Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Neil Patel. In this interview he talks about his work in theater, film and episodic television, evolution of tools at his disposal, changes in the world of episodic productions in the recent years with the rise of streaming services, and the impact felt all across the industry since Covid started. Around these topics and more, Neil dives deep into his work on the second season of “Dickinson”.
Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.
Neil: My name is Neil Patel, and I’m a production designer. I’m currently working on season 3 of “Dickinson”, and I also did season 2 which has just been released.
My path to this job started when I was in school. I was interested in art and architecture, and I loved film – but I never thought of working in film. I pursued a degree in architecture, and at college I connected socially with people who were doing films and theater. I was a visual artist and an architect, and they asked me to design sets which was my introduction to the whole idea of being the visual person that tells stories and makes plays.
I began doing that and I found that I really liked everything about it. I liked the process. I loved collaborating with people. I loved taking my skill and my interest in the visual world, architecture and art, and translating it into helping to tell story. It was also much more immediate. Architecture is a process. You work for years before you see the thing that you’ve been working on. But in theater and film, depending on the size of the project, you might see the result of your work quite soon. And I also loved collaborating with directors, actors and other designers.
My studies were around Italian architecture and art, and I lived in Italy for two years, working on operas and theater plays in Italy and Austria. That laid the foundation for me to pursue it professionally. Afterwards I came back to US and did MFA [Master of Fine Arts] in scenic design at UCSD. My first professional job was at the La Jolla Playhouse in California, which led me to other regional theater and opera productions, and that led me to film.
I worked with several playwrights in the theater who helped me in my transition to production design in film and television and I still find that so many writers I work with started in the theater like Alena Smith who is the creator of “Dickinson” – she went to Yale School of Drama as a playwright and then she became a television show creator. Early in my career I worked with a writer named Warren Leight. I designed his play Side Man on Broadway that starred Edie Falco just as she was starting on “Sopranos”. Warren became the show runner for “In Treatment” for HBO. He decided he wanted me to design it because we had a good collaboration, and that was my first big built set and a bigger job in TV.
It was a great show to do. The writing was fantastic, we had incredible actors, and it was contained. I was making the connection between what it means to make a set for play on Broadway and making a set on a soundstage. A lot of the skills are the same, and yet it is a completely different art form. That was how I started to learn how to do what I do now. And then, as I started to do more projects, it expanded into all the other aspects of production design – graphics, location scouting, building on locations, visual effects, etc. I learned all of that through work, and that led me to where I am now.
I still do features occasionally, but I’ve mostly been focused on streaming series. I did “The Path” before this, and now “Dickinson” which, as a period piece, is my connection to what I’d done in theater. It’s always fun and it’s always interesting to try and apply my skills from architecture and theater to film making.
Kirill: If you look back at the time that has passed since you’ve started in this field, do you see many technological changes that have made your job easier? Maybe 3D printing materials, or maybe computer-aided design tools? How much the world of art direction and production design has changed around you?
Neil: I’ve been doing this for quite a while. Between my theater career and my film television career it’s been almost 25 years. I learned to draft and draw by hand, and now I spend most of my time on this computer [laughs]. What I normally would have done with sketching, I now do with 3D modeling and with computer drafting. Some of my research is online, but I’m old enough to have collected a library of art books. I love my books [laughs].
It creeps up on you slowly and you start to accept it. I accept that when I go on a scout, I’m taking pictures on my iPhone or my iPad, and i’m drawing on it. I’m creating documents in the scout bus, and by the time I get up to the office, I have almost a storyboard of what I just scouted. You couldn’t do that before. We were taking notes on notepads and it would take a long time to do storyboards. The thing that I find the most useful is that the technology allows me to communicate to my team and my collaborators so much more easily. Also right now we’re dealing with Covid, communicating over great distance and being separated, not being able to physically be in the same space with people. It’s incredible what you’re able to do.
But I was using these tools even before Covid, and it’s continuing now. 3D printing is a marvelous tool. It lets me build for example a half-inch scale replica of a Chippendale dresser in very little time, and it’s extraordinary how easy it is do it today compared to doing it by hand in the past. Software pre-viz tools are incredible. I can take a director through the set, and make changes on the fly.
