How Seth Rogen helped inform the drug trip scenes in Hulu's Nine Perfect Strangers
Liane Moriarty's readers will know that the team behind Hulu's adaptation of Nine Perfect Strangers took their share of creative liberties — like eliminating the wellness retreat's "five days of noble silence" program. But the most glaring change is, well, the drugs. In the novel, guru Masha (Nicole Kidman) and her staff microdose the guests without their consent, and when the group agrees to go through the protocol again, they're locked inside the resort's meditation room and forced to complete a simulation called Death Sentence, in which they argue for their lives. Fun! (In David E. Kelley's onscreen version, the drugs are doled out in the name of Masha's life goal: bringing back the dead through hallucinations.)
Below, director Jonathan Levine (50/50, The Night Before, Long Shot) discusses the book-to-screen changes, what the ending means, and how his previous collaborations with Seth Rogen affected the Nine Perfect Strangers trip scenes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you read the book, what were the first elements you began envisioning for the screen version? Is there anything you knew, immediately, that you wanted to change?
JONATHAN LEVINE: Well, I was worried about the part where she locked them all in a room. [Laughs] Even though we do a version of that scene, as a nod, as it was written it wasn't consistent with the tone we were going for. We wanted Masha to have an arc that wasn't exactly grounded, but that allowed people to understand her. In the book she's more of an antagonist the whole way through, and I think we wanted to introduce her as an antagonist but then flipping it. There were also small elements I pinpointed, like all of the characters' interior thoughts — those are wonderful to read, but harder to dramatize on screen.
I'm guessing you scrapped the retreat's silent scenes right away?
I did say we should do a completely silent episode, because I loved that in the book. And we tried! It didn't work. In the book they do the silent day pretty early on, and we just didn't know the characters well enough for that to work in an episode.
You mentioned the fake fire scene, which was a major climax in the book's plot, as not aligning with your early goals for the show's tone. What were those goals?
I always knew the tone would be pushed, yet grounded; funny, yet scary; dramatic, yet soapy. I've somehow become a person who tries to balance several crazy tones, and I do it often, like in the past with 50/50 or Warm Bodies. I kind of use a grab bag of different influences, and subconsciously it creates a final tone. I watched a lot of movies in preparation for Nine Perfect Strangers, like Midsommar, Melancholia, Get Out, Black Narcissus, A Bigger Splash. To me, it became a pop confection that explored very serious things, but in a candy-coated way.
You had big drug trip scenes in movies like The Night Before and Long Shot, and now this series is basically one long trip. How has your approach to shooting this kind of material changed?
I kind of wish I could go back and redo all those tripping scenes in The Night Before, because I feel like I've finally gotten enough practice. Obviously in the past those scenes have played more toward comedic effect. I'd say the scene in Nine Perfect Strangers that gets closest to that is when Bobby [Cannavale] is getting into the pool in episode 6 and he's like, "I can't get out of this throne." To me it really resonates because of the comedic conceit that when you're on drugs even the simplest task is extraordinarily challenging.
But I think what I've learned is that you really make shooting the scene as experiential as possible: To do it without cuts but it puts you in the headspace of the tripping person. Obviously Seth Rogen's not doing the same thing in The Night Before as Nicole Kidman in this show, but there are a lot of similar rules. A reason why Seth is so incredible at what he does is that he's funny and grounded. Now this is a bit of a digression, but we had done 50/50 together and I was having a blast on The Night Before because it was so much fun all the time, but he was really serious about it. He was like, "This is hard, man." The physicality of shooting those tripping scenes is underappreciated, and I'm so grateful to him for doing it.
One big difference between Seth Rogen's trip scenes and those in Nine Perfect Strangers is the visuals.
Yes, I wanted a sophistication and a beauty to be apparent in the look and feel of the scenes. I wanted it to replicate what your eyes feel like when you're sitting outside on a mushroom trip — sort of this blown-out, flarey kind of vibe. I think now I've got my 10,000 hours of tripping footage. Maybe this could be my niche.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Well, the easiest to shoot was episode 3, because it was really fun when the realization of what's really happening at Tranquillum comes to everybody. And I liked episode 5 because of the intimate scenes between Lars [Luke Evans] and Zoe [Grace Van Patten], and Zoe's birthday party because of getting to shoot Michael Shannon singing two different songs.
Was Michael's singing written into the script, or was that improvised?
It was written in. It's funny, David is now known so much for Big Little Lies, but to me this show shares a lot with Ally McBeal. I loved that people would sing at the end of every episode. Not to mention that we have a mini Ben Falcone, and that's like the dancing baby.
The book's ending differs from the series, especially insofar as where all the characters' lives leave off. Did you want to give the show a "happy" conclusion?
I think it's happy for most of these people, right? I was rooting for most of them to come out the other side of this experience and be okay. I don't think it's a happy ending for Masha, though. It looks it, because she avoids prison like in the book, but she ends up in a prison of her own making. That's the irony of the whole show: Do you really want to live in a fake reality that's easier? But for our other characters, I did really want them to be happy.
Speaking of the other characters, I have to ask about Carmel [Regina Hall]. I know there's some discussion about whether she's actually Masha's stalker/attempted killer or whether that was a hallucination, so let's just set the record straight.
Oh yes, it was really Carmel. The possibility [of the confusion] was something we talked about in the making of episode 7, but we tried to make it really clear in the beginning of the finale. We knew people would be debating whether the shot of Carmel as the killer was real between 7 and 8 — I guess I'll find out if it was clear enough if I go on Twitter tonight, which I absolutely should not do.