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Each episode of Apple TV+’s Dickinson, which stars Hailee Steinfeld as a young Emily Dickinson in the period-set comedy that takes contemporary creative license, is titled after one of the beloved poet’s lines of verse. Naturally, the legacy of the celebrated writer’s work can be seen in nearly every frame of the series, now in its third and final season. And while objects from Dickinson’s life directly influenced showrunner Alena Smith to create the genre-bending show, so did cultural artifacts from the Victorian era and the 20th century. Here, Smith shares with THR five items — from Dickinson’s physical belongings to one of the most acclaimed television shows of the new millennium — that inspired the look and feel of her joyous, witty and at times sensual portrait of the artist as a young woman.
The Emily Dickinson Museum
The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, was the home in which the poet lived her entire life. As such, it’s a very special location for Dickinson obsessives. “I first visited the museum in the summer of 2015,” says Smith. “I’d been interested in Dickinson for so long and it felt like visiting a sacred spot. It’s a magical experience to be in the place where she actually lived.” The house acted as a model for the yellow Dickinson homestead featured in the show, as did its neighboring house, where Emily’s brother, Austin, lived with his family, for the Evergreens.
“We had a really special relationship with the museum,” says Smith, noting that the show’s production designer had access to the original 19th century blueprints and built replicas of the interiors on the soundstage in Astoria, Queens. “We were literally re-creating her house like a dollhouse, but decorating it in a much more wild way than the museum looks.” Smith adds that the museum’s executive director, Jane Wald, was a vital fact-checking resource throughout the show’s three seasons.
Smith counts Vera Chytilová’s 1966 film — which follows two mischievous young women, both named Marie, and is a landmark of the Czech New Wave — as one of her favorites. “It’s feminine and disruptive at the same time,” she says of the film, which sees the two Maries staging pranks and rebelling against the social norms in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic at that time.
While Smith used Daisies as an aesthetic reference throughout the series, it was particularly influential in the season two finale, in which Emily and Sue (Ella Hunt), her sister-in-law, consummate their mutual desire in an “epic love-making scene where they go all over the house and make a huge mess in every room, have cake on the table and rose petals in the bath.” (A moment that didn’t make it into the final edit had Emily and Sue cutting up newspapers with scissors just like Daisies’ Maries.) “I had everyone from Silas Howard, who was directing, to Hailee and Ella Hunt and our production designers look at Daisies as visual inspiration for how I wanted that montage to play out.”
Victorian Photo Collage
Smith credits set decorator Marina Parker — “an absolute genius who is responsible for so much of the precise detail that lives in the world of the show” — for bringing to her attention the Victorian photo collages that had appeared in an exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010. “It so embodied the spirit of Dickinson, which has always been about finding something accurate to the period but that has an uncanny freshness to it,” says Smith. “Essentially, bored housewives in the 19th century were making these totally trippy, psychedelic, surrealist collages out of found images from magazines and newspapers. I was like, ‘Yeah, that feels like something a teenager would be making in her room today.’ ”
A reproduction of one of the photo collages hangs in Emily’s room, and it also served as inspiration for the show’s credit sequences. “We have a different moving collage of images for each episode,” Smith adds. “I would work with Shine, the studios that designed them, and would send a list of key words and images from each episode. They would generate one of these Victorian collages — it was a crucial aesthetic reference point for us.”
Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium
“A popular pastime for women was to go out and collect specimens of flowers and plants and then press them in a book with their scientific names,” Smith explains of the poet’s herbarium, which she adds is one of the most impressive of its kind. “She loved flowers so much and went on walks every day, and it’s incredible the wealth of plant life that was growing locally in New England.” One surprising discovery in the appropriately named herbarium: a cannabis leaf. “Dickinson scholar Martha Nell Smith told me to tell Wiz Khalifa that,” Alena Smith says with a laugh. (The rapper appears on the show as Death.)
The Emmy-winning period-set drama was what Smith was watching when she was dreaming up the idea for Dickinson. “It felt like the new frontier of what TV could be,” she says. “There were so many different characters who all had their own point of view and perspective, and you could attach yourself to any of them. It really felt like a literary world populated with characters.” That the show was set in the middle of the 20th century also inspired Smith to attempt her own take on a period series. “In terms of presenting a feminist narrative, I saw the potential in Mad Men because when you want to talk about gender, putting something in an almost outrageously regressive time really makes the politics pop as far as what you’re trying to say about the world we still live in.”
Smith jokes that Dickinson, modeled on Mad Men’s office setting, is at times a workplace comedy. “It’s a family show, but Emily, Lavinia, Mrs. Dickinson and Maggie are also co-workers because the homestead is also where they have to do their work,” she says. In addition, the homestead provided a space for the women to be together, often in conversation, without men in the room — inspired by moments from Mad Men between the characters Peggy and Joan. “When Peggy and Joan are in the elevator by themselves, you feel like you’re really seeing something that women say to each other when men aren’t there. That feels very much like Emily and Lavinia, or Emily and Sue.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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