Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news and new media discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and jokes and everything in between.
Today, we’re talking to Liz Tigelaar, showrunner and head writer for the Hulu miniseries, Little Fires Everywhere starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. The series based on the novel by Celeste Ng is a meditation on motherhood, race, and the tensions between them in a suburban Ohio town in the ’90s. Liz has a long career in TV drama including Brothers and Sisters, Once Upon a Time and Nashville among others. She also created the CW series, Life Unexpected and ran the golden globe-nominated Hulu series Casual.
Liz and I discussed starting her journey as a Dawson’s Creek writer’s assistant, how story arcs around mothers and daughters have evolved and why an intersectional writers’ room is essential for all storytelling. Hi, Liz. How are you?
Liz Tigelaar: Good. How are you?
Kaitlin Fontana: I’m good. Thank you. How are you doing in quarantine? How are you finding the writing and the creativity?
Liz Tigelaar: That part is tough. Look, I think circumstances are inspiring a lot of introspection via the pandemic, be it the kind of societal uprising that’s happening in terms of Black Lives Matter, and these, I mean basically murders that are happening throughout the country. You can’t help, but be confronted with everything in a great way and have to internalize it and kind of put it through your processor and make sense of it and examine your own participation in these systems.
So I think while it’s not the most productive time to write in terms of managing things and child care, and everybody is in one house together, and we’re all locked down. I do think that it’s an amazing creative time. I wouldn’t say it’s an output time. It’s like an input time. So I think it’s going to yield a lot but sitting down to write is tricky. I would say like if it’s like doing an obstacle course with my kid or making like a COVID time capsule or figuring out what books to order and kind of read him to get him understanding and talking about race, those are the things that feel very active and doable. Sitting down to write feels near impossible.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I appreciate that honesty. I guess we’ve sort of moved through all the stages now, but I certainly feel at the beginning of all of this, it sort of felt like a do or don’t, and you couldn’t talk about it. If you were writing, it felt selfish and if you weren’t writing, it felt like you couldn’t do anything. And I feel like everybody’s practice is very different and should be, but it’s been an interesting experiment to see how different people are moving through these times for sure.
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah, definitely.
Kaitlin Fontana: So congratulations on Little Fires Everywhere, which is based on the best selling novel by Celeste Ng. Can you tell me how you came to this project and your impressions of the book when you first came across it?
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah. Well, Lauren Neustadter who’s Reese’s partner at Hello Sunshine actually brought me the book and she sent it to me basically one afternoon and said, “You have 24 hours to read this and if you want to do it, you can adapt it. Reese and Kerry are already attached and we’re going to take it out and sell it.” So I was very primed already to be like, “Look, whatever this book is, I’m going to want to do it.” But then I read the book. And then it became not about who was attached or how it was going to be set up or all the kind of higher profile, things around it, that of course would feel exciting to any writer and especially exciting to me.
It really became about this beautiful book and what Celeste had crafted, and what she had written in the story that she told. I just loved it. I felt so connected to it right away and I think there were really specific parts of the book that made me feel very seen and just touched me in really deep ways. That’s what you want as a writer. When you eat, sleep and breathe this stuff and devote years of your life to bringing a story to light, you want it to be something that feels vital and important to you. And I think even at that time, I couldn’t have even imagined the ways that would become more vital and more important, but from the beginning, I was very invested.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, adapting a novel for the screen is a very specific endeavor as well. So can you tell me a little bit about your approach on a craft level like how you sort of took the novel and broke it?
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah. Well, that’s a very exciting part to me because I mean first of all any time you have source material, it’s like, “Ugh, what a relief.” Like somebody thought of these characters where there’s a story. I mean, you already feel like you’re like hitting the ground running and you already have so much. So that’s just exciting in and of itself. But I love figuring out how to adopt things.
In the room even as a young writer, I was always the person who liked writing the cards. I liked putting stuff on the board. I liked kind of beautiful minding it and seeing how everything fit together. I really approached it first with what’s the pilot. What point in the book do I think the pilot needs to go to in order to launch the story in a propulsive way. I launched the series in a propulsive way and then once I do that, then how do I start to break down these moments in the book?
So I really focused on the pilot first, figured out the end point of the pilot which actually happened much further in the book than you would think. There was a little bit of renegotiating when things happened in order to make sure things kind of launched properly. Then once I did that, I really broke down every moment in the book by character. I mean it was kind of insane. The writers, where we had this like beautiful brick writers’ room on the Paramount lot, that was flooded with sunlight and the whole building was disgusting. But the writers’ room was great.
