Each episode of Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings focuses on one of the legendary singer’s hit songs. From “Jolene” to “If I had Wings” and “J.J. Snead,” the stories behind the songs are brought to life by an alternating cast and warm introductions and cameos from Ms. Parton herself. Whether you’re a casual country music listener, or a devoted Dollywood visitor, Heartstrings is perfect to keep you company on a cozy day, an anthology series fit for a country queen.
I spoke to Heartstrings’ production designer, Ina Mayhew, about creating the many elaborate settings and her fascinating career, both past, present, and future.
Read our conversation below and catch up with Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings currently streaming on Netflix.
Awards Daily: How did you come to be involved with Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings?
Ina Mayhew: I came about mainly by friends and connections, to be honest. They called me to come and work on Christmas of Many Colors. And I had a producer friend involved. So that’s kind of how it began. We all just hit it off and got along and they’ve been very happy with my work on that show.
So, the producers asked me to do this TV series, which was really, really interesting and challenging. I thought it would be fun, fun to do something based on a song, something different for every episode, that sounded great. I loved working with Dolly, the producers and everyone involved.
It’s always great to work with people that have trust in you from the beginning.
AD: Absolutely. Dolly, from what I’ve heard, she tends to be very hands-on with her projects. So, how closely was she involved in the production, and what she wanted the sets to look like? How closely did you work together?
IM: She came to some of our production meetings. She was very gracious and trusting. Mostly her fantastic producing partner, Sam Haskell, is really the person that I would talk to, and then he would talk to her. But, we did talk a little bit, and she’s just really easy to work with. We didn’t work together a lot, but she certainly participated and approved things, either in person or from afar.
AD: Was it a situation where she knew what she wanted? Or did you have a lot of freedom to play within the structure of each story?
IM: She kind of left it up to the director of the episode. I know that she’s very specific about the period that things are set in. So the one thing we had to be very accurate about, was to make sure that we were true to the song, and certainly true in terms of the era. That part was important to her.
She’s just really easy to work with. She really is. And because she’s so easy, we would go way above and beyond to make her happy, and make sure that she loves everything. And she came on every set, and you know, sometimes she would cry because she was so happy.
She put a lot of trust, obviously, in her producing team and each director, as each [episode] was directed by somebody different.
AD: That’s something that I wanted to ask you about as well because you’re working with eight different directors. One thing that I noticed about the show is how cohesive the entire thing was. Even though Heartstrings is an anthology series, it just all came together. So, how did you make everything fit together?
IM: I’m glad to hear that actually. I think one of the reasons I kind of insisted on being the only production designer, even though that sounds insane, (Laughs) was I wanted to have an overall look that felt like it was all one show. I think that the style and the color palette that I end up choosing is consistent. I was conscious to make sure that there was a tone that followed from one episode to the other that made them all similar in a sense.
We had the same team, and because you have a certain style as a designer, set decorator, art director, we just choose that style throughout – in terms of layers and detail. That, in particular, really made it more cohesive as an entire anthology.
We [worked] about two or three episodes ahead. I would be working with two or three directors. We would do storyboards for each episode, and color palates and tear sheets, and paint chips, and all of that so we could see two or three episodes at a time in front of us and kind of make sure that there’s something that overlaps in each episode.
After a while, it kind of becomes unconscious, and you just introduce the browns or golds or whatever [at the beginning] and you just keep that palette going all the way through.
AD: How would you describe the overall theme for Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings?
IM: Initially as I read each episode, there was this sense of humanity to every one of the episodes and the way the characters are so carefully written. We were all really sensitive to that overall feeling.
It clearly isn’t like a horror film where everything is kind of dark and dreary, this just had a lightness through every episode. There was always a sense of a bit of a happy ending, and so even in the darker episodes – “Down From Dover” – has light moments and happy moments. That was kind of the feeling of everything, really just trying to give it an upbeat look. Paler colors, sheer textures, softer tones here and there, and to really capture each of the characters and their sense of joy and sadness and warmth, however you interpret that with textures and color.
I had outlines of everything. I also listened to all the songs, the feeling that they give you, you know, it somehow oozes out in the design when you listen to everything. (Laughs).
AD: That was my next question for you, because to me, there are there things that I always think of when it comes to Dolly Parton. She has this ability to be both risqué and wholesome at the same time. And then also, she just has this incredible sense of humor, and all of those things really came across in the show. Was that a conscious effort to reflect Dolly in every aspect of the show?
IM: Yes, it was. This was a really wonderfully collaborative project. We talked about everything very carefully, the showrunner, the producer, director. We went through and consciously made sure that it felt like Dolly. We really analyzed each episode and looked at the lyrics and incorporated the Dolly part of things. I think she also appreciated that we put our take on it as well. I also wanted to make sure that it was an authentic and real environment that we’re in so it doesn’t feel like a fantasy world, which she did not want.
