Telling the story of an iconic artist brings any number of challenges, but one of the biggest stems from the fact that the creative process rarely makes for a good visual. We’d like to think that the great works of fiction were brought about by grand, inspirational acts or life-altering circumstances. Often, though, it’s just a genius with a piece of paper and something to write with, sitting at a desk.
When crafting the foundation for “Dickinson,” the new Apple TV+ show imagining the young life of poet Emily Dickinson, series creator Alena Smith ran into that perpetual problem. Luckily, Dickinson’s enduring work made for a clear solution.
“I think that the external facts of Emily Dickinson’s life weren’t even necessarily that interesting. But what was going on inside her was just this whole universe. So we jump off of the images suggested by the poems and the words are always there to guide us,” Smith told IndieWire. “What’s so wonderful about Dickinson’s poems is they’re defined by their rhyme and meter. That’s one thing that we get to do in this show is hear her poems aloud.”
“Dickinson” follows Emily’s teenage life in Amherst, Massachusetts, as she navigates plenty of obstacles the show has given her: secret scholarly pursuits, secret relationships, secret house parties. And as Smith helped to bring Emily’s younger years to life, she sought to do the same with the poet’s words. More than just focusing on the origin stories of some of her best-known works, Smith wanted to make sure that the audience got to see those very words in a way Emily would have.
“One of the things that’s so interesting about Emily Dickinson is that since almost none of her poems were published while she lived, she never saw her poems in print. She only saw them in her own handwriting. A number of her poems, she’ll have two different words as options and not settle on one of them. So her poems are these living artifacts on the page,” Smith said.
In “Dickinson,” that handwriting appears on screen. As Emily (played by Hailee Steinfeld) recites her own words, they pop up near her head like they’re being traced by ephemeral sparklers. These linguistic fireworks become one of the windows into how Smith wanted to give Emily’s life an otherworldly feel.
“It was always in the script, was always the plan to have the text on the screen. What was fun was then really developing what that writing was going to look like,” Smith said. “We started with samples of Emily’s actual handwriting. I worked with my really brilliant VFX team at The Molecule and we landed in this place where the words kind of come and go like smoke. So there’s really this sense of the evanescence of thought and getting to be present for the spark of creation.”
That spontaneous sense of these poems flowing from Emily’s own imagination then becomes one of the best ways that “Dickinson” overcomes that “creative process” conundrum.
“One inspiration for me was the David Cronenberg movie ‘Naked Lunch,’ the idea of writing as a psychedelic experience,” Smith said. “The last thing I want to watch is somebody sitting at a desk writing a poem. So that’s why we use the internal life of Emily and bring it to life in a sort of psychedelic way.”
Taking liberties with those elements and the dialogue of Emily and her peers, “Dickinson” needed to make sure that every other element of the series provided the opportunity for that contrast to be meaningful.
“All of our production design and costume design is almost obsessively truthful to the period. It was about keeping to the truth of the characters’ lives even as their ways of expressing themselves sometimes go outside of the lines. We were always searching for what was the detail that was both true to the period, but uncannily resonant with the present,” Smith said. “So like Emily in a crazy, bright-colored paisley, standing against her insane, trompe-l’œil wallpaper, that’s kind of what the tone of the show is in a way. It’s like power clashing between the past and the present. There’s a lot going on visually, showing all the energy that was sort of trapped in the constraints of the time.”
As for Emily herself, a more faithful recreation of her life might have shown her to be less charismatic than Steinfeld’s performance in “Dickinson” makes her seem. Though the show is clearly told through the lens of Emily’s emerging worldview, the show isn’t always 100% on her side. When she spars with family members or expresses anxieties about her own life, there are times when the characters in her orbit offer some pretty convincing counterarguments.
“Emily Dickinson, in truth, I think was a pretty difficult person to be around. There’s a story about Thomas [Wentworth] Higginson, who was her correspondent for many years during the Civil War. They wrote to each other for years and then he finally came to Amherst to meet her and he spent an afternoon in the parlor with her. When he left, he said, ‘I’m glad I don’t live closer to her, because she was just a lot to take.’ Her energy was intense,” Smith said. “And you know, that’s part of what is so compelling to me about her story is that her life was fundamentally unrequited, in a certain way. She just was so desperate for someone to understand her. And really, I don’t know that she ever found someone who perfectly understood her. And maybe that’s the plight of the writer, you know?”
Balancing the dedication to historical accuracy with the artistic freedom to bend some of those elements to create a distinct storytelling atmosphere is something that Smith has experienced across different artistic pursuits. In addition to her work for the screen, Smith is a playwright, which she says gave some vital storytelling tools to not just her, but some of her TV compatriots.
“I went to Yale drama school where I spent three years learning how to work with actors, directors, costume designers, set designers. The playwright is the sort of prime mover of the world and has to know how to lead all of these disparate elements of a production towards a cohesive vision of something that no one’s ever seen before,” Smith said. “So many playwrights that I came up with in my theater days are TV showrunners now because it’s a weird skill set to be able to write a show.”
It’s not just the process that went into the production of “Dickinson” that’s a theatrical experience. The finished product certainly is, too. It begins in the show’s opening chapter, which features a guest appearance from Wiz Khalifa as the title character in Dickinson’s perhaps best-known poem “Because I could not stop for Death.”
“You have Death as a character showing up in a carriage pulled by ghost horses. Making Death into a character or taking a moment to explore the idea of Death in that unexpected way probably comes more from plays than anything else,” Smith said.
With so much to take in and the overall storytelling flow that comes from it, maybe that’s why it’s best that all 10 episodes of the first season of “Dickinson” will be available at launch, the only show of the major initial Apple TV+ pushes to use that release strategy.
“I really am so happy that was the decision that that ultimately got made. Even though each of the episodes are special in their own right, I want the sweep of the whole thing to be experienced as one,” Smith said. “Why not just put the whole thing out? Because that’s how people like to watch their stories now. My hope is that people will watch it and then go home for Thanksgiving and watch it again with their family.”
With the ubiquity of the platform and the instant availability of Emily’s entire season-long arc, Smith hopes that the show will eventually break some assumptions about who’ll enjoy it the most.
“My real hope is that this show can start to build a community. I think that the show is really for anyone who feels like they have a voice that’s not being listened to enough,” Smith said. “She’s so enigmatic and there’s such a scarcity of facts about her life as it was lived, so people get to come and bring their own interpretations to her work. That’s sort of the fun of Emily Dickinson is that we all get to invent our own Emily.”
“Dickinson” is now available to stream on Apple TV+.