Dara Resnik, producer and writer on Daredevil, Pushing Daisies and now showrunner on new Apple TV series Home Before Dark, talks to us about the making of the show, the true story of the 9-year old American journalist on which the series is based, plus the roles and responsibilities of the showrunner.
My childhood was spent outdoors when the weather allowed it, or indoors watching movies like The Goonies, E.T. or Explorers and playing with Transformers when it didn't. I can tell you it wasn't spent reporting on a neighbourhood murder for my own newspaper, and I am willing to bet with utmost certainty that neither was yours.
Back in 2016, one 8 year-old girl who doing exactly that in Sellingsgrove, Pennsylvania was Hilde Lysiak, the inspiration for Apple TV series Home Before Dark, a grown-up family drama about said young girl from the big city who uncovers clues to an unsolved cold case while visiting her father's small lakeside town.
When I sit down to talk about the show with co-creator and showrunner Dara Resnik, I'm first of all pleasantly surprised to find she's one of the few people I've spoken to recently whose work has not come to a grinding halt because of the pandemic.
"I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do my job from home. Obviously, the second season of Home Before Dark has a pin in it right now. We were about halfway through shooting the second season when we had to stop and don't know when we're going to be back up and running again. Safety is more important than finishing a second season of television. In the meantime, I've been running the writer's room during all of this on a show I sold to Amazon. It's been really nice to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning [laughs]."
A series to keep an eye out for in the future, but it's Home Before Dark that brings us together today. As previously mentioned the show is based on a real life character in Hilde Lysiak. However, far from being a re-telling of her particular story, the show was seen as a chance to re-create some of the darker children's movies of the 1980's. It was a chance prompted by 13 Reasons Why creator Joy Gorman Wettels.
"I'm close friends Joy Gorman Wettels who was behind adapting 13 Reasons Why into a great TV show. She had the life rights to Hilde Lysiak. I knew about her story but never thought about making it into a TV show. Joy said, 'This little girl reminds me of our daughters who are pretty fearless and precocious, and I would say little mini feminists in the making. I want to make a TV show out of it. Would you partner with my friend and former client Dana Fox?' I jumped at the opportunity. All of us had little girls and were so tired of watching some of the stuff that we had to watch [chuckles].
"We wondered where are all the Spielberg movies of our childhood aimed at this generation, and at us? We had grown up on ET, which is about a broken home, Close Encounters of the Third Kind which is about mental illness to an extent, Stand By Me which is about death. All these movies didn't shy away from telling kids the truth about the reality of their world and that life is scary, but that we stick together through it. That was the message we wanted to get across with Home Before Dark.
"Joy got director Jon M. Chu on board, although Jon and I had been friends from film school. He knew exactly what we were talking about when we said we wanted to make a Spielberg movie. Once we had Jon attached, selling it became a lot easier because he had just come off of Crazy Rich Asians. He's always been a brilliant filmmaker, but I think that proved to the town how incredible he really is."
With the creative team assembled, then came the process of adapting the true Hilde Lysiak into the fictional Hilde Lisko of the series. What did carry over was the fact Hilde Lysiak moved back to the hometown of her father, where disillusionment with his own career in journalism made way for the passion for it he had passed on to his daughter.
"Her dad, Matt, really is a reporter. He was a reporter for the Daily News in New York City for many years, which is my hometown. He covered some of the biggest stories of the last decade. He covered Trayvon Martin and he covered Newtown, and he covered homicides in the Bronx. You name it, he covered it. He grew really disillusioned with this journalistic art form that he had fallen in love with as a kid, and felt it wasn't about the truth anymore or about facts. It was about clickbait. So, he took his entire family and moved back to Sellingsgrove, Pennsylvania.
"He was supposed to be writing a book, but he was having a hard time writing, and possibly going through some depression. He has four daughters but Hilde had been the only one actually interested in what he did for a living. They would be on the way to the Bronx zoo and he'd get a call that there was a Bronx homicide. She would want to go cover the homicide rather than to go to the zoo. Now, she's eight years old in this little town and starts riding her bike around all by herself and reporting on little things. Then, lo and behold, just down the street a man kills his wife with a hammer. She scoops a local paper, and that goes viral.
"Once she started reporting, her dad came out of his depression because what she was doing was the purest form of what he had fallen in love with. She was simply reporting the truth. She wasn't about clickbait. It wasn't about getting eyeballs. It was telling the story. The whole family got in on the game. Hilde's journalistic fortitude brought the whole family back together. We wanted to tell that story without sensationalizing it.
