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Dickinson Creator Alena Smith On Why Billie Eilish Is Our Modern Emily Dickinson

'We do deal with heavy stuff when we're young — and we make great art out of it,' Smith tells MTV News

There's hardly anything new about depicting the teenage experience on screen. There are countless films and television shows about coming of age, and what it means to be young and in love, young and angry, and young and completely terrified of the world around you — a world that oftentimes doesn't take young people or their emotions seriously. That experience is universal, and that's precisely what makes Dickinson so refreshing. It's ultimately about a teen — yes, this particular teen is American poet Emily Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) —  but it's smart enough to realize that whether you're growing up in 1850 or 2019 some things, and some emotions, never change.

But that was all part of creator and showrunner Alena Smith's plan. Though set in the 19th century, Dickinson isn't a typical period piece. The costumes and sets are period-accurate, but the dialogue is intentionally modern; it's using the events of Dickinson's life in the 1850s, and the themes found in her work, to contextualize what's still happening now. Emily wants to pursue her dreams of becoming a published poet, but her father forbids it, afraid of what the people of Amherst will say about a female author. Emily is frustrated, sure, but she's still living. She throws house parties, gets high, and hooks up with her best friend-turned-secret lover Sue Gilbert (Ella Hunt). That youthful excess of emotion and all of its many colors is the heart of the Apple TV+ series — and at the heart of every good coming-of-age story. In Dickinson, the young characters are as vibrant as the wallpaper adorning their bedroom walls.

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"All of it comes from her poems," Smith tells MTV News. "When you read her poems they are packed with wit and irony and deviousness and satire and force and desire. It's all there. People have an idea who they think she is, but they haven't spent enough time reading her work."

In our conversation with Smith, the creator and showrunner talks about creating the show, her own fascination with death and the works of Emily Dickinson, why teens today are vibing with the 1850s, and the eerie connection between Dickinson and Billie Eilish.

MTV News: Emily Dickinson's relationship with death is at the center of her most famous works. When you were a teen, did you ever have a fascination with death? 

Alena Smith: Not any more or less than anyone else. Emily Dickinson wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems about death, and in her life she was surrounded by death. There was one year where she lost 35 friends — in one year. Part of what was so radical about Emily's poetry was that she was questioning the meaning of life with relationship to death in the way that an existentialist philosopher would ask the question. One of her most famous poems, "Because I could not stop for Death," depicts the fantastical experience of the seeker getting picked up by Death and getting taken for a carriage ride around the town. We got to dramatize that in our very first episode. Emily gets picked up by her fantasy version of Death, which is Wiz Khalifa.

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MTV News: Why was it so important to recreate that moment in the first episode?

Smith: I wrote the first episode way before I wrote the rest of the show, so it was the first thing that suggested itself to me as her origin story. Emily is told by Death that she's only going to be famous after she dies, so she says to him, "Can you kill me now?" And he says, "No, you're going to live into your old age." And that's setting up the bleak irony of Emily Dickinson's life, which is that, externally, it was pretty boring and not a lot happened to her, but internally, she was writing some of the greatest works of literature ever seen — always waiting to be appreciated in a way that would only happen after she was gone.

MTV News: You wrote this pilot a few years ago. When did this idea come along, and what did it take to finally get it made? 

Smith: The idea came from loving her poetry and reading a biography of hers when I was in my early twenties and it really resonating with me. This is the story of a radical, young female artist who is ahead of her time and who is searching to be understood. It was certainly compelling enough that I was able to devote years to the project and seeing it through to it finally getting made by Apple. It's such an ideal space for it because we're all about breaking into a new kind of storytelling, but one with a lot of heart.

MTV News: I'm assuming that Apple gave you space to experiment as a showrunner and room to do things your own way. 

Smith: A show like this could never be made in a traditional network context because the production demands are too high. The reason why we are able to execute the perfect period setting with contemporary music and dialogue is because it's more like a movie than a TV show. I had all 10 scripts finished before we started, and we shot the episodes in pairs, with each director coming in for a block of two episodes. We were doing things differently than a traditional model, and it allowed the storytelling to be elevated.

