In just seven episodes, Big Little Lies unspooled a tense murder mystery and provided whip-smart commentary on the daily absurdities of family life. “It’s always tricky blending tones,” says showrunner David E. Kelley. “You don’t want those comedic beats to steal the thunder of your dramatic through lines, and you don’t want the severity of the dramatic points to snuff out the fun.”
Fortunately, it worked: The show earned 16 Emmy nominations, including Best Limited Series and a Best Writing for a Limited Series nod for Kelley. He credits Big Little Lies’ successful tightrope walk to his colleagues, all Emmy-nominated for their roles in the project themselves: director Jean-Marc Vallée (Wild) along with stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, who pulled double duty as producers.
EW chatted with Kelley about the show’s “surprise” success, what the skilled cadre of actors — also including Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz — brought to their roles, and whether he thinks the limited series might get the second season some fans are craving.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Now that we’re a few months out from Big Little Lies, what kind of responses have you received? Has anything surprised you?
DAVID E. KELLEY: It’s all been a surprise. You never know how these things will turn out. You sit down and you write them because you like them, and you congregate a cast and a crew that also responds to the material, and you make it to the best of your ability, and then you throw it out there, and you kinda cross your fingers and duck.
The first reward that you get is if we all like it and believe in what we made, so we had that. But in terms of the reaction to it, it’s just a big guess. So it was a surprise that it caught on with such a frenzy, but as surprises go, one of the better ones.
What are some of the scenes that you’re proudest of?
The ones that were the most difficult to write and the most disturbing to me were obviously the ones involving Celeste and the violence and domestic abuse. That was just tough stuff to wade into. It was really, I know, equally difficult — probably more so — for Nicole to play, and for Jean-Marc to direct. But there was some gratification when I saw it on the screen to see how well they had executed it. It was very powerful. We ended up being pretty proud of the depiction of it.
Let’s see… the finale. I loved the juxtaposition of suspense and music and love and murder. That was a big challenge to pull all that off in 60 minutes. I sat back and marveled at how well Jean-Marc balanced all those story lines and blended those tones.
Finales can be so divisive, but for the most part, I felt like people agreed this one was extremely satisfying.
I give great credit to Jean-Marc on that, because he just did masterful work. I remember after the script was written, he came back and said, “Okay, can we try and tell this with the camera as opposed to words, and fill in some of this with subtext as opposed to text?” And by that time — well, we had an almost immediate trust. By show seven, I really felt the series was more his baby than anybody’s. When I saw what he did with it and how he brought that home, it was pretty thrilling.
When you’re dealing with such a talented ensemble cast like this, do you want to play to their strengths, or do you want to give these actors a challenge they’ve never had?
In terms of this series, I was trying to be very faithful to a book that I quite loved. Then we attracted a pretty great cast, and you see that they have gifts and strengths, and you want to avail yourselves to them. With Reese’s role, Madeline was the protagonist, she was the antagonist, she was a scorned lover, she was a parent, she was a busybody — she had so many hats to wear, all of them involving different tones. It took a great deal of preparation by Reese and real impeccable execution, because she had to go from being emotional one moment to funny the next to bullying in the next.
With Nicole, she was so gifted in her subtextual abilities, to be able to tell a story with her face, that when we were writing some of those scenes, especially the therapist scenes, we didn’t have to give her words because she was so able to convey emotion — conflict, surprise, betrayal — just with her reactions. That’s a real luxury for a writer to have an actor with that kind of skill set.
With Renata, she probably became a little bit bigger in the series, and a little bit funnier, because Laura Dern has those dramatic and comedic muscles, and can shift on a dime. And she has that quality where she can be the antagonist, that character you disapprove of at every turn, and at the same time, she’s becoming more and more beloved with each scene. That, again, is a difficult trip. She brought such a heart and humanity to that character that even though she was the antagonist to our main players, your heart went out to her.
So when you have five of your cast members being nominated for Emmys — some of them against each other — does it feel like a kind of Sophie’s choice for you?
[Laughs] Well, I don’t know. I’m just happy for everyone. It’s all icing on the cake, and it actually makes it more fun, because it was such an ensemble piece. This was such a selfless group through and through, so to see everybody get rewarded was very nice.
I thought the limited series was the perfect medium for this material. And your other shows, Goliath and Mr. Mercedes, also have these tight, short seasons. Is there more freedom in that for you?
Well, there’s more free time! There is freedom in the storytelling, because without having to write a franchise that has to live in perpetuity, you can go places faster, and you can burn more brightly if you have to, because you don’t have to keep the star burning for a hundred episodes, to keep characters redeeming. You can play to their flaws if it’s a shorter run. And you can be a little bit tighter in your plots. I’ve really enjoyed the limited series format.
I have to ask the season 2 question. What are your thoughts on doing one?
We don’t know yet. We’re kicking it around. If we feel that the material warrants it, we’ll do it. Everybody’s game for getting the band back together, but we want to make sure that we’ve got the music to justify it. That decision hasn’t been made yet, and it’ll be story-driven when it is.
From what Reese and other people have said, it sounds like it’s up to whether Liane Moriarty has a story idea.
With Mr. Mercedes and with Big Little Lies, the authors weren’t really involved in your adaptations. But would season 2 end up more collaborative if it’s based on a new story from Liane?
It could be. I’m certainly open to it. I think [Moriarty], for the book, was game to say, “Okay, it’s your baby. Run with it now.” But she’s a great writer, and she also writes excellent dialogue, so if she wanted to jump over to the screenwriting side of the fence, we’d welcome her.
On that note, are you trying to get in on the Truly Madly Guilty adaptation with Reese and Nicole now?
No, not yet. I’ve just read the book, but there’s other stuff on our plate before turning to that.
I have to ask you, as an Ally McBeal superfan: With all these older shows getting rebooted, do we have any hope?
Oh, I don’t know. Again, it’s not on my front burner. We did it once and loved doing it, but that might be hard to do again.