David E. Kelley on Big Little Lies season 2: ‘We’re kicking it around’
In just seven episodes, Big Little Lies unspooled a tense murder mystery and provided whip-smart commentary on the daily absurdities of family life. “It’s always tricky blending tones,” says showrunner David E. Kelley. “You don’t want those comedic beats to steal the thunder of your dramatic through lines, and you don’t want the severity of the dramatic points to snuff out the fun.”
Fortunately, it worked: The show earned 16 Emmy nominations, including Best Limited Series and a Best Writing for a Limited Series nod for Kelley. He credits Big Little Lies’ successful tightrope walk to his colleagues, all Emmy-nominated for their roles in the project themselves: director Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild) along with stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, who pulled double duty as producers.
EW chatted with Kelley about the show’s “surprise” success, what the skilled cadre of actors — also including Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz — brought to their roles, and whether he thinks the limited series might get the second season some fans are craving.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Now that we’re a few months out from Big Little Lies, what kind of responses have you received? Has anything surprised you?
DAVID E. KELLEY: It’s all been a surprise. You never know how these things will turn out. You sit down and you write them because you like them, and you congregate a cast and a crew that also responds to the material, and you make it to the best of your ability, and then you throw it out there, and you kinda cross your fingers and duck.
The first reward that you get is if we all like it and believe in what we made, so we had that. But in terms of the reaction to it, it’s just a big guess. So it was a surprise that it caught on with such a frenzy, but as surprises go, one of the better ones.
What are some of the scenes that you’re proudest of?
The ones that were the most difficult to write and the most disturbing to me were obviously the ones involving Celeste and the violence and domestic abuse. That was just tough stuff to wade into. It was really, I know, equally difficult — probably more so — for Nicole to play, and for Jean-Marc to direct. But there was some gratification when I saw it on the screen to see how well they had executed it. It was very powerful. We ended up being pretty proud of the depiction of it.
Let’s see… the finale. I loved the juxtaposition of suspense and music and love and murder. That was a big challenge to pull all that off in 60 minutes. I sat back and marveled at how well Jean-Marc balanced all those story lines and blended those tones.
Finales can be so divisive, but for the most part, I felt like people agreed this one was extremely satisfying.
I give great credit to Jean-Marc on that, because he just did masterful work. I remember after the script was written, he came back and said, “Okay, can we try and tell this with the camera as opposed to words, and fill in some of this with subtext as opposed to text?” And by that time — well, we had an almost immediate trust. By show seven, I really felt the series was more his baby than anybody’s. When I saw what he did with it and how he brought that home, it was pretty thrilling.
When you’re dealing with such a talented ensemble cast like this, do you want to play to their strengths, or do you want to give these actors a challenge they’ve never had?
In terms of this series, I was trying to be very faithful to a book that I quite loved. Then we attracted a pretty great cast, and you see that they have gifts and strengths, and you want to avail yourselves to them. With Reese’s role, Madeline was the protagonist, she was the antagonist, she was a scorned lover, she was a parent, she was a busybody — she had so many hats to wear, all of them involving different tones. It took a great deal of preparation by Reese and real impeccable execution, because she had to go from being emotional one moment to funny the next to bullying in the next.
With Nicole, she was so gifted in her subtextual abilities, to be able to tell a story with her face, that when we were writing some of those scenes, especially the therapist scenes, we didn’t have to give her words because she was so able to convey emotion — conflict, surprise, betrayal — just with her reactions. That’s a real luxury for a writer to have an actor with that kind of skill set.
With Renata, she probably became a little bit bigger in the series, and a little bit funnier, because Laura Dern has those dramatic and comedic muscles, and can shift on a dime. And she has that quality where she can be the antagonist, that character you disapprove of at every turn, and at the same time, she’s becoming more and more beloved with each scene. That, again, is a difficult trip. She brought such a heart and humanity to that character that even though she was the antagonist to our main players, your heart went out to her.
