Mark Bomback, the creator, writer, and showrunner behind Apple TV+’s Defending Jacob, spoke to Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki about adapting William Landay’s best-selling novel for the small screen, how he settled on that shocking conclusion, and what the limited series tells us about the nature of parenthood.
Defending Jacob serves as Mark Bomback’s first major foray into television. The screenwriter, perhaps best known for Dawn of The Planet of the Apes (2014) and 2017’s War for the Planet of the Apes is once again exploring the limits of a familial bond – this time set against the backdrop of a chilling murder.
Jaeden Martell plays the killer in question and Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery are the parents forced to reckon with not only their child’s possible guilt but also their own culpability in the crime and its twisted aftermath.
With Defending Jacob, Mark Bomback has woven an intricate tale of lies, suspicion, guilt, and ultimately, a story about the very nature of the human condition.
In our interview, Bomback and I discussed how Defending Jacob came together. By the end of our conversation, my appreciation for the show and Mark’s work increased exponentially. I hope you find our conversation as illuminating as I did. And I hope Emmy voters make room for Jacob and it’s cast on their Emmy ballots.
**** This Interview contains major spoilers for Defending Jacob***
Awards Daily: So the first thing that I wanted to ask you, and this is something that fascinates me as a film and TV viewer, is this idea of nature versus nurture. And It’s something that you explore beautifully in the Apes films, and again, in Defending Jacob. Is that something that appeals to you? How does Defending Jacob explore that idea?
Mark Bomback: Well, it is something that I’m mildly obsessed with. I have four kids, and they’re all wildly different from each other. And I think I spend probably too much time thinking about how many of their attributes, both [the ones] that I admire, [and the ones] I don’t like, are my fault.
I’m always looking at them and wondering, “Would they be different people if they are born to someone else [or] would they be the same person? How much of this did they pick up from me and how much of this is just who they are?”
They’re mysteries. And they’re unique mysteries in your lives because you created these people. When I sat down to write not only Apes but certainly Defending Jacob, I spend a lot of time on the scripts. This is eight hours of screenwriting, and truthfully, I have to really think, about not simply the plot of the show, and even the characters, but what the show’s about, and that notion of nature versus nurture is something that was very foremost in my thinking: To what extent are the parents even questioning themselves?
AD: And what, ultimately, do you think Defending Jacob has to say on the topic?
MB: You know, one of the things I loved a lot about the source material, the book, was that it played with that same idea with the Andy Barber character [Evans] who spent his whole life haunted by this notion of, “Is there a killer inside of me simply because my father [played by J.K. Simmons] was a killer? Is there something lurking in me that I might one day get side-swiped by?”
There’s the scene in the show where Pablo [Schreiber]’s character is questioning Chris and asking him things along those lines [of], It must’ve been really scary for you raising a child, and seeing in even the most seemingly harmless behaviors, the potential for something darker.
Not to get too personal, but even in my own life, there are things that I see in my parents that I often say, “Is this going to be me at some point? Am I going to just turn into [them], independent of how different I feel I am to my parents?”
I think there’s that push-pull of how much of these things are preordained simply by who it was that made you versus how many of these things are simply who you are. And, oftentimes I think there’s a temptation to excuse the worst parts of ourselves as inherited versus a larger question: Do we feel we have our own will to change?
These things are all tied into the concept of the book, and I was so excited by the prospect of a thriller that could really be about something in a way that didn’t feel forced, but just inherent to it.
AD: Now that the show has been released in its entirety. I would love to dig into the ending with you because I’m a huge, huge fan of the book. And what drew me to the book was exactly what you were saying, it is a thriller, and it does have the whodunit aspect, but it’s about so much more.
You made some major, major changes to the ending of the show. Can I ask you about them?
AD: Why did you feel that those changes were necessary and at what point in your process did you decide that you wanted to take the show in a different direction?
MB: It was fairly early on, and it really started with the character of Jacob. If you read the book, you’ll remember that he’s written quite differently, he’s much less ambiguous. There’s something a little bit more obviously disturbed about him on a day-to-day basis. It’s more apparent that he could very well, not only killed his classmate, but really, he might even be a full-blown sociopath.
