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Jonathan Levine on “Nine Perfect Strangers” and our desperation for wellness

Jonathan Levine Nine Perfect Strangers

In Hulu’s eight-part miniseries Nine Perfect Strangers, everyone is trying to escape the past and find a way to move forward. Based on Liane Moriarty’s New York Times best-selling book of the same name and adapted by David E. Kelley, the show centers on nine strangers from the city who gather for a 10-day retreat at a health and wellness center called Tranquillum House.

Owned by an enigmatic Russian woman named Masha (Nicole Kidman), the resort promises to transform and heal the guests from the deep pain they’re feeling. However, as each day goes by, both Masha and her method begin to seem questionable.

Teetering between melodrama, thriller, and ensemble comedy, Nine Perfect Strangers attempts to explore our desperation for wellness and transformation. While the show’s shift from one genre to another and its many moving pieces can be overwhelming at times, Jonathan Levine (Long Shot, The Wackness), who directed all the episodes, always finds a way to balance the tone and draw stellar performances from the cast.

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jonathan to talk about his experience of directing the show, why transformation is not an easy thing to do, and working with Nicole Kidman.

Can you share a little bit about your journey of getting involved in Nine Perfect Strangers?

Jonathan Levine: One of the producers, Bruna Papandrea — I had worked with her on a movie a long time ago called Warm Bodies — told me about this project, and hearing all the names involved in it immediately got me so excited. Then I read the pilot script and I just fell in love with what David had written, and then I read the book and I also fell in love with what Liane had made. I met with Nicole, Melissa [McCarthy], and the rest of the producers not long after, and that’s when we decided that I’m gonna be directing the show. That’s pretty much how I got involved. We were off to filming after that.

You had previously worked on two TV projects, Rush, which you created, and also I’m Dying Up Here. But you only directed the pilots of those shows, and Nine Perfect Strangers is your first time helming all the episodes as a director. How did you settle on that decision?

[Laughing] Oh man, honestly, I really didn’t wanna direct all the episodes. At the very beginning, I was like, “Okay, I’ll just do half or five episodes,” but then as I read more of the scripts, and as I started to imagine how fun it would be and how this project would push me as a director, I just couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it. It was just so exciting to me. And that was it, I just had to do all of them. I had no choice. To be completely honest, it was a very hard thing to do, and you had to be a little bit crazy to wanna do it. But I guess I’m a little bit crazy.

Are there any differences in your approach when it comes to just directing a pilot and a whole series?

When you are directing all the episodes, you can map out a progression a little bit more. If I was just directing a pilot, I would probably try to condense or distill the style into one hour.

But knowing where the story was going and ending definitely helped me outline a visual and narrative progression. By the time you’re so deep into the story and the process of directing them, you really start to achieve some kind of transcendence that you’re just really doing them based on your instinct. It’s challenging, of course, but it’s also a really fun way to do it.

Jonathan Levine Nine Perfect Strangers
Nine Perfect Strangers — “Episode Four” – Episode 104 — As the guests learn more about Tranquillum’s unique protocols, everyone must decide if they will continue under Masha’s care. Meanwhile, Masha is receiving mysterious threats of her own. Masha (Nicole Kidman), shown. (Photo by: Vince Valitutti/Hulu)

The difference is not so much in the way you approach it — although yes, you are approaching it more as a marathon when you do eight episodes — it’s really more what it does to you mentally and physically. But when you reach the finish line, you sorta achieve this purity of filmmaking that I’ve never achieved before. It challenges you to make decisions based on gut and intuition, which is fantastic.

Both the book and the show touch on the subjects of grief, mental illness, and also our desperation for wellness and transformation. What ideas you were keen on exploring the most while directing?

To me, every character is asking themselves these questions of, “Am I only my past? Can I be in the moment and just enjoy my life?” and that’s a very compelling idea to dive into. It’s something that I talk to my therapist all the time, and I identify and relate to these characters so much.

I felt a great debt and responsibility to capture their journey in an authentic and respectful way, especially when it comes to the Marconis who are dealing with the grief from losing a kid to suicide. Their pain is probably the most profound and specific of all the characters even though everyone is also dealing with their own kind of deep trauma and past as well. It’s easy to relate to what they’re going through because all of us have dealt with the same stuff at some point in our lives.

As human beings, we are defined by the experiences that we’ve had, and I think that one of the big and relatable struggles that we share is how do we take those experiences and move forward. Whether you have things in your past that you’re trying to forget or to get past, the main question is always how do you move on from that and find closure. Or do you ever?

The reason why these characters go to the Tranquillum is that they’re desperate to transform themselves in a short amount of time. If someone tells me, “I’m gonna fix you in 10 days,” then I’ll probably give that a go. But the truth is transformation and moving past our trauma is really, really hard work and it involves being okay with who you are.

The main question is always how do you move on from [trauma] and find closure. Or do you ever?

jonathan levine

I can’t entirely fathom all the pains that these characters encounter. But with, say, Frances (McCarthy), for example, it’s something that I can understand because it’s a romantic and professional failure. And the fact that she keeps finding herself in the same place and feels like nothing is changing is just something that I’ve also been through in life.