So when you have five of your cast members being nominated for Emmys — some of them against each other — does it feel like a kind of Sophie’s choice for you?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t know. I’m just happy for everyone. It’s all icing on the cake, and it actually makes it more fun, because it was such an ensemble piece. This was such a selfless group through and through, so to see everybody get rewarded was very nice.
I thought the limited series was the perfect medium for this material. And your other shows, Goliath and Mr. Mercedes, also have these tight, short seasons. Is there more freedom in that for you?
Well, there’s more free time! There is freedom in the storytelling, because without having to write a franchise that has to live in perpetuity, you can go places faster, and you can burn more brightly if you have to, because you don’t have to keep the star burning for a hundred episodes, to keep characters redeeming. You can play to their flaws if it’s a shorter run. And you can be a little bit tighter in your plots. I’ve really enjoyed the limited series format.
I have to ask the season 2 question. What are your thoughts on doing one?
We don’t know yet. We’re kicking it around. If we feel that the material warrants it, we’ll do it. Everybody’s game for getting the band back together, but we want to make sure that we’ve got the music to justify it. That decision hasn’t been made yet, and it’ll be story-driven when it is.
From what Reese and other people have said, it sounds like it’s up to whether Liane Moriarty has a story idea.
With Mr. Mercedes and with Big Little Lies, the authors weren’t really involved in your adaptations. But would season 2 end up more collaborative if it’s based on a new story from Liane?
It could be. I’m certainly open to it. I think [Moriarty], for the book, was game to say, “Okay, it’s your baby. Run with it now.” But she’s a great writer, and she also writes excellent dialogue, so if she wanted to jump over to the screenwriting side of the fence, we’d welcome her.
On that note, are you trying to get in on the Truly Madly Guilty adaptation with Reese and Nicole now?
No, not yet. I’ve just read the book, but there’s other stuff on our plate before turning to that.
Nicole Kidman On ‘Big Little Lies’, Kubrick And Taking Chances: “I Don’t Approach Things From That Safe Place”
That has never been truer than in Big Little Lies, in which Kidman plays Celeste, a suburban mother living in the well-heeled paradise of Monterey, CA. As director Jean-Marc Vallée weaves David E. Kelley’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel around a murder and a town on edge—and as we are trying to work out not just who the killer is, but who the victim was—his camera alights on Celeste while she is forced to come to torturous conclusions about the way she is being treated by her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård).
“It was the hardest character to work on,” Kidman says. “Virginia Woolf [in The Hours, for which she won an Oscar] too, but I almost got to give that up, in a way, because I walked into the river in the end. But for Celeste there wasn’t an end.”
Celeste came with raw physical and emotional baggage that followed Kidman off the set. “A lot of that was brought home with me,” she admits. “I went home crying. I was lucky to have a partner that would put his arms around me and hold me, because I would cry and I would be physically in pain, and he was like, ‘What is going on on that set?’ He would see the bruises and be aghast. But he’s also an artist, so he gets it and he’s willing to support me. That, for me, is an extraordinary act of love. To step back and just let me do the work.”
Of course Vallée and his crew worked hard to keep Kidman and Skarsgård safe. “We had a double when it was really violent,” Vallée says. “But the double would often do the first take. Nicole would be watching, and she would take over on take two, learning from the double.”
Real women in Celeste’s position suffer much worse, Kidman reasoned. And she has been overwhelmed by the response she has had to Celeste’s struggle, from women who know that life. Big Little Lies is her first TV series since Bangkok Hilton, the Australian show she made early into her career. “Telling a story in someone’s living room, where they’re sitting intimately close up, watching it… that’s a different way of reaching people,” she says. “The reaction has been intense, and sometimes very sad, and I feel responsibility to people too. So many people either know someone who has lived this or have lived it themselves. It is insidious, is what it is.”
And yet she frets about a subset of reaction that has asked, “Why didn’t Celeste leave right away?” For a long time, Celeste is convinced that separating from Perry would be detrimental to their two sons, and as long as she is the sole victim, keeping her children happy is her priority. “Maybe I didn’t do justice to that,” Kidman demurs. “But that’s the nature of abuse, isn’t it? I can tell you why Celeste doesn’t leave, and I would hope now a lot of people could tell you why she doesn’t.”
