Behind the Production Design of Dolly Parton's Anthology Series

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Heartstrings is an anthology series inspired by Parton's beloved songs. Because each episode was its own unique story - each episode needed a new set and design to fit the respective setting, era, and protagonist. From “J.J. Sneed," taking place in the old west, to “Down from Dover," taking place in the Vietnam War era, to “Jolene," which is set in modern day American South, it was Production Designer Ina Mayhew’s job to create sets that accurately represented each era and most importantly represented the message of each Dolly Parton classic.

Ina Mayhew, Production Designer for Netflix's Dolly Parton's Heartstrings, talked exclusively with ProductionHUB about her process for designing sets for the series. 

ProductionHUB: What drew you to this project? How did you get involved?

Ina Mayhew: I had worked with the same people who did Heartstrings on a previous Dolly Parton project, a TV movie called Christmas of Many Colors. They really wanted me to design this new project, and I knew that they and Dolly were lovely people who I enjoyed working with. Additionally, I liked the challenge of doing an anthology--eight distinctly different stories, set in different time periods, with very different characters and places. It was like shooting a different movie with every new episode.

ProductionHUB:  What were some of the challenges of creating different sets for different time periods?

Ina Mayhew: For instance, in the first episode we shot, These Old Bones, the protagonist was a young high-powered corporate lawyer sent by her employer back to her hometown to convince the simple rural families to sell their land to the corporation. Early on, the lawyer is shown in her Washington offices dealing with members of her law firm, in an environment that reeks of wealth and privilege. She travels to her childhood home, which is clean, comfortable, and middle-class of the 1940’s. The clairvoyant woman who figures prominently in the story lives alone in the woods in a cabin, where she reads the future as foretold by the bones she throws, accepting chickens as payment and chopping her own wood. The marked contrasts just within this one episode offered creative challenges and it was quite satisfying to research the 1940’s and create these very different environments. And that was just one episode! The contrasts between the different episodes ranged from an 1880’s Western to a 1960’s Vietnam battlefield to a contemporary high-end wedding destination hotel where high-comedy ensues.

PH: Did you have a favorite set? Why?

Ina Mayhew: I did not have a favorite, but I did love creating the Vietnam battlefield trenches, building an old Western town, designing the hotel rooms and ballroom for a totally over-the-top wedding celebration in high-end detail, and in Jolene, I loved creating the bars and carnival ground in which the title character performed. I was very proud of my team for being able to create such a wonderful range of sets.

PH: What was the process like creating these sets? How long did it take?

Ina Mayhew: My process begins by collaborating with the writer, producer, and the director of each episode. We discuss concepts and style, deciding which elements should be built onstage, and which elements should be shot on location. After we have determined that, I, along with my art department, begin to break down each episode and start the necessary research for each set. First, I do photo research for inspiration, and incorporate the actual locations into my designs. I then begin sketching rough ideas and ground plans, building models, creating three-dimensional drawings and continue to collaborate to finalize the look of each of the sets. Each episode took about 14 days of prep, including design, location scouting, and building sets onstage, and typically had a 14-day shooting schedule. When possible, I would overlap prep on two or three episodes at a time, which gave me a little more time on the more complicated period pieces.

PH: How has your past work influenced the work that you have continued to do?

Ina Mayhew: In and before college, I was trained as a visual artist. After I got out, I assisted on Grand Opera. I did no-budget theatre presentations off-off-Broadway in New York and worked as a scenic artist, model builder, prop builder, hair and make-up artist on Broadway. I went on to do increasingly larger things as a designer, moving into low-budget movies, producing my own shorts, designing a low-budget sci-fi movie, a silent black-and-white film, a radical black message film produced by Spike Lee, which led me to design for more Spike Lee films. I designed a basketball movie that starred Tupac Shakur. I have been fortunate to have designed a variety of films that in their totality, have led me to where I am today. This is a very round-about way of saying that I’ve internalized all these work and life experiences, used all of these tools from my past, and hope to every day continue to learn and grow.

PH: What are some projects you are looking forward to in 2020?

Ina Mayhew: I am looking forward to completing the project I am currently designing, which is RESPECT, the story of Aretha Franklin, starring Jennifer Hudson. After that, who knows? I am looking forward to my next new challenge.

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