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‘Big Little Lies’: Inside Reese Witherspoon’s Twisty Foray Into Television

Blame it on the weather. It was unseasonably cold in Monterey, Calif., when, deep into the 88-day shoot for “Big Little Lies” — after 10 straight days of late nights — the unthinkable happened: The usually unflappable Reese Witherspoon lost her temper. Faced with a difficult emotional scene, she yelled at director Jean-Marc Vallée.

Recalling the incident a few months later over tea at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, the two — who share an easy, effortless camaraderie — laugh at the memory. “I’m so sorry!” she tells him, sheepishly hiding her face in her hands. In his French-accented lilt, Vallée says, “I felt so sad because I knew it wasn’t her.”

But back in that fraught moment on the set, he turned to her and said, “Great! Let’s do it,” pushing her to channel her frustration into her performance. Vallée reports that Witherspoon — perfectly cast as the fast-talking, multitasking mother of two, Madeline Martha Mackenzie, in HBO’s new limited series about the tragic fallout of secrets in a small town — nailed the scene. (Based on the bestseller by Liane Moriarty, the seven-episode series debuts Feb. 19.)

Photo: Williams & Hirakawa; Grooming (Vallée): Sara Denman at Celestine Agency; Wardrobe (Witherspoon): Petra Flannery at Two Management; Sweater: Lanvin; Jeans: Mother; Jewelry : Jennifer Meyer

Witherspoon, who serves as executive producer along with co-star Nicole Kidman, handpicked her “Wild” director for this creative reunion. (The 2014 film, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, chronicles a woman’s journey of self-discovery as she hikes the Pacific Crest Trail.) “I feel safe with Jean-Marc — more safe than I’ve ever felt with anybody, because he’s my brother, he’s my partner; I know he’s always going to demand the best, but I’m always going to bring my best,” she says. “We hold each other to those standards. We don’t have any artifice between us.”

It’s not simply the cliché about finishing each other’s sentences (and, yes, they do) but about completing each other’s vision. They may disagree (see above), but starting with “Wild” and now with “Big Little Lies,” they’ve formulated a chemistry that brings out the best in both of them.

This time, their collaboration birthed a seven-hour film — yes, film. It just happens to be airing on a TV network. “I say episode six is better than most movies I’ve been in,” Witherspoon notes.

Vallée had originally signed on to direct only the first two hours, but under pressure from his star — “I called, texted, emailed,” Witherspoon confesses with a giggle — he quickly caved in and signed on for the full run.

“That’s the beauty about what’s going on right now with all the new players and what HBO is doing — inviting film people to play in their sandbox,” he says. “The line between film and TV series is very thin.”

Armed with a “generous” budget, he approached “Big Little Lies” as if it were a theatrical movie, breaking the five-month shoot down into two chunks. The crew shot four pages a day, just like a feature.

This marks Witherspoon’s TV debut (other than a brief stint on “Friends” as Rachel’s sister), but for her, too, the line between TV and film is blurring. “What is film? What is TV? What is digital?” she asks. “I think probably within four years we’re not going to be talking about that anymore. It’s just content. Content is content. Because as an artist, the most important thing is you want to have work that reaches people. I don’t care how it gets to them. I don’t care if it’s in their living room, their laptop, their mobile phone — I just want them to see it.”

Witherspoon might get even more than that: Vallée has a track record of directing his stars to awards acclaim. She earned an Oscar nod for “Wild”; Matthew McConaughey made the circuit in “Dallas Buyers’ Club.”

Renowned showrunner David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice”), who wrote all the episodes of “Big Little Lies,” concedes that the final product is as much Vallée’s vision as his own. “Jean-Marc would do what we call camera passes [on the scripts], because some of this stuff is way more filmic than I could have made it in my head,” recalls Kelley. “I felt he elevated every script with his use of the camera. He’s a great storyteller.”

The novel “Big Little Lies” was still in galleys when Bruna Papandrea, Witherspoon’s then-producing partner at Pacific Standard (they parted ways in September) discovered it. In a whirlwind, Witherspoon read it and recruited Kidman, with whom she’d long wanted to work. “I thought it had so many really interesting characters and a big reveal, and a nice sort of juicy plot twist,” says Witherspoon.

Kidman happened to be heading to Australia, so she offered to meet with Moriarty to secure the rights. “I promise we’ll get it made, and Reese and I will be in it,” Kidman told the author. Eighteen months later, the series was in production.

Photo: Williams & Hirakawa; Grooming: Sara Denman at Celestine Agency;

The team did flirt briefly with the idea of a feature; indeed, with that A-list lineup, they were approached by multiple movie studios.

“For a minute we looked it as a film,” Kidman recalls. “But it needs the time to do justice to the five women. We wanted the storylines to be evocative. We wanted them to be properly dealt with, and to squeeze it into two hours would have been tough.”

CAA, which reps both actresses along with their producing banners, had just signed Kelley as a client, so he was proposed as the writer. But Witherspoon says she was swayed less by CAA’s packaging interests than by Kelley’s proven skills.