Indeed, the real tragedy of Celeste’s story, and why it resonates so strongly, is that it is all too easy to diminish oneself in service of a greater notion of happiness, whether or not that notion truly exists. “In the end, I believe Celeste really is leaving,” Kidman says. “She thought the boys were protected and then she found out they weren’t; that it was manifesting in a way that meant the pattern would continue. Her love for her boys was her saying, ‘No, I’ve got to stop this, and I’ll stop it now.’ That, to me, was Celeste finding her strength, even if it is not for herself, which is the saddest thing. It breaks my heart.”
“[Nicole] was completely, wholly given to this process,” says her Big Little Lies co-star Reese Witherspoon. “The deep way she analyses material, reads so thoughtfully, and thinks so comprehensively—not just about her character, but about the entire journey of every single character in the piece—was such a gift to the production. She just gave me incredible courage, and that’s the mark of a really great actor; [someone] who can give another actor the courage to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with.”
In 2017, it hurts to admit that Big Little Lies is unusual, but it is. Based on source material written by a woman, it is co-produced by Witherspoon and Kidman through their respective production companies, Pacific Standard and Blossom Films, and stars perhaps the most female ensemble on television today, including Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz.
A friend of Witherspoon’s handed the manuscript to her and her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea, before it was published. Kidman was their first call, perhaps because Moriarty’s novel, Truly Madly Guilty, was set in Australia rather than Monterey. “Nicole happened to be in Sydney, and Liane was living there,” recalls Witherspoon. “She went and closed the deal, and got the option. It was a one-two attack.”
“Liane was being pursued by numerous studios and networks,” adds Per Saari, Kidman’s producing partner in Blossom Films. “It was a highly competitive situation. Nearly every one of Liane’s books had yielded enormous book deals, but none of them had gotten made. Nicole met her at a cafe in Sydney and proposed a very persuasive offer. Nicole said she would make sure Liane’s book got made into a series, but in return Liane had to, then and there, let Blossom and Pacific Standard run exclusively with the rights. Liane countered that she would agree to that, but only if Nicole played Celeste. The series was on air within two-and-a-half years, which is warp-speed for book-to-screen adaptations.”
“We make decisions quickly, Reese and I,” Kidman says. “It was one of those perfect storms where everything comes together. This kind of had its own life. It made its own way.”
This is especially unusual for a project with so little precedent. “I’m normally the only woman in the cast,” admits Witherspoon, “so to have an experience where I’m looking across at four incredibly talented actresses and calling on them to help me for my performance, it’s a gift I’ve never had in my entire career. I feel really proud of the fact that Nicole and I worked really hard to make that happen.”
‘Big Little Lies’ Director Jean-Marc Vallée Discusses First Television Endeavor: “There’s No Transition”
Making his way along the press circuit for HBO limited series Big Little Lies—which earned eight Emmy nominations last month—director Jean-Marc Vallée has repeatedly been asked one question: “What was your transition to television?”
An Oscar nominee known for Dallas Buyers Club, Wild and Demolition, the auteur has a simple answer: There isn’t one. Making another major splash with his first television series, Vallée treats all of his projects as films—whether they arrive in theaters or on HBO, the process and the goal are the same.
Speaking with Deadline, the first-time Emmy nominee gives an in-depth look into his creative process, expressing his passion for female-driven projects and his desire to be involved with every aspect of the projects he creates.
You came to Big Little Lies thinking about directing the first two episodes and departing. What initially attracted you to the project, and what was it that kept you around?
Reese Witherspoon changed my life, made me a tired man. It’s more the merrier. Yeah, I got invited by Reese to direct, and we talked. They knew I was attached to do Sharp Objects the next year, and Sharp Objects wasn’t ready. I was attached to do the whole thing. I was in deep, and I didn’t want to do two back to back.
