'Nine Perfect Strangers' Director Jonathan Levine Breaks Down the Finale's 'Happy' Ending (Exclusive)
By John Boone
In the end, they weren't complete strangers, after all.
The eighth and final episode of Nine Perfect Strangers, "Ever After," confirmed that it was, indeed, jilted divorcee Carmel (Regina Hall) who shot Masha (Nicole Kidman) for having an affair with her husband, the near-death experience that led Masha to start Tranquillum House in the first place. And that's only the first minutes of the finale.
As in the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name, the weeklong wellness retreat ends with the guests all locked in a room where they're tricked into believing the resort is on fire -- thus, experiencing their own impending demises -- with the exception of the Marconis. Diverting from the book's plot, Napoleon (Michael Shannon), Heather (Asher Keddie) and Zoe (Grace Van Patten) go on one last acid trip to share a hallucinogenic goodbye with Zach, with Masha using their psychedelic connection to reunite with her own dead daughter.
After the cops cart Masha off for her various crimes against wellbeing and the guests return to their everyday lives, Frances (Melissa McCarthy) and Tony (Bobby Cannavale) find family in one another (and Frances finds inspiration for her next book, titled Nine Perfect Strangers); Carmel finds forgiveness; and Ben (Melvin Gregg) and Jessica (Samara Weaving)…take over running Tranquillum House?!
"I can talk about this, right?" director Jonathan Levine confirmed to ET over Zoom, before venturing into finale spoiler territory to discuss Masha's happy (or is it?) ending, whether Carmel earned her atonement and more.
ET: You have a lot of balls in the air heading into this finale. What were your goals for this final episode? Or what were the things that were most important to you to accomplish?
Jonathan Levine: There was so many different things, as you said. There're thriller elements. There's humor. There's character-based drama. There's soap. For me, what was so important the whole time is engaging with the humanity of these characters and fulfilling their emotional journey in a satisfying way. That was, like, job one of this finale. And then there was the job of topping yourself, as it gets more and more crazy and more and more trippy. I love that sort of descent through the looking glass into madness, so pushing that even further as well. And of course, giving closure to our characters as well as some surprises.
Masha's arc over the series pivots quite a bit obviously from the source material. What conversations did you have with David and Nicole about where you ultimately wanted to take that story and end with her?
What David found with her -- and I think the seeds of it are in the book -- is that she is dealing with her own grief, the same way that all of these people are. And David changed it slightly from the book, but in the book, she had lost a child. So, I think what he did was connect these dots and figure out a way to dramatize it in a more heightened way that is appropriate for the type of material we're making. I was quite impressed and excited when he landed on this [plotline] that she is using the Marconis specifically as test pilots to get to her past. And I love what it explores -- the idea of, Is it better to live in a delusion than it is to live in our reality?
I think it's really relevant right now. Reality is really hard to face sometimes. And I think that this exploration of the subjectivity of reality could not be more relevant. So, I love where she ends up and I love her arc and I love what Nicole was able to do turning this person from an antagonist almost into a protagonist. Someone you can empathize with who started off as, for all intents and purposes, your bad guy. I think there's something very biting and I love where she ends up, driving away in their car with [her daughter]. She's living in a delusion. She's got her daughter back, but she doesn't. And she seems happy, but is she really? She's living in a dream. Her life is not reality.
You mentioned having to manage this thriller aspect, with the season-long mystery of who shot Masha. Talk to me about doling out those reveals and how you wanted to weave that thread into this bigger tapestry.
That was a really tricky one to balance, because a lot of the reveals in the show are things you have to obfuscate quite a lot. You have to really gingerly pepper this stuff in. To me, what I love about it is the way Regina did it. We have all these characters -- whether it's Bobby's character killing someone in his past or Regina's character shooting Nicole or Nicole's character having an affair with Regina's charter's husband -- who are doing these awful, awful things, and one of the things we're exploring is, how do you maintain your humanity in spite of this stuff? It was about the push and pull with the audience of showing these people doing terrible things but then being like, "Hey, these are people worthy of your love as well." These are people who make mistakes -- and we're dealing with a heightened world and they're making huge mistakes -- and I don't know that they should be forgiven for their mistakes, but I do think they should have the opportunity to move forward and move past their mistakes.