We talked about every detail. Everything you see in there was approved and discussed and then [my team and I] take it and go into much deeper detail than what anyone else wants to talk about [Laughs], all the layers, all the bits.
AD: What are some moments, in terms of working on each particular episode, that really stood out? They’re all so different! I mean, you have one that’s in the Old West, “Jolene” is in the modern south, and then you have the Vietnam-centered episode. Can you talk a bit about the challenges of each episode and made them so unique?
IM: The first one we did, “These Old Bones.” It’s the longest episode and one of the most detailed in terms of the period (1940s) which took a lot of research because of the different settings that we were in. Each of those sets, we did a lot of location scouting, to get the right kind of Washington, D.C., upscale style of house. So that was a real focus of getting authentic to the point.
I think the next one was “If I Had Wings,” which is kind of a simple, sweet story about a mismatched family that really centered around a house, so it all became about finding this perfect house on this perfect property and transforming that to fit these characters. It was adding some painting touches outside. We added a road, garden, fencing, so that it became a really comfortable world that you can see.
Although that seems simple, it’s always a bit of a challenge to me to find the right house. I really love looking at houses and making sure it works right.
Then we did the western. I went from working in the 40s, to a contemporary middle-class family, then this Western, which was crazy! We are in Georgia, how do you make a Western in Georgia? We had to really research places where there were Westerns. I thought, “Oh God, I guess I’m gonna have to build it,” which seems insane! It took a week to find the right land to build this Western town. But we did build all those environments in all those houses on location, on stage.
We had to find all the places for the horses to go, I think we scouted every single river and creek in Georgia! (Laughs) That’s what it felt like. I loved doing the western. That was so terrific for me.
Each episode had a challenge. “Jolene” was all about the bar, you know? And how do we make this bar feel layered and specific? From the baby blues, to coming up with typeface, and all the neon and the tones of the room. And giving it a sense of scale so that you knew it was a performance space. We wanted it to feel like all kinds of people could come there.
There’s lots of layers of posters, and I built the bar. There’s always a little touch of bling or glamour everywhere. The little stage we built had some twinkle lights, just to showcase both Dolly Parton and Julianne Hough who plays Jolene. And we also did a whole festival and the carnival that we brought in, so that was quite a big episode for us. So that was really fun and big and I really enjoyed trying to be true to the “Jolene” that’s in the song.
For the Vietnam episode, I was again thinking, should we look for Vietnam outside or should we build it on stage? And because there were tents and the trenches, we did end up deciding to build it.
AD: That’s crazy!
IM: And it was interesting developing it with the director. She was very specific about how she wanted to shoot it. And luckily, the colors of the dirt here in Georgia was the same color as the dirt in Vietnam, which was a wonderful benefit. We carved everything, then we covered it in dirt and filled hundreds and hundreds of sandbags. We actually wanted it to feel like you’re in dirt. You’re surrounded by real sandbags. You felt like you were in the trenches. We brought in a real helicopter. That was fun.
But again, overlapping thought, each thing was overlapping.
What’s funny is that the “Two Doors Down” episode, which has the big wedding, ballroom, and all the hotel rooms was our last episode. So that came at the end of all of this. And I had to build all of the hotel rooms. I needed to find an environment to do the wedding. And we have to do all that in a very short period of time. We couldn’t find a location for the last scene and had to build that ballroom in a week and a half. But that was such a huge set. And I could just talk to you about that episode alone because that was very intense.
AD: How long did you have for each episode?
We only had 14 days of prep, and 14 days to shoot for each one with no break. So it was just this constant whirlwind, and we all dove into each episode completely. And made sure that we weren’t repeating ourselves. We did reuse some set pieces here and there because we just didn’t have time to build everything. This is just a quick glimpse of how we kind of went from one [episode] to the other.
AD: That’s really is such a quick turnaround
IM: I mean, people were crying like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we did it.” We loved it, and, you know, were exhausted at the same time. It was truly a passion project for all of us. And I went straight into Respect.
AD: The Aretha Franklin biopic with Jennifer Hudson? Can you tell me anything about it?
IM: Yes! I will say, when I’m ready to talk to [journalists] about it in more detail, this is very ambitious. (Laughs).
AD: I hope I do get the opportunity to talk to you about it down the line. That seems really fascinating! I must say, throughout the course of our conversation, your attention to detail has really stood out to me. I mean, you’re talking about the fonts in the bar and matching dirt in Vietnam and Georgia. It’s remarkable. And these are things that I don’t think the audience realizes someone has to think about, you know what I mean? These details just melt into your mind as you’re watching the show. But, what is it like for you? As you are planning it and working on it?
