When traveling back in time to tell tales that are set in previous decades, or even centuries ago, scripted storytellers often take liberties in their world-building. They might use modern elements, from music to colloquialisms, to reflect how the show’s themes are still relevant to today’s audience and also give that audience something comfortable to latch onto. However, the same cannot be said for production designers.
“We want the audience to believe it and not be distracted by it,” says “Dickinson” production designer Neil Patel. “Partly because of the contemporary language and music, we are very mindful about being in period and very detailed about it, so we at least try to avoid any intentional anachronisms.”
“You are the guardian of the period, as it were,” adds “Bridgerton” production designer Will Hughes-Jones.
Both “Dickinson” and “Bridgerton” are set in the 1800s, with the former following the life and career of the titular poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) in Amherst, Mass., and the latter set during a social season in England. Also set in the 19th century was the Showtime limited series “The Good Lord Bird,” which followed abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) through the eyes of a free slave nicknamed Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson).
Hulu’s “Pen15” and HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” on the other hand, are set in much more modern times — the former in the early aughts and the latter primarily in the 1950s.
“I think whenever you’re doing a period piece, it’s important to incorporate that period and also the years before that. I still wanted to incorporate things from the ‘90s and the ‘80s and even the ‘70s, just so it feels more realistic and natural and not just the trends of that one era,” says Grace Alie, “Pen15” production designer.
This is most noticeable in the school scenes of the Hulu comedy, which were filmed at the real Walter Reed Middle School in L.A.’s North Hollywood. Schools are notoriously dated and “institutional, almost like prison,” Alie notes. But she also incorporated such time period blending into the protagonists’ homes.
“Maya’s family tends to be a little more thrifty and some of the pieces are older and have been around for a while: her bedroom furniture is a hand-me-down of her brother’s, and Maya painted it purple to make it more her own. And with Anna, there was a lot of unfinished projects around the house that her dad never got to, so everything looks good on the surface but if you peel back some of the layers, you see the work that needs to be done around. But then, in her bedroom there’s a TV with a VHS player and a clear phone — bribes that she got from her parents when they were fighting,” Alie says.
“Lovecraft Country” blends genres to add sci-fi elements, including that Christina (Abbey Lee Kershaw) goes through a process of metamorphosis to become William (Jordan Patrick Smith), which allowed production designer Kalina Ivanov to hint at key story moments in her design, while still focusing on what would be appropriate for the time.
“You don’t want to identify them as male or female in the set,” Ivanov says. “I chose rather dark colors, but there were a lot of jewel tones in the pillows and the bedding and the golden closet to bring you into the richness of a female sensibility, in a sense. And then, you can see through the bedroom into the bathroom, I had this idea that it needed to be a clawfoot bathtub, and we looked at period ones and we found a contemporary reproduction.”
The research process for these shows was both a gift and a curse. Since these are all notable times in history, they are well-documented. Alie was able to put a call on Instagram asking for people to submit photos of their own childhood bedrooms for inspiration, but designers on shows such as “Bridgerton,” “Dickinson” and “The Good Lord Bird” had to rely on etchings and other pictures. Since they were centuries old, many did not provide enough high-quality detail.
Hughes-Jones was tasked with recreating Vauxhall Gardens for “Bridgerton,” where, “in some of the buildings, looking at the pictures, it looked like there were electric lightbulbs all around the building.” Obviously that couldn’t be true, he notes, because they didn’t have electricity at the time.
Visiting still-standing real-world locations also proved to be a double-edged sword.
“Harpers Ferry was really where the rubber meets the road on ‘The Good Lord Bird’; that’s the place that had to be reasonably accurate,” says production designer John Blackie. “I went to Harpers Ferry [and] did get a bunch of photographs, but the building that’s there now was built backwards because somebody flipped the negative and it was shipped and reassembled improperly.”
This allowed for some manipulation for production needs, such as building the set larger than it was in reality in order to accommodate the sheer volume of background players it needed to house. However, Blackie says, “You still want to take away all of the contemporary bumps that might take you out of the story.”
“The most important thing to me is to keep the audience engaged in the story and make it as direct as you possibly can so there is nothing that makes them wonder if it is period-accurate,” he continues.
In the sixth episode of Season 2 of “Dickinson,” Patel was tasked with building a 19th century opera house — in the lobby of the real Loew’s Theatre in Jersey City.
“That theater is actually totally inappropriate for us because it’s a 3,500- seat theater, massive, in great disrepair,” he says. “When we were leaving the big theater, disappointed that it wouldn’t work, I realized the lobby looked like an opera house. And the second floor had, on either side of the lobby, three framed things that we could turn into boxes. The architecture of that lobby was perfect, but we had to do a lot of work to transform it.”
For Patel, as with many of the other production designers, that included building cabinetry around elements that were not period-accurate, from exit signs to pieces of rigging or modern building materials. Additionally, “the light fixtures that were hanging over the actors in the boxes were not period-appropriate,” he says, “but they were high [up, so we sourced one actual period light fixture and hung it in one place so the visual effects supervisor has that image and she can [use it to] correct all of the others in the space.”
Collaboration between departments is essential for production designers working on these deeply detailed projects, whether it’s with the aforementioned teams, or electrical or the writers themselves.
Since production designers are brought onto projects early on in the pre-production period, they can “look at what is period-correct and, if that doesn’t fit for the story, we quite often go back to the writing team and say, ‘This is not right,’” says Hughes-Jones.
Sometimes, they are even able to persuade the writers to tweak their vision for a setting. Ardham Lodge in “Lovecraft Country” was originally scripted to be a brownstone, Ivanov says, but they were filming in Atlanta, which only has contemporary brownstones, “which don’t have the scale or bones of what you need. So I talked Misha [Green, showrunner] into the mansion. It had beautiful wood walls and white columns with flowers on top and the first electric lights in Atlanta.”
Building light sources into the production design of these sets had to be period=accurate both from the aesthetic standpoint, as well as the practical one.
“When I read Episode 2 that takes place in this mythical lodge that doesn’t even exist on the map and was a duplicate of a 1795 lodge, the first thing I thought was, ‘OK we cannot have electricity in this except in the lab.’ These are philosophers and I just felt like it was based on 1795, and even though Samuel lives in the 1950s, he really is using spells and magic from [back then],” Ivanov explains. “So I said to Misha, ‘Let’s make this episode a “Barry Lyndon.” Let’s use candlelight and gaslight, and let’s have this episode not be lit by electricity, except in his lab [where] he’s using more modern technology.’”