Todd Kessler Reveals How James Gandolfini Inspired ‘The New Look’

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For a decade, Todd A. Kessler worked hand-in-hand with his brother, Glenn, and Daniel Zelman. Together, the trio created a pair of Emmy-winning shows—FX’s “Damages” and Netflix’s “Bloodline.” But with his latest project—the Apple TV+ series “The New Look,” which charts the rise and fall of fashion icons Christian Dior and Coco Chanel—Kessler found his own way. 

“The partnership with Glenn and Daniel is one that I’ll treasure for life,” he says. But he explains that “history was my collaborative partner” on “The New Look.” 

Kessler’s path to telling this story began in 1997, when he read an article about the 50th anniversary of the famed Dior fashion house. Though he says he “knew nothing about these people,” he was intrigued. Twenty years later, he came across a book on Dior that reignited his interest in the subject.

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“Many of the details about Dior’s life resonated with a dear friend of mine, James Gandolfini,” he says. Kessler and the late “Sopranos” star became close when he was working as a writer and producer on the seminal HBO drama. 

“I had wanted to write about our friendship and his unprecedented success with ‘The Sopranos,’ and how he had felt trapped by that success,” Kessler says. “Reading about Dior, he had similar experiences. They both came into their successes later in life, before they both died of heart attacks while on vacation in Italy at the age of 52.” (Gandolfini passed just a few months before his 52nd birthday.)

After learning about the parallels between the two, Kessler spent two years in research mode; he wanted to feel confident that he had enough material to create a multi-season show. But he didn’t have to think long about who would be his Dior: acclaimed actor Ben Mendelsohn, who won an Emmy for his turn as Danny Rayburn on “Bloodline.”

“I told him that Dior wrote about how there are two parts of his personality—the extrovert salesman and the introvert creator—and that both parts are at war,” Kessler recalls. “Then I explained some things about Jim Gandolfini’s experience, and Ben instantly got it. [He] said, ‘Whenever you’re ready, please contact me because I would love to play Dior, and I’ll clear my schedule.’ ”

“The New Look”

Set during and after the Nazi occupation of Paris, “The New Look” focuses on Dior’s quest to breathe life back into the world as he puts together his groundbreaking fashion line. At the same time, the reign of Chanel (Juliette Binoche) is thrown into chaos due to her Nazi associations. Rounding out the star-studded ensemble are Maisie Williams as Dior’s sister, Catherine; John Malkovich as French couturier Lucien Lelong; and Glenn Close as Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow. (Close previously worked with Kessler on “Damages,” winning an Emmy for her performance as lawyer Patty Hewes.) 

While it’s always wise to cast some of the greatest actors alive, Kessler sees the experience of being in an ensemble as the key to unlocking new levels of “emotional vulnerability.”

“They make the shows better than I imagined they could ever be—and that’s super inspiring to write into,” he says. “Understanding one another, we’re willing to take chances, not knowing whether it’s going to succeed or not. In these moments, we have the potential to do the best work of our lives.”

Despite having written and directed many episodes of his previous projects, Kessler had never stepped behind the camera for a series premiere until “The New Look.”

“It was important to me to be present and shape [the show] from the start,” he explains. “Oftentimes period movies and series feel a little too precious. How [‘The New Look’] opens—we had 500 background actors, and they came in for haircuts two weeks before we filmed so that their hair would have a chance to grow and not look perfect. It’s attention to those details that is meaningful, and an experience that I wanted to convey to the audience.” 

He adds, “My hope was that the series itself wouldn’t feel like anything else out there.”

This story originally appeared in the June 13 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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