It had been the transparent room before us, so we felt like it had good mojo. Anyway, I put all the cards up on wall. Every character story broken down by beat. So it was like Elena, Mia, Lexie, everybody. And then I just started looking at kind of tent pole moments and events that happened in the show. So whether it was Mia’s flashback episode or Elena goes to New York or whatever those moments were, I started breaking down like those key moments, that might be a story to build a whole episode around. And then I just started to build and I think that… Obviously, then the whole staff came in and we got to build it together.
So that was just like the preliminary work that I did kind of pre writers’ room. And then with the writers’ room, of course everything transformed and changed and got fuller and grew more nuanced and it was very exciting.
Kaitlin Fontana: I want to talk about that some more in a minute, but I want to back up a little bit for you personally as a writer. I really like hearing people’s breaking-in stories. I think we sometimes meet people midstream and we don’t necessarily get to hear about those moments where they felt like they really kind of launched. I’m wondering if you could kind of tell us a little bit what are your earliest memories of breaking into TV writing and who mentored you, what lessons did you take that you still carry through? How did it get started for you?
Liz Tigelaar: Well, I would say my first job was on Dawson’s Creek as an assistant and that was kind of a, just I don’t even know like Murderers’ Row of amazing writers who were on Dawson’s in the beginning. It’s like Greg Berlanti was a staff writer, Mike White was there. Kevin Williamson, Julie Plec. Ruben Fleischer was the other PA with me. Jenny Bicks, Dana Baratta, Rena Mamoun, Anna Fricke, Gina Vitori. It was just this amazing group. Alex Gansa was even there for a little bit. You couldn’t believe the writers who kind of passed through there. And so that was very exciting. I started there as an intern straight out of college and was lucky enough to get hired.
And then it was about kind of working my way up. I was on Dawson’s for a long time and I did every assistant job you could do and wrote a freelance. It wasn’t a good enough script to get me on staff there, I assume because I didn’t get put on staff there and I was sad but I also was like, “Okay. I’ve done every job I can do here. I got this amazing opportunity to write a script and I felt like on some level I’ve been given so much opportunity, but I hadn’t maybe had the skill set to make the most of it.”
So that was kind of just a tough moment of what do you do. And I kind of started the journey to get another job at Maggie Friedman, another amazing writer who is on Dawson’s, had just gotten a job working at Once and Again with Winnie Holzman. She called me and she said, Winnie needs an assistant. Of course, I knew Winnie from my so-called life. And so I went to work for Winnie. And I would say Winnie was probably my first mentor with maybe not even understanding how much she was mentoring me.
We didn’t have a relationship of like her looking at my work or anything like that. I mean, I was very focused on being Winnie’s assistant and doing a good job for Winnie and I loved Winnie. She was working on Wicked at the time too, which she kept referring to it as like her little side project show. Her little side project, the biggest thing of all time. It was just so fun to be witness to that. I would sit and she had kind of a writing hut out back. I would sit in her writing hut, and I would read my so-called life scripts. I would realize how much Angela Chase’s inner monologue was Winnie, which of course makes sense because Winnie wrote it.
I always thought it was maybe a little self-indulgent to only write about yourself and then I realized Winnie is not writing about herself, but her voice is so infused in Angela’s voice. They’re one in the same and that’s what I really had to learn to hone and figure out well, what’s my voice? And so Winnie was really instrumental with that. And then eventually I went on to become an assistant on a show called American Dreams. And I had another opportunity to write a script as an assistant.
And Jon Feldman, who had also been one of the incredible people at Dawson’s was now on American Dreams and he really took me under his wing and kind of shepherded me and oversaw me writing the script. Because of everyone’s generosity there, Jonathan Prince, Jon Feldman, I was able to get on staff the next year with another assistant, Mike Foley. We got to get on staff together and it just made it really special. I mean, look, in the grand scheme, did it come easily? Yeah, I feel like it came pretty easily.
At the same time when you’re in it, you don’t necessarily feel like it’s coming easy and of course every year feels like 10 years and you wonder am I ever going to get there? And I think I just was so… I understood what it felt like to be ready to write in a way that I wasn’t when I was on Dawson’s and that felt really good. And American Dreams just felt like the most perfect fit. And even having created shows since then, when I think back to that show, and I think of like Meg Pryor and Brittany Snow and like her voice, I feel like I never… I don’t know if I’ve ever been invested in a character like I was, Meg Pryor.
I would dream about her. I would think about that character all day long for three years, and I just loved it. So that was kind of my break in moment. And then of course you think once you get in and you’re a writer on staff for a couple years, you’re like, “Oh, it got canceled,” which is awful, but you’re like, “But I’ll get another job.” And then of course the next job didn’t come that quickly or easily and then of course you’re doing it all again.
