Power of women a unit­ing thread

Based on the best­selling novel, Big Lit­tle Lies, this TV mas­ter­piece is a com­plex ex­plo­ration of the fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence, writes

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In the bright, breezy world of Big Lit­tle Lies, Made­line, Ce­leste, Jane, Re­nata and Bon­nie are women who seem to have it all. Be­tween them, friend­ship, fam­ily, af­flu­ence and free­dom.

But to scratch the sur­face of this seem­ingly per­fect pic­ture is to ex­pose the truth of the hu­man ex­is­tence: that many things are of­ten not what they seem, that much hu­man in­ter­ac­tion is per­for­mance and that beauty is only skin deep.

The book on which the drama is based, writ­ten by Liane Mo­ri­arty, was orig­i­nally set in an Aus­tralian beach­front sub­urb. In the tele­vi­sion se­ries Aus­tralia is re­placed with the sim­i­lar Cal­i­for­nia sur­round of Mon­terey.

‘‘Liane writes with such an Aus­tralian voice, which is why [writer] David E Kel­ley put an Amer­i­can voice into it, but the rea­son we hope it works around the world is it is deal­ing with global is­sues in terms of women,’’ Kid­man ex­plains dur­ing an in­ter­view in Los An­ge­les.

And de­spite the in­nate Aus­tralian-ness of the story, Kid­man was sur­prised how univer­sal the char­ac­ters be­came when they were trans­planted from the north­ern beaches to north­ern Cal­i­for­nia. ‘‘I think when you re­ally get into it, they’re ac­tu­ally just women,’’ she says.

Film­ing the se­ries in Mon­terey was cen­tral to get­ting it right, she adds. ‘‘[It felt Aus­tralian] be­cause of where it’s set, the beach part of it,’’ Kid­man says.

It is also im­por­tant to sur­ren­der the story to the artists pro­duc­ing it, in this case: writer Kel­ley and di­rec­tor Jean-Marc Vallee. ‘‘There’s a book and there’s a cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence and if you just shoot a book, great, but it’s prob­a­bly not go­ing to work,’’ Kid­man says.

‘‘You have to give it over to a di­rec­tor be­cause it’s a di­rec­tor’s medium,’’ she adds. ‘‘Liane was amaz­ing. That’s part of the process if you’re go­ing to get your lit­er­a­ture made into cin­ema.’’

The se­ries comes to the screen with an ex­tra­or­di­nary cast. Along­side Kid­man, who plays Ce­leste, is Reese Wither­spoon (Made­line), Shai­lene Wood­ley (Jane), Laura Dern (Re­nata) and Zoe Kravitz (Bon­nie).

Dur­ing its de­vel­op­ment, the project came to a pro­duc­tion joint ven­ture be­tween Wither­spoon and Aus­tralian pro­ducer Bruna Pa­pan­drea.

‘‘The first time I read it, I just thought it was elec­tric,’’ says Wither­spoon. ‘‘It had this driv­ing nar­ra­tive that was this mys­tery and the mur­der at the very be­gin­ning and all th­ese in­ter­est­ing par­ent­ing dy­nam­ics.

‘‘And then as it sort of slowly opened up it be­came this very dense, com­plex ex­plo­ration of the fe­male ex­pe­ri­ence, the moth­er­hood ex­pe­ri­ence, and fe­male friend­ship, and that’s what sort of drew me to want­ing to bring it to the screen.’’

Kid­man says she was struck by the fact that the story had not just one great fe­male char­ac­ter, but five of them.

‘‘At first we were like, could you make it a movie? But, it suited [the tele­vi­sion] for­mat, and we were ex­cited about putting some­thing into that for­mat,’’ she says. ‘‘Ton­ally it’s tricky, as well, be­cause it’s funny, yet it’s deal­ing with re­ally im­por­tant is­sues.’’

