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Tiny Beautiful Things Showrunner Liz Tigelaar on the Vitality of Mother-Daughter Relationships, Reuniting With Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine

When you first meet writer/producer Liz Tigelaar, it’s like being in the presence of TV writing royalty. Any small-screen enthusiast knows the title is warranted, as Tigelaar lent her considerable talents to some of the best dramatic network series in recent memory, including ABC’s What About Brian, Dirty Sexy Money, Brothers and Sisters, Once Upon a Time, Revenge, and Nashville, along with A&E’s Bates Motel. She also served as showrunner and executive producer for Hulu’s Golden Globe-nominated comedy Casual, while her ongoing collaboration with Reese Witherspoon‘s company Hello Sunshine has led to five Emmy nominations for Hulu’s acclaimed limited series Little Fires Everywhere.

Accolades aside, Tigelaar is deeply committed to finding the right material that will tell stories that represent where she is in her life as a mother and a daughter, and what speaks to those complex and ever-changing emotions and sensibilities. She’s done just that with Tiny Beautiful Things, which she adapted from the novel Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by one of her favorite writers, Cheryl Strayed. The Hulu series once again reunited her with Witherspoon and her Hello Sunshine partner Lauren Neustadter, who had her at “Hello,” as well as Laura Dern, who serves as a producer on the show.

In addition to adapting the book, which features a collection of essays compiled from Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, Tigelaar also served as showrunner and executive producer of the eight-episode series. The heart-tugging series follows Clare (played by Kathryn Hahn as an adult and Sarah Pidgeon as a twentysomething), who takes on the nom de plume “Sugar” and reluctantly becomes an advice columnist despite not taking responsibility for her own marriage and family life falling apart. It’s also a love story about mothers and daughters, and healing after loss.

Above the Line spoke with Liz Tigelaar via Zoom from her office on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. Wearing a tie-dyed sweatshirt of pinks and blues, she came across warm and friendly, with a welcoming smile. The photo behind her, with the inspirational caption “Hang In There Baby,” seems almost irrelevant, as she exudes confidence and deep knowledge about making television. She reminisced about where it all began for her as an assistant on Dawson’s Creek and how that experience helped shape her career.

Tigelaar also discussed what makes a book adaptable and motivates her to want to visualize the story, and revealed her personal connection to Strayed’s novel. Finally, she addressed some upcoming projects that she’s developing at her production company, Best Day Ever, including a feature adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid‘s bestselling novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo that’s rumored to star Jessica Chastain.

[Note: The following interview was conducted prior to the Writers Strike.]

Liz Tigelaar
Liz Tigelaar photo via Ricky Middlesworth

Above the Line: What attracted you to Tiny Beautiful Things?

Liz Tigelaar: I have been a huge Cheryl Strayed fan since I read Wild, Torch, and Tiny Beautiful Things when they came out. It was less about Tiny Beautiful Things in some way and more about Cheryl herself as a writer — the way she pierces with her words and gets to the heart of something so succinctly but beautifully. I so admire her writing and just the power of her story and how, at the heart of it, everything she does comes from the loss of her mother, but also the love of her mother for her. I just think that maternal love, whichever direction it’s going in as a daughter or as a mother, is so powerful. To get to explore that, especially being firmly planted in my daughter, but I’m only seven years into motherhood, and to get to indulge all the feelings that go with it and to actually write about it just felt exciting. I felt that vitalness.

ATL: Talk more about that vitalness. I think I’ve seen many of the shows that you’ve adapted for television, so what is it about a story that makes you want to adapt it?

Tigelaar: I really noticed after the 2016 election that suddenly everything I did felt more vital. Obviously, the whole landscape of the country shifted. Then, I’d had a baby the year before, so I had a one-year-old, and I just remember thinking [that] anything that takes me away from him has to feel so vital to me. Of course, some of that was syncing up with where I was in my career. Early in your career, you don’t have the luxury of hearing stories that feel vital. It’s kind of what my child says: ‘You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.’ You know, you’re lucky to have it. You’re lucky to be there. I have always felt that way about my career.

