Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” adaptation opens with the upper-class Richardsons’ house ablaze. A fire truck pulls up to the curb as matriarch Elena (Reese Witherspoon) watches from the edge of her driveaway. But it is too late to save the stone structure, which is burning from almost every room within. It takes until the finale episode to reveal that unlike in the novel of the same name, Izzy (Megan Stott) runs away before setting the fires, leaving her siblings to finish the job. The production team collaborated closely with the late director Lynn Shelton not only on how to create the look of the exterior flames based on in which room the fire first started, but also on what interior elements to see burning, to represent that Elena’s carefully curated world has been destroyed in an act of defiance against her.
Shelton passed away on May 16. Weeks before her death, she, among other artisans from the show, spoke to Variety about “Little Fires Everywhere.”
“We were in Hancock Park, Los Angeles, not the middle of winter Ohio. That ended up dictating what kind of lens we would be able to use, which directions we would be able to point the camera, how far down the block we would start shooting. We were usually shooting dusk for dawn, but it’s a specific and difficult time to be shooting things outside because it’s a brief window — it’s over pretty quickly. So we had to spread out those scenes. When we’re outside of the fire truck, I wanted a nice reveal of Elena standing there on the curb, and it’s not only a reveal of her, but also the house as well. She’s probably standing too close [compared] to where a real person would be for safety, but it’s for dramatic effect, as is the cut to closeup of the firelight dancing on her face with her kids out of focus on the curb behind her.”
“We wanted to see fire on the upper dormer, we wanted some along the eaves, some along the ridge, and we needed to have some lower like in the threshold of the door. We mapped those designs in a metal armature and gave it some depth by picking a flat metal frame up and adding dimensions. The material is black and fireproof, but it has an absorbing quality to it, so we came up with a flame mixture that has a gelatinous consistency so when we start the fire, the fire will catch that liquid and travel and create a swirling effect just by the nature of the flames. And every now and then we’ll add a breeze to affect the flames. We were able to shoot each one of those as an element on a soundstage and at the location we brought out flame bars to match the relationship to the camera with the bottom of the windows.”
Director of photography
“We wanted to show the house as a character, so that shot of the house is as big a portrait as we could make. You wanted to make a balance between Elena being close to it, in front of this inferno. Fire is emotional and operatic, and the lighting effects on her were all practically done with a mixture of lighting and about 12 different flame bars. What I love about looking through a flame bar and at somebody looking at flames is they’re connected in the same frame. So that’s one way of getting an emotional image of somebody experiencing something and you watching them experience it. It’s almost like an old-fashioned portrait of having a moment of your life shifting. We created a sense of lenses that made the light like the Midwest light, and we also created a beauty lens — and when I say created, we took elements out of other lenses to make an absolutely unique lens set for the show.”
“A survey of the practical set house served as the basis for the construction of the blackbox fireproof miniature that would sculpt flames to fit the actual set. VFX producer Christopher “CB” Brown organized previs illustrations to allow production to understand and agree on how the fire would originate and develop in accordance with the story, and from the measurements I worked with the SPFX department and the pyrotechnics technicians to design the rigs that would distribute flames throughout the miniature. The practical plates were almost entirely artificially lit for interactive lighting of the actors and environment from the house. The flames were entirely practically shot on a VFX stage, and then composited onto practical photography of the live action set by compositor Michael Beaulac under supervision by Marc Cote of Real by Fake VFX of Montreal.”
“From my end the most important part is that whatever burns doesn’t have anything that will be worse than what a respirator can handle, because you’re going to be on an enclosed soundstage.
So it’s mostly about picking natural fabrics; anything synthetic can’t burn because of the chemicals. For Lexie’s room it was about the perfect drapes and the beautiful white wicker, pictures of Lexie and Brian. In Elena’s room we had a fireplace mantel with pictures of her and Bill. Because the fire starts upstairs, those were the hero parts. We rebuilt an entire corner of Izzy’s room and we wanted to get Izzy’s violin in there. We built a ceiling and you can see the flames come up and wrap around and engulf the entire room, versus the other two rooms where we built one wall and did vignettes where you would see select items burning.”