“If you can get David Kelley, you should go with David Kelley,” she explains. “I think something so interesting with David is that he can write these dramatic scenes with Nicole and Alex [Skarsgård, who plays Kidman’s husband], but also the funniest dialogue for me.”

In May 2015, the high-profile package was shopped to the usual premium suspects — HBO, Netflix, and Showtime — sparking a bidding war. HBO won out. “They stepped up in a big way,” says a source. “They made a commitment to making the project immediately, and that was very appealing to everyone involved.”

But for the stars, the decision was personal: Kidman credits her pre-existing relationship with HBO (from her role in 2012’s “Hemingway & Gellhorn”), including CEO Richard Plepler.

“I knew they were good people,” she says, adding that she trusted that HBO would give the team creative freedom. “As much as they say in this industry, ‘Business is business and don’t take anything personally,’ I take everything personally. Because I’m personal. That’s what I do. And I wanted to go back there.”

Given the wattage of talent attached, landing the project was key for HBO’s programming strategy. “What’s nice about this project is every single person involved is at the top of their game. You can see that in the show. And you can feel that working on the show as well,” says Casey Bloys, HBO programming president.

The fact that “Big Little Lies” is closed-ended, with no second-season potential, doesn’t concern him. “You want a diverse mix of programming, so I don’t have all one-season shows,” says Bloys. “But compelling material is compelling material.”

The show will certainly add star power to HBO’s firmament, always a priority for the cabler: Jude Law now reigns as “The Young Pope,” and May will bring the Bernie Madoff movie “Wizard of Lies,” starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer.

On the drama front, the network has established “Westworld” as a solid freshman with awards credentials; on deck are David Simon’s “The Deuce” and a family drama from Alan Ball.

The network has a deeper bench on the half-hour side: Although “Girls” is signing off next month, “Veep” and “Silicon Valley” still reign supreme, and Issa Rae’s “Insecure” has impressed in its debut. And “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is set to return for a highly anticipated revival.

“Big Little Lies” may well take its place alongside those hits.

“Here’s the really great thing about the show for us: It’s enjoyable, it’s accessible, but it does not give up being smart television,” says Bloys. “And by that I mean it has things that are relevant to how we live today. I think for us that’s a good goal.”

WRITE STUFF: “We’re true to the essence of the book,” says Nicole Kidman with Jean-Marc Vallée and co-star Alexander Skarsgard. “But of course you have to make changes. You can’t just shoot a book.”

At first glance, “Big Little Lies” seems like a simple mystery: There’s a murder and, just to add a twist, there’s a question of who the victim is.

“Murder is just a hair’s breadth away for some of these people,” says Witherspoon, rattling off a long list of suspects.

But the show is no simple whodunit. Underneath the sun-soaked California exterior, “Big Little Lies” tackles dark subjects: bullying, infidelity, physical abuse. That meant for a challenging script. The team struggled to strike the right tone — balancing the mystery with a few laugh lines and then those shocking notes of violence. It’s a delicate tightrope walk.

That led to perhaps the most exchanges with HBO, reports Kelley. “When we first started the project, there was a question mark in terms of the tone, because the book is at times silly and at times very, very ugly,” he says. “I think that we stay very true to the dramatic tentpoles of the piece, but allow ourselves to be funny where we can, because life often is. Even if you don’t feel laughing, sometimes it laughs at you.”

Originally planned as an eight-episode series, Kelley ultimately turned in seven scripts, which he felt completed the narrative. HBO agreed without complaint.

Witherspoon and Kidman were hands-on executive producers, involved in every stage of production. (When Vallée complains about the tight schedule on his upcoming project with Marti Noxon, “Sharp Objects,” Witherspoon teases him: “You should talk to your producer about that.”) They were particularly vigilant to ensure that those challenging storylines were portrayed with sensitivity and care.

“Reese and Nicole were really smart with notes, with what they wanted to say with the show,” says Bloys. “This is not a vanity project by any means.”

One area they wanted to explore was the issue of working vs. stay-at-home mothers, so Laura Dern’s CEO character, Renata, got a deeper backstory.

Given that they were adapting a bestseller read by millions, there was debate about how faithful their version should be. The most noticeable change is location: The action is transplanted from Australia to Monterey.

“That was a big, conscious choice,” explains Witherspoon. “I think we all agreed that [Monterey] brought more of the sense of a small community where everybody talks about each other.”

There are other minor tweaks, including aging the children up from kindergarten to first grade. But Witherspoon did ask Kelley for one major change to her character’s arc (no spoilers!).

“Because I didn’t have anything to play but perfection, and I just think those people who are perfect [are] all full of s–t,” she says. “It mainly came out of me not having anything to really put my teeth into. I think there’s something fascinating about a person who projects perfection or is very judgmental of others who is clearly just swimming in their own discontent.”

The same might apply to Kidman’s character, Celeste, whose picture-perfect marriage is anything but. “I’m still emotional about it,” she says of the role, which left her with bruises. “It dug so deep into my psyche. But I wanted to do service to it.”