Having said that, as much as these tools give you during prep, you can’t ignore the ability to respond to a location in a comfortable, conversational and collaborative way that is not technology based. I hope that does not get lost. When you focus too much on technology, you sometimes lose the life of the thing you’re trying to tell. Some things are accidental, and everybody knows that when they’re making things. As an artist and a collaborator, you always have to be open to things. But the tools nowadays are staggering.
Kirill: You mentioned that you are mostly in the world of streaming productions these days. Do you find that the expectations from the production side and from the viewers keep on pushing you to do more?
Neil: Certainly the production standards of a streaming series now are in a completely different world than what was expected in a TV production 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago. A lot of these streaming shows look like movies. We don’t always have the budget of a movie, but we have VFX, we shoot on locations, and it’s not all limited to the constraints of the old 4:3 ratio TV and that sense of TV design.
There’s not much difference now between the expectations from a feature film and a TV streaming series, especially premium series from Netflix, Apple and other bigger services. We are essentially making a 10-hour movie split into 10 episodes instead of a 2-hour movie, so we have a lot of work to do to make it.
The expectations grow, and I’m blown away by what designers are doing with these shows. They are beautiful, and the work is being done at such a scale. It’s an exciting time to be doing this work.
Kirill: “Dickinson” season 2 got lucky to have wrapped the shooting right before Covid hit. Once that happened, how did it affect you? Was it a rollercoaster of ups and downs?
Neil: We wrapped “Dickinson” about a year ago, so we were done before this started. And then I started prepping another series for Netflix, a quite technically complex one. We were going to do a lot of underwater shooting in a tank, building sets under water. Of course, we shut down, and we kept working remotely for about a month around March 2020. Eventually we ran out of things to do because we had no possible way to produce.
That was interesting in light of what you were asking about technology. We created an entire set in a VR platform, and we sent an Oculus set to the director’s house. He was walking around a parking lot [laughs], “being” in the set and giving me notes. We sped up into that technology because of the necessity.
Then nothing happened for several months, and then I started working again in July when we were allowed to work in New York on commercials. I worked on commercials for a bit, and then I started prepping “Dickinson” season 3 in November. I’ve been prepping in this Covid situation since then. I’m in my office right now with the window open talking to you, but we have limited capacity in the offices. We’re doing most of our work remotely.
We have an excellent Covid team, and so far everyone’s been safe and no one’s getting sick, so that’s good. I think film productions have seen notably low infection rates so far, because we are constantly testing everybody. But it is challenging not to be in the same room with people. We would have much more face-to-face time earlier, and although Zoom meetings can substitute for some of it, it doesn’t substitute for all of it. We are human beings after all, and we need to be sometimes in the same room, so that’s definitely challenging.
I feel very fortunate to be on “Dickinson” because of the show itself and the people that are working on it. We’re a period show and we’re not doing an enormous amount of location shooting. Our footprint is limited. We built all our interior sets at Astoria where i’m now. We have an exterior location out in Long Island, and then there’s probably a handful of locations elsewhere. It’s manageable to do in these conditions.
Kirill: When people outside of your industry ask you what you do for a living, what do you say about what production design is?
Neil: I describe myself as a production designer and people do ask what that means. I say that I work with the director, the producer and the cinematographer to create the visuals. I’m collaborating with my team and creating the world, defining what it looks like, be it in film or on television. It’s about every detail, on built sets and locations. It’s also about maintaining a tone, a palette and the intent from either the director or the showrunner.
You’re the person in charge of making decisions that are going to craft the look of a TV series or a film. You’re first and foremost a filmmaker, but your particular responsibility is the way everything looks on camera. Wherever the camera turns, that’s all in your world, from the props to the smallest details, from the architecture to the general conception. You decide what is going to be a set and what is going to be VFX. Sometimes you make big decisions about the approach and the style of the thing.
Kirill: You joined “Dickinson” for the second season. What brought you in?
Neil: The line producer is someone I’ve worked with on several shows, and she introduced me to Alena the showrunner. I didn’t know Alena before, but we had many mutual friends through theater. Jennifer Moeller who is the costume designer on seasons 2 and 3 is someone I’ve worked with on theatrical productions, for example. They sent me the first season, I watched the whole thing and I just loved it. I loved the tone and the look of it, and I thought that what she was trying to do was fun.
