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David E. Kelley on Balancing Comedy and Drama in HBO’s Big Little Lies

Ten-time Emmy-winning TV producer David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, L.A. Law) ventured into new creative territory when he agreed to adapt Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel, Big Little Lies, into an HBO limited series, at the invitation of executive producers and stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. The show, premiering Sunday night, follows the stories of a group of mothers raising first-graders in Monterey, California, who confront all manner of domestic difficulties — including murder — in their community. The story caught Kelley’s eye because of its fully formed characters and unique mix of comedic and dramatic elements. He was also attracted to the sisterhood among some of the women — Witherspoon’s busybody Madeline and her seemingly flawless friend Celeste (Kidman), career woman Renata (Laura Dern), the wife of Madeline’s ex, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), and the new-to-town Jane (Shailene Woodley). Witherspoon asked Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed her in Wild, to join the project, and the French-Canadian filmmaker ended up directing the entire series. Kelley, who wrote all seven episodes, spoke with Vulture about the adaptation process, why he set the story on the Northern California coast, and collaborating with Vallée.

Had you ever thought about adapting books for movies or TV shows before?
Yes, I was actually in the process of adapting a Stephen King book [Mr. Mercedes] at the time, which we’re shooting now, and I enjoyed that a lot. So it definitely opened me up to that world, and this book was a joy. The arc of the book was very strong, so my main mission going into it was not to screw it up. And eventually, with the high-caliber talent and cast, I knew we had a lot of positive things going in our favor, so I tried to be true to the book and measure up to the bar set by Reese and Nicole and [executive producer Bruno Papandrea], because they have very high standards.

At that point, Jean-Marc had not been hired yet?
No, we wrote three episodes before we approached Jean-Marc. Reese had worked with Jean-Marc. He was a very organic choice to direct. Jean-Marc and I hit it off immediately and it was a great collaboration.

The book is set in Australia. Why did you pick Monterey as the setting?
We wanted to bring the project over to America, in an American city, and I wanted to find one with the values that were in the book. A mix of demographics, affluent people and people less so. Competitive parents, both in their professional lives and in their roles as primary caregivers. I’ve lived up in Northern California for the last 13 years and have spent quite a bit of time in Monterey, and I thought that was a good translation. Monterey is obviously physically beautiful, the rugged coastline, and it had the right demographic mix, with its proximity to Silicon Valley. We populate it with that lean-in sort of mentality. So it fit the bill for a number of different reasons.

Nicole Kidman has described the book as having a very Australian tone, but your adaptation is very American. Do you think that was by virtue of the setting?
I’m not really sure. I think the main tenets of the book are preserved. Certainly, Liane’s writing style, in the vernacular, it sounds Australian. There are terms I wish I could’ve kept, which are so funny, but we just don’t use them here in America. So there was some of that translation that went on. I’d hardly say that it was an improvement because some of the witticisms that Liane had in the book just didn’t translate with American dialect, but the town, the physicality of the town, without having been to Australia, I tried to do my best guesstimate to keep the values that were in the book to our version. And the thing about Monterey is it’s just so beautiful, and at first blush, you just want to go there, you just want to be there. That was very thematic to the way we approached the show. You meet these women, you look at this world, and you think, what could possibly be wrong? It’s beautiful, it’s hypnotic in a very superficial way, but then the more you probe it, the place and the characters, you’ll see that it has its ugliness, but seriousness that’s in any town. If you look close enough, you’ll find the wart. We certainly located a few.

The homes that are used are magnificent. They’re just beautiful to look at and the show is stunning visually.
It’s a beautiful place. That was one of the challenges we had, not making it too beautiful. Because Madeline is upper-middle class and yet, that home, looking out on that ocean, it’s pretty spectacular.

In terms of the adaptation process, what was the most challenging part for you as someone who creates new worlds all of the time?
We should start with what was easier for me. I thought that the book, the architecture of the plot was very tight, very well-constructed. The characters were very well formed. So the book gave me a huge head start. The challenge, I guess, is what to eliminate because you can’t possibly put it all in. The most delicate act was the balancing one, and that was tonal. The book is a dark comedy, a comedy with dramatic underpinnings and maybe the series is a drama with comedic digression. But we pay very close attention to keeping the dramatic through line pretty taut and not letting the comedy dilute the power of some of those dramatic through lines. And yet, the piece, like life itself, can be both funny or not so funny depending on one’s point of view. So, we definitely wanted to preserve the comedic elements, but it’s walking that fine line of being able to embrace the comedy without letting it undermine the drama. There’s a lot of absurdism in the piece and social satire. We want the audience to be able to enjoy that satire, but we don’t want it to strip the dramatic power of the series itself. The tricky part is executing it in a way where the audience is allowed to look at a character or situation and be cognitive of well, this is kind of silly. And yet, treat problems as very real through the prism of that character. When it’s your problem, you tend to take it more seriously. These problems and the events that transpire in this community are very real and sometimes severe for our characters, and we want the audience to appreciate that. At the same time, enjoy the piece; look forward to watching the next one, because it is a fun place to go.

It is totally fun. But there are a lot of seriously dark and painful things going on in all of their lives. There’s the murder mystery, but there’s also bullying, domestic violence, sexual assault, all kinds of family issues. Striking the comedic balance must have been tough.
Exactly. I didn’t want to cover it with a powder of doom, like, oh, do I really want to go back to this place? If we succeed, and I hope we have, it will maintain it’s delicious quality that you want more, more, more, at the same time, as you point out, some of the subject matter is tough to digest.

As you read the book, were you surprised by its balance of tone?
That’s probably one of the reasons among many that I responded to the book — because it had many tonally divergent chapters and conflicting moods. I’ve always loved that messy mix of comedy and drama. The thinner the line, the better. And that was present in the book. We tried to preserve it in our rendition of the series.

The story is told with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and moment of fantasy. Was that what Jean-Marc Valle added as a director or had you scripted it that way?
Both. There were some flashbacks that were written on the page, and then Jean-Marc took that and ran with it and added others. It was pretty genius, the way he shot it, because we knew we were going to be cutting back and forth with interrogation and playing with time throughout the series. So some of that was scripted, the actual cutaways to the flashback. A lot of it was. But Jean-Marc, on top of that, would shoot snippets as we went along. He just had in his editor mind visions of where this could be cut in between scenes. And maybe he wasn’t sure they would work. We overshot in terms of flashbacks and then you could mix and match, but I felt that he elevated every single script filmically. Some of those shots were beyond my imagination. The running shot on the beach with Shailene that he added, I thought they all worked terrifically. No question he is a talented filmmaker, and it shows on the screen.

David E. Kelley on Big Little Lies’ Mix of Comedy and Drama