When asked what enticed Lauren Neustadter to accept the job as Hello Sunshine’s head of Film and Television there was just one reason: “It’s Reese Witherspoon.” Growing up as a young girl in Louisiana, before Neustadter even thought of a career in entertainment, she was watching Witherspoon in the 1991 feature “The Man in the Moon,” admiring the skill it took to act out complex emotions.
Now that Neustadter and Witherspoon are working on adapting and producing series and movies those emotions are at the center of every choice they make. Their latest offering, out today on Hulu, is a limited-series adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel “Little Fires Everywhere” focusing on a nomadic woman named Mia (Kerry Washington) who butts heads with the elegant Elena (Witherspoon). The series navigates a variety of topics, from race to femininity, motherhood and class, and for Hello Sunshine nuance is the name of the game.
Once they settle on a potential property it has to contain a few key elements that Hello Sunshine is known for: “It is vital that there be a compelling female character driving the narrative [and] we want our stories to be inherently hopeful,” she said. That’s not to say the world has to be perfect with a bow at the end, and “Little Fires Everywhere” certainly is a landscape where characters are messy. “We’re not afraid of complexity and we yearn for depth of character,” Neustadter said, but at the end of the day the goal is to leave people with a new way of thinking and an inspired outlook on life.
Neustadter explains that while there’s no clear formula for how she and Witherspoon pick projects, it always starts with a lot of reading and Ng was “a beautiful writer” whose power couldn’t be denied. “Little Fires Everywhere” is a story of assumptions, explains Neustadter. The audience goes in identifying one character and through the process of reading will see their preconceived notions totally upended. “[Ng] just upends your expectations” and one of those ways is by examining the nature of motherhood. As Neustadter lays out, the novel (and the series) explores what it means to be and have a mother and, more importantly, if the mother you’re born with is the one that’s right for you or not.
To tell such a deeply personal story about womanhood, it takes more than just a showrunner and Neustadter emphasizes that Witherspoon has cultivated a deeply intimate relationship with the authors whose work she’s produced, whether that’s Cheryl Strayed, Gillian Flynn, or Celeste Ng. “We try to stay very close to our authors because the most important thing is to honor their work,” Neustadter says. Ng regularly visited the set and writer’s room. The collaboration also extended to Witherspoon, Washington, and Washington’s producing partners, all of whom worked together to “navigate this adaptation in exactly the right way.”
The right way also included a writer’s room that offered nearly every perspective one could think of for a series like this. “Everyone had relevant experience that wasn’t just about connecting to the story in one way.” These differing perspectives included writers who were adopted, who were in the foster system, African American women, Asian women, men; “it was just layers and layers of perspective on the material.” The group didn’t want to miss out on anything nor did they want to ignore the obvious elements of the narrative that needed to be contextualized, particularly the racial and class dynamic between Mia and Elena. Everyone involved received a copy of Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility” alongside Ng’s text to get the full flavor of the different constructs at play.
Neustadter’s goal for “Little Fires Everywhere” is to spark conversation, not just between adults but between teenagers and their parents. A key element of “Little Fires Everywhere” is the relationship between Elena, Mia, and their respective children. “There aren’t enough opportunities for co-viewing,” Neustadter says, “and this is a show that parents and kids of a certain age can watch together and have complex conversations.” Neustadter says this happened even before the series went into production, with a senior executive at Hulu being so taken with Ng’s text that he bought a copy for his wife and each of his kids so they could all discuss.
And to follow the Hello Sunshine ethos, there’s a desire for the series to inspire people to look at their own ability to empathize with others. “If people watch the show and they’re not so quick to judge, and they walk through the world with a little more curiosity because they saw it and it made them think differently than we’ve really done our job.”
Next up on their docket is another story of complicated women and relationship, “Daisy Jones and the Six,” set to start shooting in just seven weeks. An adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s book, the story is set in the 1970s world of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” according to Neustadter, following a band drawn together and pulled apart when a new lead singer arrives. Set to star Riley Keogh and Sam Claflin, Neustadter says, “In the way that ‘Almost Famous’ made us feel like we were on that bus, that we were with that band, this show will do exactly that.”