So it’s funny now being older and being a little bit on the other side of it. When I hear people say like, “Oh, you’ve…” They’ll read my list of credits or, “You’ve been on all these shows,” and I’m like, “It’s so weird because it seems so hard.” And it’s still like doesn’t seem possible. I’m like, “How did this happen?” Because for so long it felt like it would never happen.
I’d be crying, bawling my eyes out because I didn’t get Crossing Jordan like in a fetal position on my bed being like, “I love forensics.” Like whatever it was. And it just felt like, “Oh, it will never happen for me.” And I think a lot of people have that story.
Kaitlin Fontana: No, no. I think the thing about it is it’s this thing that I think is especially true when I speak to TV writers, career TV writers that there is this feeling of you never have that mountaintop moment, right? It’s a job after a job after a job and even in these moments where you’re like, “Hey, listen. Here’s a book. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington are already attached. Good luck.” That feels like a mountaintop, but then there’s still all the work.
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s a reflection, I think, that a lot of TV writers have when I speak to them is that it’s this continuum of experience and it’s up and down and back and forth, and it’s not this steady climb like a lot of people would think it was.
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think it’s also important to enjoy those mountaintop moments because I think we’re so designed to always long for something and want the next thing. And I will say when I finish Little Fires, I mean Little Fires was a show beyond my wildest dreams to write, and I was like, “I think I’m good. That’s a career. All right. We’re good.” I’ve loved it and I’ve really cherished the experience of it. And it’s given me a nice sense of peace.
I think for a long time I was like, “When am I going to write something, again, that matters to me. And it feels so nice to have done that. I’m not talking about accolades or how its received or whether people like it or not, I’m more just talking about the experience of working with the group of people I had the opportunity to work with, and to create it together.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. So you touched on a few of these, but you have a history of working on femme-centered dramas or female-centered stories and I wonder how the conversations in the room have changed over the years around those stories? Because I think so much back on the shows that you worked on are watershed shows to me. I was a teenager when Dawson’s was on and My So-Called Life. And those started conversations in my head as a young woman. And I wonder what conversations in the room about womanhood and girlhood were like then and how those have changed? And by the way, I mean not in the spectrum of girlhood and womanhood. I don’t just mean AFAB. I mean, all femininity and the female experience. So I’m curious how those conversations have changed for you as a writer along the way?
Liz Tigelaar: I mean, in some ways it’s such a big question because I think everything has changed in a lot of ways. I mean, I look at stories and even just those classic love triangles, which look, love triangles are important. Love is important, so therefore love triangles are necessary. But when I whittle a story now down to like which boy does a girl like or which girl does a boy like or even whittling it down to just being about obviously heterosexual story about girls and boys like it feels… I don’t know how to explain it. It feels so antiquated.
And maybe it’s the Bechdel test in me, but it just… I don’t know. I almost wouldn’t conceive of stories in the same way. And it’s not that all those things can’t be a part of it, it’s just that’s never going to be the core of a female character to me. And so it’s much more interesting to me to do stories that are based in something else and I think that that’s very much what I’ve been drawn to especially as of late. But I think even just to answer your question, the way we talk about women’s likability.
I don’t hear the word likable that often anymore, and if I am hearing it, it’s certainly not as direct. Do you know what I mean? It might be implicit. I mean, I can even remember my first show that I created was Life Unexpected, 10, 11, 12 years ago and I remember writing this character who very much came from me and my experience, and not same circumstances, but just my life point of view.
And I remember getting a note that said like, “This is a woman who seems to not want to get married. She doesn’t want to have kids. She seems to kind of lash out at others instead of examining herself. She’s not very likable. And I remember thinking like not likable? I wrote this character. This character is loosely based on what I think. Am I not likable? You know what I mean? It’s hard to imagine somebody saying that, thinking it, but it’s hard to imagine someone saying it now.
So anyway, that’s all to say that I think it has changed and I think there’s so a long way to go. But I think how we approach female stories and how we approach women… Sorry, I’ll go on a tangent again. But motherhood is a great part of it. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, Reese Witherspoon’s playing Elena Richardson. It’s a 90s version of Madeline from Big Little Lies.” And I would say, “No, it’s not at all.” I think people said like, “Is this just Madeline in the ’90s?” And that is such a myopic, narrow view to say to me, “Oh, Reese Witherspoon is playing two mom characters and both these moms have a type A quality to them. Is that the same story?” It’s like, “No, it’s not the same character. It’s not the same story. The idea that there could only be one motherhood story out there from Reese Witherspoon is ridiculous.” To me the only thing they had in common was Reese, those characters.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right.