"The real Hilde and Matt have this incredible, respectful, almost peer-like relationship. There is parenting in their house, don't get me wrong, but their parenting is just so much more about loving and accepting each of their kids for exactly who they are. We wanted to show that, to show what happens when a parent deeply respects their child as a whole human and the child deeply respects the parent as a whole, emotional human. I've been getting a lot of really amazing responses from around the world where people say exactly that to me. I'm proud that it feels like we succeeded at what we set out to do."
The planned tone of the show prompted a few questions through the development process. While the story largely plays out through the eyes of the young reporter, it was never intended to be purely a children's show. It had to be something that appealed to older audiences as well, a famously tough balancing act.
"It was really tricky, but we were highly cognizant of looking at each of the scenes and doing our best to speak to the kids and to the parents watching every scene. Dana smartly came up with a list of questions for us to answer on every episode, which we had on the whiteboard in the writer's room. They were, 'When will I get chills? When will I have adventure? When will I cry? When will I be moved?'.
"People would ask us in our pitches what the comps are. Obviously, we would say Goonies, Stand By Me and ET. Then the question we would be asked was, 'Yes, but those are wish fulfilment, right?' E.T is a little boy becoming friends with an alien, or in Close Encounters we make contact with aliens, or in Goonies we find a pirate ship with treasure. I said that the wish fulfilment here is in a world where parents pretend to be able to protect their children while they're experiencing active shooter drills in their own schools. It's telling kids that they can affect their own world. It's a realistic kind of magic. You can make a difference just by being you and riding your bike around and saying out loud what it is you see.
"I also think it's interesting that one question we were asked a lot was, 'Well, who is it for?' I do think we only got that question because it's a little girl leading it and not a little boy. I think if it had been a little boy everyone would say, 'Oh, it's an adventure family show'."
And speaking of the girl leading the adventure, the casting of that main role was all important. Brooklynn Prince, who previously starred in The Florida Project, was an actor who had been earmarked very early on to play Hilde Lisko. However, there were some early issues to overcome before securing her for the role.
"Joy had been screaming from the rooftops that it was Brooklynn Prince from minute one, but some of us were really nervous because in The Florida Project she's just six years old. I think even when you have kids, which I do, you forget that they grow. You think, 'Six years, she's so young in that movie, she can't be Hilde [laughs]'. Also, her parents were worried about TV because it's such a commitment for her. They were trying to raise her like a normal kid from Florida.
"We convinced the Princes to at least read the script. Brooklyn loved it and so did her parents. We got on a Skype audition with Jon M. Chu, Brooklyn and her dad. It was so funny. They were so similar to Hilde and Matt, who I said had that peer relationship. The way that they would talk to each other, even giving each other shit, which again is like what Hilde and Matt do, was so similar.
"So it wasn't just Brooklynn's talent, which obviously is out of this world. It's also that we could tell she comes from a trove of experience where she understands what it's like to have that peer relationship with her father. The Princes ended up loving us and loving the idea. They hopped on board and we were so grateful."
All of which meant it was equally vital that whoever was cast to play Hilde's father clicked with Prince in a similar way. The search was a complicated one. Dara notes that not only did they need an actor who was ego-less enough to share the screen with an incredible eight year old talent, they also had to be talented enough themselves to hold the screen with her. The role eventually went to Brit actor Jim Sturgess.
"Jim Sturgess was not available when we first started looking. Then when he became available we dragged him out to the US, he literally got off the plane from London and immediately went into the audition room where something magical happened. First of all, he looks more like Brooklynn than her actual father does. Her mother was in the audition room that day and said, 'Did I make a baby with Jim Sturgess? What is happening?' [laughs].
"They just had that chemistry, it was so real. It's something that's true of the whole family. That is not something we could have predicted. We did not get all the actors into a room together until after they had been cast. When we did a camera test of what we wanted the show to look like, our camera test made us all cry. No joke. We were seeing this family together on screen for the first time and thought, 'Oh, I think we just did something magical that we could literally not have known was magical until just now.' It was really cool."
Aside from casting, the showrunner of any television show has total creative responsibility for every aspect of the series. Resnik has worked on a number of shows, including Castle, Pushing Daisies and Daredevil, and she affirms that while the role of the showrunner is paramount on every series, the way of working can vary.