And to me, just when I was starting out, I just knew we were going to literalize this stuff, right? We’re going to film it. It’s going to be in front of us all the time. I didn’t have much interest in a character that dark right out of the gate.
The book is very different. it’s written from Andy’s perspective, and a lot of it is what Andy’s interpreting. It’s a very subjective experience, but a television show by its very nature is just more objectively presented. We’re with all kinds of characters and Andy is not necessarily present in every moment.
I just felt from the outset that I wanted Jake to be more quote-unquote, ‘normal.’ I want him to seem like your typical teenager who might have moods, might say things that sound harsh, and might even lash out every now and then, but then again, lots of teenagers do. And once I made that departure in the construction of the character, I had to follow that through to its logical conclusion.
If I was to stick with the narrative of the book, where it’s pretty apparent that Jacob had something to do with Hope [a young woman Jacob meets on a family vacation]’s death what the book is suggesting is that he is something of a burgeoning serial killer. Jacob’s just been exonerated from this murder trial for Ben, and we, the audience, know he shouldn’t necessarily have been acquitted because [the acquittal] was set-up. Jacob’s grandfather [Simmons] framed Patz [Daniel Henshall] to rescue him. So within six months, Jacob wants to murder another person. It just seemed like an extreme implausibility. And again, suggests that he is something of a burgeoning serial killer, and not someone who just in this one moment committed this one, horrible act. And It might never do it again.
That’s where that change began, I didn’t want Hope to be murdered by Jacob. It just seemed to undermine a lot of the character work that I had done to that point.
And then the other thing that I was really interested in — which is just a different agenda from the book, and I’m not arguing that it’s better or worse, but it’s just where I was interested in going, is that in the book, Andy never tells Laurie [Dockery] about his father having orchestrated Patz’s murder. Laurie never learns that. It’s a little strange because then Laurie still assumes that Jacob has killed Hope, but she has no reason to believe that Patzs was actually innocent.
I also really wanted to push Andy’s character to a point where he has a choice: Do I tell my wife the truth for the first time in this entire story? Do I just tell her the unabashed truth, unprompted? Even though I know it’s at the risk of destroying everything that I’ve been fighting to preserve this entire story, I’m going to finally tell her we are complicit, unwittingly, but nevertheless, we are complicit in the murder of another person to rescue our son.
And he does that. Because he’s worried that maybe Jacob had something to do with Hope. And then there’s the tragic irony that Hope is found. He didn’t have to make this confession, but the whole story was pushing him toward that point.
And then Laurie is at a crossroads and she could either go to the police with this information and do the ethical thing, or she can try to live with the guilt. And to me, that’s that guilt, knowing that she has played a role, unwittingly, but nevertheless, she’s not coming forward with it, a role in the murder of another person to free her son. It’s that guilt that pushes her to this place where she finally snaps.
Again, It’s different than the book. The book is really about her obsession with, ‘Did you kill Hope too?’ And then she goes off the road, and that felt to me like, pardon the pun, a bit of a left turn from the story that I was telling with the show.
Then the last question people ask is: Why didn’t you kill Jacob? And it wasn’t to preserve his character for another season. It was really because I thought [keeping him alive] was a more tragic and fitting end to the show.
Laurie and Andy have built this prison for themselves by lying, and now there’s a chance that their son is going to emerge from this coma and actually wind up in the exact position Laurie has been in this entire story, which is in this case: Is my mother potentially someone who tried to murder me?
I liked that flip. And I liked the fact that they are all now under the suspicion of one another. And they’ve done this to themselves by thinking it’s okay to lie or to conceal the truth in the interest of preserving your family. And the truth is, that’s not feasible, once you’re building your family on the foundation of a lie, it’s always going to be there. And it’s always going to be something that’s close to them.
