The Buccaneers Producers Break Down That Panic-Inducing Debutante Ball

"It's the equivalent of girls today on a prom night standing up in a limo ‘woo-hooing’." Inside The Buccaneers big debutante ball scene.

Episode 1. Kristine Frøseth, Alisha Boe, Josie Totah, Aubri Ibrag and Imogen Waterhouse in "The Buccaneers," premiering November 8, 2023 on Apple
Photo: Apple TV+

This article contains spoilers for The Buccaneers episode 1.

Based on Edith Wharton’s unfinished novel, The Buccaneers is Apple TV+’s newest original series. The story follows five young American women from wealthy families in the 1870s looking to move up the social ladder by marrying the cash-poor and status-rich sons of the British gentry. 

The first episode, “American Poison,” introduces the young women, their families, and the way the marriage market is not as romantic as depicted in other period dramas or previous Wharton adaptations. Conchita “Conchi” Closson (Alisha Boe) was the first American woman to marry a British Duke. Her friends Annabelle “Nan” St. George (Kristine Frøseth) and her sister Virginia “Jinny” (Imogen Waterhouse) plus sisters Mabel (Josie Totah) and Lizzie (Aubri Ibrag) Elmsworth are also hoping some of Conchi’s luck rubs off on them. The bond between the young women is tested by the competition to make a good match, the culture clash between their world and the world of their suitors as well as the secrets they’re hoping won’t be discovered by others. 

In the middle of the episode, Lizzie and Ginny are presented at a debutante’s ball in England with their friends watching in dismay at how the British gentry is treating them. Den of Geek spoke to series creator Katherine Jakeways, executive producer Beth Willis, and episode director and executive producer Susanna White to find out what went into bringing the debutante ball to life. 

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The foundation for the scene and the rest of the series is the fact the top line of The Buccaneers‘ creative team is all women. Wharton based her novel on her own experiences and observations as a debutante ball participant. 

“A lot of the work in terms of setting up the tone and working out what we wanted the adaptation to feel like was done by Edith Wharton on the page,” Jakeways says. 

Audiences familiar with the novel and previous adaptations will notice right away that The Buccaneers uses modern music and dialogue to tell the story of the debutante ball and the rest of the story.

“We’re making it in 2023 and we wanted it to feel as contemporary and the characters to feel as relatable to a 2023 audience as we could,” Jakeways says. “The goal of the series is to highlight how Wharton’s themes are still relevant today while recreating the history of her era visually.”

Wharton wrote at a time when women of her class were not supposed to voice their own opinions. In the modern era, there is still a need for women’s stories on television to be told by women. 

“Working with an all-female team was a first and it was absolutely wonderful,” Willis says. “We all spoke the same language, and it was a very instinctive development process of making the show.”

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The script for the debutante scene is what drew White to direct the first two episodes of The Buccaneers, with the director saying “Nan goes to the debutante ball, and then we see Nan have a panic attack as she sees her sister and friends having to stand on the stairs and be chosen like girls in a beauty pageant. Their whole destiny depends on whether someone is going to pick them or not as a wife and the script felt so fresh to me and so powerful in its attitude.”

Ball scenes are often the most popular and memorable scenes for period drama audiences but a lot of work goes into preparing them. White also thought a lot about setting up the contrast between the emotions of the young women before they arrived at the ball and at the end of the night. 

“I thought it’s the equivalent of girls today on a prom night standing up in a limo ‘woo-hooing’ even though they travel to the ball in carriages,” White says. 

White shot all of the scenes of the debutante ball in Glasgow City Chambers. In fact, the building is the current headquarters for the Glasgow city council and has been in use for city government offices since 1888. The City Chambers’s late 19th-century beaux-arts style architecture was featured in the 2000 adaptation of another one of Wharton’s novels The House of Mirth as well as Outlander. White brought in lightboxes to erase the color from the walls and the actors in the scene. She also worked with trained steady-cam operators from Italy, the cinematographer, and the set designer to turn the government offices into a house fit for an English Lord whose family has existed for hundreds of years. 

“I wanted to create a world almost entirely of white to contrast with all the colors of New York,” White says. “I was very supported in directing an incredibly complicated shoot.” 

The audience sees Ginny and Lizzie nervously holding each other’s hands before they walk down the staircase in front of the suitors. All of the debutantes then hold up wooden palettes with a number so that the suitors can pick a dancing partner and potential bride.Nan overhears the British gentry gossiping and insulting her sister and her friends which causes her to panic. The music and the camera moves in time with Nan’s fears. 

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“We worked hard on what that feels like to have a panic attack, and I was constantly trying to ground it in stuff that felt truthful and authentic,” White said.

For Lizzie, Ginny and their friends, the social awkwardness of the debutante ball is only the beginning of their stories.

“I hope it’s a world that you just want to spend time in and characters that you want to spend time with,” Willis says. “We wanted to dive into their journeys and really explore them properly and give them room to breathe across the eight episodes.”

There is more information to come we obtained from The Buccaneers’ creative team but it spoils future episodes. Look for a follow-up to this interview later on in the season!

The first three episodes of The Buccaneers are available to stream on Apple TV+ now, with new episodes premiering weekly on Wednesdays.