David E. Kelley Talks 'Big Little Lies' Season 2, Defends "Limited Series" Label

The Emmy-winning creator tells THR about the new material he has received from author Liane Moriarty, while HBO issues a statement defending the show's Golden Globes category.
Courtesy of HBO; Getty Images
'Big Little Lies'; David E. Kelley (inset)

What's more rife with drama than Amabella Klein's birthday party? Awards season, for one.

HBO is attempting to set the record straight after several critics characterized Big Little Lies' slew of Golden Globe nominations as misplaced, formally defending its "limited series" status.

A few in the media, including The Hollywood Reporter TV critic Daniel Fienberg, pointed out that Big Little Lies' nomination for best limited series (as well as mentions for leads Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon) came only days after HBO confirmed that the originally planned one-off was renewed for a second season — just after the voting window closed. That timing, according to the pay cabler and creator David E. Kelley, was not planned.

"Big Little Lies was conceived, produced, and aired as a limited series," reads the network statement. "The implication of impropriety regarding HBO’s awards submission of Big Little Lies in the Limited Series category is irresponsible and uninformed. The idea to continue the story came about only after the show aired. None of the cast or filmmakers had holdover contracts. Each deal had to be renegotiated, which is proof that no ongoing series was contemplated. Additionally, no source material beyond Liane Moriarty’s novel existed. The accusation that HBO was 'gaming the system' is baseless and undeserved."

Indeed, HBO and Kelley only recently finalized plans for another round of Big Little Lies. Its likely renewal had been widely discussed since the summer, but contracts, the question of how to continue the story and a search for a new director were the primary obstacles. (American Honey's Andrea Arnold will replace departing helmer Jean-Marc Vallée to direct all seven episodes.)

So, as it was for the Emmys, Big Little Lies is technically a mini by Golden Globes standards. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association lists only two guidelines in determining a limited series — that it be "two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 program minutes" and that it "tell a complete, non-recurring story." The first season of the production certainly meets both those criteria, though it will find itself in the drama race for any future seasons. Of Big Little Lies' six Golden Globe nominations, only half technically fall in limited category races. Supporting mentions for Shailene Woodley and Emmy winners Laura Dern and Alexander Skarsgard aren't dependent on any categorization.

"We conceived a limited series and that's what we produced," Kelley said Tuesday during an interview. "It feels more right to me to reclassify going into the future than to go back and redefine what we were. I know what we were, and that's a limited series. Not only was the idea of a second season not contemplated when we began this journey, the idea was pretty prohibitive — one that we didn't consider, quite frankly."

Big Little Lies has been a boon to HBO. On top of the commercial draw (more than 7 million weekly viewers when it wrapped in April), it dominated at the 2017 Emmys, winning eight top categories.

Kelley spoke with THR about how they managed to get everybody back on board, the material he's working with and when he anticipates it the drama's return.

Was your mindset when you finished that this was it?

We were all mourning the characters. That's how "over" this felt. After the shoot and post, there was a period of grieving for this world we so loved. Not wanting to let go, we continued to churn our creative wheels and wonder if there could be a second season and started to explore that. Liane Moriarty wrote a novella for where she thought it could go, and she really delivered some rich material. I dug in over the summer, but at this point it was still a long shot. None of the actors were under contract, and a lot of the producers had moved on.

Few people probably realize how expensive and complicated it was to get the actress and the creative team back on board, considering all of the original deals had expired.

I wouldn't say I was pessimistic about it, but I was realistic. As excited as we can get about material and a project, the business logistics have a way of entering into the process and having a life of their own. There was a ferocious tenacity of wanting to explore this, led by Nicole and Reese — who, by the way, were committed to other projects. They were unrelenting. When I was digging into the material, it could have been a moot exploration. We had no one under contract. We had no stages. Sets weren't stored. This was over. What we did have going for us was that all of the actors truly did love the series and saw potential. All the pieces started to come together in the fall. There are still a few that have yet to come through, but we're confident they will.

What are those pieces?

Just a few players that we want to get on board that haven't been contractually locked in. We're confident that will happen.

Can you talk a little about Moriarty's involvement and the novella she put together for you?

As much as we loved the show, it would have been a mistake to go down the road again without the material to support the decision. The nucleus of material had to be there. I had ideas for where the studio could go, but I couldn't look others in the eye and go, "I'm positive we can measure up to year one." So we went back to Liane and asked her if she had anything else to throw at us. She thought on it and turned over a novella with different directions the series could go in. It was such a rich springboard for me jump off. As the process goes, you discover if it's fertile or not — but the further I got, the more excited I became that this series had a future in it.

Where are you in the writing now?

I am about four episodes in. It's only a seven-episode season, so I've got drafts of the first four and outlines of the remainder.

How did you land on Andrea Arnold?

Andrea has done incredible work in the film and documentary worlds, she's had experience with short television deadlines, but I think the piece that spoke to us most was American Honey. Her filmic eye is meticulous. She has a way to bring you inside characters. There's a raw authenticity about her work that struck all of us as commensurate with what we're trying to do. Having met her, I'm only more excited about having the opportunity to work with her.

What sort of production timing are you looking at?

We haven't quite figured it out, because we're still in the process of locking it down — but the general idea is that we'll shoot in the spring, either late February or March. We're trying to have something locked, posted and done for the beginning of 2019.

Are you planning many additions to the cast? 

We have a real embarrassment of riches of acting talent on this show. Managing that bench can be difficult. You want to get all of these athletes in the game. We will be adding a couple of castmembers, but all of the characters we saw last year will be back and have vital roles. In terms of the scientific process of how I balance that, it's hard to break down.

Do you look at this as a second and final chapter or are you going into this more open-minded than you did with the first?

Well, I guess you have to say a little open-minded, because we were convinced the first one was a one-off. But we're equally convinced that season two will be it, too (laughs). Maybe not equally, but in my mind, it's only one more year.