INTERVIEW: ‘Dickinson’ Production Designer Loren Weeks
Loren Weeks was the production designer on The Photograph (directed by Stella Meghie), the Netflix Marvel shows (Jessica Jones, Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders), Gossip Girl and Mozart in the Jungle.
We met with Weeks to discuss the design of the Apple TV show Dickinson, which is a modern and fresh take on a young Emily Dickinson (played by Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld), but with authentic period detail in both its production and costume design. We discussed how Fred Astaire inspired Death’s carriage, creating a 19th century ‘disco ball,’ bringing a forest into the parlour for Emily’s ‘funeral’ and visiting Dickinson’s real home in Amherst (Massachusetts) for research.
How did you decide on the aesthetic of the show, considering it’s got an unusual mix of being a period show but with a modern feel?
That was a discussion that was initiated in my interview with (creator) Alena Smith because clearly, when I read the script, there are anachronisms in the dialogue of Emily and her peers and certainly the soundtrack that she had suggested in the script. So we talked early on about if we were going to introduce any anachronisms into the set and her feeling was to try to keep more period accurate. So that’s how we approached it, we did want to be period correct, honest to the time. But we didn’t necessarily want to be shackled to it, we wanted to be able to take some liberties where we could. But for the most part, the paint colours, the wallpaper, the rugs, the furniture were all period accurate. We didn’t worry about tying it to a particular year because we weren’t worried about that in the story at all. It was more a time period, not a specific year. So that really gave us the direction that we were going to go in.
I want to ask about a few of the key sets and key scenes.
In the Dickinson home (which is the main set for the show), how did you differentiate between the more private spaces (like the kitchen and Emily’s bedroom) and the more public spaces that would be used for entertaining (like when Emily’s mother brings in the suitors, there’s obviously a parlour that is used for that).
I wanted to give each room in that house its own specific identity. It was our only set that we built for the show, for all 10 episodes, so we wanted it to feel fairly distinctive, to represent the main characters. So Emily’s room is very specific – my art director CJ Simpson, my set decorator Marina Parker and I – when we first started the job, we went up to Amherst, Massachusetts to visit the Dickinson homestead and the only room that they had restored completely was Emily’s room. They had found a wallpaper buried in their kind of archaeological dig because the house had been many things – the school of Amherst owned it and used it for classes, so it had been changed a lot. It didn’t really have any of its original elements to speak of. The wallpaper they found was of Emily in her later life, so we didn’t want to recreate that, but we wanted to be respectful of the spirit of it. We wanted to give it more of a springtime feel, an outdoors feel, so that influenced the choice of wallpaper and the choice of the colour of the trim.
The parlour we thought of more as Mrs Dickinson’s domain. Edward’s office was very specific and very masculine. The public areas were the parlour, the entry foyer and the dining room, which were rooms that were open to guests. Then the kitchen was in the back part of the house. In those days, you didn’t really bring your guests back there. So that was a working space, it was a world that was just about the pure function of cooking and preparing meals every day.
I noticed your use of doorways as framing devices, large openings that go through to different rooms, you can see the layering of doorways in shots that form a cross-section of the house.
You’re right about all of the doorways being used as framing. In the actual house and in many of the houses of the time, the rooms were not so open. It was difficult to heat the rooms during winter time, the only source of heat would be the fireplaces. So you didn’t tend to see in those days, the sort of broad openings that I introduced with the pocket doors and I did do that specifically so we could have the sight-lines into the rooms and the ability to flow and so forth.
Could you tell me about your strong use of colour, especially on the walls framing those doorways?
The colours I used were almost exclusively California Paint – their historical lines. In their colours, they give a time period, so I picked colours that were appropriate for that time period. The colour choices really followed the choices of the wallpaper, we began with the wallpapers. They were the strongest element and the ones that would fill the frame the most because they used wallpapers so extensively at that time. So we started with the wallpapers, from there we worked on the carpeting and the trim colour. So I would try to apply my contemporary sensibilities of a choice of colour palette to the fabrics and wallpapers and rugs of that time, so the colours really followed that.
