Swiftly following its official premier last week, Apple TV+ original comedy Dickinson was the subject of an exclusive cast and creator panel as part of Today at Apple in London’s Regent Street.
Screen Times were in attendance for the panel which followed a brief glimpse of the shows first gorgeous, playful episode. Series creator Alena Smith, star and executive producer Hailee Steinfeld and Tony Award-winning actor Jane Krakowski sat down with Sunday Times Entertainment editor Scarlett Russell for a brief chat about the show, Emily Dickinson and plucking chickens for David Gordon Green.
Q: Congratulations on this amazing programme. Alena, I know this is something of a passion project for you, so tell me how the idea for the show came about.
AS: Well, I actually used to write poetry in high-school and I always liked Emily Dickinsons poems. When I was in my early 20’s I read a biography of hers and was so surprised at how much the story of her coming of age and her early twenties resonated with me and where I was in that point in my life. I guess she was sort of trapped in her circumstances, yearning for something bigger and finding ways to express the infinite in the very very small. That really appealed to me and just stuck with me. About a decade later I had the weird idea to make a half hour TV show about Emily Dickinson.
Q: For anyone who might not be that familiar with Emily Dickinson’s poetry can you explain why its so prominent today and yet so radical at that time as well?
AS: Emily Dickinson wrote almost 2000 poems. It’s one of the greatest bodies of work in the English language – certainly in American literature. The irony is that almost none of that work was ever published or recognised or even seen whilst she was alive. She wrote her poems and sowed them into little books and hid them. They were discovered after she died.
What’s so incredible about her work is that she reinvented the rules of poetry in private. She was sort of an outsider artist I think and she had these poems that on the surface seemed simple – sometimes like nursery rhymes – but have these dark paradox’s embedded in them with these incredible images that we take from in the show and use as jumping off points for storylines and plot as much as we use the facts of her life.
Q: Hailee, If I can come to you. How do you get involved in this project and was it something you instantly knew you wanted to do?
HS: Yes. I read the first two scripts and after the first one I knew. It was so special and so different. I was mainly incredibly intrigued as to how they were going to pull it off. Because its so different and it is this period piece driven by non-other than her incredible poetry and complimented with her modern sense of thinking and this contemporary urban soundtrack. There were so many elements about that I was in love with. Having conversations with Alena shortly after I read the first two scripts any feeling was just completely reinforced. She had such a clear vision for this project and knew exactly what she wanted it to be and we did it.
AS: We were so incredibly lucky to get Hailee who is in almost every scene of this five hour long first season. [Hailee] is the anchor and the engine of the whole show. She just has gifts that go so far beyond what you would imagine someone of her age of possessing. Of course also her whole musical side is so important to this show where we use our contemporary soundtrack to show Emily’s inner-life doesn’t fit in with the confinement’s of her time. When Hailee wrote a song for us we were just blown away by how exciting it was for us all to be responding as artists to the work of Emily Dickinson.
Q: The Soundtrack is incredible and its very modern even though its set to less contemporary times. Was that important to you all to be involved in the music and how much choice do you have over that?
AS: The show was always designed to be a period show with a super contemporary soundtrack. A show that is a bit playful and mischievous with its tone in general whilst combining elements you wouldn’t neciserily expect.
Q: Jane, you play Emily’s mother – Mrs Dickinson. How did you get onboard the project?
JK: I to was sent the first two scripts and I’d just finished filming the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and I knew it was ending so I was looking for something that would be very very different from the other parts I had recently played. I opened the script and the original script started with Emily’s poem ‘I am nobody but who are you?’ Which was a surreal moment for me because it was a poem that my mom had taught me and made me memorise as a child. I was like ‘wait, what is this thing?.’ Then it broke out into ‘I Like Tuh’ [by IlikeMakonnen] and I knew I had to be in this. It was unlike anything I had read. The music was very clearly defined as part of the show and the song references were there, so we knew that we were making something that was set in the 1850s but was a completely modern story. Mrs Dickinson is so different to anything I played before. She’s so traditional and conservative and polite and all those things I don’t usually play. I think we all felt it was so unique and so different. I didnt even finish the first script. I got to three pages before the end and then called my people and said that I want to be on this, what could I do?
Q: I love the contentious relationship between mother and daughter. It’s very funny as well. Could you talk about how you drew that out of the characters as you were filming?