What the retreat offers is a chance to break free of this pattern in an instant way. But at the end of the day, the truth is there’s no magic in dealing with all of that pain. It’s a day-to-day process and it sometimes requires hard work and happens for a very long time. This is something that I’m excited about the most while working on this project; to show the truth about the process of feeling okay after a tragedy or a failure.

There are a lot of moving parts in the story: one plotline centers on the mystery of Masha and her stalker, then another one revolves around the dynamic inside the retreat center, and then another one focuses on the characters’ pasts. How did you make sure that all these pieces come together and not overpower one another?

I do have some experience in balancing tones and different narrative agendas within the same piece, but of course, with every project, there’s always a difference. I remember some advice that David gave me about always trying to stay close to the law of emotions of the characters and what their emotional struggles are. So with Nine Perfect Strangers, the thing I try to come back to the most is the characters.

Their journey and shifts of perspectives as the show progresses give me a little latitude and allow me to play with tones and genres in a way that I find really fun. I haven’t been able to be this much fun with genres since I’ve done Warm Bodies, which is a mix of zombie, comedy, romantic, and action. And we’re doing all of that here — comedy, drama, horror, thriller, even soap. 

Jonathan Levine Nine Perfect Strangers
Nine Perfect Strangers — “Random Acts of Mayhem” – Episode 101 — Promised total transformation, nine very different people arrive at Tranquillum House, a secluded retreat run by the mysterious wellness guru Masha. Carmel (Regina Hall), Ben (Melvin Gregg), and Jessica (Samara Weaving), shown. (Photo by: Vince Valitutti/Hulu)

That can of course go very wrong, but we’re able to do it because of the nature of what the characters are going through, which is very real.

I actually find all the moving pieces within the story exciting. They don’t necessarily scare me. I get scared when something is too easy and too much of just one thing, a straight comedy for example. As long as I can find the rhythm and the balance of all these different things, then I know it’s going to turn out okay.

It’s just like life; one minute it’s a hilarious comedy, then the next minute it can be a devastating tragedy. But of course, there are also some tuning and editorial choices to make so that the audience will not get whiplashed. That said, if you’re on the same page as your actors when it comes to capturing the overarching tone of what we’re doing, that makes it a lot easier as well.

Usually, when it comes to TV series like this, actors and directors tend to go big and dramatic. But in Nine Perfect Strangers, the performances are mostly understated. Was this something that you wanted to achieve from the get-go, or was this something that you and your actors discussed during filming?

As a director, I would never presume the tone of the performances and stick to it strictly without talking about it to my actors. I wouldn’t usually do that. However, when you cast a certain group of people, it kinda sets the rhythm and the vibes on set, and everything just kinda begins to take shape on its own. It’s something that you can sorta figure out along the way with your actors.

I would give notes, of course, but the final performances happen almost entirely by osmosis — the day-to-day life of what is happening on set. Usually, everything I do is pretty grounded, and I also always try to create an environment where actors can feel free to improvise. So the tone and the performances are not this mandated thing, it happens naturally moment to moment. I certainly am happy to hear that you said the performances are understated. [laughing] I would prefer that to the opposite.

It’s just like life; one minute it’s a hilarious comedy, then the next minute it can be a devastating tragedy.

jonathan levine

Speaking of the actors, can you tell me about the experience of working with the ensemble, especially with Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy both in front of and behind the camera?

I’ve been super lucky to work with some amazing actors throughout my career, and now that I get to say that I’ve also worked with Nicole and Melissa is just pretty awesome. But as a director, I try to not think about that stuff too much — who’s the most famous in my cast, or who they’ve worked with together in the past. 

If I start to think about all the directors that have worked with Nicole, then I’m just gonna feel bad about myself. I remember the first time I met and hung with Nicole on set, she told me an anecdote about Stanley Kubrick, which in itself was pretty intimidating, and how one of his rules on set was to treat everyone the same, which to me is also really important.

When you work with people as talented as Nicole and Melissa, you realize that what makes them who they are is not their level of fame or stardom; it’s their drive and understanding of the work beyond their characters and also their storytelling instincts. Both of them were just incredible and collaborative, so very quickly you just realized that we’re in the trenches with fellow storytellers and not just actors.

It’s not just the two of them: the other cast is also such a pleasure to work with. Regina [Hall], Samara [Weaving], Michael Shannon, and the others are all great actors and smart people and a big, important part of creating the show too. It’s really fun to be able to collaborate with them and to have them willing to collaborate with me. I was just very excited that they’re so cool and that I could learn so much from them and that we could all work together.

I’ve read the book, so I pretty much have an idea of how the story will end. But should we expect some kind of twist in the show’s finale or is it gonna be the same as the source material?

I would say that if you are a fan of the book, you will be very satisfied with our ending. But I will also say that it will be a little different than the ending in the book.

Nine Perfect Strangers premieres its first three episodes on August 18th on Hulu.

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