12:00pm PT by Lexy Perez
'Limetown' Creators Break Down Jessica Biel's "Classic Antihero" Character
[This story contains spoilers from the season finale of the Facebook Watch series Limetown.]
After premiering more than five weeks ago, the Jessica Biel-starring series Limetown ended its first season on Facebook Watch on Wednesday. Based on a 2015 fictional podcast of the same name by creators Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, the series — from Endeavor Content — centers on Lia Haddock (Biel), a journalist with American Public Radio who becomes determined to investigate the disappearance of more than 300 residents from a self-contained company town in Tennessee known as Limetown. Though the town's disappearance sparked a media frenzy at the time, Haddock's goal to uncover the 15-year-old mystery becomes personal, because her Uncle Emile (Stanley Tucci) was one of those who vanished.
Though each of the ten episodes further unravels the mystery surrounding the town and its former residents, Lia's identity remains a mystery throughout the season, as do her motivations for solving the mystery. The darkness surrounding her character and her complicated nature were intentional, Akers and Bronkie say.
"As storytellers, we always sort of tend toward the darkness," Akers tells The Hollywood Reporter. Meanwhile, Bronkie explains that making Biel's Lia a "likable" character wasn't a main concern; what was important was to create a female character never seen on screen before: "If this were Walter White or this were Don Draper, the audience wouldn't think twice about whether they're still rooting for the character."
In the series, Lia and her partner, Mark (Omar Elba), visit and speak with various Limetown survivors who reveal the town was created as a scientific experiment in which a certain number of residents received brain implants that allowed them to transmit thoughts and emotions telepathically. After the residents found out that only half of them were receiving the tech and supplement needed to communicate telepathically, a chaos known as "the panic" erupted, and they began protesting and destroying Limetown altogether, even burning the creator of Limetown, Oskar Totem (Alessandro Juliani), at the stake.
Eager to know the truth once and for all, Lia meets with city manager Lenore Dougal (Janet Kidder), who has instructed her to live-broadcast their meeting because she has the answers Lia needs. Lia learns that Lenore worked as a mole for an outside agency determined to steal the tech. After Oskar was killed, Lenore confesses, she got rid of the residents without the tech by murdering them. Lenore also reveals that the man the residents were truly there for was none other than Lia's Uncle Emile, who was presumed to have the ability to read minds and who ultimately inspired the creation of the tech.
Before taking a suicide pill, Lenore tells Lia that there are other Limetowns and experiments being done, but their whereabouts are unknown. In the final moments of the show, Lia is captured, presumably by the agency Lenore used to work for, with viewers left wondering what happened to her and what will happen to Limetown. It's clear that as Lia followed the clues in her yellow-brick-road journey, she learned that knowing all the answers didn't lead her to an Emerald City but instead put her in even more danger.
Akers and Bronkie spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the finale to discuss the most challenging podcast episodes to adapt for the screen, the heartbreaking story surrounding a popular character, and creating a female antihero who keeps the audience "on edge."
When writing this series, how did you go about deciding what to depict in the show versus not show and what to expand on further that maybe wasn't in the podcast?
Skip Bronkie: We started by coming up with the non-negotiable [elements] — the things that have to be in the show, that the show has to maintain the tone. There's actually a very specific message we're trying to deliver with the podcast about how these mysteries often aren't magic. You know, it's Excel sheets, group force and money, or the systematic truth of the fact that we're always dealing with the consequences of the collision between people and technology. We wanted to make sure that carried over into the television show.
Zack Akers: We felt like, when creating Lia's story, we had the most room to be creative and bring a whole new story to this adaptation. We had basic things that we needed her to accomplish, but then everything else was sort of a blank slate. So it felt like we could have more freedom in what we're trying to do and say. That to me is where sort of the major differences happen.
Is there anything from the podcast that didn't make it into the show that you were particularly sad about losing?
Bronkie: We always imagined that standoff at the [Limetown] gate. There's a very specific feeling to that that we wanted to capture in the very first version of the pilot script; that was like the first 15 pages of the script, and it was a three-day standoff at the gate. Of course the story evolves over time, and you have different production considerations. I think that's something that we captured really well on the podcast, but when you're adapting it for television, it didn't end up being essential. But it's certainly something. I bet you may think like that, Zack?
Akers: I actually don't. I have just been sitting here thinking about things that I miss and nothing comes to mind, which means that I don't miss it that much. We did do most of the things that mattered from the podcasts, or most of the things that we felt strongly about, and the things that we lost are things I can't even think of right now, you know?
That means you're happy with everything in the show, right?
Akers: Yeah, which is a weird feeling, but it's pretty great.
Bronkie: I carry enough guilt for the both of us!
What was the most challenging episode or storyline to adapt, and why?
Akers: The most challenging episode I think from pretty much every level in my mind was episode four ["Napoleon"]. Production was hard because you had to deal with a live, finicky pig while also trying to land a really emotional, powerful story. Thankfully, you know, when you have someone like John Beasley, who's amazing and can just carry everything on his face so well and can pull up the darkness whenever he wants to, that made it a little bit easier, but it's still tricky. You had to find that space of how to tell that emotional story in the best way possible. Then, from a sound design perspective, it's really a complicated episode because they're communicating through sound and music. It was the hardest episode to get right, but the most rewarding. It was the episode where, we had so many talented people working on the show, and I feel like that episode exemplifies the best of everyone's abilities. I am really proud of how it came out.
