert Hardy, and David Seymour.” Exteriors that echo the work of those photographers were shot in Manhattan, but the interiors from Ripley’s New York City scenes were often filmed in Rome; “we looked long and hard to find something that wasn't corrupted,” Gropman says of locating Lower East Side blocks that retained a 1960s feel, “to the point of how are we going to shoot there?”

Those weren’t the only period landmarks that needed a bit of on-screen magic. As the story expands from New York City to Atrani, Rome, Naples, Venice, and beyond, travel—and the anxiety that comes with it—become central to Ripley, and therefore so do modes of transportation. “I'm proud of all of the train stations,” Gropman tells T&C. “We did both the stations themselves as well as the platforms for Roma Termini and Napoli Centrale, which was a real challenge, as well as ferry stops in Palermo and Naples. I'm a strong believer, even though we're telling a fictional story, in being honest to things that are referred to—like the train stations, the ferry stops, the banks, and the American Express office from that period in Italy. But the train stations and the ferry stops are probably the biggest dupes.”

ripley netflix filming locations sets
To recreate period train stations for Ripley, the series used locations including a former tuberculosis hospital. Lorenzo Sisti/NETFLIX

Roma Termini is still in use today, so shooting there was impossible. Instead, the production used Esposizione Universale Roma—a site designed to host a World’s Fair that never occurred—and a convention center there to recreate the station. To stand in for Napoli Centrale, Gropman and his team used a hospital in Rome built for tuberculosis patients, and the exterior of Naples’s existing station stood in for Venice. “For all of the train platforms, which includes those three stations as well as Sanremo, we built 300 feet of platform on a train yard in Rome where they do maintenance,” Gropman explains. “We brought in five lengths of a period train and then had alternating columns depending upon what station we were shooting—the rest is all visual effects.”


Effects would also play a part in building the Atrani homes of Tom, Dickie, and his sometimes girlfriend, Marge Sherwood. “Tom's apartment was built on stage and Marge's interior was also, Gropman says, “but Dickie's villa was actually one that Steve had spotted in Capri. It was built in 1902, and is today broken into three different spaces, so the challenge was to put them together in a way that felt like one.” Another challenge? Decorating the places so that they told the right story about the characters who call them home—especially Tom’s desire to be accepte and Dickie’s money and thoughtlessness about what it does. “The allure of Dickie to Tom is not just his great wealth, but the fact that it apparently means nothing to him,” Gropman says.

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