It’s a dark ending and I would argue my ending is, maybe even darker than the ending in the book in some ways, because they’re stuck in this perpetual purgatory that they’ve created. But it wasn’t, and I say this in all honesty, it wasn’t to be different from the book. I would have been happy to stay true to the book if I thought that the plot turns in the conclusion of the book were true to the characters that I had been writing, but I felt like this was a more fitting, more honest ending for these characters.
I liked the idea that when you’re done with the show, your imagination could potentially take over as to what would happen to them next: At some point, Laurie’s going to come home from the hospital, and at some point, Jacob might wake up and he’s going to be home. And what does that look like? I like leaving you with that dreadful open-endedness rather than the finality of, Jacob is dead and Laurie is unreachable.
That bleakness is something that works reasonably well in the novel because you’re so in Andy’s head but I don’t think that would’ve worked as well in the show.
AD: That’s an absolutely fascinating perspective. I’ll be honest, when I finished the show, I was so curious as to why the changes were made, but your answer is so compelling and has given me a lot to think about. I really appreciate your insight.
MB: I appreciate you saying that. I mean, I know a lot of people who haven’t read the book tend to like the ending of the show more. I think there’s something about knowing the ending of the book where you are jarred by the differences. And I guess I took that into account. There was a part of me that was like, “Oh you’re going to get to the vacation destination, meet this girl, and you can say, Oh, so they are going to do what’s in the book.”
And then when she shows up and you’re going to say, ‘Wait, what just happened? That’s not in the book!” I guess there was some fun to be had in that, but that was secondary to the character and thematic concerns that I was trying to achieve.
AD: Let me tell you, as an audience member, I gasped when Hope showed up. I was absolutely floored. It really was a lot of fun.
AD: Another key change, and I loved the way this played out, is that the show gives us the opportunity to really see Laurie’s point of view.
AD: As you said, the novel is very internal. It’s very focused on Andy’s thought process. But throughout the show, we actually get to see Laurie’s physical and mental deterioration [aided by an all-time great Michelle Dockery performance]. Laurie really is breaking down, and struggling with everything.
How did you approach the opportunity to really get to build her character?
MB: It was one of the things I was really most excited to do when I first started diving into the creation of the show. She’s just not the focal point of the novel. In fact, she doesn’t have a job in the novel, and really all you know of her is what Andy decides to tell you about her. And you’re never privy to any private moments of hers.
Laurie was probably the character that I created most out of whole cloth. And the one that I was in some ways, the most in love with. Her journey is so tragic and poignant. She’s this person who is really the moral center of the show, the entire show. If Laurie believes Jacob’s guilt, we’re going to believe Jacob’s guilt. If Laurie believes in his innocence, we’re going to want to believe in that innocence. You really do feel like you’ve been on this journey with her.
I think her moment at the end of episode seven, which is one of the moments in the show I’m most proud of is, where she finally says, It wasn’t a story, It was a confession.
And you say, ‘Oh my God, the one person who has been the most ethical person up to this point is now filing in in a way that’s really chilling. She’s the person who has the most to lose by him being guilty.
I had a lot of fun creating her life. I just love this idea that she’s someone who really takes a lot of pride in being a valued member of her community and working with kids who are exposed to violence. She’s very aware of, it’s sort of subtle in the show, but she’s very aware of the proximity kids have to violence. These are the kids who were troubled kids, who were probably taken away from homes where it wasn’t safe for them to be.
She’s someone who should have a lot of experience, at least thinking about something like the situation she’s thrust into, and yet, you realize how completely helpless she is when it’s her own kid. That was just a lot of fun to think about: Who is she?
Some of my favorite scenes in the show, like the one where she’s in a fake Denny’s and she’s bamboozled by the reporter, just wouldn’t have been possible in the book because Andy wouldn’t have been present. It was just really fun creating those moments for her. It was one of those things where, when I was thinking about, “Well, how do you tell this [story] in an eight-hour format?” And it immediately presented itself to me as well, once you’ve left the first-person, I have all of these other characters I need to check in on, and that’s going to help me tell the story in a much more kaleidoscopic way. Hopefully, it’ll be a different experience than reading the book, and ideally, just as satisfying.
