Director Jonathan Levine talks about the changes from Liane Moriarty's book to Hulu series.
Spoilers below for the first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers.
"They're all on drugs. Just start the whole piece with that," laughs director Jonathan Levine when I warn him that we'll be venturing into spoiler territory. (The first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers are now streaming on Hulu.) By the end of the third episode, one of the titular strangers has come to that very realization, demanding to know, "Have you been medicating us?"
It's a twist straight out of Liane Moriarty's best-selling novel of the same name. Both focus on nine guests (played onscreen by the likes of Melissa McCarthy, Regina Hall, Bobby Cannavale, Luke Evans and Michael Shannon) at a wellness retreat run by an increasingly unorthodox Russian guru named Masha (Nicole Kidman). Just like in the book (and as foreshadowed in the show's trippy opening credits) each of the guests' smoothies are, unbeknownst to them, being laced with drugs.
As adapted by David E. Kelley (who previously teamed up with Kidman for Big Little Lies and The Undoing), there was one major change made in bringing the story from page to screen. Fans of the book will remember Masha's backstory as it unfolded in the first pages: She left Russia and became a ruthless businesswoman, climbing the corporate ladder until cardiac arrest led to her spiritual rebirth. What Kidman's Masha shares at the end of episode one is quite different: "I was shot dead!" Someone attempted to kill Masha, and perhaps the same someone is now sending Masha ominously threatening messages.
Speaking with ET, Levine discussed why they added a new mystery to Nine Perfect Strangers, being compared to Big Little Lies and what it was like collaborating with Kidman to create Masha.
ET: Masha's character has quite a different backstory from the book, and it leads into this stalker subplot, which is original to the series. What do you feel the mystery brought to the show, or why it was an important component to what you are doing with this adaptation?
Jonathan Levine: When I was reading the book, it has this sort of classic Agatha Christie set up, right? And then it pivots into character. And I love what the book does. I think that part of the fun of this show is to include a serialized thriller element that, as an audience member, keeps you locked into plot. Because the book is not plot-driven at all, and I think that works very nicely for a book. I think when you're unfolding an eight-hour story, it's a little harder. You do need these signposts to check in with and keep you kind of engaged in a fun way. So, I always really liked it, and I think where it ultimately ends up going in the last two episodes also very much supports and complements the thematics of the show. Yes, it is a departure, but I think it's consistent with the spirit of the book.
From episode 4 and on, I felt like, "This is uncharted waters." I didn't have any idea what was going to happen, because we do diverge quite a bit from Liane's source material. I think that's exciting, when a show and the book are different but live in the same world as more of a sort of spiritual adaption.
I'm glad you said that, and look, I think David had such a successful experience with Big Little Lies, and I'm not sure how much that deviated from the book -- although I imagine it did. I think that he's got a certain trust and a certain instinctive thing going with Liane where he just understands how to adapt her material to the screen. To me, what I loved most about that book was these beautiful characters that she drew, and I thought we would be successful in our jobs of pleasing fans of the book if we delivered on that first and foremost.
Coming onto this with the team of Nicole and Bruna [Papandrea] and David in place and it's based on another Liane novel, you know the Big Little Lies comparisons are inevitable. Is that something that proved intimidating?
I guess I was conscious in prep that we shouldn't execute it like the way Jean-Marc [Vallée] did with Big Little Lies -- which by the way I loved. I love everything he did. I think he's a fantastic filmmaker. We have the same cinematographer, but we definitely didn't want it to look like that [show]. We wanted to be telling people, "This is its own unique thing." And I think what's so wonderful about this piece is that it is so unique. It is not tonally really that much like Big Little Lies. Once you get past sort of there's some rich people and it's a little bit of satire, but I don't even think there's as much [satire].
It was very important to me to kind of mathematically and point-of-view wise approach it in a way that did make it distinct from Big Little Lies. I wanted to take a very humanistic approach to these characters, to really have everyone fall in love with these characters. It's not as much about social critique as Big Little Lies. Again, under the blanket statement that I love that show. So, yes. In prep, sure, I was thinking a little bit about it. In production, I didn't think about it at all, because you're really directing the material. And as a filmmaker, you try to get everything out of your head that could possibly mess with your point of view. You don't want to be making defensive choices while you're executing. And now, all day people have been asking me about Big Little Lies, so I'm thinking about it again. [Laughs] But up until today, I didn't give it any more thought.
Backing up, where in the process did you join the Nine Perfect Strangers team?
