Alena Smith, creator and showrunner of Dickinson, talks to World Screen about the Apple TV+ series starring Hailee Steinfeld as 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson.
As one of the original series that will launch the Apple TV+ subscription service, Dickinson presents a modern interpretation of the poet Emily Dickinson, her world and life in the 1850s. She was much misunderstood during her lifetime, felt limited by societal constraints on women and the majority of her work, characterized by dark imagery and clipped sentences, was published after her death. The poet’s life offers fertile ground for Smith to mine. Previously a writer on The Affair and The Newsroom, Smith focuses on 19th-century issues that still resonate today. She infuses the period drama with rap music, current language and humor, and cast actor/singer Hailee Steinfeld as a feisty, young Emily, relevant to millennials.
WS: Where did the idea for Dickinson come from?
SMITH: I always was a fan of Dickinson’s poetry, and when I was in my early 20s, I read a biography of hers. Something about her coming-of-age, adolescence and early-20s life story really resonated with me and where I was at that time. I related to her feelings of maybe being trapped, of confining, external circumstances, and yearning to express myself in a bigger way and have someone understand me. I loved her use of irony in her work and the way that her work is defined by irony, in that she wrote nearly 2,000 poems and almost none of them were published while she lived. Something about that just stuck with me, and almost a decade later, I had this idea to make a half-hour TV show about Emily Dickinson. I dug back into the research and found out even more about her and her literary and historical context, and I felt like I had found a world that could be built into a television show.
WS: It’s interesting how so many of the themes that are presented from the 1850s are still relevant today.
SMITH: Absolutely, and I would say in my writers’ room, if it’s not about today, then it doesn’t belong in the show. My goal always in the show was to use the 1850s as a metaphor for today; to find details that are true and specific to the period but are chosen because they are relevant to our world and how we’re living. I guess the reason why Dickinson makes sense as a figure to put at the center of a story like that is that she was ahead of her time. She certainly wasn’t very well understood in her own time, and maybe we can understand her better in ours.
WS: There was a scene where Emily’s father is reading the newspaper and comments on how polarized the nation is because these are the years before the Civil War, and people don’t agree on anything. I thought, Oh my God, the more things change, the more they stay the same!
SMITH: Absolutely, and looking at these years right before the Civil War in American history, it can be scary how much it feels like today. We explore that, especially because one of the main storylines of this season is about Edward Dickinson running for Congress as a Whig. And figuring out who would a Whig be today—of course, we don’t have Whigs anymore—but what are Edward’s politics, and how does Emily’s writing threaten his political agenda.
WS: Speaking of her writing, I remember from my high school days, it was not easy to understand her poetry—maybe I just had a bad English teacher!
SMITH: No, you didn’t! It is very hard to understand her poems, that’s the thing about Emily Dickinson, she is a deeply mysterious and enigmatic writer, and a lot of her poems feel like puzzles or riddles that people are still trying to solve.
WS: Did the imagery and language of her poetry serve as inspiration for the stories in the series?
SMITH: Yes, absolutely. We jumped off of the images as much as we jumped off of the facts of her life. So, taking a carriage ride with death—as far as we know, that’s not something that actually happened to Emily Dickinson! [Laughs] But it is something she dramatized in her poems. In the series, we were able to go between her imagination and reality and show how also for her as a poet, the two become almost indistinguishable. And again, in an external sense, not very much happened in Emily Dickinson’s life. She lived in one house; she did the domestic labor that any 19th-century woman would’ve done at the time, rarely left her town of Amherst, and wrote poetry about this sort of contained, limited experience of her house, her garden, the woods around her house. But within those small experiences, she found infinity, in a way.
WS: The show is a period drama, but it’s also very modern. How did you decide to blend the 1850s with Emily’s very modern way of speaking, with rap music in the background?
