Many elements elevated HBO’s “Big Little Lies” into the top Emmy contender for Best Limited Series. Yes, the saga about an unlikely trio of women who defeat a dangerous predator is hugely popular, and topical — but the main reason it’s a hit with critics, TV fans, and Emmy voters (16 Emmy nominations) is the seven-episode drama broke through the clutter by breaking the rules.
Here’s how the series broke from conventional TV:
Actress-producers: Nicole Kidman (Blossom Films) and Reese Witherspoon (Pacific Standard) — who are rivals for the mini-series Best Actress Emmy and both executive produced the series — partnered to nail down the rights to the 2014 novel, with Kidman personally approaching writer Liane Moriarty to meet at a coffee shop when she was visiting family in Sydney, Australia. “Let us option it with the promise that we’ll get it made,” she told her.
Witherspoon’s then-partner Bruna Papandrea, who discovered the book, developed the series with veteran writer David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal”) and HBO. “On ‘Big Little Lies,’ I am still very much an actor,” Kidman told me, “but I was able to choose the material, I was able to baby it and watch it grow and come to life.”
A movie director: When Witherspoon wanted to bring in her Quebecois “Wild” director Jean-Marc Vallée to direct the entire series, Kidman was enthusiastic. “He nailed this,” Kidman told me. “He shot all seven hours, uses music in an interesting way, like a DJ, it’s at his fingertips. He shoots with no light, all natural, holding the camera, with [nominated DP] Yves [Bélanger]. They had to wear high shoes for me, so as not to keep shooting up my nose all the time. They were shooting on the fly, on the run. And Jean-Marc was constantly letting this complicated, layered subject matter evolve. It was important to me to keep all the nuances and the complications and the love and the abuse and the push-pull.”
This is a far cry from the usual master/reverse angle/close-up camera formats television directors have followed for decades. Vallée is a naturalistic director (his favorites include Clint Eastwood, Steven Soderbergh, and Jacques Audiard) who is not afraid of deep emotion, extreme behavior, long takes, digital cameras, or natural light. Vallée discovered his shooting method on the 2011 low-budget indie “Cafe de Flor,” and has used it ever since, from Oscar-winning “Dallas Buyer’s Club” to “Big Little Lies”: No lighting rigs, and as few people as possible on set. His preference is just the D.P., the focus puller, and the director — even the sound men are hidden from camera view to leave the actors free to move. “The idea is to create space and freedom,” Vallée said. “They love it that there are no marks. They are free.”
Working with 360-degree, hand-held 35 mm lenses, Alexa cameras gave the actors free range — no tracks, no dollys, always natural light. “You show up and the whole room is yours to explore,” said Skarsgård. “It feels alive in a way you don’t get with traditional two-shot camera filming. It was exciting and fun working on this set: If Nicole and I discovered something in a take, when he’d yell cut, we’d jump back in five seconds later. I felt very free. Jean-Marc encouraged us to try things and encouraged us to have fun, to take it where we wanted to go.”
Going off book: Vallée relied on Kelley’s scripts — to a degree. “There’s what’s on the page and then there’s instinct,” he said. “You get to be creative on the day.” He always starts by shooting the rehearsal, and refines from there. Known to wear his emotions on his sleeve, Vallée gets close to the actors, reacting viscerally to what happens in the moment. “I get emotional on stage,” he admits. “I try to trust that feeling and capture it, try not to put style above it, allowing yourself to make mistakes and start over again. I’m trying to be real and look real. It allows for more storytelling.”
The scene that still gets Vallée choked up is between over-the-top, fast-talking, perfectionist Madeline (Witherspoon) and her teenage daughter (Kathryn Newton), who is acting out by threatening to auction off her virginity online for charity. The mother admits she isn’t perfect, that she fucks up too. “She says, ‘This is wrong, what are you doing?'” said Vallée. “They didn’t need my reaction to do what they had to do. It serves me in a way just to react to what they do.”
Kidman and Skarsgård mapped out their outwardly perfect-looking couple’s intensely sexual and increasingly violent encounters, which were filmed chronologically, so that they shot the cathartic Emmy-nominated Season 7 finale, “You Get What You Need,” at the end. “From the first time I grab her in the first episode, it escalates to being very graphic and intense at the end,” Skarsgård said. “It helped tremendously to find that arc.”
