If you haven’t read Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies and you’re already hooked on the HBO limited series, don’t worry that you might be left hanging. By the end of the seven episodes, director Jean-Marc Vallée promises that viewers will know who killed whom, and even who the little school bully is.
The acclaimed director of Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, which starred Reese Witherspoon, executive producer and star of Big Little Lies, had already signed with HBO for his first TV project — directing Sharp Objects — when he got a call about directing Big Little Lies. Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, also an executive producer and star, had optioned the book and hired David E. Kelley to adapt it, and offered Vallée the chance to helm the first two episodes.
“I hadn’t read the book,” Vallée told Vulture in an interview. “I read the two first scripts and this is the kind of material that I respond to: emotional, funny, intelligent, brilliant. David Kelley did a brilliant adaptation. So that’s how I pick my projects. I like character-driven stuff that shows humanity and something that can make people think. But the main reason was teaming up with Reese again and getting to work with Nicole.”
Near the end of the two-episode gig, Vallée was persuaded to stay for the whole project. “It’s Reese’s fault, again! She was really, like, harassing me. Also, I had already gotten attached to the kids and I loved the project so much and I went, Oh, God. I really only wanted to do two because I was tasked to Sharp Objects and I didn’t want two marathons back-to-back, but here I am. I’m dying!” Vallée, who begins filming Sharp Objects in March, spoke to Vulture about his nontraditional approach to filmmaking, working with child actors, and why a series about wealthy Californians can still resonate in today’s culture.
I’ve read that to create authenticity in scenes, you tend to shoot continuously using handheld cameras without stopping to yell “Action!” or “Cut!” Why do you work that way?
Well, I do say “action” and “cut,” but it depends. Particularly with kids if you say “action,” it can alter the moment. Sometimes we just film them without saying anything. Sometimes with adults, too, because it’s something that I developed through the years with the crew that I’m working with. It’s a way of trying to capture what’s essential, what’s beautiful, what’s amazing, which is the characters, the storytelling, the emotions. We’re not trying to aim for style or tone; we’re just trying to capture something that looks real and authentic and emotional and beautiful, dangerous or funny or shocking. When you move handheld, and the director of photography has the courage to shoot with no lights, the set becomes a space of creativity and freedom where actors can move wherever they want to move. We even shoot the blocking and rehearsals. You’re there as a first audience and you witness what’s going on and you capture it, and you’re not interfering. It’s just beautiful and you get emotional. And you haven’t done anything yet.
How did the actors adapt to that process?
They love it. They adapt very easily. They’re not waiting. We never wait for the cue, the crew to be ready, for the lighting to be ready. We’re always ready to shoot. On the set, when we start shooting, it may be a while to get out of the comfort zone when it’s the first time you do it, but then they see that it’s a process, that it’s all about them.
David E. Kelley told me that a lot of the flashbacks were scripted as flashbacks, but you also use flash-forwards and quick cuts to fantasy or memories. Why did you think that was the best way to tell this story? I’m talking about quick scenes of a woman walking on a beach or glasses clinking, that kind of thing.
I use the characters to reflect different moments. It’s all about points of view, and character, and relating to them. The best way to relate to them is to use their point of views. So they’re driving and then I cut to something, just for a minute, and come back to them driving and then you know that they’re thinking about that. Or in the therapy session with Celeste, we cut to these visual flashbacks because I use close-ups of the character and then I cut to this image with no sound, and I keep the sound in the present, and then I come back to this close-up and you really see that she’s thinking about this.
I added more and more of this as we were shooting and as we were cutting because I saw that it was working perfectly for this series. We wanted to relate to these women, to these people, but mainly the women because they’re the lead characters. Sometimes you’re meant to wonder, Wait a minute, was that a sex scene or a crime scene? Was that coming from Madeline or Jane? In the cutting room, I realized it was efficient and it was good to do this, to bring the audience to a place where you wonder and you’re not sure, but you want to know. So it was just continuing what David and Liane did on the page and trying to push it.
As the series moves on, the puzzle starts to come together and you see those quick memory flashes for what they really are. As far as the murder mystery, were you giving us clues all along?
Of course. You’ll discover this and you’ll go, Oh my fucking God. Behind the murder mystery, the whole thing is the beauty of it. It’s like a pretext to talk about us, to talk about our humanity, to talk about our flaws, to talk about how we lie, the big lies, the little lies, and how it affects us and how we love. It’s a beautiful reflection of love and life.
You mentioned that you had fallen in love with the kids. What was it like to direct them?
It’s always tough. They’re amazing, though. They were amazing. Our casting director introduced us to all of them. It’s always a blast. You get to become a kid again when you work with kids. They do crazy stuff. They’re in play mode. It’s very playful. And so, it was great, but see, I have more grey hair now. It’s tough to work with kids. Kids are animals!
Were you impressed with their performances?
Particularly, the bully one — well, the one who was accused of being a bully — little Ziggy [played by Iain Armitage]. And Darby Camp, little Chloe, Madeline’s daughter. She was something. And she became also the music geek of the series. She’s the one always playing music, contaminating everyone with her musical taste.
That was a choice you made, right?
Yeah. With score music, the characters are not hearing the music. It’s just music accompanying the scenes, but here the characters are playing music. We cheat sometimes — the music they’re listening to becomes the score and goes over other things. But most of the time, it’s playing in the story to the characters. So in this series, it’s mainly Chloe doing it, but then Madeline and Jane, too. Jane has this routine of running and listening to music while she runs. Celeste listens to music, Perry plays some music, the tracks of Neil Young, and dances with her, and you know, and in that case, the music is mixed in a way where it sounds like it’s coming from the room. It’s coming from the audio system that they have in the house. It’s more fluid and it doesn’t feel like we’re playing music to play music. It’s accompanying the people, the characters.
This series comes at a time when some feel that stories about the very rich are not compelling or even desired. What do you think stands out about Big Little Lies that will make people overcome those feelings?
They’re presented in a way where they’re flawed. They’re not perfect. And they don’t have the great life. Yes, they have some money, but they’re not perfect. They’re having a hell of a hard time with their lives. So it’s not about that. I don’t think the audience will think, Oh my god, these rich people, do I care? The series was about portraying this community, wealthy community, but they’re not all white and rich. It’s blended. There are all kinds of people there. And Jane is not rich. It’s true that most of the community is rich, but we’re not depicting, showing them, and defining them as the thing to be. We’re not afraid of bashing them, criticizing them and also caring for them. That’s the beauty of it. You’re not a human being because you have money? You’re not allowed to feel?
Do you promise unequivocally that the audience will not be left with unanswered questions?
You will know everything. Who’s going to kill whom? Woman killing another woman? Husband killing another husband? A husband killing another wife? There are a lot of possibilities. A kid killing a kid!
This interview has been edited and condensed.