The se­ries ex­plores a raft of is­sues, in­clud­ing bul­ly­ing and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

Wither­spoon, who has three chil­dren, says a par­ent’s re­ac­tion to those sit­u­a­tions is im­pos­si­ble to an­tic­i­pate. ‘‘Ei­ther when your child is the child be­ing bul­lied or, when your child is ac­cused of some­thing,’’ Wither­spoon says. ‘‘I had a thing with one of my chil­dren where they were ac­cused of cheat­ing and I got so an­gry, I had no idea what was in­side of me.’’

Kid­man, who has four chil­dren, con­curs. ‘‘Usu­ally a piece is deal­ing with one thing, this deals with bul­ly­ing, it deals with sex­ual as­sault, it deals with do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, it deals with sin­gle moth­er­hood, it deals with divorce, and how do you par­ent when you’ve got a teenage daugh­ter to an­other man and a small child with your new hus­band?’’ Kid­man says.

Kid­man hopes there is a pow­er­ful take-away for the au­di­ence. ‘‘Mak­ing peo­ple think, which is why we also say we hope peo­ple watch this show to­gether,’’ she says.

‘‘I love peo­ple com­ing to­gether so they can then talk about it, laugh to­gether, bond to­gether, and cre­ate con­ver­sa­tion.’’

In terms of what that mes­sage con­tains, how­ever, Kid­man is un­will­ing to say.

‘‘Ar­tis­ti­cally, I’m al­ways so re­luc­tant to give peo­ple what they should feel or think,’’ she says. ‘‘Be­cause how it’s in­ter­preted is in­cred­i­bly per­sonal. And, so, I’m not sure about the mes­sage. I want peo­ple [to] de­cide what they bring from it.

‘‘The essence of it, for us, is fe­male friend­ship, the ca­ma­raderie of women, the power of women when they unite and the way in which we pro­tect each other, which is why you’ve got to see the full seven hours,’’ Kid­man adds.

And there was, Kid­man adds, an emo­tional price to be paid. ‘‘I would go home… and I would cry,’’ she says. ‘‘It was re­ally tough and I wanted it to be as au­then­tic and as real as it could be. There is one par­tic­u­lar sto­ry­line which I think is in­cred­i­bly com­pli­cated but I do think the way David and JeanMarc [di­rec­tor Jean-Marc Vallee] mapped it is very, very real.’’

While Pa­pan­drea is a ca­reer pro­ducer, Wither­spoon and Kid­man, who co-pro­duce the se­ries, are both ac­tors. And when ac­tors choose to bring some­thing to the screen, Wither­spoon says, they do so as pas­sion­ate sto­ry­tellers.

‘‘It’s a unique thing to have so many tal­ented women col­lab­o­rat­ing on some­thing that they feel is im­por­tant,’’ Wither­spoon says. ‘‘And, I think, we’re at this crit­i­cal place where tides are chang­ing, con­ver­sa­tions are chang­ing, au­di­ences are de­mand­ing dif­fer­ent con­tent be­cause they want to see them­selves re­flected on film.

‘‘And, not the fairy­tale ver­sion of them­selves,’’ Wither­spoon adds. ‘‘The real ver­sion of them­selves. They crave re­al­ity, and there’s so much psy­chi­cally about pro­cess­ing with peo­ple you know and recog­nise.’’

The hon­esty and in­tegrity of the piece, Kid­man weighs in, lies in the fact that none of th­ese women is what she first ap­pears to be.

‘‘They set out one way, and then they un­ravel, and you take away some of their bar­ri­ers, and the things that they’re pro­tect­ing them­selves with,’’ she says. ‘‘All of them are not what they ap­pear to be at first, and that’s what I love as well.’’ - Fair­fax

Big Lit­tle Lies 9.30pm, Thurs­days, Prime, from Septem­ber 21.

Set in Aus­tralia, and star­ring Ni­cole Kid­man, Big Lit­tle Lies ex­plores a raft of is­sues like bul­ly­ing and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

Re­fer­ring to the show, Reese Wither­spoon says it is ‘‘a unique thing to have so many tal­ented women col­lab­o­rat­ing on some­thing that they feel is im­por­tant’’.

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