I said, “Well, I love the material.” I reacted to the scripts that they sent me that David Kelly wrote—the first three, I believe. I said, “Yeah, maybe I’ll do one or two, or the first one and the last one, but no, I’m not going to do everything. It’s crazy.” She said, “All right, all right. Let’s do this. Let’s start this show together.”
As I started to prep and cast, [she said], “You sure you don’t want to do everything? I’m going to miss you. It’s getting complicated to find other directors.” Then I realized that it’s kind of hard, also, to let go of all these characters and the material, and go, “Well, it’s a limited TV series. It was meant to be eight episodes.”
David Kelley said, “I’ve only got material for seven,” and I told David, “Cut one episode and I’m directing everything. Alright, I’m going to try it.” I didn’t want to abandon them, so I went back.
You know, I was asked: “What was your transition to television?” I said, “What are you talking about? There’s no transition to television. It’s the same thing.” I approach this like a long feature film—just another project, but it’s not for the big screen, it’s for HBO. But I do it as if it was for the big screen. I still have this desire to give a good show for the big screen.
Today, people have bigger screens in their homes, and we have the premiere in a theater, so this will and desire to create a good show for the screen is still there. It hasn’t changed, the way we frame, the way we use music and silence.
This series is very particular in its themes and its examination of all kinds of femininity. What ideas were you interested in exploring with Big Little Lies?
That was the main one, to use five strong actresses that would portray five strong female characters. The reason [Witherspoon] called me is that I’ve worked with her before, and conserve that. There’s been a mission. There’s an intention from Reese’s company [Pacific Standard] to bring on screen projects that will feature intelligent, strong female characters, whether they’re good or not. I respect that, and I’m glad to be part of that journey.
There are all these ideas and themes, and then there’s a story, with these women and their husbands, and the kids, the family and relationships. How is it to raise kids, to be in relationship and have kids at this point in their lives? I’m 54, so I’ve been through that. My kids are older now, but it’s well-known territory and I’ve been there. My kids went to private school, and I was one of the soccer dads.
I was the soccer coach on the field; I saw the competition between parents and all this shit. And to laugh about it—to tell a story that resonates to most of us, and to laugh about it, because there’s a lot of comedy.
Kelly is very funny and very clever with his way of writing, writing these characters and his dialogues, and Reese has this instinct—even with comedy, she’s so strong, she’s so good. Yet, when it’s time to be dramatic, she also nails it. She’s incredible.
I can talk about the themes and the ideas, but it’s the whole package that got me in. Little Chloe was already there [in the script], but I made her a music freak. You’re not supposed to know music like this when you’re six and seven. Impossible: Except when you’re a phenom, when you’re a prodigy. It was a blast to use music in their world, using this character to do that, and to contaminate her world and family. Wherever she goes, she listens to music.
What was your thought process in setting up the world of Big Little Lies with the first episodes? Immediately, you are met with the Monterey waves and a Greek chorus of gossips.
The Greek chorus was shot in two passes because we shot [Episodes] 1, 2 and 3 as a long feature film. Then, we shot 4, 5, 6, and 7 as another big one. We didn’t shoot episode by episode. The Greek chorus was really there to establish a bigger picture of the thing, which we do at school with the children, and how we use the music. I never use a composer, in any project.
I spoke to music supervisor Susan Jacobs about this, but can you explain why it is that you tend to work without a composer?
We let the story unfold, just like in life—there’s music in life. Characters listen to music: if you want to have a feeling of reality, so that’s how I want to create and tell stories. I put music in the center of their stories—they listen to music, whether it’s Chloe or Madeline in her car, alone. It’s part of what we do. We listen to music and it makes us think, it makes us dream, it makes us think of the past.
That’s how music was served. Whenever there’s music, it’s playing somewhere in a car. Sometimes, I cheat. I use it with a previous scene, or in the scene after, as it becomes score, but most of the times it’s source music. It’s mixed so that it sounds like it’s coming from cheap speakers from the car, or better speakers from the living room, or you’re in a restaurant.