SMITH: Music is very important to the show. Music and the modern attitude and sensibility that Emily often expresses are ways to make the audience feel how she was trapped in her own time. This was a time of pretty harsh restrictions on women’s lives, but Emily’s consciousness was obviously bigger than the role that her society had provided for her to play. That was the impetus behind using this modern sensibility. I’m not necessarily trying to understand who Emily Dickinson actually was; I’m trying to use Emily Dickinson’s work and spirit to help us understand who we are.
WS: I’ve read that the real Emily had a preference for white dresses, but the costumes in the series are luscious, especially the red dress she wears when she goes for a ride in death’s carriage.
SMITH: Emily’s white dress, which she is mythically known for, was something that, first of all, she never wore as much as the myth made it out that she did. But to the extent that she did wear it, she wore it late in her life, when she was in her 40s and 50s and had become pretty secluded at that point. But Dickinson scholarship, especially over the past few decades, has revealed that Emily, in her youth, was very social, had a great sense of humor, had suitors, had friends. She was a child of an important upper-middle-class family in Amherst, Massachusetts, a very sociable college town. That’s just one of the ways that we’re exploring the perceived idea of Emily Dickinson. But as far as the costumes go, it was really interesting. We were never going to show her in a white dress, except in the beginning to say, Yeah, this is Emily, but now you’re not going to see her in a white dress anymore. When we were designing the costumes, we were looking at all of these prints and fabrics in these wild, bold colors that it turns out were what people wore at the time. We always are seeing the period in black and white, but in fact, they wore these very bright prints and paisleys, and we leaned into that in a way to makes the past come alive for us so vividly. And the red dress is Emily’s ultimate fantasy of herself. It is a completely period-accurate design, but obviously, she is wearing it in her imagination.
WS: Did you always have Hailee Steinfeld in mind as Emily? She’s also an executive producer.
SMITH: Hailee joined on really early, she was like the first person who we approached for the role. She is so gifted and provides the entire engine of the show. She’s in almost every scene. Of course, she also brings her musical life to the series and wrote a song for us. That was so cool because it fits in with how important this pop-music sensibility is to the show. She’s been such a fantastic collaborator, and more than anyone else ever could makes Emily Dickinson pop as a contemporary, current-day millennial.
WS: How has it been stepping into the role of the showrunner? Does this allow you to take better care of your baby?
SMITH: Absolutely. During the making of this show, I also had twins! And then people say to me, Oh, you have three babies, and I’m like, No, no, no, I have 300 babies! The show is like taking care of 298 other babies! [Laughs] No, it’s wonderful. I always knew that the show wasn’t going to be made in a traditional TV context. It had to be made more like an independent film, so the making of it was really non-traditional, and thanks to Apple for providing the platform for that. We had all the scripts done before we shot a single scene. We were able to have a lot of elements very well organized and a lot of care put into the details because it was conceived of as a whole, rather than as a week-to-week project, the way traditionally TV has been.
WS: When you were working on The Affair or The Newsroom, you were part of the writers’ room, you weren’t the showrunner. Has the experience of making Dickinson been very different from what you observed before?
SMITH: In a lot of ways, yes. I certainly could never have been a showrunner if I had not worked for other people first. I do think that you have to have a kind of apprenticeship in this business and you have to learn what you’re doing because it’s such a huge job. But I started as a playwright and created some independent experimental theater in my younger days. I drew on that experience almost as much as television to make Dickinson—so creating a set that was fostering a spirit of collaboration, where everyone was doing their job to their utmost ability and having fun together.
WS: Do you exercise different writing muscles when you’re writing for the stage as opposed to writing for the small screen?
SMITH: Definitely. One key difference is that you have to tell a lot more story for TV because the story has to keep going. When you write a play, you spend two hours with those characters and then you say bye and you never see them again. It doesn’t really matter when they woke up and [what they] did the next day. In TV, you have to keep living with these characters and you have to keep following them. I actually think television in certain ways is a lot more like novel writing than playwrighting. But I’ve never written a novel, so I don’t really know [Laughs]. But it certainly takes stamina and endurance.