Designing the World of Emily Dickinson in Apple TV’s ‘Dickinson’ Season 2

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Image: Hailee Steinfeld and Alena Smith on the set of Dickinson Season 2. Photo: Courtesy of Apple

I am Neil Patel, a production designer based in New York City. I was born in Wales and immigrated to the US as a child where my Indian father and English mother practiced medicine. I studied art and architecture as a student and began my career as a theatrical scenic designer. I designed sets for Broadway, Off Broadway, Opera and in many countries including India, Japan, UK, Italy and Spain. I always loved film and was able to start working as a production designer when writers I knew from the theater invited me to design their film and TV projects. This includes Warren Leight and Neil LaBute. Warren asked me to design In Treatment for HBO when it came to New York, and that began my crossover into production design.

I recently worked on the production design for season 2 of Apple TV’s Dickinson. The production design for season 1 was centered around the Dickinson’s Homestead House. Homestead is a Federal Style house with an austere New England design. But season 2 is centered on a new set I designed called Evergreens. Evergreens was built for Emily’s brother Austin when he married Sue, and is an ornate Victorian Italianate Villa. The parlor is full of paintings and is the location for Sue’s many salons filled with artists and intellectuals that we see during the season. It is the opposite of Homestead: lush, labyrinthine, aspirational. With the set decorator Marina Parker, I designed an interior in a palette of blue, green and gold which was the base of the season’s palette beginning with Evergreens, the maze and culminating in the overgrown version of Emily’s conservatory in episode 10. In addition to Evergreens, the new sets for Season 2 included a printing press, an endless hedge maze, an opera house, a cattle fair and a spa. There was a lot to keep me busy!

My training in architecture really came in handy this season. I love architecture, and although I did not become a licensed architect, I have the pleasure of designing fake houses! It was very helpful to have architectural training which gave me a knowledge base in which to extrapolate from the real Evergreens in Amherst, and add elements from other Victorian styles I learned about in my architectural history classes taught by Vincent Scully when I was an undergraduate at Yale. This was not the first time I got to design a complete house for a TV show. On The Path I had the opportunity to design a modern house for Aaron Paul’s character. I am lucky to be able to  have a practice of imaginary architecture.

A central theme for Season 2 of Dickinson is fame and adulthood. The character of Evergreens illustrates Sue and Austin’s very adult social aspirations and separates and alienates Emily from Sue. It is all about pretense and luxury. It is the opposite of the Dickinson world we saw in Season 1. In Episode 6, the characters go see La Traviata in Boston which would have been a new and scandalous opera at the time. Emily conflates the character of Violetta with Sue and Violetta’s parlor in the opera is connected to the Evergreens parlor in Emily’s mind. I needed to make that visual connection in the production design so that the opera set for La Traviata recalled the Evergreens Parlor. My background in theatrical design came in handy here, as I had designed an opera house in the US and Europe and was familiar with the world as we needed to show both the front and back of house worlds. It was fascinating to research the lighting and stagecraft of the time and show a set lit by candles and gaslight. 

To illustrate fame we built a steam driven nineteenth century printing press in which I was greatly assisted by the visual effects supervisor Lotta Forsman. The emergence of newspapers in the period allowed for quick fame and introduced Emily’s poems to the public. I also designed surreal sets that illustrated Emily’s unique view of the world like the seance and the hedge maze. 

Building the printing press was a big challenge. The illustration, which was the basis of my sketch, shows a long hall filled with printing presses which are all connected to a steam driven turbine. We found a great location in Brooklyn that is in fact a nineteenth century warehouse. With the art and the special effects departments I developed a design of the press which would have enough moving parts to be convincing. We built two of them, and then on the set they were moved to the positions where the others would be after the scene was shot with the two practical presses in motion. We had motion control so the shots matched perfectly, and in the final composite it feels of one piece. The set decoration department provided detailed research for all the supporting elements, so the sequence that shows the paper rolling off the press  and ending up in Sam Bowles hands feels real. I was so pleased to see the seamless way visual effects extend the practical elements. Hopefully, the audience has no idea!

Another big challenge was time! We were given a very healthy prep period especially for a TV series, but it is challenging as so much of what we need is custom made and often in an artiginal manner. Wallpapers are hand blocked, carpets are woven to spec, custom milled moldings, and restoration glass that comes from Germany.

Other than Dickinson, one upcoming project I have is I am designing an immersive experience created by David Byrne and Mala Gaonkar called Theater of the Mind. The project was stalled by Covid, but we hope to have it running in 2022. I am designing a series of rooms, some real and some unreal in which the audience learns about the construction of self. It sounds heady, which it is, but it’s also entertaining and trippy. I can’t wait to get it going!

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