Liz Tigelaar: The Best Time Ever
Showrunner and writer Liz Tigelaar finished shooting the last scenes of Little Fires Everywhere just minutes before Los Angeles’ Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the lockdown of the city in connection with the Covid-19 emergency. The series adapted from the eponymous novel by Celeste Ng was a passion project that she was relieved to see completed and ready to be streamed on Hulu in March 2020. The show deals with subjects very close to her heart: motherhood and daughterhood, and it is set in the 1990s when Tigelaar was still a senior in college and just about to start working on her first big project: Dawson’s Creek, at the outset of a career which today finds her a veteran writer and showrunner. Little Fires Everywhere has Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in the leading roles as two very different women who enter each other’s lives and change them forever.
What is it like to be a female writer and showrunner in the business in 2020? Do you feel a change from just a decade ago?
I do! I feel like I am looking across and seeing a lot more of my peers and a lot more women at the helm of things. Obviously, I think there is still a long way to go but it does feel different to me. Little Fires Everywhere was special to me because it was almost exclusively helmed by women. We had people commenting on it when they came to set and were sitting in video village. A lot of the executive producers, department heads and supervisors were women. So, it was really exciting.
You set up a company, Best Day Ever (at the Disney Television Studios unit). Is it part of your philosophy to have a good time?
Yes! Absolutely. I really want work to be fun. I want people to feel safe and be able to express themselves in ways that they maybe would not normally be able to. Having a good time while working hard, is really, really important. I was really excited to start the company.
What are the company’s goals and priorities?
I wanted a more lasting relationship with Hulu, ABC Studios and ABC Signature and have a place called home. I think that coming off Little Fires Everywhere, I just felt so connected to the material and I felt like it was a story that I really appreciated was being told. My goal as a company is that I want to tell stories that do not always get told and are about the things that I feel very passionate about. I want to tell the stories that sometimes get overlooked, which is also the case with the voice of the writers. I want to empower the next generation of showrunners – and it does not only have to be female showrunners but that is something that I really love doing. I really love mentorship and guiding other people. I had that done for me – at the time mostly by men, but also by some women and it is really empowering to be lifted up by women because they lift each other up in a very specific way. I mainly want to do projects like Little Fires Everywhere. I don’t necessarily mean just that tone, but really things that I personally feel connected to and excited about. That is definitely something that I want to do.
You have worked on The Morning Show, Casual and Life Unexpected among other shows. What is it that attracts you? What themes attract you?
I think the shows that I work on and in particular the shows that I choose to work on myself, and enjoy, are the ones where I feel really connected to the themes of the show at a certain time in my life. Life Unexpected was its own thing because it was the first show that I created, and it was such an amazing time in my life. That is kind of where Best Day Ever came about. We all felt that we were doing something that was beyond what we had done before and it was really exciting. That was a really personal story.
What attracted you to Casual?
I was really interested in what Jason Reitman was doing and I really loved Zander Lehman’s voice and I really wanted to make the transition into comedy and the types of comedies that I felt used to be dramas. I had this idea of a lighter comedy or a dramedy. I felt connected to it at the time. I had come off other shows such as Bates Motel, which were all about relationships that felt like they did not really belong in the world. Casual was this really intense relationship between a brother and sister where they really just wanted to be with each other – not romantically but they were each other’s soul mates and that was also the case with Norma and Norman in Bates Motel. So, they were just themes that I was interested in exploring at the time being: The relationships that don’t have a place in the world.
The Morning Show was nominated for three Golden Globe awards – Best television series too. What was it about that show that made you want to be part of it?
It was telling stories of non-binary relationships between women. It was not about ‘they like each other’ or ‘they hate each other’. I love the idea of telling stories about complex female dynamics, which is what all of us as women have with other women. That was something I was really drawn to. So, I usually get drawn to something based on where I am in my life.
Little Fires Everywhere is about motherhood. Was that what appealed to you in Celeste Ng’s book?
Yes, obviously it is about motherhood, which is where I am now in my life. Motherhood cannot help but make you reflect on your own daughterhood too, which is also where I am. So, this feels just right.
