“We teach kids to tell the truth, and yet we lie to them,” says Chu of the show, based on the true story of 9-year-old Hilde Lysiak, who sought to uncover the facts behind a murder in her hometown. “I thought this little girl’s relationship with her father [Matt, played by Jim Sturgess] is interesting. He was a journalist at one point, and he taught her everything she knows.” However, Chu marries fact with fiction to tell the narrative. As played by Brooklynn Prince (“The Florida Project”), Hilde isn’t just investigating a murder but digging into a long-ago kidnapping that has haunted her father since he witnessed it as a child.
Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians,” “In the Heights”), who recently became a father to a little girl, found that aspect resonant. “Children are here to save us,” he explains.
Chu’s first dilemma was finding a young actor who could keep the audience interested throughout the 10-part series. The director was drawn to Prince, but she and her mother were initially concerned that the project was a kids show. Exec producer Dana Fox convinced them it was far more.
In the pilot, young Hilde, who publishes her own newspaper, The Magic Hour Chronicle, navigates her way around town and stumbles across a crime scene. The victim, Penny (Sharon Taylor), someone Hilde spoke with just a few hours earlier, apparently died in an accident. Or did she?
Chu’s main goal was to keep the story’s shifting focus clear. “It all comes down to families,” the director notes. The crime raises Hilde’s father’s memories of the kidnapping and becomes something he must confront to get to the truth of his past. “We had to balance how the story was told — from her point of view, from her father’s, and how much was told as an observer,” Chu says. He relied on editor and frequent collaborator Myron Kerstein to help establish perspective. “You can tell when we’re in her point of view and when we pull back, being patient with the audience,” the director says.
The family relocates from Brooklyn to Erie Harbor, N.Y., in the first episode. They move into Matt’s family home — old and steeped in history. “That house represents the uncovering of their soul; every detail was important,” Chu says. “It needed to feel lived in.” He and another frequent collaborator, production designer Nelson Coates, considered intricate details. “What year was the wallpaper from?” Chu posits. “What about the carpet — was it redone? Who built the attic? How does the exterior light shine in through it?” Coates took all these into account when building the ancestral home.
Chu explains the final minutes of the series’ first hour, in which the theme of children saving their parents is reinforced. Hilde gears up to ride off on her bike to follow the trail of the mystery, intercut with a shot of boys biking in the rain as the stories of the present and the past meld — a conceit that came together in the edit.
“Her father might have given up on journalism, but young Hilde hasn’t,” Chu says. “And her love for the truth and pursuit of it is what we see her going to seek.” She dons her bicycle helmet and grabs the camera her dad has given her. “That’s her weaponry,” Chu says. “The power of the truth could cut through anything. She leaves and says to her father that he needs to be brave and strong. She’s a superhero.”