Bronkie: Episode four was the most challenging from a production standpoint, but I think that episode one, the pilot, was the most challenging from an edit standpoint, only because once we got into post-production, there were probably an infinite amount of ways we could put that episode together. When we wrote it, there was a lot of intention around which scene led to which scene. It would not be hyperbole to say there were a dozen to two dozen different versions of how that pilot could lay out that we tried. Then from a writing standpoint, episode three ["Rake"] was one of the most challenging episodes to crack, because we knew that we were branching away from the podcast script. We followed an entire episode that would be fresh for television. We spent a lot of time trying to put that together and figure out what those types of episodes would look like, and what we did, I'm really, really happy with it, but it took a lot of time in the room.
You mention episode 4, which includes Napoleon the pig, recognized as one of the most popular characters from the podcast because he is able to communicate telepathically with the character Warren. Why did you decide to kill such a beloved character?
Akers: In the original podcast, the "Napoleon" episode and the "Scarecrow" episode were the two beating hearts of the show. Those were episodes that, on top of the tone, the twists and the turns, got you invested in a way that you weren't expecting from a horror mystery thriller show, you know? It was really important while making this show to make you lean forward and put you on edge and make you question things. We also wanted you to care in a way that you weren't anticipating and get under your skin. It's really important because it invests an audience and it really makes you examine everything that Lia is doing and everything that the show is doing. It's not this thrill ride of twists and turns and you're following along for fun. There's real costs here, and they're emotional, damaging things that came from this story.
When we last spoke, you had mentioned that in your adaptation Lia was a "blank slate" for you to have creative freedom. Why did you ultimately decide to go in this dark direction with her character?
Akers: We always were interested in [the idea that] as professional and as buttoned-up as she is on the air, we wanted her personal life to be the exact opposite. We were always interested in that dichotomy. As storytellers, we always sort of tend toward the darkness anyway, but I will say that a lot of her character came from when Jessica [Biel] signed on the project and we had long, deep conversations about who this character was and what her motivations were and what she was capable of. And suddenly when you realize what a character is willing to do and what they're capable of, it opens up every door possible. So it led to a lot of creative choices for us that I think are really interesting, but I think we wouldn't have found that before Jessica.
Bronkie: One idea that we latched onto early on that I thought could be the sort of foundation of building Lia was, we looked at the differences between someone who wants to solve a mystery because they want to know the truth and someone who wants to solve a mystery because they want to be the one that finds the truth. We started to unpack that difference and then look at the ego involved in certain truth seekers and sought that relevance to Lia and to the world we live in. We wanted to explore that narcissism and that ego in a way that maybe hasn't been done before. I mean, it was just one of those things where we were asking ourselves the question: "Have we seen this type of character reflected in television before? Have we read that kind of story before?" I think we're always interested in telling different stories and exploring different types of characters. It was something fresh that I think I was genuinely excited by.
Lia can be a complex and controversial character. How do you personally see Lia?
Bronkie: You know what's funny about that? Lia, to me, is sort of a classic antihero, which doesn't necessarily, in my mind, make her malicious. I don't actually think having an ego is necessarily malicious. I think that there are moments when it can get the best of you, and it's certainly happened to Lia. She ventures into territory that I would personally never go into, but there are also moments when she uses it as her centrifuge. That's what keeps her going in a way that I admire. It's all about that balance.
Akers: When we were in the writers room, we were working with a lot of women, and it was really important to them — and to us, and it was one of the things that sort of became like a guiding light — was to throw [the word] "likable" in the garbage. I hate that word being put on characters, and it seems to be assigned more to female characters. A lot of male characters are antiheroes and can be bad and people still like them. But for some reason female characters aren't afforded that in a lot of ways. We just wanted to write a character who we thought made the most interesting choices and was the most interesting to us as storytellers. We didn't worry about whether people liked her or not, and that was really liberating when writing this character. I am proud of the result of that, actually.
Bronkie: A lot of the writers were bringing up something like, "If this were Walter White or this were Don Draper, the audience wouldn't think twice about whether they're still rooting for the character." It's something we took to heart and really responded to.
It seems like there's a parallel between the reaction people have to Lia and to Limetown. With Lia, viewers are in favor of her discovering the truth, yet as things become more dangerous, there's doubts as to whether the danger is worth it. With Limetown, the tech is intriguing, yet the consequences make it too dangerous to trust. Was that a connection between Lia and Limetown, other than just her uncle?
Akers: That's really smart. I wish that I could personally say, "Yeah, of course." But it's funny hearing you say that out loud. You're exactly right. In my mind it was unintentional, so I mean, let's pretend to be brilliant. We did that. Those stories sort of mirror each other. Did you think that? I think it's a really astute observation of the story. Well done.
What do you hope people take away from this story and show?
Akers: As a world, society and as a civilization, we keep progressing and we keep advancing, and we keep making new and better things that undoubtedly have made our lives infinitely better and more interesting. But I think something that we aspire to is to have people always consider that there are the social aspects and the human aspects of their choices. These advances are not advancing just for advancement's sake, but really taking into consideration whether this makes our lives better. Does it make the human experience better and easier, or does it make it worse? Does it endanger us? I think that that conversation is always valuable to have, and especially in our world that is rapidly changing all the time. Consider the human cost and the toll that it can take on real people when we do these things.
Bronkie: I absolutely agree with that. I mean, a parallel to that is something that I've thought about for Lia. She is a character who gets trapped in the sunk cost fallacy, the basic idea that when making a present-day decision, you give an outside weight to your costs that you've already spent. In Lia's case, she continued the story even because of what happened to Warren. She continues the story because of what happened to Mark. [She's] not considering the future costs, only thinking about the costs she's already dumped into the story. A lot of behavioral economists will say it's a trap that human beings fall into all the time. We make decisions based off of some cost and not future costs. I think if there's a lesson to take away from her character and maybe the ultimate ending of her character in season one, it's let's try to be a little bit better about that.
The final two episodes of Limetown will premiere on Wednesday at 12 p.m. PT/ 3 p.m. ET.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.