JK: When I first starting researching Emily Dickinson I found it really odd – or should I say, very telling – that the one poem that she wrote about her mother was after she died and I thought that was very telling for someone that wrote so prolifically. Writing over two thousand poems and only one is about her mother. Also in other depictions of Emily Dickinson the mother is never represented. She’s barely in the foot note. I felt a big responsibility for finally getting to represent this woman and through a lot of unpublished papers I was able to learn a lot about the real Mrs Dickinson. She had a very dry whit and she was very social and very good at her job as a house wife. It was fun and I did find it a big responsibility to play this part because it had not been depicted in a movie or a TV show fully like this before.
I think the relationship between the mom and daughter is perennial. The complications between same sex relations in the family and even the mom and daughter relationship is just complicated full stop. I don’t think that goes away, whether its the 1800s or if its 2019. All these layers are written into these parts for these roles so well by Alena that is was actually fun to delve into. There are so many comedic moments that come out of our complications but I think its all grounded in the complications between real mothers and teenage daughters
Q: Hailee, how did you approach this role and how did you prepare for it?
HS: Alena and I had countless conversations about this character and this story that we were telling. Like Jane was saying, this is unlike any story we’d heard or seen about Emily Dickinson and I was so excited about that. Of course we had so much to pull from in terms of facts and stories and other pieces in film and television that had been made about Emily.
AS: Something that has always been true about Emily Dickinson is that everyone gets to invent their own version of her. This one started as mine and then became mine and Haillee’s and then became all of ours. We are making an Emily Dickinson for now and thats why we were so lucky to have Hailee who is a powerful cultural force of her generation and is so in tune with whats happening in contemporary culture right now. The goal of this show is a bit bigger than to teach facts about Emily Dickinson. It’s really to use her and the whole world of the 1850s as a lens or filter to look back at ourselves. That’s what I’m interested in doing as a writer. I’m interested in talking about now. The way we live now is a pretty weird moment. We’re all here at the Apple store talking about a TV show that is more like a movie. It’s made for the internet and you’re going to watch it on your phones… There’s a lot going on.
Q: Emily Dickinson would love that idea.
AS: I think so. It’s important to remember to that this is a show about a poet and we are using poetic license in our telling of her. She’s sparking all of our imaginations and we’re making a character. We’re not trying to put down the final stamp and say that this is how it really was. We’re trying to say, this is what she means to us right now.
Q: What do you think are the most prominent themes of her poetry and why are so they so relevant for millennial women today?
AS: Well there’s so many and I don’t believe we get to all of them in this first season. Certainly Emily is this prophet of the public versus the private. I think that her ability to persist and make the body of work that she made while getting so little attention for it is pretty inspiring in our world of today where everybody wants attention for everything. What does it mean to keep going and keep making something even if no-one around you understands it or even knows that you’re doing it. I think thats something pretty amazing about Emily.
Q: Hailee, as an independent woman, what themes struck with you in light of today?
HS: I don’t know if there’s any themes specifically. For me its more the fact that she wrote about everything. What she would dream about, what she would hope for, what she could imagine, what she hoped she could experience and what she couldn’t.
She spoke about everything. From life and nature and beauty and colour and the circus – to the grave and death, demons and the darker side of life. Her sexuality and domestic activities. What I’ve found so inspiring as an artist, as a woman and as a songwriter is being able to be vulnerable and feel and talking about everything. I came across her poetry in high-school and when it’s laid out in front of you as an assignment its never anything you respond to. I came across it and that was the extent of it but reading it now and being able to appreciate where it may have come from, as I get older I just appreciate her work. The fact that she did what she did at a time where almost everything she did was wildly unaccepted or forbidden for that matter by the people she cared about the most – her family – she still did whatever she had to, to do the one thing that made her feel most alive and that was writing. That to me, is just forever inspiring.
Q: Jane, you said this was a role unlike any you’d played before so what was it that most surprised you with your journey with Mrs Dickinson?
JK: I think I was initially surprised that they were calling it a comedy, just because I think its so much more than just a comedy. I think its a modern depiction of the biography of Emily Dickinson and modern and cool and music and Hamilton-esque like and inspired in the best possible way. We were filming with an intent to just play the truth with the characters and the time whilst figuring out how to bridge the gap between the 1800s and today which Alena had written so clearly. We had to figure out, like are we really going to twerk? That was a real question that actually came up. That was the fun experimental part in the first two episodes. Just figuring out where the tone was going to live. Seeing the dark humoured scenes that people get, there’s a lot of laughs in this. I love it because I love black comedy and dark humour and so much of the humour is coming out of knowing what the 1800’s were like. Emily Dickinson had 18 friends die in one year because people died, a lot and often. The show somehow gives you the liberty to find that humerous.
