Based on the bestseller of the same name by Liane Moriarity, written for television and created by David E. Kelley, and with the season directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the HBO seven-episode series Big Little Lies is as highly addicting and entertaining, as it is well done and expertly acted. Set in the tranquil seaside town of Monterey, Calif., where nothing is quite as it seems, the story follows Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley), and their lives and friendships, as rumors, conflicts, secrets and betrayals threaten to compromise everything between husbands and wives, parents and children, and friends and neighbors.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, executive producers David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée talked about why they found Big Little Lies so appealing, the biggest challenges in taking on something like this, why seven episodes was the right amount to tell this story, framing the story by introducing the murder in the beginning and then providing the reveals at the end, and why the final episode was so difficult. Vallée also talked about his next project, a Sharp Objects TV series for HBO, with Amy Adams.
Collider: David, between Goliath and Big Little Lies, you seem to have found a nice home outside of broadcast TV. Does it feel like it’s reinvigorated you, in some sense?
DAVID E. KELLEY: Maybe a little bit. I was happy at broadcast, too. It worked very well for me. But when you go to HBO or the streaming world, there’s more freedom of content. In terms of the storytelling, without the commercials, it’s very liberating. And not having to do 22 episodes is a nice thing, too. So yeah, I’m having a good time. Getting to work with the kind of talent we did on this, who can complain?
How did your experience with Goliath compare to Big Little Lies?
KELLEY: It’s very different from this. A totally different energy, but a more cynical one. I love the heart of this piece. When you keep mining and digging down, in most of these characters in Big Little Lies, the nucleus really is love. They’re real loving people. I don’t think you’re going to make that claim with Goliath. Sometimes you should stop digging.
How did you guys come to this project, and what was it that attracted you to it?
KELLEY: The book was first acquired by Reese [Witherspoon] and Nicole [Kidman] and Bruna [Papandrea] at Pacific, and then I got involved. I read the book and loved it and threw my hat into the ring to adapt it, and that worked out. Then, they went to Jean-Marc [Vallée]. I had only seen Jean-Marc’s work. We had never worked together. He had just done Wild with Reese, and I remember Bruna said, “Oh, you’re just going to love Jean-Marc!” And she was right. It was pretty great.
JEAN-MARC VALLEE: It went well, yeah. It’s funny, I didn’t want to read the book because I started to read the episodes. I read Episodes 1 and 2 and went, “Wow, this is so beautiful and touching and funny.” David has a way of writing dialogue that goes to the heart of the characters. They’re real and true, it’s provocative, it’s irreverent, and it’s funny. It also tackles issues that are serious, tough and heartbreaking. So, I went to Reese and said, “Well, I’m supposed to do another show, but let me see how it goes. I might do Episodes 1 and 2.”
KELLEY: But he ended up doing all seven episodes.
VALLEE: He was supposed to write eight, but then it became seven.
David, was it just the path of the storytelling that led you to go from eight episodes to seven?
KELLEY: Yeah. It really declared itself as wanting to be seven. It could have been eight, but I felt it would have diluted the last two, a little bit. I think the episodes get emotionally more intense, as we go along. I remember writing the version of Episode 7, before deciding not to do Episode 8, and it felt like you were robbed and wanted to keep going. Episode 8 was going to start with trivia night and be the whole episode. But without all of the stuff that transpired before and the emotionally amped-up trivia night, it felt like we needed to combine them, so that’s what we did. And HBO was great about it. They were like, “Whatever creatively works best for the series, let’s do it,” and you don’t always get that. They were great and very supportive. I think as soon as they started seeing dailies, they saw how beautiful it looked, how filmic it was and how the performances were just stunning.
Jean-Marc, how did you find the experience of directing all of the episodes?
VALLEE: It’s such a marathon that it’s really, really hard, physically and emotionally.
KELLEY: And by the way, he edits, so it’s not just shooting it.
VALLEE: I edit with a team of editors. There were five of us, and at the end, there were six. It’s demanding. You’re always there, working with your brain and trying to be creative. It’s demanding. You just want to stop, at a certain point, and do nothing and watch TV. So, it was a marathon, but it was great, creatively. It was amazing to have more than two hours to tell a story, which I’ve never done before. We had seven hours to meet these characters. Slowly but surely, we built it and created it, with the mystery and all of these Greek chorus characters, talking about each other and gossiping, and telling little lies and bigger lies. It was great, just to construct that, as we were moving on and adapting to what we were seeing and shooting.
And you’re jumping back into directing another full season of a TV series with Sharp Objects for HBO and with Amy Adams. With so many of Gillian Flynn’s books being turned into films, what was it about that story that made you see a TV series in it?
VALLEE: It was supposed to be a movie first, but Marti Noxon is the guilty one. She’s the one that went to eOne because eOne had the rights, and then they went to HBO. She went to Gillian, eOne and HBO and said, “This is a TV series. This is not a film. Here’s why.” She had a plan and a vision, and here we are, shooting eight episodes. We’re starting very soon. I committed to that before Big Little Lies. I was working with Amy Adams on the Janis [Joplin] project that we’re finally not doing, and she invited me to play in her new sandbox, doing a TV series. And then, Reese came and said, “I want you to come do this first, since that’s not ready.” I said to Reese, “Okay, I’ll do Episodes 1 and 2 because I won’t have time [to do more]. I have to do Sharp Objects.” And then, here we are.