I have to ask about the Death Carriage, which is such a unique element of the show. What were some of the choices you made in designing that, again you’ve used a wallpaper on the interior…
Yes, thankfully I had a lot of time to work on Death’s Carriage because Death was a very specific kind of actor or presence they were looking for. We went through various design proposals for Death’s Carriage and finally ended up with something that felt more like a typical carriage of that time. I was looking at hearses of that time and there were some really fantastical kind of things. The wallpaper was something that Marina brought to our attention and it was just such a fantastic wallpaper, with a jungle feel to it and my feeling was that the jungle imagery was a great metaphor for Death’s carriage. Because a jungle is where life fights for existence and what does die, decays and becomes new again. So I really hung everything onto that wallpaper again. So again, like a lot of the rooms, we started from the wallpaper and worked from that.
The interior of Fred Astaire’s Rolls Royce
My inspiration for the carriage, going back even to the interview, we talked about Death’s Carriage with Alena Smith and wondering how anachronistic we wanted these pieces to be. So do we want to make this a stretch limo? Or a 19th century variation on a stretch limo? Although we didn’t do that, I didn’t completely let go of the idea of a limo. I was doing some research and I came across Fred Astaire’s Phantom Rolls Royce and that was my inspiration. The windows that you see in Death’s Carriage came from that, the little settee that Emily sits on came from that and the two little bud vases on either side – that all came from Fred Astaire’s Rolls Royce. The fabric we put on those settees I wanted to be an emerald green because the green dye of that time came from using arsenic, so it was very deadly. It was known as Scheele’s Green – the colour of foliage and death. It killed people! It was in the clothing, it was in the wallpaper, it was in the confectioner’s sugar, so I thought it was appropriate to introduce that. Even if no one understood that, that was my logic for it.
The party scene in Episode 3 has a really magical feel to it, including the use of a German Christmas Pyramid (a wooden contraption with candles). Can you tell me a bit about your choices for the party scene?
The struggle here was how to convey the party scene with 19th century decor. With Emily’s love of nature, we wanted to bring that in, so we created a garland that frames the doors. The other ideas I wanted to pitch was bringing a contemporary feel from the Victorian era perspective, and I thought is there a way we can introduce a 19th century disco ball? What we landed on are called Pyramid Candles and they’re of German origin, you see them at Christmas – Weihnachtspyramide. They’re wooden contraptions that tier upwards and have candles underneath them, they have little rotors on them and as the heat rises from the candles, it turns the little rotors. So we figured that Emily and Lavinia took little pieces of broken mirror and strung them together, hung them off the rotors, the candles turned the rotors and the light reflected off the little pieces of broken mirror. And it actually worked with sunlight, we had one set up in the prop department at sunset, it was streaming in there and the candles were turning and it was actually doing exactly what it was supposed to do. With just candlelight, it didn’t work realistically so well, so Tim Orr, our wonderful cinematographer ran with that and enhanced it. You’ll find that as the kids become more under the influence of the laudanum, that effect grows – it creates a bit of a psychedelic background light.
The Finale has several key elements, all of which are beautifully designed – during Sue and Austin’s wedding, Emily envisions her own funeral. Could you tell me about the strong design elements in this episode?
Dickinson was probably one of the most creative opportunities I’ve had designing (in an episodic sense), because of Emily’s fantasies and dreams and so forth. We have the ship at sea, the circus… with this one, originally the script had the funeral fantasy happen in a church, but doing some research I found that typically they would hold the funeral service in the home and they would decorate the home to some degree. There would be leaves on the doors and windows from yew branches, the paintings and mirrors would be covered with black shrouds because there was a belief that the soul would be trapped in the mirror or the soul might inhabit the person who was in the painting. So all of those things were part of an early Victorian funerary ritual, I brought that to Alena’s attention and she loved it.
Another aspect was that again we wanted to bring in nature into Emily’s fantasies because it was so important to her, so much of her poetry was about nature. So I pitched an idea for the parlour, which is where the funeral would have been done and was also where the wedding was taking place (it was a perfect contrast). I wanted to introduce nature into it, but not just a little bit, not just a suggestion, but all out – it just became a forest in there, we had vines crawling up the walls and over the windows and plants drooping down. We covered the carpet with sod and there’s moss, so it became a little fantasy forest and we got such a kick out of that one, we really did.