Liz Tigelaar: I think we still fight this narrow scope of storytelling. And I think what I found so empowering about this show, and one of our writers, Nancy Won said it really well. She was like, “Normally, when you tell a story about a mother, the mother part is something you want to get past. She’s a mother, but she’s also a superhero or she’s also a neurosurgeon or she’s also a like hotshot lawyer.” And she overcomes being a mother to do all those things instead of the story being like being a mother is her story, and you don’t have to attach something else to it to make it interesting. Because if you ask any mother, their stories are plenty interesting without attaching other things to it. So I think all those things are the discussions I think in the room now.
Kaitlin Fontana: It’s really interesting to think about that in the context of this complicated motherhood narratives that is presented in the novel and in the show. There’s this interesting and slightly uncomfortable conversation at the core of the show of who is a child’s mother? Who gets to be their mother? Is it the person who gave birth to them? Is it the person who intended for them to exist? Is it the person who found them along the way, adopted them?
And I know it’s very public about you that you were adopted as a child. And I wonder how your relationship with adoption and your relationship with motherhood as a mother now unless you hired that child, which I assume you did.
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah, I casted.
Kaitlin Fontana: How your relationship has changed with that idea because I think that’s a really interesting and subtle thing that’s handled at the core of the show. So I’m curious about your own experience with it?
Liz Tigelaar: I’m an adopted kid and I think that I’ve had such a positive experience with adoption and that I was adopted by two wonderful parents, and they’ve done everything to give me a wonderful life. And when I first read the book, I was like, this baby is the McCullough’s baby. I mean, even though they were in the process of adopting, I’m like, “You can’t have been raising a kid for 10 months that you have loved as your own. And for the child that’s attached you and now rip them away from maybe the only life they could remember.” I mean, I came at it as such an adopted kid.
But as I read the book, and this only increased as we got into the writers’ room, we started to talk about all these aspects of adoption and biological parents. I mean, obviously in the book, I think Linda McCullough is much more tone-deaf than kind of Rosemarie DeWitt’s portrayal of her, which I think was obviously with the time we had to devote to that character, we were able to add depth and levels of nuance to her. And I think Rose just did that so naturally by the beautiful actress that she is.
But we really had to examine things in a different way and look at this isn’t just about who’s the best mother. And even this idea that they can both be good mothers, it can be why are we demonizing Bebe for her circumstances. And one of the things we really talked about in the room was what makes someone a good mom and how much is it tied to being able to afford to be a good mom?
Because off the top of your head, you would say things like love and compassion and being there and support. But after you get through, you might say being selfless, putting your child first. But after you get through those initial descriptors, as you get more specific, it starts to tie into what you’re able to give your child. And a lot of it is what you’re able to spend to give your child, right? Then you start thinking about college and trips and camp and hobbies, and all these things that make you a good mother are so tied to the type of mother that you can afford to be.
And so that’s what we really started looking at. And we started looking at the circumstances of, “What do people do without a safety net? What happens when you literally have no safety net? And what does that mean?” So all these things really played into it and I think that as an adopted kid, there’s a certain amount of longing you have and that you have these fundamental questions that loom over you that you have to wait a long time to get the answers to.
And this is obviously different now with open adoptions, but I think in the closed adoptions of like certainly when I was adopted in the ’70s, you didn’t have all the information and so you tend to create or imagine information. But it creates a kind of perpetual searching, longing, feeling. And so that quality to the story that you see in Izzy and in Pearl, I really felt that as a kid. I felt like I was trying to always kind of squirrel or truffle pig out the answers to these questions.
And I didn’t even know exactly what the questions were, I just knew I was searching around for answers and kind of looking at all these mothers. I think it’s innate, but I also think what’s beautiful and what the show does in the end is for all that swirling around, you come back to your own story in your relationship with your own mother. And I know that for me in my adulthood, I’m so able to like circle back to my adoptive mom and just feel so eternally grateful.
It’s like I have this bond and this closeness that all the squirreling only strengthens, and I think that that’s what you see happen with Pearl and Mia in the series. And then of course the opposite happens with Izzy and Elena. I brought a lot of that to it, and I think my mom’s been a good sport from afar.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Were you consulting with her, talking to her, trying to put yourself back with her in those moments a little?
