Created and executive produced by showrunners Dana Fox and Dara Resnik, the Apple TV+ original series Home Before Dark (which already received a second season pick-up) is a dramatic mystery inspired by the reporting of the real-life young investigative journalist Hilde Lysiak. After moving from Brooklyn to the small lakeside town her father (Jim Sturgess) grew up in, Hilde (Brooklynn Prince) starts to dig around and unearths a cold case that everyone in town would rather stay buried.
During this interview with Collider, Fox, a co-creator on the series, and director/executive producer Jon M. Chu talked about making a TV series with a kid at the center of it even though it’s not just a kids’ show, what makes Hilde a great character, when they knew the cast they’d put together was really working, their approach for future seasons, and much more.
COLLIDER: This show is really surprising, in that you have a young actress at the center of it, but it doesn’t feel like kids’ content. It has a much more wider and universal appeal for audiences.
DANA FOX: That was the hardest part of the whole show.
JON M. CHU: It’s so nerve-wracking to answer the question of, who is this for? It’s a little girl, that’s for everyone.
FOX: It’s literally for everybody. And it’s for everyone, all over the world. It’s for anybody who’s ever been a kid. It’s for kids. It’s for parents. It’s for adults. It’s for people without children. Our experience is that everybody feels like Hilde is their access character, and because we treat her so seriously, the audience does, too. I’m not gonna lie to you and say it was easy to figure out how to nourish that tone into existence because I’d never seen it before. Jon and I talked so much about the music and the score. We experimented with so many different tones, with our incredible composer, Nathan Lanier. It was like, “No, that’s too kiddie. No, that’s too adult. No, that’s too this. Okay, let’s see what it would sound like if it was The Goonies soundtrack. Now we can feel something. Okay, let’s see what it would sound like if it was this soundtrack.” We found ourselves through that. What we ultimately landed on is that the score has to take Hilde as seriously as she takes herself, so the score has to be from Hilde’s perspective and how she feels, and not the audience. If it’s a moment where she’s reporting on something, she thinks she’s in Spotlight or All the President’s Men. She does not think she’s in a kids’ show ‘cause she’s not in a kids’ show. That’s how we were able to ultimately wrangle our tone into place, by taking that character as seriously as we do.
Jon, I feel like your career is so eclectic. What made you want to have a hand in bringing Home Before Dark to people?
CHU: It came at a time when I’d just had a daughter. We were still finishing Crazy Rich Asians. After going through the Crazy Rich Asians experience, before it even came out and not knowing how it would do or what it would do in the world, I was in a space of my brain where I wanted to do stuff that matters, and stuff that’s interesting and dangerous and scary. [Dana] came to me with this, talking about Hilde. I had heard about Hilde, the year before, reading articles about her. You could feel the sense of everything changing around us, with truth and facts and journalism, in general, and we just got into a really interesting conversation about, what is truth? What’s everybody’s capacity for truth? We teach our kids to be truthful, and yet we lie to them, on a constant basis. And having a daughter and trying to figure out how I was going to raise her, all of these things felt very relevant to me. The show has such a unique tone, that was not gonna be a kids’ show. I’m also obsessed with true crime docs, so we got in a whole thing about that. It just felt like an amazing challenge, to make this world about a young woman that needs to be taken seriously.
FOX: And once you have the Jon Chu experience, you never, ever want to go back to life without Jon Chu. I came from features and comedy, and he was the one that taught me that, if you do something that truly, deeply and profoundly matters to you, and you’re really trying to actually say something, yes, you want it to be super entertaining and crazy binge-able, but you have to really truly care about something underneath it. For us, it was the truth in a world where, right now, there are attacks on the free press and journalists and fake news, and feeling like there is no way to know what the truth is. If you really, truly care about that thing that’s the core of what you’re doing, you’ll work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life because it means more. It’s not just a piece of entertainment. It means something more deeply. You’re more profoundly connected to it. He taught me that, and now he’s ruined my career because now I never wanna do anything that I don’t feel that strongly about.
