Adapted from a subversive best-seller by Australian author Liane Moriarty, the series is told through the eyes of three doting mothers of first-graders — Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley).
“Big Little Lies,” a star-studded and darkly comedic drama series premiering this weekend on HBO, is a murder-mystery with a killer hook.
In the early moments of Sunday’s (Feb. 19) opener, viewers learn that a gruesome homicide has sent shockwaves through the tranquil coastal town of Monterey. But who is our victim? And who is the culprit? Neither is revealed until the final episode.
“That’s the great fun of it,” says Gregg Fienberg, an executive producer on the project. “At any time, it feels like it can be any of the characters.”
‘Big Little Lies’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 19)
Adapted from a subversive best-seller by Australian author Liane Moriarty, “Big Little Lies” is told through the eyes of three doting mothers of first-graders — Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley).
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Jane is a struggling single mom and newcomer who feels like an outsider among all the pretty, well-heeled alpha females. When her son Ziggy is accused of bullying by another mother (Laura Dern), battle lines are drawn, ugly secrets are exposed and, eventually, blood is spilled at a social gala.
Unfolding over seven episodes, “Big Little Lies” delves into the lives and obsessions of its characters while weaving in flash-forward snippets of witness interrogations that tease to possible motives behind the killing. These sequences collectively serve as a Greek chorus full of gossipy voices. “Things never blow over when Madeline gets involved,” claims one witness. “They blow up.”
But “Big Little Lies” is about so much more than the murder. Deftly swiveling between sly humor and sinister intrigue, it delivers thought-provoking examinations of class divisions, fractured families, parental attitudes, body image and domestic abuse. Along the way, the mothers often act more childishly than their kids.
Witherspoon and Kidman, both hands-on executive producers of the series, teamed up to get Moriarty’s book optioned for the small screen. Witherspoon believes viewers will instantly recognize every character in the saga, including her Madeline, an aggressive busybody, and Kidman’s Celeste, a statuesque beauty whose seemingly picture-perfect marriage is anything but.
“What was great about reading the novel is that I saw myself in different stages of motherhood,” she told reporters at the recent TV critics press tour. “… There were so many aspects of it that were so relatable. And the really amazing part was that it actually dug deep into the lives of women. It wasn’t about them being good or bad. It’s just that they showed every spectrum, every color of women’s lives.”
“I thought it was a unique opportunity to have so many incredible parts in one piece of material,” Kidman added. “These are all characters that we’d jump at the chance to play. … There’s just such an array of emotions in this piece.”
After Witherspoon and Kidman signed on to do the series, plenty of high-caliber talent — in front of, and behind, the camera — followed. Zoë Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott and James Tupper are cast members. Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) directed from scripts penned by David E. Kelley.
The latter, known for his prolific work on shows he created (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and more) found himself adapting someone else’s work for the first time and loving it.
“It was both easy and challenging,” he said of the process. “The easy part was that I could stay faithful to the book because I loved it. It was a world I wanted to lose myself in. What was challenging was having to judiciously cut some great segments because of our time limitations.”
One big change from the book is the setting. Moriarty’s tale took place in the fictional Australian berg of Pirriwee. Producers of the series wanted to Americanize the story and, for budgetary reasons, initially considered Laguna Beach. But Monterey simply had the look and feel they were seeking — an enclave that, for their narrative purposes, is “fueled by rumors and divided into the haves and have-nots.”
“It’s a town where people aspire to be the best they can be,” said Kelley, who lives in Woodside, Calif., and visits the Monterey area often. “… You have the affluent and the blue-collar workers living among each other, their kids going to school together. And beyond that, it just has a hypnotic beauty. Aesthetically, we were looking to draw the audience in and (have them say) ‘I want to go there on vacation.’ But the closer you get, you realize that there’s also danger there.”
The “Big Little Lies” crew shot in and around Monterey for 20 days in January and May. Among the locations were Fisherman’s Wharf and Colton Hall, along with Pacific Grove, Garrapata State Park and the stunning seascapes off Highway 1. The opulent oceanside abode Kidman’s character calls home is in Carmel.
“It felt like no matter where we pointed the camera, we would get something astonishing,” said Fienberg. “Plus, we liked the fact that not a lot of shows and movies shoot up there. It was great to be in a place that wasn’t sort of overexposed by Hollywood already.”
This distinctive sense of place was vital to Vallee, who previously directed Witherspoon in “Wild.” Throughout “Big Little Lies,” he fills the screen with images of the Monterey Peninsula and especially of the cold, dark sea that hugs it.
“The force of the ocean is so powerful there,” he said. “And the ocean is angry and violent, which (makes for) a nice symbol — a representation of the force of humanity, this thing, this water, this infinity.”