Liz Tigelaar: I keep it kind of separate in terms of just I’m doing my thing. My parents are always very involved. Yeah, I don’t know. We actually didn’t talk too much about it, but I think what I’ve come to know is what a vulnerable position you are as an adoptive mother. And as a biological mother who’s had to give up her baby, you are also in such a vulnerable position. And that was the other thing we talked a lot about in the room was, it’s natural in stories of adoption. I think every adoptive parent is taught to create this narrative of like we were meant for each other and we found each other. You were always meant for me.
As an adopted kid, I love that story. As a biological mom, that story is problematic because it really erases the person who gave birth to you. And when I think of my birth mom, she didn’t have me because I was meant to be with another mom. She wasn’t able to keep me because of her own set of circumstances and choices or even what could feel like lack of choices. And so that narrative is problematic and that it’s erasing and negating even though to the adopted child and the adoptive mom, it’s very comforting. Or I should say not just mom, adoptive parents.
So anyway, these were all the types of discussions we had. I mean we talked about if Linda McCullough had already had three biological kids, would we have believed that Bebe’s babies should be hers? Instead and we somehow believed because of all her miscarriages and all her losses, and her stillborn baby, did we believe that she’s somehow deserved a baby and why should it be Bebe’s baby that she deserves? I mean, we talked about all of this in the room, because we had a lot of adopted kids in the room and we had a lot of biological mothers.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, interesting. I mean, I think that those subtleties really come out in the show. And I think it raised questions for me watching it. I’m not a mother, but I have a lot of friends who are mothers and I have a mother. My sister is a mother.
Liz Tigelaar: You’re a daughter. That’s all you need to know.
Kaitlin Fontana: There were a lot of dimensions to the questions around motherhood and the struggles around motherhood that I felt were much more nuanced than a lot of things I had seen before. So I really admire that about the show. And in particular this idea that I think… I’m sort of like… I’m quoting from memory. I went back to look for the moment, but I couldn’t quite find it in time for the interview. But there’s a moment when they’re in the courtroom and Mia is standing up for Bebe and says, “No mother would want to be judged by their most desperate moments.” Yeah, I think that’s the quote.
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah. We talked a lot about that.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. And I think that’s sort of one of those moments that felt like… And I mean this as a compliment, the writer kind of reaching through the screen and saying like, “This is the nugget of the thing that this is all about.”
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah.
Kaitlin Fontana: So I really admired that for it. And I mean I think that alone is enough to kind of carry a series, but it plays out alongside this other huge conversation, which is the one about race. Blackness and whiteness, but also Asian-American and that being a big source of adoption, particularly that period of the ’90s. Let me frame this around what was your writers’ room makeup like? Who was in the room having these conversations? Because I think that particularly right now within our craft is a huge conversation that deserves the time and the effort. So I’m curious how you put that room together and who was there?
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah, well I knew for sure… I had a lot of points of connectivity like I said to the show, but there were just other aspects of the story that of course, I couldn’t connect to because it wasn’t my life experience. And a lot of that had to do with race and a lot of that had to do with class. And so I knew it was important early on to… I wanted to find upper level writers who could match as best we could the racial landscape of the book. So that meant black writers, Asian writers, upper level senior voices to be crafting the story with me.
So I mean it’s kind of an interesting story because I thought I was like, “Oh maybe, I only need like three other writers because it’s only eight episodes.” And then what happened is I kept meeting with writers that I would completely fall in love with for this until I didn’t have any more episodes to give. So I had to stop hiring people. Because everybody I met with, connected to the material on just like multiple levels.
It wasn’t like there was going to be a black writer who was like the black voice of the show or an Asian writer who was like the Asian voice of the show. It was more like, “You’re going to have a perspective as a black woman, but you’re also going to have a perspective as a daughter of an immigrant and a daughter of a single mom, and being a teenager who went to a very white elite school.”
Everybody had that many points of connectivity. So by the time I hired everybody, it was mostly mothers, one father. We had three black writers, an Asian writer, three white writers and then me. So four white writers. Two writers lived in Ohio. One on the border of Shaker. We had a lawyer, a novelist, a poet, an artist. Two people were daughters of immigrants. Two people raised by single parents. Three adopted. I mean, it’s just like everything, right? So that was kind of our landscape.
