‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ director Jonathan Levine spoke with HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVE about filming during the pandemic, staying ‘true to the spirit’ of the book, and whether a season 2 is possible.
Another one of Liane Moriarty’s best-selling books is coming to television. Nine Perfect Strangers premieres on August 18 and follows guests as they visit Tranquillum House, a high-end wellness resort that promises major transformation during its retreat. These guests, from all different backgrounds, get more than they bargained for as they come across the mysterious Masha, played by Nicole Kidman.
HollywoodLife got the chance to speak EXCLUSIVELY with Jonathan Levine, who directed all 8 episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers. He talked about adapting Liane’s “moving” and “batsh*t crazy” book for TV and how the COVID-19 precautions helped the cast and crew “replicate the dynamics of the actual story.” He also weighed in about a possible season 2. Read our Q&A below:
I was a huge fan of Big Little Lies, so I’m so excited more of Liane’s material is being adapted. This is your first TV project in a while, so what was it about Nine Perfect Strangers that made you want to go back to television?
Jonathan Levine: I did a Showtime pilot 5 years ago, too. It ended up being a really great experience called I’m Dying Up Here. But this was so different. This is different than even doing a pilot. This is much more akin to doing a movie. I think that what I was finding was that television is very much where you can make risky choices, you can push the envelope, you can do all these things that you sort of used to be able to do in movies, but now you kind of can’t. The things that are scary in movies are the things that you have to do to make noise in television. And so as a storyteller, currently, I don’t even think it’s close. The stuff that we’re able to do in the show I could never get in a movie. It’s too crazy, too weird. But of course, that’s actually what makes it great. As someone who loves telling unique and totally tricky stories, this is the place to be. When I read the first script and when I read Liane’s book, it was just so moving and also so batsh*t crazy that I was like, I have to do this. It’s one of the few kinds of things that I think, objectively, I do really well, to play with these tones. It’s always helpful for me to do something when I feel like I’m one of the few people in the world who can do it. I don’t often feel that way. As a neurotic person that’s not something that comes easily. In this particular instance, I read it and I was like, I know how to do that. And then, when you have this amazing cast, to look around each day and see Regina [Hall] and Luke [Evans] and Michael [Shannon] and Melissa [McCarthy] and Nicole, I just felt very, very lucky.
What was the process like filming the show in the middle of a pandemic? Did you find that being in a bubble helped tell this particular story?
Jonathan Levine: On one hand, I was worried it would be very hard to focus, given the state of the world. I was worried it would be all COVID precautions and stuff would really draw focus away from telling the story. But two things happened: One, once you start doing your job, you’re just doing your job. You’re grateful to be able to do it. We were sort of isolated in this way, and we were able to replicate the dynamics of the actual story. Also, everyone from the top down was just so happy to be there. We had this very lucky, wonderful experience where we were able to go to a place that really didn’t have a lot of COVID, and everyone felt it. Everyone felt the gratitude — and not just the gratitude — but the responsibility to our friends and our families who were locked in our houses halfway across the world to push ourselves to make this thing as great as possible. So, in those ways, that was kind of a silver lining. It was very helpful for me in dealing with this incredible cast but also a lot of big personalities to have everyone start from a baseline of like, hey, we’re f**king lucky to be here. That really helps me as a filmmaker, navigating all different personalities and the massive star power of this cast.
Was there one particular character who was tough to cast?
Jonathan Levine: To me, some of the most interesting casting is Michael Shannon because it’s just so against type, and he does such a beautiful job. He was someone I’d worked with before and someone I knew and loved. I didn’t know whether he’d be interested or whether he would feel like it was too far away from who he really is. But Mike, being the bold, creative person that he is, finds that he is looking for a challenge. While being trepidatious about jumping into this role, like with everything he does, he did it full-on. I think the opportunity to work with Regina was really exciting to me. I had just heard from my friends Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg], who produce Black Monday, that she was just such a wonderful actress and just a delight and also just an incredible force and energy to be around. She lived up to all of that. Samara [Weaving], who’s playing Jessica, that’s a really tough role to play. To find her humanity and to find her humor and to still be making a big choice as far as performance goes, I think she did an incredibly beautiful job. You hope that this will be the case in the casting process but you never know. It was just so wonderful to watch them all.
Nine Perfect Strangers is a best-selling book. Readers know this book and the characters in this story. Would you say the show is a faithful adaptation of the book?
Jonathan Levine: I can say that we are true to the spirit of the book, and we are very respectful of the big fans and to the characters. I think Liane did a wonderful job creating this world and these characters, and we take that responsibility very seriously to deliver on that. I think that due to the nature of a serialized story that goes across eight episodes, you kind of have to make some changes. I think that the changes that David [E. Kelley] made are things I really, really like. I think I would say that it’s faithful but not dogmatically so. I mean with David, for example, someone as successful as him and as powerful as him, can easily be like, ‘You have to do every single line of dialogue exactly as it’s written, and this is how I pictured it.’ He was not like that at all. He’s such a good collaborator. He trusted me so much that I’m just very, very grateful. I think between him and Liane, I think there’s that same level of trust and that same level of knowledge. Of course, he seems to really understand her work and he has obviously succeeded in translating it to the screen before, so I think that they have a really good thing going. I felt that spirit of collaboration and I brought that to my collaboration with the actors and my crew. I think it is faithful to the spirit of the book, but we’ve changed some plot elements. Hopefully, the people who love the book will like it and hopefully, people who haven’t read the book will like it.
With Big Little Lies, we saw a beginning, the middle, and an end in the first season, but the show continued with a second season. Could that be the case with Nine Perfect Strangers, or is there a definitive end?
Jonathan Levine: Well, all I can say is that we told the story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I do think there’s definitely opportunity, like storytelling opportunities, to carry the story beyond that. I hope you will watch it and like it and if people like it enough to do more, I’ll be the first one to ask him [David E. Kelley] to do more.