Netflix and cordial?
Author Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 classic Anne of Green Gables is getting a refresh thanks to the streaming site and former Breaking Bad producer Moira Walley-Beckett. Debuting May 12, Anne With an E stars newcomer Amybeth McNulty as the precocious orphan girl who finds a new home on Prince Edward Island with siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Ahead of the series’ debut, we spoke with Walley-Beckett about her vision for Anne Shirley and taking inspiration from Terrence Malick (really!).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your introduction to Anne of Green Gables?
MOIRA WALLEY-BECKETT: I read the book when I was young. And I just devoured the first book. I think I read it several times in a row and then moved on to the rest of the series. I was captivated by Anne — I totally related to her. I was so awkward, and I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. And it’s like she gives one permission to be an oddball and to be unique and to be passionate and different.
How did Anne With an E come about?
Miranda [de Pencier] and I have been producing partners before, and she came up with the idea — thinking that it was a perfect moment in time to venture forward again with Anne. So we started talking about if we were going to do it now, how would it be, what would it look like, how would we make it relevant, and in what ways was it relevant to us and the current conversations in the world? And it was instantly apparent that it was absolutely timeless, timely, and topical, so CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] actually developed the project with us, and I wrote the first two-hour episode, and, based on that episode, they ordered it to series for eight hours of television. Then Netflix heard about it and got excited about it and acquired it and then we went into production.
You talk about making it fresh and timely: Were there any discussions about setting it in the present-day?
I was really attracted to the timeline in which it was originally set. It’s incredibly relevant to the story to investigate what it was like to be an orphan in the late 1800s — that prejudice that surrounded orphans who were viewed as damaged or delinquent, that they were considered unlovable and distasteful and frightening. It was important to tell the story in its original time period in order to do so.
That prejudice manifests in some frightening ways. What was your approach to balancing the light and dark aspects of the story?
All the darker aspects of the story are inherently in the book, so I’m not actually reinventing the wheel; I’m just taking us there. Because what happens in the novel is, it’s dealt with sort of in passing in conversation Anne has. I wanted to dramatize it and I wanted it to feel visceral. I wanted you to know exactly what her origin story was so that we could really understand her original wounding and the stakes that were at play for her. It was all there, I just dug it out.
In the second episode, Anne goes on an odyssey that doesn’t happen in the book. How closely did you feel like you needed to hew to the source material and where did you feel comfortable taking liberties?
I wanted to hew to the book really specifically in terms of the characters and the place, Anne’s relationship with nature, and the iconic moments that we cherish, like her smashing the slate over Gilbert’s head and getting Diana drunk on raspberry cordial. They’re beloved moments and they have to be there. So those are the ways that I stayed really close to the book, and I also further explored our three main characters: Anne and Marilla and Matthew. I spent a lot of time investing in their inner-most workings in my imagination. And then, as we did in Breaking Bad and as we did in Flesh and Bone, we ask the question, “What if ?” and let the characters tell the story and let the characters’ emotions and experiences become plot. When I first conceived of the two-hour pilot, I decided to consolidate a little bit [and] bring forward the brooch incident from the book and let it have very real consequences — it didn’t have as much impact in the book — and allow her to be sent away. That opened the door for me to send Anne on a whole new journey.
That new storyline also helps to solidify Anne’s relationship with Marilla and Matthew more quickly.
It gives us private glimpses into Marilla, and it pushes Matthew outside of his comfort zone. That episode affords us new intimacy into each of them, and so, yeah, I think it does accelerate a little bit the inner-workings of each of the characters and it allows, I think, for us to really understand why Matthew and Marilla make the choice to keep her after all. And gives it a lot of weight.
Let’s talk about casting Anne, because that really is a make-it-or-break-it role. I understand you saw almost 2,000 girls. What was it that you were looking for and how did Amybeth McNulty deliver?
It definitely was a make-it-or-break-it casting. There is no Anne, there is no show. So you need an actress who can carry a series. And that’s a tall order for someone who’s 13. It was really important to start early, which we did. We started searching before we even had Netflix as a partner. We looked on three continents and we also did a global search for Anne online where any girl in any place in the world could download the sides and upload an audition.
Oh, that’s cool!
It was super-cool, and so we saw tons of professional girls and tons of girls who just love Anne and thought they were Anne or wanted to be Anne and wanted the opportunity. I also went across Canada to four different cities and did open calls. So girls just signed up and walked in and read for me, and I saw hundreds of girls that way as well. Amybeth sent in a tape from Ireland… and caught my attention and Miranda’s attention and was on our short list for a really long time as we went through the process. She is fiercely bright, imaginative, curious, sensitive, emotional, game, and when you’re casting children — which is quite different than casting an adult actor or an experienced actor — you really want to find somebody who closely approximates the character because you really just want them to be. You don’t want them to come with, you know, some other version of themselves. You want them to be a persona and just turn the camera on and let the character live and breathe, and that’s what we found with Amybeth.
The look of Anne With an E is beautiful — it feels so cinematic. Was that your original approach or did working with director Niki Caro really bring this about?
Niki’s such a gorgeous filmmaker, and we had the perfect marriage with me and Miranda and Niki and Bobby Shore our DP [director of photography]. We set out to make a Jane Campion feature, really.
That’s kind of amazing.
We were very influenced by Jane Campion and Terrence Malick and the way that Joe Wright shot Pride and Prejudice. We wanted it to be epic and sweeping — and here’s that word again — visceral and also intimate and experiential so that we really can hone in on the tiniest little moments. And, most prevailingly, we wanted this series to be from Anne’s point of view. We were with Anne and inside her mind and feelings.
I grew up watching the Megan Follows version of Anne of Green Gables—
I can’t really speak to that.
You’ve never seen it?
So you came in with no preconceived notions of what this should be.
I specifically made a point of not watching because I didn’t want to be influenced in any way. There have been lots of versions of Anne of Green Gables over the years.
It’s a classic for a reason, right?
Yeah, it is widely adored.