- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
In the second season of the Apple TV+ series, Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) and her family go to the opera in Boston to see La Traviata. “It’s an important episode because Emily conflates the character Violetta with [best friend, sister-in-law and romantic interest] Sue. That became a big production design idea,” explains production designer Neil Patel. “Sue’s set [her parlor at the Evergreens] echoes Violetta’s parlor in La Traviata.”
The ornate set was built in the lobby of Loew’s Jersey Theatre, a movie palace-style theater in Jersey City that opened in 1929. “It was a real challenge to find this,” says Patel, who adds that they needed a location that resembled a 19th century opera house, with a horseshoe shape and the ability to build boxes with the appropriate eye lines — because “the ‘action’ is the boxes.” They also constructed the stage, replaced the orchestra floor and populated the space with seating. Patel notes that he gave the European-influenced look of the theater a rich color scheme with burgundy, gold and champagne tones while the set for La Traviata leaned on the palette of the set for the Dickinson house the Evergreens, which is greens, blues, antique gold and wood tones. He also placed a mural in the orchestra section of the space, to cover a window.
The backstage area was inspired by Paris’ Opéra Garnier. Notes Patel, “Lots of backstages are kind of boring, quite frankly, so I wanted to create something that was more of a fantasy and how Emily would see it, because she is so enraptured by this experience.”
The set for Pikesville (a fictional slave-trading town in Missouri) in Showtime’s limited series The Good Lord Bird — following eccentric abolitionist leader John Brown (Ethan Hawke) — was constructed outside Richmond, Virginia, using some remaining parts of a set from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
“We didn’t track historical accuracy as much as we tracked the story needs. The story needs in Pikesville in particular were really specific,” explains production designer John Blackie. “They had a slave pen behind the Pikesville Hotel and there was to be a hanging. The position of the hotel and the windows and sight lines from the hotel to the slave pen and gallows were really important.”
Five new buildings, including the hotel, were constructed, and other structures were moved or restructured. “We tried to make [the hotel] fit in with the other buildings that were there, which were early Colonial. But we wanted to bring it up a little,” says Blackie. “We used rough materials wherever we could and added small flourishes — like a tin ceiling — just to give it a bit more life and color.”
And the gardens that were planted behind some of the structures even resulted in a sweet surprise. Says Blackie, “We actually got watermelon before we started to shoot.”
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
For production designer Mark Friedberg, the slave quarters were the most challenging aspect of his work on Barry Jenkins’ 10-part Amazon limited series, which is set in the antebellum South during the 1800s. Meticulous research included combing through period photos and visiting slave cabins in Georgia and other states.
In the end, they picked a location near Savannah in Myrtle Grove, Georgia, that was once a plantation. “I designed the cabins to weave in and out of the 150-year-old live oak trees, which might have been standing when this story was set, and gave these homes the refuge of cool shade,” Friedberg says.
“The cabins were laid out in a ‘V’ formation radiating out from one central cabin, Jockey the elder’s cabin. It was also the site of the biggest, oldest tree, which presented the impression that the tree had arms, which were embracing all the cabins,” he adds. In the quarter, they also built elements including a cookhouse, a smokehouse, a smithy, animal pens and a cane press.
Friedberg adds that a critical part of the design was texture. “We milled our own rough-sawn wood, took down barns and used reclaimed wood and painted and then stripped entire cabins, all to find the right patina — the right level of worn and abused and beautiful and proud. The noble humans who worked at this place were also somehow able to maintain a level of collective dignity. They endured and went on to build this country. That is as much the point of the story as their mistreatment. We wanted our set to show both the poverty of resource and also the bounty of will, endurance, stamina and creativity.”
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day