'Flowers in the Attic' EP on Staying 'True' to Novel, No Campiness and Sequel Details (Q&A)

Flowers in the Attic - H 2014

Flowers in the Attic - H 2014

Lifetime is bringing to life V.C. Andrews' controversial 1979 novel, Flowers in the Attic.

Flowers in the Attic tells the tale of the four Dollganger siblings who, after the sudden death of their father, are convinced by their mother to stay hidden in the attic of their wealthy grandparents' mansion so she can reclaim the family fortune. Her visits start to diminish when she gets involved with a new lover, and the oldest children look to each other for comfort.

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Starring Mad Men's Kiernan Shipka, Ellen Burstyn and Heather Graham, the telepic is a stark contrast to 1987's critically panned big-screen adaptation. For one thing, Lifetime's effort stays loyal to the original source material by focusing on the incestuous relationship between Cathy (Shipka) and Christopher (Mason Dye), something the Louise Fletcher film failed to do.

Executive producer and a self-proclaimed fan of the novel, Michele Weiss, talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of adapting the controversial story, why audiences are finally ready to digest the tough subject matter and the sequel.

When was the first conversation you had about adapting Flowers in the Attic for television?

The first conversation was about August of [2012]. Lifetime was working for a while on closing the deal on the book so they talked to us for a couple of months about how to do it. And then they were finally able to close the deal for the rights on the book. Kayla [Alpert] started writing in January of last year, had a script in March and then we were in production in July.

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What were the discussions like with Lifetime about what they wanted to focus on? When the book was first released, it was quite controversial.

They wanted to stick more to the book. Merideth [Finn], my producing partner, and I were fans of the book growing up and were trying to preserve what we liked about the book. There's a lot of invention in the first film, and obviously, some invention is necessary in adapting a book, but they wanted to stick closer to the story.

The 1987 movie shied away from the dark subject matter, particularly the incest, that was central to the story. Why are audiences ready for that story now?

Cable is a pretty bold place, but I also think that one reason this book is so powerful, particularly for teenagers -- I know for me when I read it -- it's partly that it's transgressive and in a weird way, works as a romance. You're rooting for these two people, Cathy and Christopher. In that sense, it's not Game of Thrones, and you sort of come to understand why these two people -- they're the only one each other has. It's crazy but somehow it still manages to be something an audience can accept.

You mentioned that you were a fan of the book. What did you connect to the first time you read it?

There were some images that really stuck with me over the years. I remember this one beat in the book where Cathy is very pale and her mother comes in from sailing and she talks about her mother's tan legs. I read this so long ago so when I picked up the book again as an adult, it stayed with me. Part of the reason it resonates is when you're a teenager, I think you can identify with a certain extent -- I'm stuck in my parents' house and I'm going through al these changes and they don't understand. Despite the craziness of the story, there's something relatable about it.

Who was the first person on board when it was time to cast? Was there a specific character that was difficult to find because of images that you had in your mind?

We had loved the idea of Ellen Burstyn, she was our first choice. Lifetime loved the idea of Heather Graham, so those were the first two. It was tough to cast Cathy and Christopher. Kiernan didn't come in until pretty late in the process and when she did, she seemed perfect. We knew we wanted to go young; we wanted the kids to be kids. The person who was a real find was Mason Dye. We read a lot of teenage boys and one of the last days -- cameras were about to roll -- we brought Mason in with Kiernan and they had great chemistry.

What were the challenges that you had getting it to screen?

I hope people appreciate this when they see it, but it's hard to tell stories where your scenes take place in two rooms and to make it feel not claustrophobic and tense. Hopefully we've managed that.

How prepared are you in terms of viewer reaction due to the storylines?

Honestly I'm less concerned about people not being able to handle the material because I haven't gotten that as much. If anything, the challenge is this is a beloved book that many fans haven't read in 20 years so they remember it a certain way. It's hard to live up to fans' expectations from a book they read a long time ago.

What was the most difficult scene to translate from book to screen?

The progression of Heather's character Corrine, understanding how someone goes from being a loving mother to doing this horrible thing. In the book, since it's told in Cathy's voice, she can't offer any translation. In translating the movie, you had to give some point of view for it to make sense. We added a little bit more backstory, some meat, to Heather's character so we understood where Heather was coming from and how this happens.

What conversations did you have with Kiernan and Mason about the intense Cathy and Christopher scenes?

Deborah Chow, our director, had a lot of conversations -- particularly with Kiernan since she's younger. But Kiernan's such a pro -- and she's obviously not unfamiliar with challenging subject matter coming off of Mad Men. I felt this was nothing compared to what Sally Draper is doing, so in that sense, Kiernan was mature and professional despite her years.

How faithful to the book is the movie?

It's faithful. The book has a lot of description. We tried to be very true to the plot of the book although we had to add some stuff in because it's a movie, it's all about action.

Is there a character that is furthest from the book?

Not that I can think of, honestly.

With a story like this, there's always that chance that if not executed correctly, it could verge on campy. How did you figure out the tone?

We were going for not campy when possible. I mean, there are certain things like poisoning your children with donuts, where it's a little tough and you have to acknowledge the craziness in the story. That said, I guess what we were thinking was when we were reading the book we weren't fans of the book because of the camp, we were really fans of the book. In retrospect, you can appreciate the camp. We were going for melodrama instead of flat-out camp.

Lifetime announced recently that they are already developing the sequel, Petals on the Wind, with Kayla writing it. From your perspective, how close is that to being a done deal?

We'll see how this weekend goes. I think we're moving ahead in development and my fingers are crossed. That's what I know.

How likely is it for the main cast to also appear in that movie, knowing that it takes place 10 years later?

I know they'd like some of the cast to return. I think it's premature to say until we're ready for the script and ready to go. It's hard to say who's available, but I know that they're happy with their cast. I hope we get them again.

What do you hope viewers get out of the movie?

I hope fans of the book like it, and I hope for people who didn't read the book, that it plays like an out-there story in its own right.

What are your plans for premiere night?

I am watching with a bunch ladies. I hope other people are too.

Flowers in the Attic airs Saturday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime.

Email: Philiana.Ng@THR.com
Twitter: @insidethetube