'The Slap' Showrunner Talks Going Beyond the Australian Original

Jon Robin Baitz chats with THR about rewriting established characters and shifting perspectives in the eight-episode NBC miniseries.
Virginia Sherwood

If the upcoming fall season is all about remakes, this current midseason is rife with Australian adaptations. The latest, NBC’s The Slap, is a star-studded, eight-hour miniseries that builds on the original Australian format by placing established characters in new settings and letting them evolve from there. (It joins ABC's midseason entry Secrets & Lies, which is also based on an Australian format.)

Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Thandie Newton, Zachary Quinto, Uma Thurman and Melissa George, the character study picks up when one man slaps another couple's misbehaving child at a birthday party, setting a string of events and self discoveries in motion. 

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with showrunner Jon Robin Baitz (Brothers & Sisters) to talk adaptations, shifting character perspectives and the challenges of bringing this show to an American audience.

What were the challenges in adapting this for an American audience?

[Exec producer] Walter Parkes and I developed it together and it quickly took on a life of its own. Things that worked in Melbourne, Australia, life were in some ways antithetical to Brooklyn 2015. I very much loved the Australian version, which is why I thought I could do this, but the difficulty was finding a natural environment for these characters to live in. It’s different here, there are more prescription pills than people doing coke and stuff from the Australian version. It’s very easy to be distracted here and to write about distraction. Being a New Yorker, I see people focusing on the wrong things and dismissing what’s happening around you. Eventually the story took on a life of its own, and had to do more with the ways in which people self-justify and are reluctant to count their blessings.

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Each episode — or chapter — is told through different characters. Why did you change the order from the original?

The first two episodes are heavily male, and then we start to lean toward the women. Eventually I had to remind myself there was an Australian show and a novel. It became so weirdly, compellingly personal and I felt such ownership of it with Walter. We would sit and debate who these characters were, as though there was no connection to anything else. When you move characters in such a way, where they dress differently and their attitudes are different, they become new people. And so their episodes move around too.

How specifically did that shift the narrative?

The big difference is that in the Australian version, the trial or the crime and punishment section so to speak, ends in episode four. There’s a court action that happens. We felt we should keep that alive until episode eight, all the while accruing the tension on the characters. As this trial date comes closer, it puts each character under more pressure about their position in regards to what happened on that day. It changed the show structurally, as you can imagine. We had both the narrative obligation to follow the events leading up to the trial.

Melissa George played the same character in the Australian format. What was it like watching her with your format?

At first Walter had suggested we cast her and I immediately thought, "No." I’d done it before, in the theater for instance. If someone does a production and then does it somewhere else, they end up bossing everyone around. I didn’t want to have anything to do with that kind of situation. I anticipated something. But then as I was writing, I was showing pages to Walter and I said, "I just can’t get her voice out of my head." I was able to lift Melissa out of it in some way and she became inseparable in my mind with that character. She has a chemical reaction with Rosie. Of course the writing is very different and she’s playing different emotions in some places. Her work is so gorgeously fragile and fragmented and layered. It’s impossible to not forgive her in her actions.

What about attracting some of the other actors to these parts — did it help that this was a miniseries commitment?

It was more like the fact that it was only eight hours; people who might not commit to a show were happy to do eight episodes. Peter Sarsgaard said he would probably never commit to a 22-episode TV show. Uma probably felt similarly. Zach told me he felt the same way, but now he’s telling me he wishes there were a couple more. So that tends to be a trend too, to do this sort of shorter thing.

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Had you considered doing more than eight?

For now it took all of eight hours to tell the story, it didn’t feel that in this particular version that you could go longer. That’s not to say that I can’t imagine following these characters further, because they’re very interesting and flawed. And in this case they make you think about who you are, so who knows what would happen. I would never want to do 22 episodes a season, like so many shows do. But it was just the right amount for this story.

Within those eight hours, how do you balance the different perspectives and make everyone sympathetic enough for audiences to follow along?

You show them living. It becomes about empathy and you start to feel it yourself. You don’t necessarily change your mind about things, it’s much more important to me that you understand how things came to be and piece together a whole character. I think we do a lot to challenge the black and white. We tried to draw these characters in such a way that you would start to recognize parts of them in ourselves.

The Slap premieres Thursday, Feb. 12 at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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