But those things made me ask, “What am I doing with my time? How can I work on projects that feel like I have to do this?” So I started looking at things that way. I always thought, “How do you get to do what you love and do what you watch?” That was kind of what came together. I decide what I want to adapt now [based on] what grabs me and takes hold of me and says, “No matter how busy you are, no matter what you have going on, you have to stop and do this.” And that’s what I wait to feel.

When Little Fires Everywhere came along, I felt that connection so deeply, even if Reese [Witherspoon] and Kerry [Washington] hadn’t been attached, which, of course, they were, which made it scary, exciting, and amazing. But I would’ve wanted to do it no matter what because that story about motherhood and daughters and the kind of mothers we choose and find along the way just spoke to me.

Tiny Beautiful Things
Quentin Plair and Kathryn Hahn in Tiny Beautiful Things/Jessica Brooks/Hulu

ATL: This is another Hello Sunshine reunion for you. Tell me when you first knew that Reese Witherspoon was “the one,” so to speak.

Tigelaar: I first met with Lauren Neustadter on The Morning Show for a general meeting to go on The Morning Show, and then we just sat on the couch and started talking about projects. She said, ‘What’s your dream thing? What do you read?’ And I said, ‘Wild is, like, my bullseye.’ It’s like mother-daughter love anytime someone’s, like, sawing off their arm in the wilderness or, like, drinking their own pee. I’m like, “Yes!” It really checked a lot of boxes. She just asked me to send her a list of everything I loved, and I did. It was Tonya Harding, such an eclectic list, and then Little Fires Everywhere came up, and so I met with Reese.

There’s so much I love about Reese. First of all, the same things that feel vital to me, I think, feel vital to her in terms of motherhood, daughterhood, sisterhood, and how you kind of lift up women, especially. She also just has qualities that I admire, like being decisive, efficient, [and] clear, and she’s just been incredibly good to me. I would do anything for her, forever. I think she has seen all sides of it.

In some ways, she has what it takes to be a showrunner, too. It’s like, you have to have this deep creative side, but you also have to have a managerial side to manage people. I feel like Reese is like that. She kind of uses both parts of her brain in that way. I just relate to her easily, and we have similar styles. She’s an incredibly efficient person because she’s doing a million things, and I love efficient people; I find them so comforting. So yeah, we’re a good match.

ATL: Did you hook into the advice portion of the story, or have you ever read “Dear Abby”?

Tigelaar: I know “Dear Abby,” and there were so many times I wanted to write into “Dear Sugar” way before I knew Cheryl, just as a person who’d read it and listened to the podcast, and I was like, “Oh, I’d love to get up the nerve to write a “Dear Sugar” letter.” Even during the making of the show, sometimes I wanted to send Cheryl a “Dear Sugar” letter and see if she knew it was me. I always kind of fantasized about doing that. She’s so down to earth and also so wise, and her wisdom comes from her experience, which is so specific, vast, and deep. A lot of people have vast, deep experiences and pasts, but [they] forget them. But she remembers, [and] it’s so fun to mine her own memory. I don’t think, at the time, I knew how I would adapt an advice column. I just knew that the idea of adapting something of hers felt like [a] once-in-a-lifetime [opportunity], you know?

ATL: I love the whole feeling of a nom de plume. I don’t know if you’ve ever done something like that before.

Tigelaar: No, but I love it, too. The freedom it gives you when people don’t know it’s you.

Tiny Beautiful Things
Owen Painter and Sarah Pidgeon in Tiny Beautiful Things/Jessica Brooks/Hulu

ATL: Talk about this wonderful cast. What was it that hooked you into Kathryn Hahn and then the actor Sarah Pidgeon who plays her younger self?

Tigelaar: [Sarah] was incredible. I was so blown away by her because she’s so young. I’m sure she doesn’t think of herself that way, but from where I stood, oh my gosh, to be able to bring this much forward so young and to put so much of herself into it and to be so vulnerable… she [just] operates at such a high level.

