Liz Tigelaar is the bisexual showrunner and executive producer of the new Hulu limited series Little Fires Everywhere, starring and co-executive produced by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, which is based on the best selling novel by Celeste Ng. The show debuted its first three episodes last week, with a new episode dropping every Wednesday going forward.
Best known for creating the critically acclaimed drama series Life Unexpected, which aired on the CW for two seasons, Tigelaar got her writing start on NBC’s groundbreaking drama American Dreams. She went on to write and produce such series as ABC’s What About Brian, Dirty Sexy Money, Brothers and Sisters, Once Upon a Time, Revenge, Nashville and Astronaut Wives Club, along with A&E’s Bates Motel. Tigelaar most recently served as showrunner and executive producer of the Hulu Golden Globe-nominated comedy Casual, created by Zander Lehmann and executive produced by Jason Reitman.
Tigelaar grew up in Dallas, Texas, and Guilford, Connecticut, and graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Scriptwriting and Politics. She got her start as an assistant on Dawson’s Creek, followed by Once and Again, where she was mentored by one of her writing idols, Winnie Holzman. (creator of My So-Called Life and book writer for the musical Wicked)
GLAAD caught up with Tigelaar to get her queer take on the series and to find out what it was like to work closely alongside Washington and Witherspoon, as well as what creative changes she felt were necessary in order to convert the book to television.
WHAT ABOUT CELESTE NG’S BEST-SELLING BOOK INSPIRED YOU TO WANT TO TURN IT INTO THIS TV SERIES FOR HULU?
I was approached by Lauren Neustadter from Hello Sunshine (Reese’s production company), who asked me if I wanted to turn the book into a series. She told me Reese and Kerry were attached to star in it and asked me to read the book by Celeste, which she was completely in love with. I read it in a night and fell in love with it, too. I found myself with so many points of connectivity to it – there was no question I was doing it. We pitched it to multiple places, and Hulu – who I have a long relationship with – emerged as the frontrunner… and I was thrilled.
REESE WITHERSPOON AND KERRY WASHINGTON ARE BOTH CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS WITH YOU ON THE SHOW – WHAT WAS THE CREATIVE PROCESS LIKE FOR ALL OF YOU WORKING TOGETHER?
It was incredible. They supported me from the start and put a lot of trust in me – everything from breaking the pilot, to assembling the room, to having a vision for the series. And then on top of that, their contributions were enormous – starting with dissecting the scripts, their characters, their relationships to each other and to the other characters. They each had their own deep connections to the story and they were able to use what the writers and I crafted as a starting point to further discuss each scene and mine every moment for even more specificity, infusing their life experiences into them. And then once we were on set, it was a whole other level of collaboration and discovery together… and, of course, in post as well. I can honestly say it was one of the best experiences of my life and I loved being witness to their process, how they thought about each scene, how they approached our collaboration. It was incredible, and I came out of working with them admiring them both even more than when I started.
WAS THERE A CHANGE FROM THE BOOK THAT YOU FELT PASSIONATE ABOUT MAKING?
There were a few changes that felt vital. First, with Kerry being cast, it meant that Mia was black and that changed the lens through which the story was told. Certain moments – like Elena (Witherspoon) offering her a job as a maid or Lexie turning to Mia (Washington) in a crisis after how she treated Pearl – would take on a different meaning, as would how Mia interacted with the Richardson family and even how she mothered her own daughter. I also felt passionate about having Izzy (one of Witherspoon’s character’s children, played by Megan Stott) be a character who was grappling with her sexuality – and sexual orientation – in this repressed, constricting environment and time period. The book is so intersectional and inclusive and I felt like an LGBTQ character was missing – and maybe it was my own projecting or identifying with that character so strongly, but it felt so natural for Izzy. And lastly, I wanted to have a more unexpected ending – an ending that wasn’t announced on page 1 of the book.
WHAT CAN YOU SHARE WITH US ABOUT THE QUEER SENSIBILITIES BEHIND THIS SHOW?
I, myself, am a bisexual woman. I didn’t grow up in a family like Izzy’s and it’s also not something that I grappled with in my teens. It’s something I came to really naturally through loving the people I loved – most of all, my wife Alison. But I certainly know people raised in those environments – be it in families or towns – who endured tremendous pain, especially in the late 90s/early 2000s. Those people would have killed to hear phrases like “I love you anyway” or “I love you, no matter what” – but today, we can see the subtext of those phrases and how hurtful they are in their own right.
HOW DO YOU BELIEVE LGBTQ AUDIENCES MIGHT REACT DIFFERENTLY TO THE SERIES?
I hope they’ll like and appreciate this change from the book. I hope it will mean something to see representation on-screen – told through the lens of a 14-year-old girl. I know people have come up to me, telling me stories of their own struggle to come out and the loss of family because of it, and it’s touched them to see a version of their story. But more than that, I think anyone who has bumped up against who they are and who their family has wanted them to be will identify with Izzy – and that story is universal, I think.
COULD YOU SHARE A BIT ABOUT HOW RACE, CLASS, AND PRIVILEGE PLAY A ROLE IN THE NARRATIVE’S POWER DYNAMICS?
That’s the heartbeat of this story – everything happens through the lens of race, class, and privilege. In every moment we can, we are looking to explore those themes. Two sequences stand out to me. In 103, we open on Bebe and see her deep in a struggle to care for her daughter and herself. We see her in a freezing apartment with no heat. We see her unable to breastfeed because her daughter can’t latch on. We see her struggling to afford formula and being short seventy cents – and what not having that seventy cents means for her. And then at the end of that same episode, we see Izzy getting on the bus, being seventy cents short, and given a pass of “don’t worry about it.” This, of course, speaks to race, class, and privilege. And there’s a similar juxtaposition we have between that Bebe (Lu Huang) montage with May Ling and a later scene with Elena and newborn Izzy, and we see that while both their lows are their lowest points, their lows are still incredibly different because of race, class, and privilege.
AS A MOTHER YOURSELF, WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE OF WRITING ABOUT MOTHERHOOD?
One of our writers, Nancy Won, said it so well. It felt so important to write a story about mothers being mothers. Not mothers who are also superheroes. Or mothers who are cutting edge brain surgeons. Or spies. Or Supreme Court justices. Or whatever else you THINK you need to add on to mothers to make their stories more interesting. The story of motherhood is worthy and interesting and compelling in and of itself. And to have the opportunity to tell the story of four complex, very different mothers was incredible. There is no one way to mother and there is no one story about mothers. And it was therapeutic to be in a room of mothers, on set surrounded by mothers, and to be making a show with mothers about our experience. Motherhood is joyful and challenging and heartbreaking and breathtaking – and to be writing about it in the midst of doing it was such a gift. So much of motherhood is having to care, with every fiber of your being, while simultaneously being asked to let go, little by little, more and more. I actually don’t know how mothers who aren’t writing about it deal with all their emotions around it!
AFTER PUTTING “LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE” AND “THE MORNING SHOW” (TIGELAAR IS A CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCER) OUT IN THE UNIVERSE IN JUST THE PAST FEW MONTHS, WHAT COMES NEXT FOR YOU IN YOUR CAREER?
I’m developing one of my all-time favorite books, Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume, as a potential limited series for Hulu. I’ve loved the book since I first read it over twenty years ago and actually wrote Judy a letter back then, asking to adapt it. So this is a dream come true. Little Fires Everywhere set the bar high for me. I want to be deeply connected to every project I do from here on out, and I want to have fun doing it, with people I love.