Coming into a show for the second season as a designer, you ask yourself what are you going to do. I knew that just continuing it was not the case for this particular show. Season 1 is revolving around Emily Dickinson’s house, and in season 2 we’re introducing this big new set of Evergreens which is the home that they built for Emily’s brother and his wife. That is leading the tonal change in the whole season, going from a more traditional and beautiful way they designed the first season. We’re going from this federal, New England style home and introducing a luxurious, opulent, aspirational home that Dickinson’s family went almost bankrupt for.
That set a tone for the season where the characters who we introduced as teenagers in season 1 are growing up into the adult world, with all the complexities of marriage, infidelity and Emily starting to lose her eyesight. There are many complex adult things going on in season 2, and the whole tone of the show is changing.
In addition to this big new anchor which is Evergreens we also built many other big set pieces. One of the more exciting ones for me was building a 19th century opera house where the characters go to see La Traviata in episode 6. When Emily is in there, she kind of conflates it with Sue’s parlor in Evergreens. I was building the Victorian parlor in Evergreens, and then I was building the 19th century operatic version of that through Emily’s eyes in episode 6. I love that arc in the season and connecting those spaces.
We also had a big maze that Emily gets lost in, we had a 19th century spa, and we created a 19th century printing press. So the scale of season 2 started to grow into these bigger set pieces. For me as a designer, it was an exciting challenge to take on.
Kirill: You said that for you it feels like you’re working on an 8-10 hour movie cut into episodes. Does it help that you are the production designer on all the episodes to maintain continuity and consistency across the entire season’s arc?
Neil: Absolutely, and that’s one of the nice things about these series like “Dickinson”. I’m given all the scripts before we start shooting, so I have a sense of the whole season. Right now for season 3 we’re creating the season lookbook, trying to figure out the look and the pieces of the whole season. You treat it as one long piece divided into ten segments. So I’m able to craft and control the look and the palette with a sense of what’s coming up next.
I can do a thing in episode 2 and connect it to this other thing in episode 7. Maybe the audience doesn’t necessarily consciously see that, but I can create my own visual map to the season so that it is coherent and has an arc of its own. That is exciting.
If I look back at the old way we worked in television, you would get one episode at a time, and most of the time it was way late [laughs]. You’d have to react very quickly to make it. It was hard to control the look of it over the course of multiple episodes under those circumstances.
Kirill: The show is set in mid 19th century, and there’s a certain “expectation”, if you will, on how that period looks like, at least in our TV shows. “Dickinson”, instead, adopts a much more contemporary style in its dialog, lighting, camera work and music, and it feels to me that the production design is almost the only thing that anchors the story in the time that it’s supposed to be.
Neil: It’s the production design, the props, the costuming. We are period and we do a lot of research to stay true to that time. One thing that we do is that we selectively choose the things that we feel are very “Dickinson”, and by that I mean Alena’s vision of the show which has this modern sensibility to it.
We choose details and colors that bring a certain vividness to the world. There’s a general tendency to period productions to imagine them behind a gauze, sort of faded out. As we started designed Evergreens, we saw that Victorian architecture was enormously colorful. They used complex polychrome schemes, where one crown molding might have six or seven different colors. I started to realize that the houses were so dark that they probably needed a lot of color to keep them from being completely overwhelming [laughs].
We think of Greek temples being white when we know they weren’t white. They were polychrome. And in the same way a Victorian parlor was vivid with lots of color. I think they did the same thing in Season 1 in Homestead. Even though it’s a federalist building, the wallpapers are elaborate, the carpet is elaborate and so on. So in Evergreens and in all the pieces we tried to take it a step further.
We also see those places through the eyes of our character, so in some ways we’re trying to see them as Emily Dickinson sees the world – which is vivid, intense and almost hallucinogenic in a way. And we do have flights of fancy like the growing maze and the opera house. We go to Boston to see the opera which would not have been as grand as going Milan maybe. But there is that kind of beauty, opulence and glamour to it. We definitely designed towards that point of view, towards that subjectivity. How it might have felt for Emily.
Kirill: I don’t remember the exact quote, but Emily says something along the lines of not worrying about losing her eyesight because she sees the world with her soul. And of course we are talking about the time before modern medicine where people might not necessarily expect to survive a harsh winter or a child birth. In that sense, the world of “Dickinson” is perhaps not fantasy, but is certainly elevated.