Both actors knew how to improvise in the moment. “The physicality was improvised,” he said. “We didn’t release it. We showed up. We talk about it and then we jump in and see where it goes. Those days were intense and tough to shoot and emotionally very difficult. It was of great importance to check in with each other. It was exhausting and very tough.”
It was important for Perry to be a great father, Vallée insisted. “He’s not an asshole,” he said. “We know he’s not a great husband by the moments he gets crazy and violent. But he’s always a great father.” Kelley changed the script so that Perry tells the truth to the therapist about his violence. “You have to get why she’s staying.”
Sacrificing for art: Shooting on the run was intense and upsetting, said Kidman, who absorbed reams of research on spousal violence, not to mention actual bruises from her screen partner. “I wouldn’t tell him a lot of the time,” she said. “I didn’t want him to be doing anything that wasn’t appropriate. It’s a tacit agreement you both make not to step out of the bubble of the artistic landscape. it’s a tricky blurry line to navigate and I’m still learning and grasping and reaching.”
While Kidman has stalked some dark places on such dramas as “Rabbit Hole,” the length of this seven-episode shoot made it hard for her to just walk off the set. “It was insidious,” she said. “It disturbed my psyche. It was manifesting deep in my body, not knowing the difference between what was real and not real. My brain tells me ‘I’m an actor.’ My body tells me this is the same: A equals B. I had to express it and cry and go home. Part of the nature of being an actor is to be empathetic in nature and absorb other people’s feelings and portray them. Physically and mentally, it took a toll. Art costs you things.”
The final party episode was filmed over two weeks of night shoots, with the women dressed as versions of Audrey Hepburn and the men in Elvis garb. Vallée pushed to take Perry all the way, as a powerful panther moving toward his prey in sleek black leather. “The idea was to create drama in the middle of this fun entertainment,” he said. “The plan was to shoot all these perspectives, to cover the night through all these POVs as everybody is watching each other. Everybody knows something is about to explode. We broke the linearity in the cutting room.” (Vallée supervised a team of five editors —his editing alter-ego, Steven Soderbergh-style, is nominated Jim Vega.)
“It got so primal and so animalistic and so violent,” Skarsgård said. “This guy is a predator who abuses one woman at a time. When they gang up on him, that’s his demise: They take down the wounded predator. In that moment of sheer panic, it’s all about getting out of there, grabbing his wife, and trying to escape. I loved to choreograph the violence of that. It looks like something out of a nature show, when a pack of smaller predators take down the larger predator.”
Next Up: The director is wrapping an eight-episode HBO series adapted by Marti Noxon from Gillian Flynn’s dark, bloody serial killer thriller, “Sharp Objects,” starring Amy Adams, who brought him in after their planned Janis Joplin biopic bit the dust. “You get to explore and stay with characters in a way you don’t get to do on film,” he said. “And use music to create a universe. I’m out of my comfort zone, but they are seeking love. They are all seeking love.”
Coming up for Kidman is Yorgos Lanthimos’ experimental “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” which debuted at Cannes, along with John Cameron Mitchell’s wild “How to Talk with Girls at Parties” and long-time pal Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” Season 2, in which she plays a gay shrink with a challenging adopted daughter. Kidman accepted a special jury prize for her four projects on display at the festival, including Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled.” Kidman is committed to collaborating with women directors half of the time: movies with Rebecca Miller and Karyn Kusama are in the works, along with the role of Queen Atlanna in DC’s “Aquaman.”
As for Skarsgård, next up is Duncan Jones’ futuristic thriller “Mute” (Netflix), with Justin Theroux and Paul Rudd; James Kent’s World War II romantic triangle “The Aftermath” (Fox Searchlight), costarring Keira Knightley and Jason Clarke; and Jeremy Saulnier’s “Hold the Dark” (Netflix, 2018), starring Jeffrey Wright and Riley Keogh.
The Sequel: Likelihood is slim there will be a “Big Little Lies” follow-up. (That’s the point of a Limited Series, after all. Over and out.) During Emmy season, the cast and creators have been pestered about extending the story into a Season 2, but no one has any answers. “I feel like we had such a great experience,” Witherspoon told one Emmy Q & A audience. “We talked about it with Liane Moriarty, and it’s sort of up to [her]. These are her characters. They were born from her. As of right now, I think it’s pretty whole. I feel really good about where it is, and if this is all it ever was, it’s a beautiful thing we all accomplished together. I love these people and where we left them. They’ll always have a connection and they’ll always be together.”