As far as navigating the thrillery aspects, there's an element of the horror genre [or] the thriller genre hanging over the whole thing. Because to me, the very notion that you're going to go to a mysterious place that's going to completely change you for the rest of your life, the need for that is horrific. I feel it, but that's a scary feeling. And then this idea that she's dosing them without their knowledge, that's also a scary, terrifying thing to experience. And then a bad trip, as I know all too well, is a terrifying thing to experience. So, having that be germane to the material made it not feel whiplashy to go to these threats and to go to the Carmel reveal. That Carmel reveal is almost a campy moment, but I love it. I think it's just delicious. And I think that having the umbrella of psychedelics to help us push with humor in one moment and push with a thriller in another moment and for them to also feel like they're in the same piece was really helped by the idea that these guys were all tripping.
You go into this thinking Nicole is taking the biggest swing, but by the end of episode 7, Regina is doing a full song and dance number to "Xanadu." It's wild.
From the beginning, we knew that our sweet spot was being weird and wild and just pushing it. Luckily, we had actors who were brave enough to just go to those places. Regina dancing was one of the most fun things we shot. We just locked her in a room with our camera operator and he was on this really wide lens, so he had to get really close. Like, he crashed into her once and in the outtakes, you can see it. The camera almost falls to the ground! But it was so fun. To me, she's an amazing distillation of the tone of the show. She's so funny and then she can be terrifying and then she can find that vulnerability in Carmel and tap into it. I just love her. She's fantastic.
Was this finale episode always as written? Or did these actors coming in and shaping these characters then shape the way the story ended in specific ways?
Oh yeah. I think the architecture of it was always very similar. Where we wanted to end up was always very similar, but sure, you have actors who have been living with these characters for three months. They were the guardians of these characters even more so than I was. Especially with people like Michael and Melissa and Bobby and Samara. These are top-class actors and so I would be crazy not to integrate their feedback. Because she's a producer, Melissa and I talked a lot about the finale and where Tony and Frances were going to end up. She's so brilliant creatively that she was very helpful in crafting that arc for the final episode. We would go back and forth, she and David and I, quite a lot on those scenes. I knew that that was going to be one of the big things that viewers loved about this show. I think their relationship is just so beautiful and touching to me.
Regina helped figure out her coda or epilogue. Asher with her epilogue. Stuff like that. We'd be on set shooting episode six or seven and I'd have little sidebar conversations with people all the time, and then I'd relay that back to David, who couldn't be on set because we were in Australia and COVID and all that stuff. It probably changed about 15 percent. These weren't huge structural changes. But I think that's what's really fun about directing. There's where I come from having worked with Seth [Rogen] in comedy. I love being in a creative dialogue with the actors throughout. You have to be pretty flexible when you're doing something insane.
Have you gotten Liane's review of the series as a whole yet?
Liane saw it maybe a couple of weeks before it came out. I mean, she'd read the scripts and she'd been a part of it, and I got [her review] through Bruno. I didn't really get a chance to hang with her very much at all, which is a shame because I'm such a huge fan of her writing, but yes, we got her blessing. She was very positive about it.
Before I let you go, I want to ask about "Crimson Blue." [Keith Urban recorded the original song for the series' end credits.] Nicole and Keith have always been so supportive of each other, but how did this come to be? Was it Nicole suggesting her husband? Or an ask from you?
I'm a big fan of his and his music. We [did post-production] in Sydney, and we had occasion to end up at a little party at Nicole Kidman's house, not trying to brag. That was my personal first time meeting Keith and just, what a wonderful, amazing dude. At the end, he was playing the piano and doing covers, and I was like, "I've got to pinch myself. This is crazy!" But I think what happened was Nicole was like, "He's quarantining," and I was like, "Well, he should write some tunes for us." And she was like, "That's a great idea." Maybe it was Nicole's suggestion and I was like, "That's a great idea!"
Then a few days later, I got some songs in my inbox. And this one in particular, it had this Pink Floyd-y kind of vibe, which made it really perfect for the end song. I love that sort of nod to psychedelia and the music I would listen to in my dorm room on repeat. It was kind of perfect. And to think that he was quarantining and just wrote it. I don't know how songs come to people, but I was so impressed when we got it. It's not every day you get a giant pop star to write a song for your show.
Nine Perfect Strangers is streaming in its entirety on Hulu.