Neil: You certainly see that in Season 1 where some people died during that winter. That was the life span. And people stayed closer to nature as they didn’t have that buffer of technology and urbanity between them and the natural world. You see Emily’s intense interest in flowers, insects and birds, and that affects the feeling of what it felt to live in that period.
Kirill: You talked about building most of the sets on stage, and then having some existing locations. How do you approach making those decisions? Do you have a preference between these two?
Neil: It starts with the nature of the television series, because we’re filming over a long period of time. We always need a certain amount time to make the schedule work, and also deal with problems of weather and availability. When you build on stage, that gives you more flexibility and possibility with camera work and lighting.
On this show we build the interiors on stage. We build most of the exteriors on a location so we can shoot them practically and then extend the upper floors with VFX. I suppose if we had a bigger budget, we could build the entire exterior facade and not have to extend with VFX. That technology is getting so much better, and they are able to do things faster. I thought we were pretty successful with that on both houses. Our VFX supervisor is a wonderful collaborator, and we work closely to figure out how we will extend exteriors. Unless you have an unlimited budget, you’re always dealing with these limitations.
Then you have the time and scheduling which are the practical side of filmmaking. You have the pages that you need to do every day. For instance I just finished a preliminary meeting trying to figure out the next season’s schedule. I’m juggling all those things all the time and making decisions. We have a decent budget and we have successfully built a detailed, beautiful set of interiors on stage. Now I know we can pull it off and match that to exteriors. We live in New York that has period buildings. We can find some interiors that we can redress and use them. One thing that comes to mind is the train ride where we had to find a place to take a train that we could dress to look like it was appropriate for the period.
Decisions around it also depend on directors and cinematographers. I tend to try to do as much practically as I can possibly afford to, and use VFX when we can’t do it practically. You’re creating an opera house where every lighting source must be natural or candlelight, so you’re relying on the VFX to help you out. It’s a puzzle for sure.
Kirill: Do you want me as a viewer to think about how much work went into creating the sets, or do you want the sets to be almost invisible?
Neil: I always want you to be looking at the characters, but I want the design to support that. I don’t want the production design to distract. I want the production to be beautiful and be striking, but I more importantly I want it to support the story. For me it started in theater which is a more language-based form whereas film is more visual-based. The story matters most.
When you work in production, you look at your craft. But I want to get lost in the story, and I want to design to make that possible.
Kirill: How did you research the opera house built in the not so-glamorous days of theater in the 1850s in US?
Neil: It’s a difficult period to research because there’s not a lot of documentation in the US. There’s descriptions, but little visual reference. Theaters burned down all the time because they were all made of wood. They were pretty raucous. People drank, shouted and had fights [laughs]. It’s not the way you think of theater as this boring and uptight place these days. It wasn’t like that in 1850s. It was popular entertainment before the age of the television, film and Instagram.
It was fascinating to research. Opera would have been really new. It was foreign. It was sung in a different language. We have characters in the show commenting on how boring it is and why are we listening to people singing in Italian. But Emily is completely enraptured by the beauty of it. She’s zeroed in on Verdi while others are bored.
We also looked at the stagecraft at the time. How would they light a stage? It’s all gas and candles, and those fixtures are quite beautiful. I had a lot of fun with that.
I also looked at other references in film like Bergman’s “Magic Flute”. There are lots of great examples of backstage in film, especially when you’re interested in both the front and the back of house. We go into dressing rooms. We go behind the proscenium. It’s a fascinating world to create.
Kirill: You mentioned earlier the introduction of printing press that was part of the modern technology at the time. Was that created physically or with VFX on the show?
Neil: It is a combination. That was a fascinating process to make that happen. I found an etching of it when I was doing my research, I sketched a few things, and then I met with our VFX supervisor. We had a location which is a 19th century warehouse in Brooklyn that we could shoot in.
First we were trying to figure out how to build those presses which are incredibly complex machines. They’re driven by one big turbine that connects them all together with flywheels and belts. I thought it was a spectacular image to try and recreate.