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MTV News: This was your first time as a creator-showrunner. What was that experience like for you, and what is one thing you learned about yourself? 

Smith: Making it even crazier that I was doing this for the first time is that I also had twins while I was making the show. I learned how important it is to surround yourself with positive people. It is a really hard job, and what was so beautiful about the experience was how much everyone believed in it. We had a really cohesive, positive set. That comes through in the end.

MTV News: Was there room for collaboration between you and the actors on set? 

Smith: Absolutely. I come from theater. And most of my skill set as a TV showrunner is rooted in my training as a playwright and also someone who produced my own plays in New York after grad school. I'm always coming at things from an ensemble mindset. Everyone from the production designer to the music supervisor, we're all in conversation with each other and discovering the unique tone of the show together.

MTV News: Was John Mulaney always your first choice to play Henry David Thoreau? 

Smith: He was! We were so lucky. We kept getting our first choices. There was a great meeting of the minds because I think [John] is so funny, and he really got why I thought Thoreau was so funny. It's very gratifying when the people whose jokes you like also like your jokes.

MTV News: Between Dickinson and Little Women coming out later this year, the 1850s are really having a pop culture moment. 

Smith: And we have Zosia Mamet playing Louisa May Alcott in our Christmas episode.

MTV News: Why do you think young women right now are really vibing with the 1850s? 

Smith: Well, we all did grow up reading Little Women, right? A lot of children's literature is set in the 19th century, so I think some of it is just seeped into our unconscious. But I also think that America today is in a very combustible place with relationship to gender and sexuality and race and we can actually benefit by looking back at our history and at the time leading up the Civil War and seeing the kinds of fault lines that were alive in the culture then and seeing the ways in which some of the same ones are happening today.

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MTV News: Little Women and the 1994 film are so impactful to my entire girlhood in so many ways. What were some of your coming-of-age influences? 

Smith: Certainly Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. And in some ways I think that Dickinson is a twisted version of Anne of Green Gables. I also loved The Royal Tenenbaums, which is another reference point that I've used to talk about the Dickinson family. They're a crazy group of aristocrats who never leave each other's sides — they're codependent and overly involved with each other. And when you watch The Royal Tenenbaums and a lot of Wes Anderson's movies, you don't necessarily know what period it's in. So that was something that I was trying to do with Dickinson — build a world where you lose track of the present or the past. And then of course Clueless, a crucial literary adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. It brought it into the 90s and reinvented what the 90s were as a result. And My So-Called Life, which is what made me want to make television.

MTV News: I've already started to see fans online shipping Emily and Sue. I love that the show dives into that relationship. What was the decision behind bringing that ship to life? 

Smith: One of the things that's been happening in Dickinson scholarship over the past decade is this huge investigation of the relationship between Emily and Sue. We have come to learn that the image that we perceive of Emily Dickinson as this virginal spinster in a white dress who didn't have any sexual experiences was false. It was created intentionally by her first editors. But when you look at who Emily Dickinson really was of course you find somebody who was brimming with passion and desire, and that was expressed in all of her poems. When she crushed, she crushed hard. She had relationships with a number of different people, all of whom she yearned to be understood by, but the person who came the closest to understanding her was Sue, who was her childhood friend who became her sister-in-law.

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I don't think any of us know the truth of Emily and Sue's relationship, but in this show we imagine it as a queer romantic friendship between two young women who are following very different paths into womenhood. Where Sue is going to put on a veil and become a bride and, ultimately, a mother, Emily is going to devote herself single-mindedly to her art. The two of them are going to remain embedded in each other's lives and Emily is going to write some of her greatest poems and letters to Sue.

MTV News: Who did you find yourself connecting to throughout this process? 

