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.”
When Mia and Pearl Warren arrived in an affluent suburban town in Ohio, little could they know that their presence would spark a series of events that would expose the uglier undercurrents coursing through the town of Shaker Heights.
The story of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere took on new layers in Hulu’s adaptation when the formidable Kerry Washington stepped into the lead role of Mia, allowing the writers to explore what it meant for a black mother to raise her teenage daughter (played by Lexi Underwood) within the structures of a predominantly white town.
With the equally formidable Reese Witherspoon playing Elena Richardson, the doyenne of Shaker Heights and mother to four children that each find themselves drawn to the Warrens, the scene is set for the tension that leads to the explosive finale.
It’s a tension that Lynn Shelton, executive producer and director of four episodes, knew that she wanted to thread carefully through the series and keep viewers on their toes so that she could serve up an unexpected conclusion.
Below, Shelton dissected the dramatic ending, from the angry barbs traded between Mia and Elena, the high stakes of the court case that would determine the parental custody of Bebe Chow’s baby and how the mothers in the series contend with their worst fears.
Q: The dynamic between Mia and Pearl is far more combative on screen than in Celeste’s novel. How did you want to bring them back together in the finale after they veered so far apart in the penultimate episodes?
A: What draws Pearl back to her mother is that she’s got the experience now of understanding that Lexie [Richardson] used her and wasn’t her true friend. And then when Elena just brushes by her and is so hostile when they pass each other, that really is the final kicker, because Elena has always been so seemingly warm and loving and Pearl has this vision that she’s this perfect mother and that she does everything for her children and puts her children first – Pearl has this fantasy that that’s her life and that she gets to live in that Richardson home. When she starts to finally realize how hollow it is and how screwed up they all are despite the initial impressions, it’s really about Pearl coming to realize that what her mother has given her is actually more substantial and beautiful and important than material things.
The turning point to me is that rejection by Elena as they pass each other at the doorstep of the Windsor house, and Mia has been waiting for the moment that Pearl receives the information that she’s been trying to get to her – she was going to do it earlier and was ready to tell the story and Pearl just wasn’t ready to hear it yet. When she’s ready to hear the story, she finally has empathy for her mother and they go back to the way they were before, this symbiotic mother-daughter, them-against-the-world relationship but with more understanding. It’s such a coming-of-age story for Pearl, she goes through so much through the arc of the show, and is so much more experienced in this world and can have this greater appreciation and understanding on a more mature level.
Q: How does Mia’s final art sculpture bring her and Pearl together?
A: The most significant scene to me towards the end is when Mia is taking photos of the final sculpture. It has been well established that Pearl is not a part of the art studio and is not a part of the art making … it’s also an indication to the audience that Izzy is being given a very special dispensation to be allowed into that studio and be a part of the art making because Mia sees a kindred spirit in the young girl, she recognizes the young artist in her and Mia sees herself in Izzy and wants to encourage her. But it’s a boundary that she’s held with her own daughter, so by asking her to come and watch her complete this piece of art is an enormous gesture of opening up and now there’s total transparency. Not only does she tell her everything about her origins and the choices she made, but it came purely out of this deep, pure mother love, and then she also invites her into the passion of her life. It became an Incredibly important gesture that bonds them.
Q: What were the decisions made in reimagining that art piece from the novel to screen?
A: In the novel, Mia purposely left pieces of art for each member of the Richardson family as a lesson to them, a reflection of their true self and a portrait of them. Our Mia had no interest in teaching anybody anything, she didn’t care about that. Her art had been established as photographs of various sculptures and mixed media pieces that she would make, and the actual mixed media or sculptural element could be burned or left behind because for her, the finished product was the photograph, so once she had the photograph, she would just leave the rest behind. We always loved the idea that she would just leave behind whatever the last piece of work and that’s what would be discovered by Elena. So there was a lot of discussion about what that final piece would be, and what we landed on was that Shaker Heights is a character in the show, and to tie together all the families and locations and put at the center this golden cage of the Richardson house, but within the context of this very rigidity planned, very white, very homogenous community. We thought that was a beautiful way to express all those concepts visually.