We built three practical printing presses, and we motorized them with special effects. Some of the belts and pulleys were practical, alongside the props and dressing. And then we used a motion control camera to shoot that scene. The crew stayed for hours moving the machines. We taped out where they would all be, and then the crew had to move the printing presses further and further back, as the camera took plate after plate after plate. Because of the motion control the shots matched perfectly, and then VFX assembled that together. I was pleased with how it came out. It was a lot of moving parts. We were shooting it in an empty warehouse with three printing presses that are only half built, so you’re really relying on VFX to make that look good in the end.
The other interesting set piece in this season was the maze. I was only able to create a portion of the maze, with real trees in our location. But I was relying on VFX to extend the cut with the drone shot where the maze seems to take over the entire frame the higher we go.
These two are examples where we were able to completely blow the scale way beyond what we would be able to do practically.
Kirill: Do you find yourself sometimes wishing that those limitations didn’t exist, wishing that you were able to build 50 presses and the whole maze?
Neil: Absolutely, I would love to [laughs]. Of course, you would need a lot more time and a lot more money, but it’d be so much fun to build that. You push as far as you can to get as much as you need to do it practically. That is not discounting VFX, of course. Our VFX team is superb. They did a great job, and I hope that our viewers are not aware of that when they’re watching it. It should feel seamless.
Kirill: Looking back at it, is there such a thing as your favorite set, or maybe the most challenging set, or maybe the one that you’ve enjoyed working on the most in this season?
Neil: I would say definitely the Evergreens house. It was such a huge undertaking. It’s based on an historical house, so the first part of my process was to go visit the real house. Then I needed to decide what I was going to take away from that real house, and what I was going to create that I thought was appropriate for “Dickinson” and the storytelling needs.
Alena made it clear to me she wanted this house, and especially the parlor, to be absolutely beautiful and stunning. It’s always daunting to hear those words from the showrunner [laughs]. I hope to deliver that, and that’s always adds pressure.
We have a great team on the show. Our set decorator Marina Parker is brilliant, and we worked closely over a long period of time to pick every piece of fabric, every one of those 50-something paintings, etc. It was a complex and detailed process to make that room. We salvaged the fireplace from a house in Maine. It came in 50 different pieces of marble to be reconstructed. We tried to make as much of that set real. The carpet was woven to our specs. We found a pattern for the wall coverings, and had it silk-screened on fabric in an old mill in Rhode Island.
It’s a finely detailed and deeply custom set. Nothing in there is off the shelf. Everything had to be handcrafted and designed. It was a satisfying experience for us. Sometimes you design a set, it comes together, and when you start to see it getting finished, it’s just very exciting. When we were finishing that, I didn’t want to do any work in the office. I wanted to hang out with the carpenters and the painters, and to watch it come to life [laughs].
Kirill: You spend all those long weeks and months obsessing over so many details, and then some time passes between the end of the shoot and when the show is available to the public, and then you get to see all that work “compressed” into a few hours on the screen. What goes through your head when you get to watch that final version as a viewer?
Neil: It’s funny, as a couple of us just watched Episode 3 in a socially distance manner here in the office on a big screen. It was fun. I found myself forgetting about watching for the details in that seance episode.
You want to see that the things you worked on look good. You’re analyzing. No matter what you do, you’re always learning. I remember making decisions about colors and then seeing that the choice I’ve made turned out well – or maybe not so well. You’re always learning through seeing what you’ve done, unless you reach perfection and then you stop [laughs]. It’s not fun when it’s perfect, I think.
We all do this because we love storytelling. We love performances and actors. It’s fun to see the actors’ performances added together. You enjoy their accomplishment in the show. You enjoy the writing. We’re always seeing things analytically when they are in pieces, because that’s what we’re doing. So it’s really nice to see the totality – with the music, the writing, the acting – and seeing it all come together is amazing.
On the show I’ve seen different steps, but not the full color correction or the sound or everything detailed the way it should be.
Kirill: Do you read reviews? Do you want to know what your peers think about your work? Do you see awards as a mark of achieving a certain level?
Neil: Reviews are hard because there are so many, and you always have to put them in the context of who’s giving them. There are certain people whose opinion I respect. I read reviews of other films and TV shows, and I want them to like what I’ve done to a certain extent. I guess we all do, as it’s human nature to have that kind of affirmation of the work you’ve done. But I’m also curious what other people think. People like different things, and I find that fascinating.
