Dense, complex female experience
Australian novelist Liane Moriarty’s bestseller Big Little Lies has been transformed into a modern television masterpiece, writes
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,’’ Kidman 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 would have been much cheaper to have the thing just in LA, and sort of make it look like a beach town, to somehow fudge all that.’’
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,’’ Witherspoon tells Fairfax Media. ‘‘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 immediately struck by the fact that the story had not just one great female character – a shortage in itself, in Hollywood, by anyone’s measure – 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.
‘‘The one thing you lose when you do TV is you don’t have that collective group watching something together and I’m still a huge fan of that,’’ she adds. ‘‘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 Jean-Marc [director 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.
Starring Nicole Kidman, Big Little Lies explores a raft of issues, including bullying and domestic violence.