Kidman recounts her recent lineup of projects: “Lion,” a film in which she played an adoptive mother of a boy searching for his birth mother (which earned her an Oscar nod), and “Photograph 51,” a play about a female scientist whose groundbreaking work on DNA research was never acknowledged.

“Part of the reason I act is to tell different stories with different voices for different women,” she says. “As an actor, to be given those things that are so deep and [include] important issues, I’m grateful to have had the chance.”

 

Williams & Hirakawa; Wardrobe: Petra Flannery at Two Management; Sweater: Lanvin; Jeans: Mother; Jewelry : Jennifer Meyer

At the recent Television Critics Assn. press tour, Witherspoon championed “Big Little Lies” for promoting women, noting that it boasts five female leads (along with Witherspoon, Kidman, and Dern, the lineup includes Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz). “I thought that was a really unique opportunity to have so many incredible parts for women in one piece of material,” Witherspoon told reporters.

For all their talk of parity in front of the camera, it’s worth noting that men were picked to write and direct the project.

“Any woman who’s trying to lift other women up and create more work for women is literally just looking for parity,” says Witherspoon, defending the selection of Vallée and Kelley. “We’re not looking to completely take over projects. It’s just nice to have 50-50. You need male energy and female energy on every project. You need different races on every project. The deep mission to understand each other is what creates great art.”

With its cinematic feel and deep core of sensitivity, “Big Little Lies” fits comfortably into Vallée’s oeuvre. And that’s in no small part due to his relationship with Witherspoon.

“It was everything,” says the actress of their connection. “Film is a collaborative medium.” Adds Vallée, “We built this. After these two projects, I feel blessed.”

When she first started developing “Wild,” Witherspoon reached out to McConaughey for his advice on whether she should hire Vallee. “This movie is everything to me,” she told the actor. He wholeheartedly endorsed him, telling her: “You have to hire Jean-Marc. He’s truly so generous with actors.”

Now Witherspoon is passing that message along herself. “I always say Jean-Marc feels your performance as much as you, if not more than you,” she says.

Having learned about his directing style from “Wild,” Witherspoon warned her co-stars. “‘You’re gonna be on for an hour and a half,’” she told them, “‘but it’s gonna be the most exciting experience, because you just don’t break. It’s almost like being in a play or a documentary: You’re being watched from all sides.’”

Vallée’s on-set habits are idiosyncratic. To create a feeling of authenticity, he uses a handheld camera and shoots continuously. He doesn’t yell “Action” or “Cut.” He’ll even shoot during rehearsals or breaks: for instance, capturing the kids running around. Anything on set is fair game. No close-ups, no marks, no coverage, no rules — that’s the Vallée way. For Witherspoon, it was transformative. Working with him, she says, changed her as an actress.

And the results are reflected in the final product, in which Vallée’s trademark jump cuts and flashes play up the mystery underlying the script. We see a glimpse of a gun, a vanishing footprint on the beach … as the women stare disconsolately out at the ocean, which storms and rages.

Also fueling the production, on screen and off, was Vallée’s passion for music. “I guess I’m a frustrated DJ who’s making films,” he says with a laugh. Before production began, he gave playlists to the cast for all their characters, full of female vocalists: Janis Joplin, Alabama Shakes, Fleetwood Mac.

It was his suggestion that Madeline’s 7-year-old daughter, Chloe, be a “music freak.” Onscreen, she always has headphones on, but whatever song she’s playing, her mother is listening to, too, whether they’re in the car or the kitchen.

“Instead of creating an original score and music that the characters don’t listen to and don’t hear in their lives, it feels real,” he says.

At the wrap party in June, Witherspoon, Kidman, Dern, and Woodley serenaded their director with a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” all holding hands.

***

TV is riding the boom of limited series. A-list talent is drawn to the promise of the short run without the long contracts typically demanded of dramas. And networks are eager to oblige, in exchange for star power and awards potential. Witness the Emmy sweep of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and the Golden Globes haul of AMC’s “The Night Manager.”

Indeed, when this deal was struck, it was dubbed “the female ‘True Detective,’” given the high-profile talent attached. But unlike that anthology series, which offered potential for future seasons (albeit with diminishing success), “Big Little Lies” is one-and-done. Whether or not the murderer in the book is still the culprit on-screen (Kelley won’t reveal), it does have a finite conclusion.

Should “Big Little Lies” succeed with ratings and awards — undoubtedly the goal — HBO will have no clear path for getting the band back together. To be fair, this isn’t the only limited series to face that dilemma: AMC would love another round of “The Night Manager” with the dream team of the very busy Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie; and last summer’s hit “The Night Of” similarly ended on a closed case, though creator Steven Zaillian is said to be mulling a return to John Stone’s world.

For Moriarty fans, there is a glimmer of hope: She has a long line of best-sellers, and Kidman and Witherspoon have secured the rights to her latest novel, “Truly Madly Guilty.” But no one’s ready to commit to a reunion just yet.

Neither do Witherspoon and Vallée have another project lined up together. But that may not be the case for long, as the producer/star turns to the director and says, with a wag of her finger: “Don’t think I’m not going to find one.”

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