'Big Little Lies': David E. Kelley Breaks Down Murder Mystery and Biggest Book Changes

"By and large we were faithful to the book, but there are a few zigs and zags and a couple of twists in there that the book readers will be surprised by," Kelley tells THR.
Courtesy of HBO; Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the premiere episode of Big Little Lies.]

Somebody's dead. 

The premiere of the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley drama Big Little Lies starts off with a bang. Literally. Somebody is dead. In fact, that's even the title name for the episode. 

The opening scene of the series starts with a crime scene, there are police lights flashing, caution tape, a mention of a deceased victim and testimonies from witnesses talking about what really went down during that fateful night of fundraising.

While this scene is meant to set up a murder mystery, Big Littles Lies writer and showrunner David E. Kelley tells The Hollywood Reporter he hopes viewers look beyond that.  

"It's not necessary to us as storytellers for this to be hinged entirely on, "Who done it?" That's one component of it, but the stories we access as we go along are really the nucleus of the series," says Kelley. The opening scene in fact is used as a vehicle for something else entirely. "We almost beg the audience to judge it negatively and say, 'Look at this superficial place and these people with nothing to worry about, walking around worrying.' Then as we probe the place deeper and the characters themselves you realize it's not always so pretty."

Kelley, who also is an exec producer on Amazon's recently renewed Goliath and the upcoming TV adaptation of Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes, talked further with THR about Big Little Lies' series premiere, changes made in adapting the book of the same name and working with HBO.

You have said that adapting Liane Moriarty's book was both easy and challenging, with the easy part being your staying faithful to the story. What changes though did you feel were important to make?

There were no fundamental changes that needed to be made. The architecture of the plotting was very good. The characters were well crafted. My main goal was to live up to a lot of the execution in the book. The biggest challenge was tonal. There was a mix and match of both comedic and dramatic elements. It was important as we told the story that we keep the audience leaning in, wanting to know what's going to happen next dramatically and not letting the comedy dilute the dramatic impact of the show. That was always a tightrope walk. The other challenge of course was you can't keep it all. You've got to make judicious choices on what part of the book is going to survive and what part isn't. In terms of story points, there was just one big character arc that was added in the middle, but I don't feel it fundamentally changed the book, it just complicated the character in question. By and large we were faithful to the book, but there are a few zigs and zags and a couple of twists in there that the book readers will be surprised by.

What are the themes that Big Little Lies is trying to explore? 

First and foremost, love and relationships. Beyond that community, friendship and also loneliness. These characters, all of them are still in search of themselves. Who they are and what their respective nuclei are. It's about self-discovery. 

How do you hope these stories will impact the portrayal of women on television?

I know Reese and Nicole were more of the guardians on that question. I was really just paying attention to this world and these characters and trying to be true to who they were. I was less mindful of what message I would be sending out to womankind, beyond. I know Reese and Nicole have very strong opinions on this. It's one of the reasons they optioned this book. It had so many strong female characters that in addition to it being great storytelling, it really did set a fine example of how shows being powered by women, carried by women characters could be compelling, funny, viable and addictive. 

The series premiere starts with a crime scene. How important was it for you to have this be the immediate starting point to the series?

It's pretty important. As we meet these people and we're introduced to this world we almost beg the audience to judge it negatively and say, "Look at this superficial place and these people with nothing to worry about, walking around worrying." Then as we probe the place deeper and the characters themselves you realize it's not always so pretty. What comes off initially superficial is a little more serious. Starting off with a murder lets the audience know right off the bat that something of a severe nature is going to happen. It helps us establish a plot that's going to occasion the audience to lean in and wonder what's going on here. We don't know who's dead, we don't know who did it and we don't know why. But we do want to convey the message to the audience that some tough stuff happened here and now we're going to explore the what and the why. 

Right after the opening scene the first main character, Madeline, is introduced. Having her introduced right after the crime scene seemingly makes her a prime suspect to the audience. How will her story change throughout the series? Will the audience continue to suspect her?

I wouldn't be surprised that people suspect her because the focus groups we've had and the internal feedback is that people suspected a multitude of characters right from the get-go. It's Bonnie that has a line, "We don't see things as they are we see things as we are." That's going to be true of our viewers. Everyone is going to see something different in these characters and relate to some more than others, draw judgments more positive than negative on some more than others. Hopefully there's a character for everybody. And it's all up for grabs who you suspect and why. We try to preserve that suspense until the seventh hour. 

How do you think audiences will react to not revealing the murderer or possible victim until the seventh episode? 

I'm hoping the murder mystery is effective in and of itself. But really what it is is a device for us to explore these relationships and these characters. We're hopeful that people are hooked by the murder mystery component of the series, it's a big part of the series, but if one is not, we're equally hopeful it's not fatal because what this murder is is a spring board to really probe a lot of the frailties and flaws that lie beneath within the people that populate our town. It's not necessary to us as storytellers for this to be hinged entirely on, "Who done it?" That's one component of it, but the stories we access as we go along are really the nucleus of the series.

What was the most difficult scene to write for the premiere?

No scene jumps out at me. The trick of any pilot or premiere episode is giving the audience a sense of all the characters and also establishing the dramatic throughline. It's a lot to get up and running in one episode. I actually feel that the series builds with each ensuing episode. It gets deeper and more engrossing. The first episode, the main challenge is you can run the risk of having a little too much of everybody and not enough of anybody. That's always the challenge with the multitude of characters in this particular project I would say that hurdle was a little bigger. It did help knowing who I was writing for and being able to mine Celeste and Madeline right away knowing the rhythms and nuances and personas of Reese and Nicole a little bit. Shailene came on board pretty early so I had her in mind as we configured that character. We also had a really strong director who was very surefooted on who these people were and what this place was.

Was there one character that you especially enjoyed writing for? 

I do think Madeline is really fun to write just because she's such a dynamo motormouth. You've never met a patch of dead air that she can't quickly fill. Celeste is very reserved and guarded. Jane is also private and keeps her own counsel. 

Which characters may have more secrets than what was revealed in the premiere?

There are pretty strong pivots for all three of them, Madeline, Celeste and Jane. I would have to go back and tally the score card, but they all have some pretty dramatic turns. I'll leave that to the viewer and you!

How has doing the show for HBO compared to working on Goliath for Amazon and Mr. Mercedes for AT&T's Audience Network?

We're just starting to get into it with AT&T and so far, so good. We got terrific talent attached to that too, including Brendan Gleeson and Mary-Louise Parker, so that's very exciting. But with HBO, that's as good as it gets. They're professional, they're adults, they've been doing this a long time and they're everything they've been cracked up to be. It's my first experience working with them and I would love to work with them again.

Big Little Lies airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

What did you think about the Big Little Lies premiere? Was the premiere faithful to the book? Which character is holding on to more secrets? Sound off in the comments section below and stay tuned to The Live Feed for more Big Little Lies coverage. 

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