Q: The court case between the McCulloughs and Bebe Chow over the custody to Bebe’s abandoned baby brings up so much debate around race in Shaker Heights, and where people like Bebe Chow fit in and how they’re regarded, especially when Bill Richardson says that people like Bebe Chow do not win. How did you want those scenes to play out? Was there any discussion about deviating from the book and giving the case a different outcome?
A: We didn’t want to show our cards as to who was going to win. In line with that, it was imperative that the audience be torn in half – in each individual audience member, we hoped to create a sense of ‘I don’t really know,’ even if they were leaning towards one mother or the other, as to who deserves the child and custody. It’d still be a struggle in the heart and there was no clear answer and you could see both sides, and that was really important to us.
In the book, I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Linda, she was the character I felt least amount of connection to and in the TV series, I felt more connection by adding an flashback scene to her having a stillborn child and just seeing the pain and also by hiring the most brilliant actress ever (Rosemarie DeWitt) really helped. But we still wanted that sense of her putting her foot in her mouth and being a bit tone deaf to the nuances of the racial issues at hand in the court house, which definitely was in the book, but to be a little more sympathetic than I found her to be in the book. I think that helped by filling out her back story, but also, just really tuning in the nuance of how that scene would be and how her testimony would unfold, and to see her frustration that she knows, right as it comes out of her mouth, that maybe that didn’t sound very sensitive, and she finally comes out with her outburst. It was really important to show in that courtroom scene, Mia’s bravery in testifying even when she thought she could lose everything, and to see Bebe’s vulnerability and to see Linda’s vulnerability, and really get the full scope of the pain on everyone’s side.
Q: What was it like to work with Reese and Kerry on that scathing showdown between Elena and Mia, and how did they surprise you in playing it out?
A: I’ve worked with a lot of amazing actors and I do find that my favorites are the ones who are good but also incredibly generous, they’re not just there looking out for themselves, they’re there to enhance their scene partners to be the best they can be and pull stuff out of them. Amazing actors can alchemize words on a page, that they already know what those words are going to be and what that other person’s going to say, and they have to suspend their belief and make it seem like they don’t, and it’s just a beautiful thing.
But it’s also nice to have some surprises in your back pocket for your scene partner, and Kerry and Reese did that with each other and also with the kids, which was really nice because they did a lot of mentoring and were always there to add extra and teach these kids a little something along the way … Regardless of the amount of experience and confidence they have in themselves as actors and in their knowledge of their characters that they’re playing, especially by that last episode. We had been shooting for months and they were still always completely open to notes from me, and adjustments and trying it different ways so that we had options, they were always open to that and a delight to work with.
Q: How did you craft the build up to that scene through the previous episodes?
A: I wasn’t looking ahead in that way, other than keeping an eye on the overall [story]. We did talk at the beginning when we were looking at the shape of the narrative and the relationship between the two of them, and talk about this fascination, verging on obsession, that each of them had with the other. On Elena’s side, it’s this mad love and desire to be approved by Mia at the beginning, there’s a fascination she’s drawn to and Mia represents this other choice that she could have made with her life … there’s that through line for her character that’s so important, but it turns into this negativity and this rage, and she puts it onto her own personal sense of disappointment in her own choices, she focuses them right onto Mia and wants to see her destroyed because that would somehow vindicate her. In the same way, Mia wants to see Bebe win and puts all these resources into her case because she wants to vindicate her own choices, so it’s a personal investment that they have in bringing the other one down.
Q: How did you want to craft the sequence of events that lead to the fire, and can you shed more light on that high pitch that Reese’s Elena hits when she screams “Yes you are!” at Lexie?
