American Gothic paintings: Showrunner Corinne Brinkerhoff talks episode titles
If you’ve been keeping up with the Hawthornes on this summer’s thrilling murder mystery American Gothic, you may have noticed a few running themes. First, there’s the near-constant reminder that no one on this show can be trusted. Then there’s Jack Hawthorne, a character so odd and awful he should probably win the award for “creepiest kid” in the history of television. And finally, there’s the fact that each episode (and the show itself) is titled after a famous American painting. If you have an especially keen eye, you may have even noticed that an homage to each title-inspiring painting can actually be found somewhere in every episode.
Here at EW, we were dying to know more about this concept, so we caught up with American Gothic‘s showrunner Corinne Brinkerhoff to get the full scoop on the show’s fine-art motif (and to see if this Easter egg hints at anything for Wednesday’s big season finale).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did mirroring the painting in the episode’s title somewhere in the episode come about?
CORINNE BRINKERHOFF: It was something that came up organically during discussion in the writers’ room. We were looking for a way to title our episodes, and it was actually our consulting producer Susan Dickes who said, “What if we title each episode after a famous American painting?” And because the name of the show references an iconic American painting, we decided to kind of run with art as a motif. We also have Cam’s comic strip, Sophie’s a photographer, and Jack likes to draw, and it all deals with fine art, so it felt like the right world for us. We decided to title each episode after a famous American painting that had some sort of thematic tie-in to that particular chapter of our story, and then feature a shot that would mirror that famous image.
Did you choose the paintings before writing the episodes, or did you work the episodes around the art?
We had the broad strokes of every episode when we started doing the titles, so we looked at both together. Sometimes we’d find the perfect title, but the actual image wasn’t something we could necessarily find an organic way into the story. Other times there would be the perfect image, but the title made no sense for the story we were telling. So we did both.
For example, we knew that in episode 8, Jack (Gabriel Bateman) would ship off to camp where he would strike up a connection with [a fellow] young, budding psychopath named Sadie (Aviv Cohen). So we knew he would find his kindred spirit, and they would be out in the wilderness. So Asher Durand’s Kindred Spirits was perfect for that.
In other cases, we knew a painting that we really loved, like we loved Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic, and we knew somewhere in the season we wanted to have Jack witness an autopsy because it just felt right for that character. So that was actually a scene where we directed the story to make sure we got that frame in there, to use that title.
Did you have any sort of advisers on set when you were trying to build these scenes? “The Gross Clinic,” for example, was so specific, and there were so many moving parts.
Well, we have an absolutely fantastic art department and production designer. They really embraced the challenge because they are, of course, all fans of fine art, and they worked with the director to bring it to life. Some [episodes] are obviously a little more literal interpretations than others. [“The Gross Clinic”] was one that was almost exactly the same.
Yes! The hair on the doctor was what really threw me, because that’s not the kind of hair you would see on someone today, and it was near perfect to the painting.
I’d like to delve a little deeper into the production of a few episodes if possible. “Christina’s World” was an interesting episode because I noticed it was a similar image, but reversed.
Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World was one that we knew early on we wanted to do. It was a favorite of many of us in the room. In fact, we named Catalina Moreno’s character specifically so we could do Christina’s World. She’s obviously a main focus of that episode. We actually had to reverse her position and change the background because the Wyeth estate is still active, so for legal reasons we couldn’t do a direct representation. We also wanted some semblance of accuracy in terms of our real setting in Boston, [because] we weren’t at a farmhouse obviously. And of course we had wardrobe working with us to find the right look that could be reminiscent of her dress. Really, every department contributed.
What would you say were your favorite episodes — in the content but also in the planning for these scenes?
I loved doing Charles Willson Peale’s The Artist in His Museum. It was the biggest challenge, and it was another one where we loved the painting and we thought, “How are we going to organically get here?” We had the scenes in the episode that were going to be Cam’s hallucinations, and that felt like the perfect time. We knew we would be seeing Mitchell (Jamey Sheridan) as part of those hallucinations, so he could be the one holding up the curtain, and it was really the only time we could naturally get to that imagery. The painting also has a wall of photos [in the background], or framed art along one side, and we’d already very much established this wall of family photos in the Hawthorne house. So we were able to kind of work with the elements we’d already established. That was definitely a favorite, and I thought it was beautifully done. And again, credit to the art department and our production designers.
Also, another favorite was doing the final image of the pilot with Madeline (Virginia Madsen), “Arrangement in Grey and Black,” which was quite a faithful interpretation. That was a challenging one because the dimensions of it didn’t quite work in the frame when we got there, but we did some shifting around and moved a different photo, and extended the curtains, and suddenly we had the exact frame. That was a fun way to end the first episode and sort of set up the game of looking for these paintings. But I love all of them, really. It’s definitely been a satisfying creative challenge, to find a way into these images that feels organic to the story.
Have you received much fan feedback about these?
It’s been pretty few… but it seems the people who’ve noticed it are really delighted by it. Every once in a while we’ll see comments like, “Isn’t it interesting that all the episodes are paintings…” I think and hope that people have derived enjoyment from it, and the whole game of it.
What do you see for the future of American Gothic?
Oh, I have no idea! I will say TBD. It was originally conceived as an anthology, but we all in the writers’ room really love these characters. [The ideal situation would be] to keep reinventing it, and to tell a brand new story.
Are these titles and images all leading up to something in the finale?
Well, I can tell you that the finale is called “Whistler’s Mother,” which is the colloquial name for Arrangement in Grey and Black. We bookended the show with the same painting and the same image. So, [it kind of returns to the beginning] but on different circumstances. It’s a wild and freaky tale, but it’ll all make sense in the end!
The two-hour finale of American Gothic airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.