Fires is also a story that deals with issues of race, gender, class, and privilege in American society…
All of what you mentioned there. I think that I was very attracted to the idea that there were four very different types of mothers each on their own journey of motherhood and there is this idea that there is not one right way to mother and obviously what so much of motherhood is linked with is class, privilege and all the things you just mentioned. I think the thing that I connected with the most about it was the daughterhood aspect of it was just this idea of figuring out who you are within your own family. And also having those longings of what you don’t have and putting it on a pedestal. I really related to the journeys of Izzy and Pearl and how enamored they became with those lies that they almost felt that they longed for them. There is always something that really moves me about the mothers that you are born to and the mothers that you find and who find you. For me, I was found by a wonderful adoptive family, and so it touches me in a really deep way.
At the forefront of this story are two women: A white wealthy journalist and mother of four, Elena Richardson (played by Reese Witherspoon), and a black nomadic artist and mother to one, Mia (played by Kerry Washington). Can you speak about your fascination with these two characters?
All of us in the writers’ room wanted to be Mia but admitted that we were Elenas. I think there is something about Elena that I was very connected to. It is ingrained in us that if we do things a certain way, we will be happy. I love this idea of if you plan and make lists, you can avoid chaos and disaster. Everybody wants to think that they can have that kind of control. Elena is maybe a little over the top, but I think there is a longing for control that we can all relate to. She has a need to be a certain type of mother. What was so interesting about writing Elena was the idea of what happens when she loses control and how she unravels. That was something I was very fascinated with and Reese made it so much more interesting with her performance.
And Mia is very different from Elena. What did you find interesting about her and the relationship between the two women?
We all wished we could have the freedom of Mia and live without the material things that we all long for and pick up and go on an adventure and not be bound by what other people think. I believe there is something really appealing about that. But then when you peel back the layers of Mia’s story, it is more complicated than that. As we peel that back, we see what it is like for a daughter who has to be more of a partner and does not really have the opportunity to be a little kid and to be really mothered in the way that Elena mothers. Mia and Elena feel like they are from two very different worlds and that they are very different in terms of their philosophy on life and the way they were raised and where they come from and what they grabble with, but then there is this bond where they both so fiercely want to do what is right by their children and they are very blind to the damage that they might be causing them. They are also both like magnets and are both drawn to and repelled by each other. They are both holding up a mirror to each other and they are very uncomfortable with what they are seeing. And that is what made the dynamic between them so fascinating and complicated. When we shot scenes with the two of them, it felt so electric on set. Everybody wanted to have a look at the monitor to see what was going to happen.
The show takes place in the 90s. How do you think the situation for women has changed since then and how did you experience the 90s in terms of your professional situation?
Oh man! In 1997, I was a senior in college. I was about to graduate, and my first job was on Dawson’s Creek in 1998 with the one and only Joshua Jackson. In 1997, I was just leaving the nest from the East Coast to come out West to begin everything. The fashion and the music in the show feel exactly on point. There is so much in the show from our own lives. Anyone looks back and probably thinks that it was a simpler time. I look at that and think about watching things on TV when they air and watching it with your siblings and friends and talking about things. Not having cell phones to suck your energy and to actually have conversations is nostalgic to think of. It was funny, we kept joking that we could not believe we were a period piece because for all of us producers, we all came of age in the 1990s and this was our high school and college time. It was weird to think that this was dated.
You wrote a script called LA Woman based on Eve Babitz’s book. Will we see this come to life any time soon?
We are redeveloping it and going out with it. I am really excited about it. It is a story that I feel so connected to and I feel like she was so ahead of her time and paved the way for all the female voices and artists that we see now. I am very determined with that project. It is a passion project for me.
And we are in the middle of an odd time in history where the Covid-19 virus has more or less paralyzed our society as we know it. Apart from worrying about loved ones like everyone else, how do spend this time?
It has been such an odd time because we literally finished the show three minutes before Los Angeles shut down. We rushed to the set to get it in. It has been such a weird thing to have this labor of love and passion project come out when all of this is going on. I found it to be a little bit of a reprieve from just so much fear and grief and worry and anxiety. My wife and I have a young son and we are just trying to take one day at a time and just appreciate that we are here, we are healthy and that we have this time with him. But it has been a strange time and talking about the themes of the show and thinking of the experience of the show, I am so grateful that I had it. Knowing that this is what is happening now.