IM: Yeah! I It’s funny because my background is as an artist, both my parents are artists, and this is a whole different kind of behavior. You know, you’re just driven and it’s always about your next creative challenge. And wanting to get it right. It’s really, truly, a passion, it’s just being creative. Everything, every detail is important.
I will walk into a room, and I’ll call out all of these things that no one else sees. It’s always like that when I’m on a location scout, right? I see all the stuff. I point it out and everyone goes, “Wow, I didn’t even see that.”
But for me, I see every detail, molding and cables, all the little different things that are on the wall, style, or furniture. But, even the simple things, like when I sit down and have dinner. I notice the salt and pepper shakers, flowers on the table. It’s just a non-stop process for me. It never ends. I never stop to think about it. I’m not going to say that it’s not exhausting. There are times when you need to have a quiet moment to recharge.
I did a long stint with Tyler Perry. I would go from movie to movie to a TV show. In six years, I did 12 features. There was something about wanting to challenge yourself with every single project. You stop yourself going, “Can I make this better?” Can I pay more attention to detail? Because it’s one of those things where if you don’t fill the frame, I think [the audience would] notice that something was missing.
AD: I know you did work on Jay Z’s Family Feud. What was that like? I’m so curious about that experience.
IM: That was a funny call because I had just finished Queen Sugar, and I was on vacation. I get a call from Ava [DuVernay], “Do you want to do this music video?” I was like, didn’t we just finish 16 episodes of Queen Sugar? (Laughs). She’s really great to work with because she will talk and collaborate with you but give you freedom to invent your world. So, I was trying to interpret the world, and I had to kind of come up with a concept to make it fit within our contemporary world, of what is the future going to be? So that was the big challenge. And how do you find the future in a neighborhood in LA? I started there, pitching the idea of a stylistic direction where we’re incorporating the past with the future.
I started looking at homes in the past, incorporating small elements of the future. You can see that there’s a sense of the past, you know, of old. The church in New York had very elaborate detail, as did the house. I just added some pieces here and there, along with the wardrobe department who had a fluid concept. Having to come up with the concept and have it make sense without having to build everything.
AD: So, you weren’t hanging out with Jay Z between takes? (Laughs).
IM: (Laughs). Oh no, no. We only saw them in the church, which is the majority of the video. It was only a few of us that were there, they came with no entourage, it was just him and Beyoncé. They had their little girl there and the babies there. They were just hanging out set. It was very intimate. So yeah, I said hello to him. They’re not exactly chatty people. But, they were very open.
The one thing that Jay Z definitely wanted, he wanted it to be in a Catholic Church. That was very specific. So that was the one thing that kind of was a challenge, and of course we were shooting on a Sunday in New York City. So, I’m trying to find the right style of church, a sanctified church, in New York. So that was the driving direction, but I wanted to find a beautiful church that maybe had a little age to That was a big deal for him.
But no, there was no hanging out and chit chatting… that would have been nice. (Laughs).
AD: Earlier in the interview, you mentioned that each production designer has their own style and their own tone. How would you describe yours? Do you think that there’s a through line between all of these different projects that you’ve work on?
IM: You know, I think so. Sometimes I look back at my work and will notice little things. My background is as a painter and theater, I probably have a little bit more of a theatrical touch to things. I probably push the envelope a little bit more, maybe the colors will be a little more saturated.
I do love textures. So that’s one of the things that you’ll see, there’s always a lot of old papers, and different colors.
I don’t ever think I’ll do a giant white room. Although that would be kind of fun. But, even if I did get a project that was very futuristic, I think it would be lots of layers and lots of detail. I love that. And even though I may start in an empty room, it’s part of the process for me, adding character. Even from the beginning as a young designer, I used a lot of color, which, at the time was not in style, was not what designers would do. It’s funny, even my very first film I ever worked on, [1989’s Sidewalk Stories] I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted to fill the frame with lots of layers and as a painter, that’s what you do. You start simple and you keep adding more and more to complete the picture. So that’s what I think I do.
AD: Just to close out and bring it back to Dolly. Do you know if they have any plans to do more episodes? Dolly has so many classic songs! And would you be interested in being involved with a second season?
IM: I did hear rumors that they would like to do more. I know that it would be interesting to do another season, I think we’ve learned a lot from the first season about how to structure the episodes differently. I still like the idea of a single designer having multiple decorators and art directors. There’s something about having a consistent style.
AD: I’d love to see more Heartstrings in the future! I loved it. Thank you for your time, I know you have a lot going on. Get some rest! (Laughs).
IM: (Laughs). Thank you! It was a pleasure.
Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is on Netflix now.