Smith: This is Emily's story, and as it's her story it's also my story. And one of the fun things about Emily Dickinson is that we all get to create our own version of her, and this is mine. I don't think it's the definitive one. Or the authoritative one. It's my own creative response to the spirit that I feel in her poems. And to the facts in her biography that resonated most with me and my coming-of-age experience. I feel the most connected to Emily, but as a playwright, my training is that the writer has to play all the parts, which is really hard, especially when some of the parts are in fights with each other. I love all the characters and can see the world from each of their perspectives, which is the joy of screenwriting and playwriting for me.

MTV News: Did one character's voice come a little too easily to you? 

Smith: Death? I definitely wasn't expecting Wiz Khalifa to understand the role as much as he did. I felt like that was pretty wild. There was some mind-melding happening between us.

MTV News: You mentioned Wes Anderson being a reference point for the series. When I think of a Wes Anderson film, I think of the vibrancy of the world and the color palette. Dickinson is also a really vibrant landscape, which is a nice contrast to the themes of Emily's poems. What was the process like to create the visual aesthetics of the show?

Smith: Myself and all of the designers immersed ourselves in the most specific, accurate details of the period. And we were never breaking the rules of the period, but we were always searching for the details that felt uncannily relevant or fresh for today. For example, the patterns and colors on the clothes and on the wallpaper. Picking these really bold and psychedelic prints — but all of them are period-accurate and people did dress in those clothes and put that wallpaper on their walls. Also, apparently, they were changing their wallpaper all the time. Making the period explode with color because that's not how we imagine it in our minds.

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My set decorator found these collages that were made by, essentially, bored women in the 1850s who were cutting faces out of newspapers and magazines and gluing them onto these weird watercolor drawings of butterflies and bugs. There would be ducks in a pond with funny human faces. That seems exactly like something you'd see in Rookie mag today. It's the exact kind of surrealist aesthetic that would be on the internet, on someone's Tumblr. We recreated some of those collages and put them on the wall of Emily's bedroom. We took that space and brought it to life by having lots of plants and feathers or natural specimens that Emily would find on her walks and of course these collages and drawings that Emily would have done herself.

MTV News: It goes to show how the bedroom walls of teenage girls really haven't changed all that much throughout history. 

Smith: Exactly! When I went to the Dickinson homestead, I went to the Evergreens, which is the house that Sue and Austin lived in. You go upstairs to the nursery and there are Victorian paper dolls glued to the walls that were from the kids. They put them there in the 1860s. When I saw that, I felt a chill in my body. Because kids do that now. That's the goal of my show is to have everyone look around and wonder what year it is, in fun ways and creepy ways. I don't think things have changed that much.

MTV News: Except for the music in the show, which is very contemporary.

Smith: There were always specific music cues. In the pilot I wrote, in the first beat, I wrote that Kendrick Lamar was playing. We didn't end up using a Kendrick Lamar song, but that was the tone. It was always going to be a period show with contemporary music. Then we got to have the fun of picking the cues, both with my brilliant music supervisor — he has the biggest catalog of music in his brain — and working with Apple Music, where they would send us a Billie Eilish song that hadn't been released yet and before I even knew who Billie Eilish was. We got to imagine Emily Dickinson's mixtape and show the way that her inner consciousness was bursting at the seams of this repressive period she was stuck in.

MTV News: I think if Emily were a teenager in 2019 she would definitely be listening to Billie Eilish, just as I think Billie is probably reading Emily's poems right now. 

Smith: There are a lot of eerie connections between Billie Eilish and Emily Dickinson. I got kind of freaked out when I first heard it. I was like, "Is this Emily?" There's a phrase that's been used to describe Billie's music, and that's "gloom-pop." I think that phrase perfectly captures the aesthetic of Dickinson. It is gloom-pop. And I think that's how younger people are feeling these days. Life is serious. A lot of shows about young people depict their problems as trivial; this is a show about young people dealing with heavy stuff, and we do deal with heavy stuff when we're young — and we make great art out of it.