I think with Kathryn, she’s somebody I’ve just admired from afar for so long, and, I think, for years and years if somebody had said, “Who in your career would be a dream to write for?” I mean, Kathryn Hahn is probably the first person I would have mentioned. I’ve just been so drawn to her in every role I see her in. I love her in Afternoon Delight, obviously Transparent, [and] then I Love Dick because her whole body embodies [the character] and she doesn’t act. She’s not being what a human should be on TV. It’s like she’s just being a human. She’s so authentic, you know? She’s able to go in and lay her guts on the table.

I think that this part took a lot of guts and bravery. It’s also hard to share a part with [Sarah] Pidgeon. I was so excited when she said she was going to do it. How could I be so lucky?

ATL: In casting her mother, played by Merritt Weaver, did they have to look alike? What was the key to casting that role?

Tigelaar: Casting her mom was the most important casting for Cheryl because she’s the most important person to her. We didn’t have the luxury, really, of chemistry because casting was over Zoom, so you lose something in that, for sure. Normally, you’d be in a room during chemistry tests, but Merritt was in New York, and Kathryn was here (in Los Angeles). [But] it’s Merritt Weaver, so you don’t need one. You know what you’re going to get.

When she said ‘yes,’ that was another blown-away moment. Like, how could these two people be in one show? Merritt was incredible, and it was interesting to hear her talk about it because she so related to the daughterhood part of it. And to step into being this mom who was revered in memory… you’re seeing her through the memory of loss [and] I thought Merritt was so thoughtful in her embodiment.

ATL: How did this idea of memory play into the story?

Tigelaar: I think this idea of blurring time, of how we look at memory, and of how all ages live within us at the same time could manifest. Like, how you could suddenly be 40-something but feel like your 20-something self, and then conversely, as your 40-something self, go back and have a different relationship to a memory, giving yourself grace or having a new understanding. I just thought it was nice to think of time and memory that way — not like they’re over and done, but they’re always living and moving inside of you. That’s interesting.

Tiny Beautiful Things
Merritt Wever and Kathryn Hahn in Tiny Beautiful Things/Jessica Brooks/Hulu

ATL: There is a beautiful scene where Kathryn and Merritt are lying in a field under the stars and a group of horses come over to them. Tell me the story behind the horses.

Tigelaar: This is from Cheryl’s life. Her mom had a horse named Lady, and horses were like her mom’s religion, basically. So we were in the writer’s room, and we were trying to brainstorm [for] this episode about faith, thinking of all these different ways to show that. It was a really powerful story. Her mom was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for divorcing her abusive husband, so it’s like she was punished.

Cheryl told this story about how they had no electricity in their cabin that they had built in rural Minnesota, and so at the summer solstice, her mom would take them with sleeping bags out to this field beyond their cabin, and at night all these horses would come under the stars. It was really like two, but, of course, it’s television, so it’s going to be 10 horses. [laughs]

That ended up being the story that led younger Claire to believe that a horse would save her mom’s life — because she felt like her mom. Cheryl’s mom actually said that, at one point, a horse would save her life. Then it gets really tragic when Cheryl and her brother have to shoot the horse, eventually. I mean, it goes deep with this horse.

ATL: There’s something about horses that acts like a panacea for healing and for grief, which dovetails with the themes of this show. Would you agree?

Tigelaar: Absolutely. People do horse therapy to [to process and cope with trauma] because there’s so much power and you project so much onto them, and they read how you feel. Anyway, the nights with the horses were always challenging, but it was just amazing to be around horses. We were at Disney Ranch, shooting nights, and there were snakes. There was a snake wrangler. It gets hot, then it’s cold. What was actually really hard about it were the stunts. There’s only so close people can be to horses. If you’re laying down the horse, it has to be a certain distance away. There were just so many meetings about the horses. People were constantly reminding us of the rules of the horse.

ATL: Obviously, your strength is writing, but as a showrunner, what were some of your other favorite departments to liaise with during the making of this series?

Tigelaar: I love the writer’s room; obviously, that’s my heart, but I always told Jess Kender, our production designer, that I wanted to intern in the art department because it’s just so amazing what the art department does. The art department is my secret, happy place. If I didn’t do this, I’d probably be over there. I actually love Post, which is really one of my favorite places to be. I love the whole process of post-ing.