When do you go into production on that?
VALLEE: On March 6th.
The women in Big Little Lies seem, at times, to be a little bit misguided, but they don’t seem like they’re intentionally trying to cause harm.
KELLEY: No, they all mean very well, which is sometimes the problem.
Did you always want to frame this story by introducing the murder at the beginning, and then not having the reveals until the end?
KELLEY: Yeah, I was pretty faithful to the book, in that regard. The information comes out in bits and pieces, with the climax at the end. The whole reason I got into it, at the beginning, was because I was so taken with the book, and with the characters and locale. Even though we changed the locale, we kept the sense of that ocean town that invited you to come, and where you could smell the air and feel the water, but the closer you got, you could see that there was muck, too. You can’t use everything because it would go on and on, but I was pretty faithful to the architecture of the book because it worked in the book. One of the things we weren’t sure about, at the beginning, was the juxtaposition of comedy and drama, and not letting one get in the other’s way. We never wanted to derail the dramatic flow with comedy. So, for the Greek chorus, we picked and chose where it worked and where it didn’t. But for the most part, it all come together and gelled. I don’t think much ended up on the editing room floor.
VALLEE: Sometimes we moved some lines that were too funny in the place they were in and put them somewhere else.
Because the women of this story are such interesting and complicated characters, the men in this story could have easily fallen into the background, but they’re interesting and complicated, too.
KELLEY: There’s definitely more explored with all of them. The men may be bigger characters than they were in the book. I’d have to go back and look at it. These women are so strong and formidable and complicated that it wouldn’t be believable, if they didn’t have some complicated and smart men in their lives, as well.
How tricky was it to find the relationship between Celeste and Perry, especially with how much it walks a very fine line, or even crosses that line?
KELLEY: It was the most challenging relationship in the book, and it’s tough stuff to mine. You want to be careful with it because it’s serious subject matter and you don’t want to be glib and not pay attention to it. I thought it was handled really well in the book, and I tried to live up to that. And then, you have to put it on its feet. You feel the truth when you yell, “Action!,” or you start rehearsing it. The way those scenes were shot, the chemistry and the antagonism and the passion between those characters, and the use of the camera and music, was pretty extraordinary.
VALLEE: It was on the page, and we stuck to that. It was tough and it was emotional. We just tried to be real. The D.P. had the courage to use no light and no blocking, so that the actors could move around and create a space of freedom. I asked them not to rehearse the fighting. Nicole [Kidman] was up to it and willing to try it. The first rehearsal was the first take. It’s all right that it looks messy and unexpected. They were trying things. Sometimes it was dead-on, on the first take.
Were there challenges in working with so many kids?
VALLEE: It’s always tough with kids on the set. [Iain Armitage], who plays Ziggy, is such a special kid. It’s challenging, but at the same time, they’re not acting. They’re acting, but they’re kids, so they’re playing. When they forget the camera and they just do their thing, it’s natural and it’s funny and it can be emotional. We were fortunate to find some great young actors. Also, they were surrounded by pros, like Nicole, Reese, Shailene [Woodley], Zoe [Kravitz] and Laura Dern. It helps to create that energy on set. They’re so real and so good, and then you put a kid in their arms and you capture it. We’re doing fiction, but since they’re free, it’s like capturing the staging. I don’t do fancy dolly shots. I trust the storytelling and the acting, and I try not to interfere in the cutting room. Sometimes it’s stylistic with the music, but it serves the story. It’s not there to show off. With these women and the kids, it really helped to have these actors as parents to help them.
What was it about Shailene Woodley that made her the missing piece to the puzzle of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman?
VALLEE: It was a creative process for all of us, with Reese and Nicole, too, because they’re producers. Her name was right on top.
KELLEY: She was on the top of everybody’s list, for good reason.
What were the biggest production challenges in doing this show?
VALLEE: Convincing everyone we wanted to shoot in Monterey as much as possible was one challenge. And then, there was shooting 10 nights in a row for trivia night, with the singing. The songs had to be ready. The actors had to record the songs, and then do the lip-syncing. And then, we had to shoot all of the different points of view. There were so many points of view, of everyone watching each other. We don’t know who’s dead and who did the killing. It’s not a whodunit. It’s a whodunit, plus who they did it to and why. It’s structured in a way where you wonder. There are a lot of possibilities. Shooting 10 nights in a row with all of those people was the toughest thing that I’ve shot in my life, so far.
David, did that feel like the most pivotal moment to write, as well?
KELLEY: The end was very hard. In fact, Jean-Marc saved me because it’s filmic storytelling. The end was totally beyond me. Visually, I belong in radio. He took story points and translated them and beyond for film. He designed a series of shots that are pretty magical. The ending is pretty amazing.
Big Little Lies airs on Sunday nights on HBO.