Long story short, co-producers Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman read Liane Moriarty's 2014 novel, recognized the slew of meaty acting roles contained within its pages, and took it upon themselves to get the international best-seller turned into a series. Moriarty agreed to sell the rights to her fellow Australian under the condition that Kidman and Witherspoon also be in it.
"Can I just say, bring women to the front of their own stories, and make them the hero of their own stories," Kidman, also a winner for lead actress, said in accepting Big Little Lies' 2017 Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series, one of the show's eight wins.
Gesturing to Witherspoon, she added, "This is a friendship that then created opportunities. It created opportunities out of a frustration, because we weren't getting offered great roles. So now, more great roles for women, please."
Inspired by Truth
While BLL is fiction, true events planted the seeds of an idea in Moriarty's mind. First, she had a friend who really had an "Audrey and Elvis" trivia night to dress up for and was busily searching online for the right pearls. "I thought that would be a lot of fun visually," the author told The Guardian in 2014, "and a good anchor for the events of the book."
Moriarty also had a friend whose kindergartner came home with bites on her arms. Eventually the child admitted that she had made the marks herself, but, the writer said, "what stuck with me was the drama of finding evidence of harm on your child."
Most chillingly, however, the "real impetus" was hearing a radio program in which a woman talked about the domestic violence she witnessed as a child, seeing her father abuse her mother—and how on a visit back to the house as an adult the woman hid under the bed when her parents started arguing, a testament to the insidious nature of trauma.
Change of Scenery
Moriarty is from Sydney and her books are for the most part set in her home country, but BLL seamlessly survived the journey to California's Central Coast.
"I see lots of differences between Australians and Americans—but as mothers, I think we're pretty much alike!" Moriarty told The Guardian, long before she knew Jane, Madeline, Celeste, Bonnie and Renata would be switching continents.
Witherspoon certainly saw herself in the book, in multiple ways. "What was great about reading the novel for the first time is I saw myself in different stages of motherhood all through my life," she told Parade. "I was a mom when I was 22, like Jane; and then I was a mom who was 40, like Madeline. I've been divorced, I've been remarried. There was just so many aspects of it that were so relatable to the lives of women, and the really amazing part was actually digging deep into the lives of women."
We Come to This Place for Magic
Harried moms losing their s--t never looked so good. And Witherspoon, Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz had very deliberate wardrobes, courtesy of costume designer Alix Friedberg.
"I always start with a breakdown of the script," the 2017 Emmy winner for Outstanding Contemporary Costumes told W, "a map of where the character is heading emotionally, and then comes the research."
Photos of Grace Kelly, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda informed the style of the elegant Celeste (Kidman), who in season one maintains a picture-perfect exterior (and wears cashmere turtlenecks) to hide the truth about her abusive marriage to Alexander Skarsgård's Perry.
Witherspoon's queen bee Madeline, meanwhile, wore "a little too much color, very coordinated, always in heels and lipstick" to hammer home just how cheerily put-together she thought she was, Friedberg explained to Fashionista. And since that was still Madeline's vibe in season two, her style probably changed the least, according to the costumer.
In the show's second season, the main characters were all reeling in their own ways.
The look of Dern's Renata—who refuses to not not be rich even in the face of financial and marital ruin—was "powerful, very structured, designer conscious, body-conscious, expensive and with a sharply defining silhouette," Friedberg told Fashionista. "In season two, we amplified that a bit as the walls are caving in on her."
Kravitz's yoga teacher Bonnie, who's understandably taking their shared secret the hardest, once popped in her "sexy, drape-y, boho, earthy thing," Friedberg explained. But in season two Bonnie is "really struggling," and her style "becomes much more shapeless, colorless and thoughtless. In a way, it's a prison uniform."
Jane, meanwhile, is no longer harboring at least one traumatic secret, so Woodley's character is "a little more confident," the designer said, and has "very casually adopted this vintage California surf vibe."
Rooms With a View
We also know that you come for the real estate.
The Lodge at Spindrift, the 12,100-square-foot property that boasts the floor-to-ceiling windows and tiered landscaping, where you can drink all sorts of wine with a postcard view of the waves crashing below, is said to be the largest oceanfront home in Monterey County's Carmel Highlands. The six-bedroom, nine-bathroom residence went on the market in 2022 for $29.62 million.
Meanwhile, the Cape Cod-style mansion that Madeline takes almost as much for granted as she does her husband Ed is actually in Malibu, situated on Broad Beach Road.
Speaking of Ed, his thick facial hair was a very intentional choice on Adam Scott's part. "I just thought he would have a beard and a fleece vest and four different pairs of khakis," the usually less hirsute actor told The Hollywood Reporter. "[Director Jean-Marc Vallée] kind of thought that was an odd way to go. I told him all of that and he was like, 'Oh, all right yeah. Let's do the beard!'"But once he grew it, Scott realized, he had to keep it."I wasn't totally thinking about the fact that we would be shooting for half the year where I would just have this huge monster on my face," he admitted. And though it had its perks—"The primary purpose evolution-wise is to keep you warm...You shave it off and your face is freezing for a few days"—Scott was "pretty over it" by the time he shaved.
