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Creating Hilde-Vision: Dana Fox and Jon M. Chu on Home Before Dark

It’s not particularly easy to classify “Home Before Dark.” It’s simple enough to say what it is, because it’s a lot of things: a show about a scrappy kid and her aggrieved but affectionate older sister; a grown-up mystery series; a family drama; a crime story; a marvelous example of the plucky-lone-journalist-pursues-truth trope. Its influences are wide-ranging, its allusions to cinematic greats plentiful. It’s “E.T.” and “All The President’s Men” and “Nancy Drew” and much more. It’s all those things, and that’s intentional. 

“For me personally, the tone was the hardest thing,” co-creator and executive producer Dana Fox told during a conversation with Fox and director and fellow EP Jon M. Chu (“Crazy Rich Asians”). “Every time Joy [Gorman Wettels, EP] and Dara [Resnik, co-creator and EP] and I would talk to people about the show, they would say, ‘But what is it like?’ I'd say, ‘Well, a little bit this, a little bit that,’ because I had all that in my brain while I was growing up, but it's not like anything I've ever seen before.”

It also treats its child protagonist like the considerable force of nature she is. That’s fitting, as the series is based on the life of Hilde Lysiak (here named Hilde Lisko and played by Brooklynn Pierce), the young journalist behind the Orange Street News, a paper she founded with the help of her father, also a journalist (played in the series by Jim Sturgess). At the Television Critics Association winter press tour, spoke with Chu and Fox about the show’s marvelous, hard-to-pin-down tone, its terrific young lead, and sobbing on set. (With “Home Before Dark,” that’s totally okay, as long as you’re not ruining the shot).

They also made it clear that they’re very, very excited about this series—to the point that the first question asked in this interview came from Fox.

DANA FOX: Okay, so how many episodes have you seen?

They sent us the first two.

DF: Ooh, okay, that’s good.

JON M. CHU: Get ready. Just get ready.

DF: I want you to text me [when you’ve seen more]. It's been so long [while we’re waiting for people to see it]. So I'm like, "It's cool, just text me while you’re watching it. Just live blog it. Are you enjoying it? Tell me what episode you're on?" Seriously, please do. Honestly, more than anything, I just want people to care about it as much as I do, because I love it so much.

I think people will!

I hope so.

You’ve mentioned “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” and a couple of other things as influences. These early episodes also reference “All the President's Men” and “Pet Sematary,” and there's a poster that resembles the classic poster design for “Vertigo.” 

JC: You picked up on literally everything.

I'm wondering what other cinematic influence fed into this, and what those stories have in common?

DF: Before I started working on the show, I worked for about a year and a half on this movie “Cruella” starring Emma Stone and Emma Thompson, and part of what I was learning through doing that was that there is a way to make every scene be for everyone. And it's not to try to be all things to all people. It's about specificity, and being very much what you are and who you are.

I was conscious in every scene, there's a joke for an adult, there's a joke for a kid, there's something that makes a grandparent think that this whole thing is for them. I was constantly thinking about that with this show. I thought to myself, "I can put my arms around everybody." I just had never seen something that had a female protagonist, much less a young woman, that really honestly took her as seriously as I took myself as a child. [to Chu] I'm sure you can't imagine this, Jon [laughs] butI was a huge nerd growing up. I wanted a Filofax for Christmas when I was eight years old, and I came down to Christmas and my parents had gotten all these toys and it was so amazing, and I just sort of started this lower lip quiver, and then I was sobbing, because I didn't get the Filofax. So they said, "Okay, you can return all the toys and we'll get you the Filofax." I got a Filofax when I was eight years old and they were like, "What are your appointments?" I was like, "Don't worry about it. I got a lot going on."

JC: No wonder you were so obsessed with Hilde's notebook, which we created from scratch, by the way.

DF: We ended up drawing it because I was like, "This is what I wanted as a child and now you have to make it for me." 

JC: We did so many prototypes of this thing.

DF: The tone was honestly the hardest thing, because in a weird way, before we worked with Apple, [the responses we got from networks] was what everybody does to Hilde in real life. They say, "You can't do it. You're never going to do it. It's not going to work out. Sit down. Keep your mouth shut. Girls are supposed to play with dolls and have tea parties, not be reporters." We kind of had that experience while starting to talk about making this show, and thank God we found Apple because they actually believed that we could do this thing that we were saying we could do. As for the inspiration, it was just sitting on the couch with your family growing up and what you all watched together.