"It can change from show to show, but also depending on who your partner is, like Dana and I early on. Dana does not love being in a writer's room, I do, so it was nice. Showrunner is such an all-encompassing job. They do everything from pitching, coming up with the whole story or coming up with the ideas, to writing the scripts, rewriting the scripts, deciding department heads, giving notes on cuts, being onset and talking to actors. There's literally nothing that you're not doing.
"As a single working mom, I was very happy on Home Before Dark to share some of those responsibilities with Dana, who has a really cinematic eye. The way that we tended to split up the work was that she was the primary person picking our department heads and taking a lot of those meetings, while I was in the writer's room, breaking down the story for the season writers and doing primary passes on scripts. Obviously we swapped at times, but that's what worked for us.
"One day I'm sure I'll run the show without anybody else by my side, but I think what's interesting about being a showrunner is that while you cannot do everything, you have to have your hands in everything. You can't both be in the writer's room and be living in the editing room at the same time. You cannot do both of those things. You have to decide, for example, if you're a writer who is going to focus more of their energy in the writer's room, or you're a writer who tries to get everything shot, and then retell the story in the editing room, and you spend more time in editing."
In either case, during production it must all be captured by multiple directors across multiple episodes. I'm curious about the process of hiring directors who, while having input, will ultimately need to deliver the vision of the showrunner. This is something very different to film where the director has the creative vision.
"Well the good news is we had Jon M. Chu for the first two episodes, which set a great tone. Rosemary Rodriguez was our in-house executive producer/director. She was there from the beginning too. For half the episodes that was relatively easy because those people were there since the inception of the show.
"Then, we got super lucky and got the incredibly talented Kat Candler to direct two episodes. She and our cinematographer, Alice Brooks, just had an incredible telepathic thing going and made two episodes of magic. Then I hired an old friend from Castle, Kate Woods, who had directed one of my favourite episodes called Clear and Present Danger. I brought her on because I knew that she and I would have a shorthand. Then Rosemary recommended Jim McKay who did episodes 7 and 8. They also had a shorthand.
"One of the last meetings you have with the director before you start shooting is the 'tone meeting'. You go through the script page by page, line by line, action by action and describe what it is you want to see. 50% of the time it works, and 50% of the time you'll sometimes see the dailies and think, 'That wasn't what I said'. In this particular case, I feel like most of what we got back was exactly what we were looking for."
Such has been its success, the show was well into shooting its second season before the coronavirus brought production to a halt. With a first season under its belt, it's fair to assume the job of making the following season might be a little easier. I'm assured that this is not, and never has been, the case.
"Obviously, when you pitch a show, they ask you, 'What's second season going to look like?'. We had had some ideas. Once the show finds itself, you try to figure out how to take what works and lean into that. You know what Brooklynn's great at, you know what Jim is great at, and you know how to play to those strengths. That is helpful, but I've been working in television for 20 years and that experience has shown me that every season is its own beast.
"Every time you think you have it figured out, something happens and you think, 'Oh, that's different'. Both seasons of Castle that I was on were different. The third season of Daredevil was not at all a continuation of the second. Every season becomes a Frankenstein in its own way. Take now, we're in a pandemic. You know what I mean? That's a perfect example. It doesn't even matter if it had been the easiest season in the world. Now, we're in the middle of a global catastrophe. Every season of television has something like that."
Audiences watching the first season will no doubt discover that, at it's core, the series is about truth and empowerment. Both were themes Resnik was keen to explore, especially as they reflected experiences she was having in her own life.
"As a mom who is raising my child in a divorce situation, I have always told my kid the truth about the world, about our family, about my feelings. As things were falling apart in my marriage, my sister who's an elementary school teacher said, 'There's no such thing as secrets in a house with children. Your kid is going to know what's going on.' She was right.
"That was one of the fundamental things that I brought into Home Before Dark, that there's no such thing as secrets in a house of children. That's why kids are so annoying when they ask why, why, why? They're trying to get to the truth. I wanted families to watch something that would open up hard conversations between them. This is a show that deals with scary things that can happen to your friends, big feelings that parents have as well as children, having a hard time at school and bullying, even child abuse. They tell the truth and they stick through it together.
"Obviously this pandemic is horrifying, but I'm feeling gratified that the show came out during this time when I've had parents say to me, 'What am I supposed to tell my kids about the coronavirus?'. Tell them the truth. They know that there's something going on. There's no way to hide this. From what I can tell from the feedback I'm getting, families are watching this together in lockdown and every single person in the family is entertained. Every single person is getting something out of it. It's helping families have hard conversations, and that was of paramount importance to me."
You can follow Dara on Twitter: @BadassMomWriter