Gosh, so Nicole and Melissa were already on board, and David was in the process of writing along with John-Henry [Butterworth]. I think they had maybe three scripts. I just read the first script and I fell in love with it. I didn't even know, like, the twist -- the spoilers they were not supposed to talk about -- I didn't even know any of that stuff! So, then I started reading the book -- I already had the job when I was reading the book -- and I was like, "Whoa! This just gets better and better." But I basically signed on with the first script and just knowing David and Melissa and Nicole and Liane. Like, that was more than enough for me. I suppose had it gone in a completely different direction for which I was not the right filmmaker, that would have been a little awkward. [Laughs] But luckily it was right in my wheelhouse.
What did you hope to bring to this that was uniquely Jonathan Levine?
When I was reading the script, it's this great thing that David can do -- I mean, he's been doing it since Picket Fences or Ally McBeal -- it's this combination of funny and profound. Or intense and absurdist. I think there was a lot of tonal ambition and tonal opportunity here, and when I think about what I can do and what I can bring to the table, I think that's something that I understand intrinsically, is how to navigate tone. Whenever I approach a project, I start culling references from different sources. Usually it's just, like, a hundred different movies. And the more successful the project is, usually, the more different types of movies I'm pulling as references. So, I was thinking Midsommar. I was thinking of Polanski. I was thinking of Buñuel. And it's all under the umbrella of, this is a character-driven, dramedy, thriller. I mean, I don't even know how I would classify it. But I think that, for me, the more tonally ambitious something is the more I feel like I'm the right person for it, because it's something I've had a little of success with in the past. It's something I think I kind of understand how to do.
Nicole was obviously in place when you came on board. Did you two have talks about how she would be playing Masha? Or did she come to you with the character fully formed in her Nicole way?
No, there was a collaboration. We talked a lot about it. I mean, it's interesting, because I've been in this situation where really, as a director, you want people to take big swings. You want them to be brave and you want them to dive in and you don't want to be like, "Eh, I'm not so sure about that." That's just not a fun, creative place to be. So, we did have a lot of conversations. And look, I love Nicole most when she's immersed in a character. I love to die for Nicole, you know? I just think that it's so fun when she's able to disappear into a big choice. It's a little scary, of course. I'm sure it's scary for her too, but I just love what she did. And I think, especially in the last two, you'll see that there's kind of a pivot that I think she pulls off miraculously.
And yes, we talk a lot. But those talks are more collaborative and supportive. So, we did talk about the character, where the character came from, we would talk about backstory, and we would talk about tone a lot. It's funny, because independently we both landed on Picnic at Hanging Rock as one of our great tonal signposts. To me, that character is the distillation of the tone of the show. It's pushed, it's grounded, it's fun, it's weird. It's all these inherent contradictions, and yet we try to deliver it to you in this very elegant, entertaining package. I think she understood that right away. And I think we were completely on the same page about that. I always remember anecdotally my first day working with Ben Kingsley on The Wackness, and I was about to roll and it occurred to me in that moment, "I have no idea what the f**k this guy's about to do." Like, no clue. [Laughs] And he came at it and he had this accent, and I was like, "OK! That's great!" And I loved that he took that swing and I loved that he made that character his own, but I also, since then, have learned that you want to know what you're in for and you want to collaborate on it.
You filmed this in such a unique environment and time, in this bubble in Australia. When you look back on that time filming, do you have one memory that has come to encompass your Nine Perfect Strangers experience?
It was a weird time, man. I mean, everything's a weird time now, but it was, like, the world was suffering a trauma and I remember asking my wife if we should get on a plane and move to Australia for a year. She was like, "F**k yeah! Let's get the f**k out of here."
Your wife sounds cool.
I was a little more conflicted about it. And then we got there and you quarantine and when we got out, it was like there was no COVID. So, I felt a lot of conflict over that. I was like, why did we get to do this? But I also felt very lucky. And so, there was just such beauty in the appreciation of what we were able to do as storytellers -- as working people in general -- during this horrible time for the planet that I think there were a lot of beautiful moments where we really savored those moments. Even just sitting in between takes on that back deck by the pool shooting the sh*t with some of the cast at a magic hour was always a beautiful, beautiful experience. We were in a beautiful place and we were doing what we loved and we were very, very grateful to be able to do that. It was still COVID, so we couldn't have any parties or anything like that. So, I don't have any great stories about, like...
A rager at Melissa's house.
Yeah, nothing like that. But I will say we really enjoyed each other's company, and the human contact was really, really special.
New episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers stream every Wednesday on Hulu.