Neil Patel works as a production designer on Dickinson.
We had a chance to catch up with him following the Dickinson Season 2 finale on Friday, Feb. 26.
Read on to find out what Neil had to say about production design during Season 2, the challenges of transforming modern-day pieces into the 19th century, and what lies ahead for Dickinson Season 3.
So what goes into production design for Dickinson?
Well, we are a period show. We build the majority of the show you see. So, in Season 2, we have two houses – the Evergreens house, which we built this season and is Sue and Austin’s, and the [Dickinson] Homestead, which we built in Season 1 and is the Dickinson's family's home.
We build the interiors on a soundstage. Then we build a partial version of the exteriors in a place called Bethpage Village, where we have some other exterior sites and extend them with visual effects to give the whole structure. That's a big part of the production design.
In Season 2, we left the stage a few times to do an opera episode and a spa episode, and we created the printing press. We did some big, large-scale transformations of locations to bring them into the story.
Unlike other TV shows, where they're all over the place with many locations, we don't have a lot of locations. But [the locations] have to be specific because they have to be period. They have to work in our story and the look of our show. That's the big part of it.
There's also the general tone of the show, which is about an artist. In some ways, we see the show from the point of view of Emily. There are heightened -- what you might describe as surreal -- aspects of the show that we also do.
You mentioned Dickinson Season 2 Episode 6, which took place exclusively at the opera. How did you go about setting the scene, so to speak?
We couldn't build a whole theater on a stage, so we had to find a theater, which was tricky because we're trying to find something that would approximate the opera house in 1859. So ... we found an old movie house in Jersey City.
The theater was not appropriate at all because it was a 3,000-seat theater, and it was in pretty terrible condition. We found that they had an ornate lobby, and the lobby had the shape of a horseshoe surrounded by another of an opera house, and it had boxes in it.
So, we basically transformed the lobby into a theater. We built the stage, built the set, and did set decoration to tie it together to make it appear to be a theater. We were happy with that, but it was a big challenge.
You also mentioned Dickinson Season 2 Episode 7, part of which takes place at a spa. Can you talk about that?
This was another standalone episode. The water treatments and spas were hugely popular at the time and kind of [a] novel, luxury retreat. We found the Gold Coast mansion from the turn of the last century in Long Island.
They were empty spaces, so we had to decorate them and fill them with all these various spa treatments that they had a time [like] mud baths and saunas and water treatments.
At the time, there was no internal plumbing and people's houses, so it was pretty luxurious to take baths with fresh water and submerge yourself in warm water and drink fresh water. So it's definitely like a well-being thing.
So that's a pretty fun one, I think in a different way. But similarly, visually striking, like the opera is.
On Dickinson Season 2 Episode 8, there’s this amazing dance scene at the barn. What can you say about that?
Oh, yeah, that's also really fun. That is shot in a barn at Bethpage. It actually has real sheep that live there that we have to share the space with, so that's a challenge.
We read Season 2 and learned [the barn's] important because it's where Henry is running his printing press secretly. So we dress it for the printing press. Then for the dance, we push all the printing stuff to the side and transform it into this party space.
It's a real contrast in that episode to the party going on at the Evergreens, which has become boring. The party in the barn is where you want to be. It's the fun party. So we had to build and modify things so they can be jumped on, danced on. We have to bring in more lighting.
That scene is also something that we had to shoot during the day. It's almost like shooting a music video, but also accepting it’s a 19th-century barn, so it presents its challenges. One of them was just cleaning it out so that the air was not full of dust and straw. But it's a beautiful structure because of its original construction.
So what are some of the challenges of taking these 21st-century pieces and making them look like they’re from the 19th century?
A big part of what we do is try to figure out how to transform these spaces into 19th-century spaces. Sometimes it's easier. One of the very first scenes from Season 2 is at an ophthalmologist’s office in Boston.
We actually shot that in the Steinway Mansion, which is a house near Queens built in the 1850s. So the bones of that house were perfect, the architecture, but the wallpaper was wrong, the decor was wrong. There were lots of modern things that we had to cover or remove.
So we have to go in and style. The things that we use are not things that you can just order. We often have to make them. Sometimes there's custom printing for wallpaper, having carpets woven for us, ordering furniture, and having things that come from unique dealers and vendors in Europe.
The lead time's logistical aspect is very challenging for us, especially for television series. They do give us a generous amount of prep time compared to a contemporary show, though.
The show’s writing also frequently embraced the modern-day vernacular. Do you ever do that with the sets, or do you try to keep it as authentic as possible?
We definitely try to stay [in the] period. That's one of the rules of the show ... We do research, but I'd say that we make -- like anytime you do that kind of thing -- choices stylistically. So we try to make the choices that fit the Dickinson style.
We use patterns and colors, and we pop it out. Sometimes, when people think of the mid-19th century, they imagine this sort of muted state, especially in New England. The reality actually supports that things were much more colorful and vibrant than you might think.
We definitely make choices that support that overall look for the show. So even though it’s period, it still has a fresh take.
Have you started any work on Dickinson Season 3?
Oh, yeah, we're in the thick of it right now. We found our plantation house. We will do work on this plantation to make it feel appropriate to the season and the place that it's supposed to be. We also have to recreate Pfaff’s Bar, which was historically a place where women hung out.
It was also the first bohemian gay bar in New York. So we're looking for places that we can transform into that. We have outdoor battle scenes, so we're trying to recreate places from the South in the tri-state area.
In Westchester, we found an 1834 Greek revival house -- a real one -- that has the grounds we wanted. It has a giant back porch veranda that looks very much like a Southern house.
In the story, our location is in the sea islands of South Carolina. The plantation house is very much in line architecturally with what you'd find there. That was the most difficult to find, and it's our central location outside of our normal sets.
We're still looking for Pfaff’s. We haven't quite found it yet, but we have some good options. Then for our standing sets, we're putting back up the Evergreens and the Dickinson Homestead, both interior and exterior. We're buying lots of tents because we have new scenes in tents and army encampment.
We know that Dickinson Season 3 includes the Civil War. What can you talk about that?
We're in the thick of the Civil War in 1862. Even though historically Emily Dickinson didn't go anywhere near these locations, she imagines herself in them, and we show that in the show.
The tone of Season 2 was influenced by this new set, the Evergreens, and Sue's salon culture, and Emily dealing with fame. In Season 3, we're like, well, the Civil War’s not far from here, unfortunately.
It’s a very heavy subject now, too. We were talking about it the other day. The characters are just a note, talking about how long this war is going on, which feels like how long this pandemic is going on.
We're a comedy, but there's generally a more somber tone in Season 3 than Season 2, which is more about this sort of glamor and luxury to the Evergreens world and the opera, spa, and we're not in that vibe this upcoming season. We're in a war. People don't have money. Death is everywhere.
So it's somewhat of a different set?
Yeah, it's definitely different. Like the color palette, the general tone of the season is very different than Season 2.
If you haven't caught up with Dickinson, you can watch the first two seasons on Apple TV+.
Jessica Lerner is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.