And the writers were Nancy Won, Attica Locke, Raamla Mohamed, Amy Talkington, Shannon Houston, Rosa Handelman and Harris Dannow. And it was the most incredible group of people kind of coming together all with very different perspectives and nobody, I think felt tokenized like they were there to be the voice of any one thing. Nobody was responsible for anything. Nobody was responsible but I think everybody felt a responsibility to what they felt was vital, and it made it a great room.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I think that that’s the biggest conversation that I feel like needs to be had and continue to be had in this moment and beyond is that idea of having the room have a dimension that is not just you do this and you do that and you do that, but that there is a larger framework of people engaging with a work as you say on multiple levels. I mean, in this case like you said before too, there’s some ease knowing the source material is there and people can say, “Oh, when I read the book, I connected to this, I connected to that. But I think moving forward, did you learn some things from crafting this very specific room that you would apply to rooms going forward even if they weren’t necessarily reflecting this story that is itself this complex makeup of racial issues and motherhood and other things?” What are you carrying forward as a showrunner to building a room from this particular experience?
Liz Tigelaar: Oh, well. I mean, I was on Morning Show before this and there were many different rooms on Morning Show that I got to be a part of because it kind of went through some incarnations, and I will honestly say that one of the earlier incarnations of that show, that was the first room I’d been in that I think reflected true diversity. I mean, diversity of room as a whole where every person was, as we all are, more than one thing. And so you might be in there with three gay writers, but one’s a white writer, one’s an Asian writer, one’s a black writer.
And two are women, one’s a man. Two are playwrights, one isn’t. Just this whole idea that we all get to bring everything about us to this experience and I don’t know if I’m explaining it well, but the conversations that we had in that room because of everybody’s life experience was so deep and so moving and completely changed the way I saw writers’ rooms. And a lot of writers of color already know this. I think a lot of white writers have been very slow to realize it and I think all… I won’t go off on a tangent about the “diversity” programs, which I know things can be very well-intended, but I think there’s a way were also something that’s well intended can hold people down and keep people down or put labels on people.
I was on a panel with Courtney Kemp recently and she said it so well, “You want to be in a room with people who have completely different life experiences and point of views than you do.” And I think for a long time people approach rooms like, “Hey, I want to be with who I want to hang out with all day.” And who do people hang out with? Usually a lot of people like them. And so what does that make rooms? Really, really white. I think that it’s not just important to have a room be all-encompassing, and intersectional, and collectively diverse because it suits the story.
It suits every story. Do you know what I mean? Yes, Little Fires was about race and class but even if Little Fires had been about vampires, it would have suited the vampire story too. You know what I mean? And I think when you ask, “What have you taken away?” that’s what I take away. Yes, this was a show about race and class so this felt particularly vital, but I could be doing a show that’s an animated show about shoes and I don’t even know, ants. And it would so feel just as vital because that’s how rooms should be. So I think a lot of change is necessary and a lot of philosophical change is necessary.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I like that. I mean, obviously this is a very sort of timely thing and you couldn’t have known while making the show that it would sort of arrive at this moment, but there’s a moment where Izzy who’s queer and she’s not fitting in, she doesn’t know where she belongs, but she’s white and she’s talking to Mia who’s also queer, who’s a grown-up and is Izzy is trying to sort of disavow anything to do with this town, the people, her mother, everything and Mia kind of stops her and tells her like, “You’re part of Shaker too. This place made you. You’re not an exception because you want to be.”
So many shows that are about race and class kind of talk a lot about the blackness, but they don’t talk a lot about whiteness. And I feel like that was a real moment of talking about whiteness that I think more shows need to do when dealing with race, because it is about owning up to her fragility and owning up to her understanding of herself as apart from the white people around her when she’s really not. She’s obviously benefited from privilege.
I loved the sort of subtlety. I don’t know if you meant this or not and maybe it’s just me, but I love the sort of subtlety of like later in that same episode, [inaudible 00:37:32] is he goes into the big home fridge and pulls out of string cheese. And I’m like that’s the classic sort of like suburban home, comfortable thing of like kid getting a midnight string cheese that paired against that dichotomy is really interesting I think.
Liz Tigelaar: Absolutely. I mean that was something we talked so much about. I read White Fragility coming into the room and asked all the writers to read it. And what we really wanted to examine, and this only crystallized once we all got together in the room, but we talked a lot about this idea of that we as a society see things as so binary. Like you’re either racist or you’re not racist. You’re either marching with a KKK with a hood on or you think you’re fine because you voted for Obama.
And that there’s so much in between there and there is so much systemic and inherent racism, and that it needs to be explored. And so we talked about from the very beginning, can this show explore white liberal progressives who see themselves in this kind of post-racial world and think that their work is done, and don’t see that are so blind to their own biases and prejudices, and to your point think, “Well, I don’t want to be this, so I’m not of this.”
We’re all raised in the same system so like we’re all a part of it. It’s okay that we’re all a part of it, but if you deny that you’re a part of it, that’s where it’s bad and I think that’s what the show wanted to do. The show wanted to say, “How can you really see who you are if you’re too afraid to look at yourself?” And obviously, in the beginning, we did that in kind of a comedic way with The Vagina Monologues and Reese’s character having the guts to kind of look at her own vagina.
