As we watch Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily Dickinson mature as a young woman and a poet, the world around her does too. Many comments have been made surrounding Dickinson never leaving her room, but you wouldn’t know it by the locations featured in the Apple TV+ series, now concluding its second season this month. Production designer Neil Patel details just how he expanded upon the Dickinson family’s homes for the sophomore season.
The newest and largest set for season two is the house that Edward Dickinson had built for his son Austin and his wife Sue. The Evergreens is more luxurious than the Dickinson home (known as The Homestead) with its dark blue walls and golden accents. Sue never had money like before and Austin only wants to make her happy, so extravagance steps in front of practicality. If they are going to host European style salons, they have to play the part.
Patel, who has a theater background, also references the great amount of research that goes into selecting these appropriate venues. Anachronisms are out of the question even when visiting an exciting new opera house or relaxing oneself at a premiere spa. Fame may be a fickle friend, but the production design, especially this time around, is succinct and gorgeous.
Awards Daily: What it’s like jumping into an already established series since you weren’t involved with season one?
Neil Patel: It’s about building on what’s already established. When you take on something like that the question is always, is there anything I can do. What was nice about this production is that the second season had a completely different focus than the first. We were building a significant set with the Evergreens set and that influenced the look of the entire season. Our teenage characters, as we hilariously hear, are growing up into the troubling world of their mid-twenties.
AD: That line made my heart stop a little bit.
NP: (laughs) Well, they died when they were 32.
AD: Getting up there in age.
NP: The Evergreens world that Sue and Austin creates is all about salon culture. When I jumped on Alena [Smith] said it would be completely different in tone than the homestead. That’s beautiful in its own right but that’s a very New England home. It’s very rational, symmetrical and classical. The Evergreens set is this Victorian, Italian fantasy with a kind of European tone to it. Just looking at the ground plans, Evergreens is labyrinthine and mysterious where they deal with more adult things like infidelity and fame that are happening in this space.
AD: I love a lot of the dark blue tones and the gold accents. There are so many pictures all over the walls. Sue has never had money like this before and this is the first time they’ve had their own living quarters, so I kept thinking of the kind of space that I might design if I was there age. It would probably be a mess.
NP: Obviously, in our production world, we wanted to demonstrate good taste. There is something ostentatious and showy and nouveau riche about it although the Dickinson family is a long established family in Amherst. They were hardly new money. Historically, the family almost went bankrupt trying to build the Evergreens, so there was an aspirational quality to that house. We pumped that up in our version of it, as we do in the show. In the very beginning of prep, we went to Amherst and saw the Evergreens which is actually kind of a ruin now. It hasn’t been touched since the early twentieth century.
AD: Really? That’s surprising to me.
NP: It’s almost like a haunted house. I really looked towards more ornate houses than that one for inspiration. I looked at a lot of houses in the Hudson Valley area at the time. It was a more affluent area–more New York money than Amherst money–but it felt like the lightness of the show, especially to show the difference between Evergreens and Homestead. Also, that room with all the paintings, we were looking at European salons of the time. The other important thing is that in episode six, they go to the opera to see La Traviata, and Emily conflates Violetta’s parlor with Sue’s parlor. When I was designing Evergreens, I was looking at the opera set to ties those two together. There is an aspirational, Parisian salon in Sue’s world. They were entertaining prominent, intellectual people and artists on the east coast.
AD: I feel like more attention needs to be brought to the research everyone puts into Dickinson. The accuracy needs to be celebrated more, I think.
NP: We take that very seriously–all departments. There are incredible teams who do research. We are, of course, selecting the details we want. We aren’t the Emily Dickinson Museum obviously. We try to avoid actual anachronisms even with the little details. In one of the barn scenes this season, they brought in haybales but they didn’t exist until 1911. Hay just came in big piles We were always trying to keep the technology and the detail correct to the time.
AD: A space we get to see more of in season two is Lavinia’s room. I liked that we can see a clear difference between her room and Emily’s room and Lavinia’s room reminds me so much of who she really is.
NP: She’s clearly growing up and there is this eccentric side to her. I remember talking to the director of the scene where she has a tea party with her cats. It’s the same room from season one but it’s expanded. It’s almost the Victorian version of the obsessive teenager. The sec decorator, Marina [Parker], looked at collaging and other things like that. That existed in that time–it’s almost surreal. That aspect of her character shines through in her room.
AD: You touched on it before but I was really taken by the opera house. It’s so opulent. Tell me about creating that space.
NP: It was a huge challenge to find an appropriate location that we could turn into the opera house. There’s not a lot of opera house sin 1858 or 1859. It would’ve been really rare, and the only one at the time, I think, was the Philadelphia Music Academy. It was much bigger. We looked at a lot of different spaces and then we went to this Loew’s theater in Jersey City which was a 1920’s movie palace. It’s in a kind of decrepit, horror show state now. The main theater is a 3000 seat theater, and as we were walking through the lobby, I realized that it’s like a mini opera house. It has boxes already in it.
NP: We turned the lobby into the opera house. As we explored it, it was perfect because one of the challenges of that scene was to create the right relationship for the characters to be able to see each other but also see the stage. Emily then has this performance where Violetta turns into Sue. That geography would’ve been so difficult to do with most theaters, but that lobby was perfect for us. We went in and recarpeted and decorated it to become the theater. Theater chairs, as we know them now, didn’t really exist then, so that part wasn’t difficult. But finding 100 matching chairs that fits the period was so we had them shipped in from a prop house in Los Angeles. We built the stage and we built the set. The backstage area to Adelaide’s dressing room is also part of the lobby and it’s this entry way to the main theater. That’s based on these pictures I found of The Palais Garnier in Paris, which is actually the right period where the fantasy of a backstage comes in. Actually, Adelaide’s dressing room is the powder room before you get into the dressing room. It was a major repurposing but it already had chandeliers and a lot of original detail.
AD: That’s kind of a theater kid sentiment. Turning something into something completely different to make it work.
NP: Yes, certainly scrappy.
AD: The spa episode was very amusing because we’ve never seen the characters in a space like that. What kind of research went into that?
NP: There’s a lot of research about the treatments and that’s fairly well documented. They are pretty bizarre like they are in a show. Throwing a bucket of water from a ladder is a real thing. The womb rebirth was a real thing. I don’t know if they called it that, though. The spaces were hard to get a handle on. We used The Hempstead House on Long Island since it was a Gold Coast Mansion. Some of the old spa towns, they were pretty ornate. It’s funny that some of the actual treatments you are sitting in a bit metal tub. We also concluded that since none of the houses of the period had no internal plumbing so people would be very happy to take a lot of baths and drink fresh water. Finding those tubs was a blast.
Dickinson debuts new episodes every Friday on Apple TV+. The second season concludes on February 26.