JC: I think a lot of people when they say, "Oh we want to do an Amblin-esque story"—and of course that’s an inspiration, we grew up on those movies—you usually have an actual monster, an actual shark, have an actual sort of otherworldly thing. In our show, we don't have any of that. It's human beings. It's our secrets, it's our truths and our lies. That for me was like, "Hey, we're doing a show that doesn't have creatures." So how do we create that suspense, in that these lies and these things that we keep from each other are just as scary and stalk us even more acutely and more specifically than a monster? [A monster] that actually, in real life, doesn't exist. To me I love that [Hilde] would often talk about that gut feeling that kids have that our family thinks everything's fine, everything's fine, but they're not telling you everything.

DF: Your gut is telling you that they're not telling you the whole story, and it's an uncomfortable feeling.

JC: It’s uncomfortable, but it's still your home, and so we tried to shoot it like that. Everything's worn in, we're living in a house that they're familiar with, but with every layer there's something new. You're looking at something that's been there for three episodes and you're like, "What is that thing? And why is that picture there? Who is that? That's nobody I recognize." I think all those little things matter. And [the writers] were brilliant in keeping me informed about some of that stuff and not informed about other things to have that interplay have been really fun.

About Hilde’s notebook. It’s so cool!

JC: I'm so glad that you're impressed with the notebook.

It’s essentially a vehicle for investigation montages, with all that paper art and all the folding. How did you find the visual vocabulary for those sequences? 

DF: It was really important to us that we, as I said before, took her as seriously as an adult male Sherlock Holmes. We wanted to take her as seriously as BBC’s “Sherlock” would take that adult male protagonist.

It’s her mind palace?

DF: Yes. When we were trying to figure out what the Mind Palace would look like, Jon brought in this amazing group of people.

JC: Aspect Ratio, yeah.

DF: They're so creative and wonderful. They were real partners with us in trying to figure out what [the inside of] Hilde's brain would look like, what the inside of her thoughts would feel like. I always described it as creepy rainbow. I felt very strongly that I didn't want you to pretend she wasn't a kid, and a girl. So many superhero things, they always sort of treat it as, “Well, if she's a woman, she has to be basically a dude.” I thought, “Well that's not it, I want it to actually feel childlike.” [To Chu] You are actually the one that found the first amazing reference point, which was that cool thing on Instagram, I forget what it was, but it involved folded paper ... and it felt so right because Hilde was a journalist, and she was a person who thinks in writing, in paper. It's childlike, and yet we wanted to do it in a sophisticated adult way.

JM: We talked a lot about information, because it's part journal, part iPad as well, and we're like, "Well what does she do? Does she do both? Why don't you just do the iPad, why don't you just do the thing?" And it ended up being like, "No, this generation is both physical and digital." They have both and they store information in non-linear ways.

DF: And they don't think of those two things as separate.

JC: They don't think of it separate, and they're hyperlinked. One thing leads to another thing that has nothing to do with the next thing, so you're constantly jumping to all these different subjects. It took a few rounds of figuring out what her vision was, because we constantly talked about Hilde-vision, but didn't know if it was super zoom-in and 360-degree shot of the thing, or if it was something much more organic. We had to discover that as we shot and as we played around with Aspect Ratio it became, "Oh, it's actually multiple layers of this paper." Every fold reveals something new behind the last thing. 

DF: I think we felt really strongly that it didn't make Hilde into a superhero. I'm sort of obsessed with the fact that the real Hilde is a superhero because she works hard and she never gives up, and that's the thing that makes me really emotional about this character. That's the thing, as an adult who works really hard and tries to never give up. That's why I sob at work all of the time, because of how emotional this show makes me. Because that's what Hilde has taught me. If this girl, age nine or age eight, can get back up on her scooter and ride, that's my new version of when I get disappointed because something really hard happens at work or whatever it is, I just go, "Get back up on your scooter, Dana. Get back on the scooter. You got to ride." It's such a profound thing to be taught that by a kid. 

I hate that we're looking to Greta Thunberg and Emma Gonzalez to solve these extraordinarily huge problems that we've created, but adults have to back those women up and help them save the world. I just really wanted her not to be a superhero with super powers. She just has a good memory, she perseveres and she works really hard, and she's smart. [The question was] how to show that in a visually and exciting and interesting way that didn't lead the audience to believe she had some superhuman ability. Because I wanted real people to watch the show and say, "I could do that."

JC: It’s great.