I Choose Fringe
Woodley's season two bangs were also laden with purpose.
The actress, who requested the haircut, explained to Vanity Fair, "That was Jane going, 'I do not identify with who I've been for the last eight years of my life, and I'm now claiming a new space of my identity, the way I choose to look and the way I choose to be."
Aside from three weeks of filming on location in Monterey, the first season of BLL was primarily shot in Los Angeles—but director Vallée stressed the importance of setting the scene up the coast.
The ocean in Monterey was "very angry, very visual, very powerful," he told DGA Quarterly in 2019. "It's almost like a metaphor for how these five women are feeling and becoming at the end—as beautiful and as strong...And they all have a relationship with the ocean."
It was a 90-day shoot and they approached the seven episodes like a seven-hour film in three parts, filming the first three episodes, then taking a two-week break to prep for 4 and 5, then taking four or five days to get ready for 6 and 7. "So we prepped, we shot, we didn't cut anything," Vallée explained. "And we started to edit once we were done shooting."
The Emmy and DGA Award winner remained a producer on the series but he handed the directing reins to Andrea Arnold for season two while he worked on other projects. Sadly, Vallée died of heart disease on Christmas Day 2021 at the age of 58.
Kravitz mentioned his sudden passing during a GQ Q&A in 2022 as the reason she didn't think there would be another season of BLL, saying "I just can't imagine going on without him."
An Embarrassment of Riches
Vallé had previously directed Witherspoon and Dern in Wild, the 2014 feature adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir of the same name, and they were eager to work together again. He had already signed on to make Sharp Objects with Amy Adams for HBO, but when cameras weren't ready to roll yet he took advantage of the opening in his schedule.
"I read the first two scripts [for BLL] and I went, 'Oh, this is so good,'" Valle told DNA in 2017. "I couldn't abandon them and just leave after directing episodes one and two. I'd cast all of the kids, I was emotionally involved with everyone and I loved the girls so much."
Better yet, he said, "The beauty of it is, when I say 'action,' I have five amazing actresses. I don't know where to look and I never wanted to offend one by going to another one first to say, 'You are so good, you break my heart, you're so beautiful.'"
Telling More Lies
Having concluded the story told in Moriarty's book, the David E. Kelley-created series was originally intended to be, as the Emmys deemed it, limited. But it was a big, everyone's-talking-about-it hit for HBO, so naturally the network wanted to give the people what they wanted.
Moriarty, who's also an executive producer on the show, wrote a novella as the basis for a second season, creating the character of Perry's suspicious mother, Mary Louise, with Meryl Streep in mind.
Only Oscar Winners in the Building
Turns out, Streep was a fan. And she's named Mary Louise in real life.
It's "my actual legal name," the three-time Oscar and Emmy winner (as in, three apiece) said during a 2019 panel discussion moderated by Vanity Fair's editor-in-chief and held in conjunction with the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "So yeah, that's how I got involved."
Yes, Moriarty knew what she was doing, but it turned out that Streep would have probably said yes no matter what the character's name was. "It was the greatest thing on television, it really was," she gushed. "There isn't a woman in this room who wouldn't sign up."
Just One of the Girls
Streep "immediately fit in and joined the gang," Kidman shared at the VF panel, in addition to providing them all with a "master class in acting" every day. And after hours...
"We may have had a glass of wine or two at dinner," Witherspoon said. "She'd come out to dinner with us. We had pizza and pasta dinners, and she'd tell us all her stories about her career and her life. It was an incredible experience just listening to her, and we had so much fun. When the girls get together, we are just laughing all the time."
Letting It All Out
Streep is Streep, but everyone was talking about Woodley's gut-wrenching performance in season two's second episode, when Jane, a sexual assault survivor, explains to son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) who his dad was.
"Intense scenes like that, those are the scenes I prepare the least for," Woodley told Vanity Fair. "I really just go into it with my lines memorized. Sometimes I memorize lines for scenes the morning of, so it's fresh in my brain, and then I just immediately surrender to what can happen. A script can tell you all day long to cry...to be honest, I didn't know I was going to be that emotional until I walked into that room and saw Iain's face."
Streep praised the scene as "lights out," and Woodley noticed she'd made their director cry.
"Andrea's so present in her own emotion that if she's genuinely really touched by something, she'll start sobbing on set and that was one of those days," Woodley said. "I'll never forget. She was very, very emotional. She didn't say much, but the tears on her face said more than any words could."
Put It All Back In
On the flip side, Kidman cringed at herself in the scene that "people really responded to" in season one, when Celeste's steely façade is starting to crack during therapy.
"I thought I was terrible," the Emmy and Golden Globe winner told Variety in 2018. "And everyone was like, ‘No, no!' I think it was because I felt too exposed and vulnerable. It was probably too much for me to see."
Most importantly, however, she was already a yes for season three, if it were possible.
"I think it would be hard to get the whole group together," Kidman said. "But we would love to do it."