AS: Thats something that people probably don’t realise about Emily Dickinson is that she’s hilarious. One of her poems about being in an out-house and having a fly crawl up her butt. People don’t realise this about Emily Dickinson. She’s really weird, she has a lot of whitt, she has a lot of irony and she had a really good sense of humour. She made fun of her family members and she made fun of herself. All of the spirit of comedy and dark humour in the show comes from her. The things we don’t expect in our received archetype of the lonely 19th century female poet.
Q: How did you bring in the poetry so seamlessly. We see parts of the actual text interspersed with some of the scenes. How did you go about that?
AS: One of the things thats so nice about her poems is that they’re really wonderful to read aloud. They have really beautiful rhythm and they’re obviously so visual and so rich with theme. We took inspiration from the poems and built these individual episodes that I think unfold perhaps a little like poems themselves. They each have their own images to share and there’s images that happen in each individual episode that are just unique to that episode. Honestly, I was overwhelmed with different poems that inspired me that I’ve made lists and still have lists on my computer. There’s so many good poems we didn’t get to use in season one. She’s a really good poet!
Q: Hailee, you served as executive producer as-well-as featuring on the soundtrack. Was it your choice to be so heavily involved. Was that important to you? Not just from an actors point of view.
HS: For this project, yes. Producing has been something I’d always wanted to explore and of course I wanted to make sure that whatever the first project that I’d play that role on was one that I felt the way I feel about this. The minute I read that first script – and after that first initial conversation with Alena – I knew it was something I had to be a part of. I loved the idea of showing up in a way that required more from me than just my acting. So being a part of the phone calls and the meetings and all these conversations and overseeing decisions being made and everything coming into place to make this thing what it is has been very exciting for me. We have a wonderful team and doing this with Apple has been beyond incredible. This is my first experience in the TV space. It’s been a wild ride.
Q: The three of you have great chemistry, we can all see that. Did you know each other before? Did you meet up before you started filming?
AS: We’ve just been through it (Laughs). Production is long and hard. We spent a lot of time together really getting deep into these characters. I feel like thats the thing about TV thats kinda amazing. You get to become a family whilst making a show about a family. Almost every TV show in a way is about a family. In some sense or another thats what makes great TV. Thats one of the thing that I love about this cast and this show. We’re making it together.
Q: How long does it take to make a ten episode series like this?
HS: I have no sense of time. How long were we filming for?
AS: We filmed for about 4 or 5 months. 12 days for 2 episodes. We shot in blocks of 2. It was a lot of time. Then of course you’ve then got post production process. A lot has gone into it and every second of it received incredible amounts of care.
Q: Jane you’ve done a lot of TV. How has this experience compared to the kind of stuff you’ve done before?
JK: I have had the great good fortune of working with Tina Fai for the past 11 seasons because I did two shows with her back-to-back. You can get very used to her sense of humour, which I loved, and that sort of comedy which is a very different comedy than this. That actually has a few jokes per page – and that rhythm of the comedy – thats a very big difference. On 30 Rock we had to talk really fast. The scripts were so funny and so well written that we started realising that we were talking so fast just so our joke wouldn’t get cut and then it became the style of the program. You wanted to talk slower but you couldn’t. On Dickinson we got to talk a lot slower, thats the difference (Laughter).
Q: It sounds like it was a really fun experience filming Dickinson…
JK: Not plucking real chickens. That was not fun. David Gordon Green thought it would be fun if we really did the household chores of the 1800’s. Taking innards out of animals and plucking chickens for days. Times were hard.
AS: Our set is pretty incredible. We shot all our interiors on a soundstage in Brooklyn and all the exteriors in this crazy 19th century period village on Long Island which is a crazy place. Both are amazing but I love being on our stage where we meticulously recreated the Dickinson house but put our own spin on it. We needed a space that’s full of colour and vibrant and surprising but really feels like a home.
JK: The show is so beautiful. I know most people will probably watch it on a device this big [points to iPhone] but we’ve seen this shown on large screens and many TV shows cant actually uphold that. They get blown out and look like you’re on a sound stage or something. This looks as rich as any movie you see today. We are so lucky that Apple TV+ just really did it right. They got the top designers in set design and costume design. Award winning people that came and just got together and all believed in the project so much that they all wanted to be a part of it and made it the most beautiful show it could be.
Season one of Dickinson will be available in its entirety when Apple TV+ launches on November 1st in over 150 countries costing $4.99/month. Subscribers will be able to watch Apple TV+ via iOS, iPadOS, MacOS and tvOS along with select web-browsers, smart TV’s and streaming devices.
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