DF: I'm going to cry. It's just me trying not to cry at all times while talking about the show that I love so much.

It’s very reminiscent of some of the more emotionally and intellectually complex pieces of young adult fiction. Stuff like Walk Two Moons, like The Dark is Rising, like Bridge to Terabithia. There’s grief and fear, and it’s not simplified in any way.

DF: It’s not the kiddie version of that. Exactly.

That’s especially true of the scene in which you think Hilde’s going to find a killer in the kitchen, and instead it’s Grandpa.

DF: Oh god, a sob fest. A very personal horror. 

Or the scene when Dad blows up at Hilde.

JC: Or that incredible scene in the pilot when Dad blows up at her and she hugs him and says, "Oh my God, I know you didn't mean it," and runs away. It just-

DF: That's just one of those moments for me that Jon had to remove me from set for the day because I was crying.

JC: To be fair, all of us were [crying].

DF: I was crying so hard.

JC. The cameras, the cameramen were shaking.

DF: The cameramen were shaking because they were sobbing and I think that actually [speaks to your point]. I love that you're reading it this way because that is exactly how I hoped people would see the show. I think what's so profound as an adult watching that moment, is we're at these moments in our lives where we remember being the kid that was yelled at, and yet, we're the adult who’s sort of frustratedly yelling at our kids. We're everyone in that moment. I'm both of those people in that scene.

JC: And we didn't know how to respond back then, and Hilde does. So she has the ability to then say the thing that we wish we always said.

DF: That moment was really personal for me because I fundamentally knew as a kid when someone in my house would lose their temper, I felt immediately that they regretted it the second it happened and that I had to make them okay and then I could tend to the fact that I was deeply hurt. That came from a really personal place, and it surprises everyone I think when they watch it, because they're just not expecting her to hug him.

What were your conversations with Brooklynn like around moments like those? There are some really emotionally complex moments.

JC: We had just started to work together, and especially with the pilot, there was a lot of joining hands with her family as well and understanding the way into her [mind]. We are all learning, I think, along the way. Maybe there's more trust at this level, but we were just building it with her. I learned not just from how her parents talk to her, but watching how when real Matt [Hilde Lysiak’s father] talks to Hilde, because they were on set sometimes and we got to see that. As a new father at the time of shooting this—my kid was six months old, my daughter—it was very personal. And I didn't know my language with children yet either. But what I saw them do, the parents do, is really talk to [Brooklynn] honestly about what is actually happening in the scene. Hilde's confused because she's reading these comments and it's hurting her because they're saying things that she doesn't see herself as, but she's more hurt that her father didn't tell her because that's consuming her thoughts. 

I got to watch that, and I got to learn how to communicate with her as we went on. When she's riding her scooter and she falls off—I don't know how quite how to get her to that place. I don't even feel comfortable getting her to that place, but as we're talking about the scene and talking about when people are down on you and you're going to give up, but you’ve got to get to a place ... It was also raining and was really cold, and she's a brilliant actor. Literally, she can get there and she's like, "Okay, give me one minute." We all walk away and she gets on that bike, it's raining on her and she's like, "Okay, roll." And then I basically tell the camera guys, "Do not eff this up." 

DF: Yeah, “don't go out of focus.”

JC: She's giving us one, maybe two, I don't want to get her there anymore, and she goes and it's brilliant. She's a brilliant actor. You don't feel like you're manipulating her, because you talk to her like an actor.

DF: And you're honest with her about what that person would be feeling and so she is so empathetic.

JC: She's very empathetic. That's the main thing.

DF: The thing that you're watching that's so special, that's like lightning in a bottle with this character is she's feeling the feeling on camera because she's thinking, "What would I feel like if they did this to me?" And then she feels it and you happen to be the luckiest people in the world that you're there to film it, and I truly think the world is going to be really amazed when they see her performance and realize that this is the beginning of a career for a person who, I think, is going to be a director, a creator. She's a really deep, and beautiful, and profound person and one of the nicest people I've ever met in my entire life. 

And like Jon said, I remember the day where we were shooting the scene in the pilot where Matt gives her the camera and I said, "This is a big moment. How you feeling? You okay?" And she goes, "I just want to make Hilde proud." And then I of course burst out crying. Jon was like, "Dana, move away from the microphone. You're sobbing again. You're sobbing. You're sobbing again."

JC: “The sun's going down.”

DF: Yeah, “We're losing the sun, quit sobbing.”

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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