Show runner Liz Tigelaar has a history of shepherding women-fronted television projects. Nashville. Revenge. Once Upon a Time. This year, she adapted Celeste Ng’s wildly popular book Little Fires Everywhere for Hulu. In this limited series, she helped bring to life a story about motherhood, gender, racism, and classism through a tremendously collaborative production team.
Little Fires Everywhere‘s appeal stems from this unique collaborative environment that Tigelaar cultivated with other producers/actresses Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. I have interviewed many actors and below the line crew members about this project. One thing remains true across all of them – the pride they feel when talking about the limited series. And, for Tigelaar, being a show runner is akin to owning and running the ship, keeping things on course while making sure you end up creating the best series possible.
I had the great privilege to speak with Liz about adapting this popular book and about motherhood and racism. We even speculated a little about where Elena and Mia are today.
Awards Daily: Adapting a well book into a limited series can be difficult. What was your process with your team?
Liz Tigelaar: We all came to it (myself Reese and Kerry, and their teams) excited to tackle this popular book and bring this story of motherhood to the forefront. We were enthralled and wanted to be respectful of Celeste’s work. We wanted to honor the book in the story. There were of course things that changed, and when you bring a book to television, there may be an expansion of the story. We also wanted to respect the core of the story, even through changes.
One of the elements that changed the dynamic of the story was when Kerry cast herself as Mia. Mia’s story in the book and her story on the screen needed more context for their experiences. If you can tell the story of Mia as a white woman or black woman, then that changes the story. Mia in the book and Mia in the show had to be different. As proud as I am of the show and as timely as the show is, the process of making the show was so incredibly meaningful.
AD: The show elevates black voices. Talk to me about how you shifted the story in the book to tell Mia’s story. Were there any challenges?
LT: We had a book that was so successful, well loved, and read by a lot of white women. We also had two actresses who were successful and can draw a large audience. We had this opportunity to draw people into a conversation they did not expect. When Mia comes into the show, she is not going to do what Elena wants to do. Mia saying, ‘I see you dug yourself into a hole’ (to Elena) was one of those moments that highlights a lot of what we wanted to convey.
We used a line that Mia says to Elena from Episode 4 as a guidepost for the whole series: “You did not make good choices. You had good choices.” That is the beating heart of this story. A white woman who sees herself as liberal but is also racist. A black queer woman putting her voice and art out there. You have an immigrant Asian woman having to fight for her own baby.
We tried not to judge anyone, which can be a challenge, but we focused on being with each character in their own story. You got to see people’s beliefs, blind spots, and hopefully broaden your own perspective in understanding their stories.
AD: One of the things I appreciate the most about this series is the way it does focus on women. They are at the forefront of this story. How did you create this space in front of and behind the camera?
LT: It’s a story about race and class, but at its core, it’s a story of mothers. We wanted to hire mothers or people who had a strong relationship to motherhood. We also wanted to hire folks who did not want to be mothers to bring that perspective into the room. Moms are efficient. They know how to get shit done. They know how to get what they want, even if it’s in a non-linear way. Celeste and I discussed this a lot.
There are things that have to change in television. You have to learn to let go of things. Motherhood is putting everything you have in something but also watching something walk away and learning to let go. Collaboration was so important. You have to learn to loosen your grip. I had my hands tight on it and every moment was loosening. By the end, you have this collaborative space, and everyone has this ownership.
A lot of people understood that everyone was giving this their all, but there are also many important things in their life.
AD: You spoke about changing some of the elements in the book to expand the perspective within the show. One of the big changes was the ending. How did you determine what this change would be?
LT: When you read the book, you know Izzie started the fire on the first page of the book. When creating the show, the mystery is always more interesting. We wanted to keep the audience engaged and put the shiny mystery on top, so we could focus on the rest of the story.
When I think about this change, I think about the line in Into the Woods: ‘No it’s your fault! No it’s your fault!’ In the end, it’s not just one person’s fault. On some level, it always feels like it was Elena who burned down the house., but it did not feel like something an adult person would do. How can we tell a story where it is Elena’s fault? What would it be like if we showed Izzie more estranged from her family? What would it be like to show these teenagers coming together to understand their sisters’ experience and come together to realize who their mother was and what this house represented? We can all be better than what our parents are.
Parents teach you who you are, and I loved the idea that we can always grow and learn to be better than our parents. That was my hope with this story: that all four children take these lessons and see the problems of their mother and grow from this. You get this with Elena too, while you do not fully see her growth. You get a sense she is somewhat different than her own mother. I wanted to emphasize this element in the project, that between generations children can improve upon the parents mistakes.
AD: Where do you think Mia and Elena would be today?
LT: We talked in the writers room about how much people change. People cling to their own actions and comfort. Elena specifically was suspicious of Mia’s behavior because she was not grateful of her generosity. I still do not know how much Elena would have changed even after this whole experience. I do think Mia and Pearl’s relationship would have become deeper
AD: What do you hope people take away from this show?
LT: The book White Fragility was required reading for coming into this project. We wanted people to look at their own biases and their own gut reactions. We wanted to create a space that told a story that allowed people to see bias played out.
We are not all operating at the same level with how we understand bias and wanted to create entry points for different people to be able to see this play out. People need to have empathy. I think it’s the dialogue, and it’s the idea that there is no right way to mother. How much of being a good mother is tied to having money. We wanted to highlight this.
Little Fires Everywhere is now streaming on Hulu.