It’s not mixed in way where it comes from the filmmaker, if he wants to play cool music—it’s not that. It’s about something else. It creates a sense of reality. You just follow these characters.
It’s interesting—with the recurring presence of a classical piece from Agnes Obel, viewers can be lured into the illusion that there is, in fact, a score.
Through the years as a filmmaker, you develop a film language, and you find it from one film to another. It becomes a thing where, whoops, you get conscious about it, and then you can talk about it. It’s not the first time that I’m doing it.
I don’t use score because I find everything I need in the music that I know, or that I will discover. The solo piano from Agnes Obel is beautiful, and perfect to express this feeling of solitude from this woman. It’s solo piano, period, and it plays. It expresses what they’re going through. She likes the song when the kid starts to play it, and it’s part of their life.
Little Chloe wakes up in the middle of the night, as her mother and older sister are having a talk at the piano. Reese’s character was playing the puppet show piano track, little Chloe arrives, and, whoops, it suddenly becomes score, as if they’re initiating the cue in of the song. I use them to initiate the cue in and the cue out, because we get out of the scene. In that case, we’re going to a montage. The track becomes score, but it was initiated by little Chloe. Therefore, Chloe knows about that Agnes Obel.
What was the experience of working with your ensemble of world-class actresses—particularly Nicole Kidman, in scenes of violent confrontation with Perry?
I’m not sure it’s different from Nicole to Reese to Laura [Dern]. Of course, they’re portraying different characters. Yes, there will be a difference in how we talk, and what we’re saying. But the way of shooting is not different from Nicole to Reese and Shailene [Woodley]. It’s just trying to create a space of freedom on the set, where you get rid of the technique and you get rid of the crew.
All that’s left is the [camera] operator, the focus puller, the boom guy, the actors and myself. Sometimes, the boom guy is not there, and we’ll just have this little microphone on their shirt or dress.
They use the space and I start to shoot their rehearsals. Sometimes it works, sometimes it sucks. They can go wherever they want. There’s no mark, there’s no spot, there’s no flag that blocks the light. There’s no reflector that reflects the light. They love that. They don’t feel the heat of a big cinema spot because there aren’t any, ever.
We use available light, even at night. The production designer is helping the DP with practical lamps. We choose the location depending on how we can use it with natural light, and if we’re going to need a torch or candles, then we buy some practical lights. The way of shooting is a way of working with the actors. It’s adapting and it’s being creative on the spot, where we react to each other.
If the camera’s there, they start doing their thing. Then, whoops, I see something and go “I’m not going to put the camera there, why don’t you come and get your close-up at the same time?” I try not to interfere—I try to talk as little as possible.
Do you know this thing of doing a master [shot], then a close-up and the reverse? I do it sometimes, but I try to avoid it and just let them work, find the close-ups when they come and then move away, and find the right distance between the camera and the actors.
I always keep the same lens 90 percent of the time—a 35-millimeter lens. This is the first thing I do with this kind of material, with Nicole and Alex [Skarsgård], with the tough sexuality and the violence and abuse, when they were courageous and generous and brave enough to go out there and do it. When it was too violent, I had a stunt double. The double was doing it first and Nicole was watching. Then, she was doing it—not the falling, of course.
The idea is not to cut and keep the camera rolling, not design the thing, and then you realize that you’re moved, that you’re touched and it’s tough to watch, and it works. You haven’t done any cutting yet, you haven’t put in your music, and it’s powerful.
You watch these scenes and I didn’t do a lot of cuts. If there’s some cuts, it’s because sometimes I pushed it further in the cutting room.
The image was shown later on, but just a visual flashback. She’s prepping the new apartment, for her kids and herself. She just got beaten up in the morning. We decided to show it with quick flashes—she’s prepping the apartment and remembering what happened. It’s better to hardly see violence than to stay there and watch it for 30 seconds. If you hardly show it, but you show the part that is tough, the memory of it is almost stronger than a 30-second shot.