'Pretty Little Liars' EP on Going Noir: 'This Isn't a Parody'

Joseph Dougherty previews Tuesday's ambitious black-and-white installment and hints at what's to come following Ezra's "A" fallout.
Eric McCandless/ABC Family
"Pretty Little Liars"

Pretty Little Liars is going noir.

ABC Family's flagship teen drama unfurls its black-and-white episode Tuesday evening, a significant moment for the cabler's long-running series. Titled "Shadow Play," the episode picks up with Spencer (Troian Bellisario) mulling over her latest "A" discoveries, but her growing reliance on prescription pills starts to take a toll -- bringing her into the world of a Hitchcock-esque noir film. The suggestion to drain the color from Rosewood, interestingly enough, came from the network. 

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"It was ABC Family that said, 'It seems you guys are headed somewhere and we'd like to give you permission to go there. We'd like you to consider a black-and-white episode,' " executive producer Joseph Dougherty, who penned the episode, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "They know that so much of the visual aspects of Pretty Little Liars comes from a place of respect for classic filmmaking: Hitchcock and the '40s. We're writers who pay back the debts to the writers we loved that made us turn into writers."

Dougherty admits that the writers room was hesitant at first about including an episode that featured a major visual shift for Pretty Little Liars. "We were a little cautious at first because we knew what that meant to us," he says. But there was a silver lining. "It allowed us to acknowledge our filmmaking background [and] advance the story at the same time. It's our show, but heightened, in a way."

The actual stages that were used to film the episode on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank represented the cream of the crop. Classics like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Casablanca were filmed on the same stages the ABC Family series used. "It was like, 'Are the ghosts going to be pleased with this?' " Dougherty recalls. However, it would be another movie, 1944's Laura, that had the biggest influence on "Shadow Play."

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Meanwhile, Lauren Bacall was a clear inspiration for Spencer. "Troian told me that during one of the costume fittings, they actually brought out a piece that Lauren Bacall had worn -- but it didn't make it into the show!" Dougherty says, slightly bummed out. "You see a lot of [Lauren Bacall] in Troian." Co-star Keegan Allen likened his noir version of Toby to Humphrey Bogart, while Ian Harding's Ezra was patterned after Richard Widmark's character in 1947's Kiss of Death. "We didn't want to be just a bunch of quotes," Dougherty says of the homages to noir films of yore. "I actually wrote it into the script: 'This isn't a parody, this is the real thing.' "

Though the majority of "Shadow Play" lives in black and white, the episode starts and ends in color, to help transition into the following episode. "We refer to it as the reverse Wizard of Oz concept," Dougherty says.

With the majority of the Liars aware of Ezra's shady dealings, and Aria (Lucy Hale) the lone Liar in the dark, things are about to blow up.

"There are motives and there are motives for motives. You do things for a reason," Dougherty says coyly of Ezra's path. "One of the things that's going on is Ezra has always been Ezra for the longest time and he's one of the last characters we've come to and said, 'Let's open the box and see what's inside.' "

Even so, it won't be if Aria uncovers Ezra's "A" connection; instead, it's a matter of when. "She's going to find out," he says. Aria's "romanticism and that desire" puts Aria "in tremendous jeopardy. She's going to look past things she shouldn't look past. There's no way she's not going to find out what the girls know. It's a question of how does she find out, whom does she find out from and what does she do about it."

The core dynamic between the four girls will be affected in a significant way following Aria's heartbreaking discovery. "They've been through so much they may be concerned that this would be the thing to blow it all apart for all of them," Dougherty says. "First and foremost, concern for Aria's safety and whether or not that trumps absolutely everything."

Expect Spencer to continue on her downward spiral. As Dougherty hints, she has yet to hit rock bottom: "We have a ways to go."

Tuesday's episode also serves as a marker for what Dougherty promises will be an accelerated run-up to Pretty Little Liars' "most complex finale that we've done," which airs March 18.

"There’s a lot going on. It is not an episode designed to be watched casually. You need to pay attention, DVR it and watch it several times. There’s an awful lot of stuff going on this episode," he says. 

Pretty Little Liars airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC Family.

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