A: The most difficult and challenging part of that sequence was that we had to do it tragically out of order, so we had to shoot the ‘Yes you are’’ scene before we shot the scene before it where the kids have to stop Izzy from lighting her room on fire and Elena having that final confrontation with Izzy. That all came later in the schedule and that was really hard and frustrating for the actors because you have to imagine all the different ways that might play out. There it is on the page, and you can picture how it’ll happen but you don’t know until you’re working the scene with the actors on the day, so one thing we did do was that we shot a lot of different variations, but mostly it was a tonal thing. There were some versions where we didn’t know if it’d go up and up in tempo and heightened volume and intensity, or whether it’ll dip down into a lower, menacing, threatening vibe. Really, there were a number of different ways to get Elena curled up in a ball on her bed, and we did them all.
It was like a masterclass in directing actors, so it was super fun for me but there was a lot of pressure because we knew we had to nail this. The challenge of changing the instigators of the fire from the way it was in the novel and not disappointing every reader of the novel, we really needed it to feel like another viable alternative ending, and in order to do that, we had to really make it seem plausible that these kids [could do it].
There had to be bricks laid, but it really hinged on Izzy. The boys are both in love with Pearl, but Moody really had been an ally throughout Izzy’s childhood, so he’s always been sympathetic with her, and Tripp as well – he’s devastated that his mother has sent his girlfriend away who he’s madly in love with, but also realizing how hard his mother has been on Izzy. And then Lexie, she’s been in denial and you can see it creeping when she tells Izzy to go tell her mom about her abortion, she knows that she’s done terrible things and used Pearl to get into Yale but also used her name for her abortion cover story, and the real crux is when they see their mom outright reject their younger sister and it pulls them all together. It’s a highly dramatic – and one might even say it’s a melodramatic – gesture to burn the house down but it’s symbolic that this has to stop, it’s a cycle of abuse that has to end, has to stop now and with this generation.
Q: This is your first time being involved in an entire series, and being able to helm four episodes and be involved as an executive producer and see these characters play out their journeys, how has the experience been for you? What’s your biggest takeaway or one thing that you were able to do that you had never done before?
A: It’s my first experience as an EP-director, and it was very, very exciting to be that invested for that many months. I’ve never worked for that length of time on a movie or a TV show before, and that was all-consuming and a beautiful thing, and the most collaborative experience I’ve ever had for sure. It was really a deep pool of really talented people and collaboration is hard but it can be so fruitful and so exciting when you’re all just looking to make the best project possible and really listening to what that project is supposed to be – as a cinematic medium, the project often ends up telling you what it needs to be to a certain degree, so that whole process was incredibly eye-opening and challenging and really deeply satisfying to be a part of that team and journey.
And then I got to do a fire! I’ve never, ever done anything like that and we started talking about how we were going to approach the fires and how we were going to make it look the most real. We didn’t have an unlimited, Harry Potter budget, we had certain restrictions so we had to be very resourceful and clever, we didn’t want it to all be done on the computer, we wanted to have as much real fire as possible. All of that was really careful planning, a lot of storyboarding and specificity in exactly what we were going to be shooting, and combining the real fire elements with composited elements was wonderful, and made me think that even if I don’t do a fire again, I know I’ll be able to tackle any special effects, because I know now what that process looks like, who you need to bring into the team and what discussions you have, how to really do it right, so that was very exciting. Like, turning Los Angeles into the Midwest in the middle of winter was also super fun.
Q: In the broader context of Hollywood and female filmmakers not being given keys to those larger projects, the one thing I keep hearing frustratingly is that those filmmakers lack the experience in special effects, [as execs often say] “We don’t know if they’ll be able to pull of a big sequence,” and it’s the most ridiculous excuse.
A: It’s absurd. A great example of this, it’s been a well-told tale, is how many male directors have come out of film festivals having made an under-million dollar thing and then they’re given the opportunity to do Jurassic Park or whatever, but it’s all about opportunity. It’s all about somebody providing you with the team that’ll help you do the best that you can do, but it has nothing to do with gender.
Q: And now you get to say that you did it, and did it big!
A: Yeah! I love how it turned out, so thrilled.