But really it was this metaphor for look, these characters are going to hold up mirrors to each other and don’t not look. Don’t be afraid to look because it’s in the looking that you’re going to transform and expand yourself. And hopefully, it doesn’t take your entire house burning down to get there.
Kaitlin Fontana: Spoiler alert.
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah, exactly. Spoiler alert.
Kaitlin Fontana: You’ve talked about Reese quite a bit and we’ve talked about Kerry a little bit as you said earlier came into this project knowing that they were both involved already. I wonder how involved were they? They’re both formidable talents as actors, but they’re also producers, they’re also very involved in the projects they work on. And I wonder from your perspective as a head writer what was it to be on that journey with those two particular formidable people?
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah. I mean at first obviously super exciting, really intimidating, very nerve-wracking. I was scared. But trying to be not scared. Then you start to collaborate. And then, yes, they’re big humongous stars, but they become people. They become people working on this just like I’m a person working on it and we become collaborators. We begin the process of holding this together.
While I was in the writers’ room, Reese was doing Big Little Lies and Morning Show and Kerry was doing American Son, and they were kind of doing their thing and weighing in. But really once they finish that and I with the writers finished all the scripts, then we sat down and we comprehensively looked at everything. We talked through every single script. I did tons of notes. It was an amazing process.
We got them to a place that we all felt very happy with and then we could start to be surgical. So then as we went into each script, Kerry could start to draw on her own life experiences to start to add nuance and complexity, and then Reese could do the same thing and they would have conversations with each other coming from very different places and backgrounds.
We would talk about why ’90s. Obviously, the book took place in the ’90s, but we would talk about like how are we making sure that it’s vital that this story reflects the ’90s. And we would talk about everything from the idea of colorblindness that even today people still say like, “I don’t see race.” And people need to be educated on how damaging, and negating and troublesome, and hurtful that is.
And then we would swing the pendulum to the opposite way of talking about access to abortion and how restrictive today has gotten compared to the ’90s. And so there are ways that the ’90s were a much darker time and then there are ways that it was also a freer time. And so I don’t know. Just looking at those type of things. And then I think being on set, they each had their own, I don’t want to say responsibilities, but they each gravitated toward their own things on set.
Kerry is a director too at heart and so she really took a lot of care. Anyone that Kerry is in a scene with, she wants to make sure they go home with no regrets. And so she will throw every possible thing at them in their coverage to pull out the best performance. And it is incredible to watch. I mean, not only is it incredibly generous… I mean I would sit in video village with my hands over my face not knowing what was going to happen?
It was completely unknown and it would make all the moments be so truthful and I would see the care that she took especially with the younger actors. And then Reese was so great with the teenagers and Reese has a wonderful macro view of everything. She’s such like an uber producer and so she really knows the audience well. She really knows what’s going to hook people and she really wanted to get to truth.
And so even down to like the teenage performances and just how teenagers move within spaces, she would always be like, “Nobody stands there, start moving. Pick him up. Pull his hair. Throw something.” Kids are all over the place. They’re gross. They’re grabbing each other. They won’t get off each other. She just brought this real kind of lived in truth to those especially the Richardson family scenes.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right.
Liz Tigelaar: And a lot of great ad-libbing too.
Kaitlin Fontana: Sure, sure, yeah. I can imagine. That’s a lot of energy in one room. And how fun too that you have this Joshua Jackson arc from the beginning of your career through to this experience too.
Liz Tigelaar: Yeah, I know.
Kaitlin Fontana: I also want to talk about Lynn Shelton because obviously she had her hands on this project as well and she was just this brilliant director who is so shockingly missed in this moment. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to Lynn’s contributions to the project as well.
Liz Tigelaar: Absolutely, yeah. I mean Lynn’s death is so shocking and very hard to process. It feels almost like it couldn’t possibly have happened because I feel like for the last year, we were all in the trenches together. A year ago around now, we had been just shooting for a couple weeks. And we were all just such co-collaborators. Lynn, obviously, as everybody knows who loves her work is such a visionary. She and I had a history from casual. And so I had known her for a while and we have a really beautiful family connection as well.
She’s beyond missed. I’m so thankful that her voice and influence as a filmmaker, as a mother, as a daughter, as an artist, as a photographer. Everything is infused. All Lynn’s Lynn-ness is infused in this. And when I think about her, I think about the safe space that she created especially for those teenage characters to be so brave. I think about the care and the tenderness that she took with them. They all shadowed her to learn about directing and she was so generous and patience and inviting and inclusive.