AD: Absolutely. I’m curious when you cast somebody like Chris Evans in your leading role, there is that cachet of having these A-List actors in your show. But I feel like there are, perhaps, certain audience expectations of who he’s going to be.
How did Chris’ involvement in the project shape the development of Andy Barber as a character? [Evans also served as an executive producer on Defending Jacob].
MB: Sure. Truthfully, you go looking for the perfect person for the role and then retrofit some of the writing once you’ve decided who that person is. Morten Tyldum, the director, and I met with Chris, and I had a subsequent two or three meetings with Chris, before he even fully committed, to talk through who the character was.
And yes, it’s true, on the surface, he is a household name and has a beyond recognizable face, but he’s also from this part of the world [New England]. He really knows these people. This is his terrain. His parents are both middle-class professionals, and he is someone who grew up in neighborhoods that look a lot like the neighborhoods of the show. And I could just feel that he was dying to play someone from this world. And really, the only potential distraction from that would be the fact that you’re used to seeing him as Captain America. I think like myself; he really loves the challenge of having to blow past that and making sure that wasn’t a distraction whatsoever. It’s really just about committing to the reality of the show. And he was so excited to do that.
AD: He and Michelle are both about a decade or so younger than the characters in the novel. How did that play into Andy and Laurie’s character development?
MB: I tried to make lemonade out of it. I explained in one of the scenes with Dr. Vogel [the psychiatrist assigned to Jacob’s case] that they got pregnant with Jacob before they were married. And they had him probably a little too young, and that they probably hadn’t thought through a lot of things that couples who had dated for a while and waited to have a child might’ve gone through. There’s a chance that maybe Laurie would have learned about his father’s past had they dated for three more years and not immediately gotten married.
There something about their youth that I could take advantage of and point to the fact that, “OK, here’s how someone buries a lie from someone who they’ve had a child with.” It’s because they have a child a little too quickly.
Also, I thought it was interesting that they are both very attractive people. They are people who in their town would probably garner some stares. And I liked the idea that people would just admire them and feel almost a certain amount of envy towards them, and when people like that fall, communities like to root against them a little bit. I just thought that was an asset.
AD: I’ve spoken to a number of people involved in crafting Defending Jacob, and we’ve discussed the noir vibes and feel of the show, and the subtlety of it. How did you capture that subtlety, and in what ways do you think that subtlety adds to the themes of the show?
MB: Well, I think it’s a certain kind of noir. It’s like this New England noir. If you’ve ever been to that part of America, there’s something that’s just slightly melancholy about it, even on the sunniest days. It’s a place I love and not unlike the place that I live here in New York. It’s quite beautiful, but there is just a slight melancholy to the atmosphere, certainly if you’re looking for it.
A big touchstone for myself and Morten was Mystic River [Clint Eastwood’s 2003 film] which I thought was really the most quintessential New England noir. I really looked to that to say, ‘OK how do you create that mood?’
You know, noir can feel a little bit surreal, and I was really trying to walk the line of making it as realistic as possible, the scenes at least functioning as realistically as possible while still clearly swept up in a slightly larger-than-life epic, yet intimate story that we’re going through with these characters.
With noir, there’s also this notion of things being slightly faded, and the idea of the character and destiny, that there’s only so much you can do. And that takes us back to our nature versus nurture conversation at the start—that there’s the slight sense of doom to everything.
One of the things I loved about the book that is emulated in the show was this structural device of the grand jury that sort of walks you through it. That’s a classic noir trope, this notion of, usually, it’s narration, but something is making you realize that this whole show you’re watching is a bit of a flashback —that gives you the sense that things are very faded and that destiny is at the wheel here. I think that’s a large part of Defending Jacob.
AD: Well, I can’t think of a better, more full-circle way to end our conversation.
AD: As I said, your insights have been incredible and have given me an even deeper appreciation for your work on the series. Thank you so much for talking through it all with me!
MB: Thank you!
All eight episodes of Defending Jacob are now available to watch on Apple TV+.