I love music and the score and how that weaves in. [Composer] Ingrid Michaelson is somebody who I’ve admired. I’ve been going to Ingrid Michaelson shows since the aughts. She came onto Little Fires, and then to have her score this, in addition to doing original music, was just incredible. I knew the minute I started the show that it was going to be Ingrid because I knew that she would relate to the material because of her own love [for] and loss of her mother. I knew she would create something beautiful because that’s what she does.

Tiny Beautiful Things
Tanzyn Crawford and Quentin Plair in Tiny Beautiful Things/Jessica Brooks/Hulu

ATL: One of my favorite needle drops is the cover of “God Only Knows.”

Tigelaar: That is Ruby Amanfu. Oh my God. She was also on Little Fires. She did a great cover for us of that song “Bitch” from the ’90s, which was so great. I knew that she would be incredible in this, too. I’m just such a fan of her as a singer and songwriter. She added so much — just the scope of the soundtrack, the music, and the covers. It was really fun.

ATL: Coming full circle, how did working on Dawson’s Creek and that experience inform you?

Tigelaar: Oh my God, it informed me so much. I was a baby intern and PA on there, and I mean, Greg Berlanti was a staff writer; Mike White (The White Lotus) was a supervising producer; [Director] Ruben Fleischer was a P.A. Everybody was there, including writer Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City). I mean, it was crazy. I was down in post as a post PA, and I just heard the writers at the other end of the hall all day long, and I was like, I know that I want to do that; sitting in a room with people laughing and telling stories? That is up my alley. That was kind of the start.

Some of my closest writing friends are from that time, and we all kind of moved up together — Anna Fricke, Gina Fattore. Even now that we’re all running shows, we’re constantly on a text chain, like, “This happened; what do you think?” They’re my people. [So] it [has] informed everything, and I think it was such a great place to start. It was also an insane place. It was kind of like people running with scissors, and you’re like, “This is nuts. Totally nuts.” But it was a great first job. I didn’t know at the time [just] what a great first job it would be.

ATL: I know you’ve got a lot of projects in the works, so what are you most excited about next?

Tigelaar: We have a show called Under the Bridge that we’re doing for Hulu that we’re shooting now, starring Riley Keough. It’s a dark but pretty powerful story. I’m just writing a few other things, and then we’re supervising other writers and trying to kind of get their shows made. It’s been an exciting time.

Outside of television, I adapted The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. It’s funny because [author] Taylor [Jenkins Reid] and I talked about adapting it. It literally wasn’t until I hit send on the script that I realized how many people were like, “Oh my God.” I had no idea how sometimes things at a moment are, like, the biggest thing for a second. I felt that way with Evelyn Hugo. But yeah, I get so many Google alerts, and 90 percent of them are about Jessica Chastain! [referring to the rumors that she will be starring in the film]

ATL: When you started your own production company, how did the name reflect your vision?

Tigelaar: Years ago, when I had to incorporate, I had a friend, Marguerite Macintyre, who’s an actress and now a writer as well, and she used to have this thing where whenever she would go to weddings or have plans, they would always have this thing where even if it wasn’t fun, they would take a “best time ever” picture where they would look like they were having the best time ever. So when they looked back on the picture, they wouldn’t remember that it wasn’t fun. They would just say, “Oh, we were having the best time ever.” She had told me this story, and I misremembered it as “the best day ever.” And so when I was starting my company, I was like, I’m going to [call it] Best Day Ever, because no matter what happens, when I look back at it, this was the best day ever.

When the company actually formed as a production company, I got to bring on one of my closest friends, who is also super. Stacey Silverman has kind of done every job in the industry. We had worked peripherally together at CBS when I had a show on the CW, and then we had just really developed a really close friendship over the years. She was there when my son was born. I mean, [we have a] deep friendship. And as I was starting this, I couldn’t think of anybody who I’d love to work with more on a day-to-day producorial level, making shows together. That goes back to that thing about what feels vital.

Tiny Beautiful Things is now streaming on Hulu.

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