Lynn is a person who went so out of her way to make everyone feel seen and valued. She’s a type of person who would stop and really connect with people and tell them what a wonderful job they were doing. And I love those moments on set.
Well, I’ll tell a story about Lynn. I’ve told before, but we actually went to scout and Shaker Heights before we shot the show because we wanted to see some of these locations for ourselves and see what we would be recreating. And it was exciting. We went to the high school. And I remember saying to her, I felt like I was seeing like Julia Roberts. The high school felt like a celebrity, because I had been reading the book for so long. But we ended up going out to dinner and one night when we were in Shaker and Lynn was always a very careful, thoughtful eater.
So she was very interested where we were going to go to dinner and she had found this place that was recommended. So we got there, we order and we’re all just talking about… It was me, Jess Kender, production designer, and Mary Howard our line producer, and we were all just talking about motherhood and daughterhood, and our weddings. Just women sitting around, talking and the waiter came up and Lynn ordered a full pig’s head for dinner.
We were like, “Wait, what?” And she was like, “Yeah.” It’s just like a whole pig’s face coming to the table. And I was like, “I didn’t even think you ate meat and you’re going to eat like this pig’s head.” So this pig head comes to the table and I mean, I’m not kidding, it had tiny teeth. It was horrific. It was truth really hard to eat with the pig’s head on the table, let alone know that someone was eating the pig’s head.
Lynn dug into this pig’s head, and I just remember thinking like, “Who is this woman? She’s in a way like such a contradiction and such a mystery, and it was so unexpected and just delightful. And I said like, “You get into the pattern of shooting and you’re all going a thousand miles per hour, and you don’t always have time to connect in these ways.” And Lynn really took the time to connect. I always say like I think what Lynn has taught me… I mean I don’t always say it. I’ve said it in the past few weeks a few times, but I feel like what Lynn has taught me is to take more time to have pig head moments with people because it was so memorable and delightful.
Some of us from Little Fires had a Zoom just to talk about her and talk about memories of her. And we all wore Lynn Shelton hats. And every time I put on my hat, I think of Lynn. It’s a loss. It’s such a loss. I mean, it’s a loss for our little Little Fires family, but it’s such a bigger loss for the whole artistic community, for the film community in Seattle and then for her son, and loved ones, and parents. It’s very hard to comprehend.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I mean, I think one thing about this entire moment in time as humans is that it feels very big and hard to comprehend at times. And I feel like as writers it’s our gift, but also our responsibility to try and open up a little window of understanding, perhaps on these times, and as much as we can I suppose. You said earlier, you’re taking the time to kind of reflect and look inward, but if you were to design sort of the next thing, what project or what piece of material would be exciting to you to take on as a writer?
Liz Tigelaar: Well, I mean I would do Little Fires forever, if I could. This has been so exciting. The next project that I’m developing is a book called Summer Sisters by Judy Blume. When I was on Dawson’s Creek, I wrote Judy Blume a letter 20 years ago asking if she would let me adapt it. And I was a little baby writer with, I mean, obviously no experience, barely a writer, but it’s been a passion project for a long time. That’s a great example of a book that has that kind of heterosexual love story that you could look at it at first glance and be like, “Oh, it’s these girls and they’re kind of fighting about this boy.”
But that’s not what the story is at all. And I think it’s this beautiful kind of examination of what female friendship is and how you idolize somebody and are attracted to them and repelled by them and how you sometimes can’t see where you end and they begin, and it’s almost as if they belong to you and you belong to them and you don’t know how to separate. And that to me is a very exciting, intriguing story that I’m really excited to hopefully be able to tell.
But I think as I’m looking at material, I mean Little Fires has set a really high bar to be able to write a story about race, and class, and motherhood, and queerness. And oh my god, the ’90s is the greatest decade ever. I mean, it’s a hard bar, but I feel like I think wanting to tell stories that are relevant and timely and wanting even more than that and what stories I’m telling, I think wanting to raise up voices of writers to help them tell their stories, stories that might in the past not have gotten told quite as easily. I think wanting to be a mentor and collaborator and a person who helps lift people up. I mean, people have done that with me, and I want to be able to do that.
Kaitlin Fontana: Well, I hope we can all get back to work so you can do that sooner rather than later. Thank you so much, Liz for being here. I really appreciate it.
Liz Tigelaar: Oh, thank you so much.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org. You can follow the guild on social media @WGAEast and you can follow me on Twitter @kaitlinfontana. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.