Production Designer Neil Patel talks about his work on ‘Dickinson’ ahead of the season 2 finale & explains the inspirations behind the rich designs he created for America’s greatest poet.
It’s not just Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily Dickinson that matures in the latest season of Dickinson; the world around her is expanding as well. While season one of the hit Apple TV+ show took audiences to Walden Pond, the circus, and Emily’s poorly attended fantasy funeral, season two of Dickinson explored much more opulent locales in pre-Civil War America. At the helm of this vision was production designer Neil Patel, a new addition to the series for season two and the visionary for what’s to come in season three.
“I watched the first season and was absolutely in love with the show,” Patel said about joining the Dickinson team. “The creative friction between the contemporary dialogue and music and the beautiful period look appealed to my sensibilities.” Patel, who’s background includes designing for theater as well as TV/movies, worked alongside series creator Alena Smith in designing the scenes that would define the season — from a Boston Opera House to a New England water cure to The Evergreens, described as the pinnacle of New England literary life by Sam Bowles, and the real-life home of Austin and Sue Dickinson in Amherst.
Patel graciously took time out to discuss the inspirations behind his designs for season two, shared some easter eggs behind the opera episode (my favorite!), and hinted at how Emily’s world will look different in season three.
This show is led by two very driven and creative women, starting with creator and showrunner Alena Smith and then, Hailee Steinfeld, star and EP. What can you say about working with them and their vision for the season?
Alena obviously has a very strong and unique vision for the show.
She is also a wonderful and generous collaborator, so it is a real pleasure to work with her. We are always looking out for historical truth and detail, but also looking to give the show its own visual style. The show is seen through the lens of the extraordinary artist Emily Dickinson, who Hailee so brilliantly embodies. I don’t interact with Hailee in my design and production process, but I’m always imagining the sets and scenes with her sensibility and take on the character in mind.
What I love about season 2 is how far beyond The Homestead the audience is taken, even when it’s just across the lawn at the Evergreens. Am I correct that your team built essentially the entire ground floor? How much of it is what people could actually see if they visited Amherst and how much is you riffing?
Yes, we built the entire ground floor of Evergreens, including both the interior and exterior! The ground plan and Victorian Italianate Villa style is based on the real Evergreens, which you could recognize if you visited it in Amherst. I took liberties with the palette and interior detailing to make it more luxurious and to support the story of Sue’s elaborate salons. The tall ceilings, columns and fabric wall-coverings are not things you will see in Amherst.
My favorite episode of the season is ‘Split the lark’, set in a Boston Opera House. I know that your team very masterfully transformed a movie theater lobby in NJ to look like this 19th century opera house. What was that process like?
When we scouted the Loews Theater in Jersey City, we first looked at the actual theater, which was too big and in too much disrepair to work for us. As we were leaving through the lobby, I noticed that its horseshoe plan and ornate mezzanine had the bones to be the opera house. We had to build a stage and completely transform the main floor into the orchestra level of the opera house, but the architecture was perfect. I had spent some time as a student in Milan where I regularly saw operas at La Scala from the peanut gallery, so I knew that this lobby could create the ambiance of an opera house that would really convey the sense of glamour and opulence that would enchant Emily.
Austin has this line to Sue, just as the opera starts, that the production looks like one of her salons. Was the design of the on-stage opera meant to look like the Evergreens?
Yes, it was! The opera they are seeing is La Traviata, and in my prep, I had all the scripts, so I knew that Emily would conflate Sue’s parlor with Violetta’s parlor in the opera.
I looked to European parlors to influence the design of the Evergreens, and the palette and structure of the stage set is keyed off of that design. You may have also noticed that Violetta’s gold dress is very similar to Sue’s gold dress in the first Evergreens scene in 201.
My eye kept drifting to that beautiful chandelier and it occurred to me, given that the theater is from the 1920’s, the chandelier was likely electric — did it pose any problems for you and your team?
We often deal with this problem in location shooting. The chandelier is indeed electric, but thanks to the brilliant electrics and visual effects team with the right bulbs and some work after the footage was shot the lights appear to flicker like candles.
Alena has said in interviews that Season 3 is written and ready to go. Has your team started work?
Yes, I started my work in November and we start shooting in March. It has been strange working in the current conditions, but I think we are managing well. It helps that we all know each other and are working on a show we all love.
Alena has hinted that you’re headed into a darker story, especially given that the story will happen during the Civil War. Will going into that era drastically change a lot of the production design?
Yes, it has by the nature of the material. Season 2 was about fame and glamour, it had a sense of opulence, especially in the Evergreen scenes and the opera and spa episodes. Season 3 is darker and the palette for the season reflects that. Although we are tackling the Civil War it is seen through the eyes of Emily, so it will also be full of surprises, nuance and as always with Dickinson, humor.
‘Dickinson’ Season 2 finale premieres this Friday on Apple TV+.
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