Very few people notice production design. There are general comments made, and it’s definitely gratifying if they think a show looks good or if they like the look of the show. Sometimes it’s hard to know what they’re responding to, because there’s wardrobe, there’s production design, there’s a lot of things that they’re experiencing. And then you want people to like the show. I love this show, and I am happy when other people like it. So that’s what I’m looking for.
I talk to my professional colleagues and we discuss various productions. Everyone has their own preferences, and everyone likes different things. We’re able to be pretty candid with each other when we talk about what worked well or not well. That is super important, and I appreciate being able to get that feedback. You want to be in a safe, trustworthy space where the comments are coming towards a constructive goal. I worked for years in theater, and Broadway critics in New York are famous for being mean and caddy, and for enjoying the downfall of others. I have little interest in that aspect.
Kirill: It’s far easier to be mean and to take somebody down than to be thoughtfully constructive and build it up.
Neil: There are things that deserve meanness probably [laughs] but there are different ways of doing it. I get it. Critics are like anybody else and they want people to read their reviews. A funny, catty review is entertaining to people, and that’s what sells papers. That’s the long tradition of the mean Broadway review in the New York Times. It’s a purely a business model. People can’t wait to read the bad review. Same thing with restaurants – remember how many people have read that Guy Fieri review? I have nothing against him personally, but there’s a certain element to it.
When I talk with my colleagues though, I don’t want to indulge in it. You want to be constructive, and the better work we’re all making, the better it is for the art form. Rising tide should lift all boats, as the saying goes.
Kirill: Speaking of the rising tide, there were more than 500 scripted shows in the US in 2020. Does it feel that it’s harder to stand out, to find that audience for your show?
Neil: Absolutely, because there’s so many good-looking shows. You have “The Queen’s Gambit”, “Bridgerton” and it goes on and on and on. Somebody just recommended “The Flight Attendant” to me. There are dozens of well done shows that look great. The level of writing talent in streaming shows is extraordinary. Actors who used to only appear in big feature films are now doing episodic productions. It is hard to get noticed in the sense that there is a lot of shows, and no person has the time to watch all of that.
Another extraordinary thing about Netflix and Amazon is that they are going international. I get to see the work of people in Israel, India and so many other countries. It’s not just US productions. It keeps you on your toes [laughs], you can’t be lazy.
Kirill: Do you see a world where we don’t have movie theaters?
Neil: I don’t. I think places like movie theaters, Broadway theaters, opera houses, will come back eventually. I’m certainly not an epidemiologist, and I can’t predict the course of this disease. We can look at historical models and what happened in the Spanish influenza. It’s going to be tough for a while, and then it will get better.
People like experiencing a story as a group. There’s nothing like being in a movie theater watching that big blockbuster. We have this tradition on the Christmas evening to stuff ourselves on dinner, to drink and eat, and then go watch a movie in a theater packed with people. It’s a blast. Last year we went to see “Little Women”. This year we watched “Wonder Woman” on TV. It was not the same [laughs].
I think it’s a fundamental need. Whether it is going to be as successful as it used to? I have no idea. Maybe it will be a luxury thing to be able to see things in person. A great about theater is the reminder that it’s a popular art form that we all experience together. When you go see a big musical in a theater or a big feature film, that’s a social experience. I hope it’s not going away.
We were talking about this earlier, and we are already seeing some changes. Top tier streaming series are getting closer and closer to the cinematic quality of feature films. Maybe people will not step as often to go out to the movie theater.
Kirill: What keeps you going and staying in this field?
Neil: I am fortunate. I love what I do, and I’m happy working even if circumstances are difficult. Work gives me hope and positivity. My family gives me hope. I want to stay positive for my kids. We want them to have a world where they can thrive and follow their path. That is what keeps me going every morning.
Talking about work, it is encouraging to be able to come back to work with people who you like and respect. That gives you the hope and the will to continue. It’s definitely difficult right now. It’s a darker time, but hopefully it gets better soon.
Production design of “Dickinson” by Neil Patel. Courtesy of Apple.
And here I’d like to thank Neil Patel for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and Julia Wilson for making this interview happen. The second season of “Dickinson” is streaming on Apple+. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.