Editor’s note: This interview was conducted weeks before Lynn Shelton’s sudden and untimely passing.
Statement from Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Liz Tigelaar and the entire “Little Fires Everywhere” Family:
“Our hearts are broken today for the loss of our beloved director, friend, mentor and collaborator, Lynn Shelton. It doesn’t seem possible that someone who was so vibrant, and who walked through this world with such immense passion, could suddenly be gone. Her undeniable talent and bold unique spirit were matched by her kind and genuine heart. Her light shone bright to anyone who was lucky enough to be in her orbit. We are sending love to her beautiful son, her family and all who are mourning the loss of our creative, thoughtful and beautifully artistic friend.”
The story of Mia and Pearl Warren arriving in the affluent suburban town of Shaker Heights takes many twists and turns away from Celeste Ng’s novel over the course of eight episodes in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, but in the explosive finale, the showrunners were eager to bring the narrative back to the words on the page.
“In my mind, we stayed true to the novel in many ways, but at the same time, we had the freedom to do our own interpretation,” series creator and showrunner Liz Tigelaar says. “To the viewer or fan of the book, I hope that it felt like we came full circle because always honoring that story was the intention.”
From the opening scenes, Little Fires Everywhere shifted the narrative of Ng’s book by establishing the nomadic artist Mia and her affable teenage daughter Pearl, played by Kerry Washington and Lexie Underwood, as African-American characters and weaving in layers of race in American Suburbia. They encounter local journalist Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon), the matriarch of a seemingly perfect all-American family with attorney husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) and their four children – the popular Lexy (Jade Pettyjohn), athlete Trip (Jordan Elsass), studious Moody (Gavin Lewis) and Izzy (Megan Stott), the youngest and the wild card.
As Pearl finds herself drawn to the stable family life at the Richardson home and the four siblings, Mia and Elena find themselves simultaneously at odds but also fascinated with each other and their respective roles as mothers. Their tense friendship quickly fractures after Mia brings Bebe Chow (Lu Huang), a desperate Chinese immigrant mother who left her baby May Ling at the doorstep of a fire station, to the home of Linda and Mark McCullough (Rosemarie DeWitt and Geoff Stults), the childless couple who adopted May Ling and intend to keep her despite Bebe’s deep desire to get her daughter back. An explosive court case ensues, which forces the residents of Shaker Heights to momentarily face their privilege.
Episode 8, entitled ‘Find a Way,’ sees the arcs of the Warrens and Richardsons climax in a series of showdowns. Elena confronts Mia over her parenting after mistakenly thinking Pearl got pregnant with her son Moody and had an abortion; Bebe battles the McCulloughs in court over the custody of May Ling; Mia and Pearl face their fractured mother-daughter relationship and come to a deeper understanding of each other; and finally, the Richardson siblings band together in support of Izzy and burn down their house as a symbol of destroying the invisible barriers that reigned them in.
“We wanted to create this feeling of a domino effect,” Tigelaar explains. “When you read something, it’s much harder to see something – it’s really hard to see someone burning their house down, so we talked about building that momentum. It had to be at the height of emotion.”
Lynn Shelton, who directed four of the eight episodes and served as an executive producer, said that the showdown between Elena and Mia was a highlight for the two leads. “I’ve worked with a lot of amazing actors and I find that my favorites are the ones who are good but also incredibly generous; they’re not just looking out for themselves but they’re also there to enhance their scene partners,” Shelton says.
Tigelaar adds that there was an electricity on set as Witherspoon and Washington delivered those barbs, Elena spitting “that’s just another feather in your mothering cap” (a line that Witherspoon ad-libbed) as Mia scoffs and informs her that it was Lexy who got the abortion.
“The way that they went at each other, some of that is pulled from the book, like that idea of ‘what did you give up?’ and I just remember on set during Reese’s coverage, Kerry goes ‘What did you give up, Reese?’,” Tigelaar describes. “Just for her to say Reese’s name instead of Elena, I mean, I stopped breathing at that moment. You just felt this intensity.”
And then there’s The Fire. In Ng’s book, it is Izzy who starts little fires in her siblings’ rooms while they’re all out of the house, and then she leaves to follow Mia and Pearl. In the show, Izzy is stopped by her siblings and Elena, who then screams the devastating line that she never wanted to have Izzy in the first place. Shelton said that while the sequence had to be shot out of order, it became like a “masterclass in directing actors.”
“We knew we had to nail this and the challenge of changing the instigators of the fire from the way it was in the novel and not disappointing every reader, we really needed it to feel like another viable alternative ending,” she says. “The real crux is when they see their mom reject their younger sister and it pulls them all together. One might say it’s a melodramatic gesture to burn the house down but it’s symbolic that this cycle of abuse has to end.”
Ng, who consulted on the project throughout, said that the key to the new ending lay in the understanding of how Izzy’s sexuality isolated her completely as a gay teen in 90s suburbia. “I loved it because it was something I had thought about doing in the novel and I just couldn’t figure out how to fit it in or get it to work, so I gave Liz my hundred percent blessing to do that,” Ng explains.
The ending, she says, “suggests that it’s a turning point for the whole family.” “The see-saw has tipped towards Izzy and they feel more sympathy, even Elena feels more sympathy for her and finds that she’s looking at things in a different way.”