CHU: I had never really done television. I had done one pilot, right before, but really knew nothing. It was cool to come into this world and try to shake it up. There’s such an amazing, huge canvas in the television space.
FOX: And TV has become so elevated, in the last couple of years. It’s a place where you get to tell stories, particularly about women, in a way that feels deep and rich, and not just like, “And then, she tripped and fell ‘cause she was adorable.” So, just having this opportunity to bring a cinematic aesthetic to something and being able to explore it as deeply as only TV can let you do, was a dream come true for us.
Jon, were there things that you could do with this show, as a director, that you hadn’t been able to do before?
CHU: Yeah. One is exploring characters as deeply and as rich as we can, with layers upon layers. That was great, especially in a story like this, where it’s a portrait of a family. You don’t have to just pick one person and follow that person through you. You get to build the dynamic, and really have a connective tissue and care about this unit. I come from a big family, so that changed a lot for me. In a movie, you’re shooting with a very specific target. With a show, you’re able to create an environment that your audience can live in, and you have to paint every side of that. That was so great. It’s also such a collaborative effort, amongst the writers, the creators, and the new directors that would come in. We had an amazing crew. (Cinematographer) Alice Brooks shot my episode, plus some more, and we were able to set the tone of what it would look like. We really got to build this world. And when you’re talking about truth, it can’t be too fantasy. As much as there’s this mystery, we had to find this really fine line, and I love that. Instinctually, we’re gonna entertain the audience. I love to be around a campfire and hear a great story, but have a message underneath it. That changed the game for it all because we could all work on our different levels, and then come together in something that not one individual person would be able to do alone.
Did you have a moment, watching this cast, where you realized that this was really working?
FOX: We were sort of obsessed with casting, honestly. In TV, even more so than anything else, you live and die on your casting, especially when you’ve gotten a series order, you can’t really replace somebody that isn’t working, so you have to be right, the first time. We put a lot of thought into casting and had a lot of sessions. When we found someone we loved, we worked with them. Jon is so incredible with actors. It was a joy to watch him work. I learned so much from that. So, we treated the casting process like it was part of the filmmaking process because it was our only chance to make sure that it worked. I remember the first day, we shot the big kitchen scene, where it’s morning chaos, it’s a family, they’re all in one place, and they’re all doing stuff. I just thought it was so incredible how Jon wasn’t trying to block it. He blocked it, of course, but he wanted it to feel chaotic, the way that a large family feels, Everybody is talking, at the same time, and they’re all talking about different stuff.
CHU: No one’s listening to each other.
FOX: Kids aren’t listening to you. They just wanna say their thing. There’s just all of this stuff going on, at once. I remember seeing all of these incredible actors, who instantly felt like a family and watching Jon be able to let them play, in a way that was the way real families interact with each other, was the moment that we knew we had it. With Brooklynn [Prince], we felt like we had lightning in a bottle. We were at a moment in this girl’s development that was so special.
CHU: From Episode 1 to Episode 10, she changes. You can see it, physically.
FOX: You literally watch her grow up. Anybody who has kids, there’s this extra emotional level because you know you’re watching a childhood disappear in front of your eyes, and it’s incredibly poignant.
CHU: What an amazing time to be in her life, right at this exact moment.
FOX: I think Brooklyn is an extraordinary talent. I think she’s a director. I think she’s a filmmaker. I think she’s gonna have the most incredible life ahead of her, as a person. She’s maybe one of the best people that I’ve ever met. I’m so obsessed with her. I love her so much. She’s so kind to my children. She’s such a good girl. She’s just such a nice, great, wonderful girl. And her parents are really wonderful and take her seriously, the way that the parents of the real Hilde took her seriously. That’s another thing that I love about this show. As parents, you can take your kid seriously. It almost gives you a playbook for talking to your children, in a way that you’ve never seen before, that really elevates them. Your kid could be the next Emma Gonzales or Greta Thunberg, if you just don’t talk down to them and belittle them. It’s exciting to get it out there in the world.
You’ve already gotten a Season 2 pick-up. Do you have a plan for what that will be?
FOX: When we started, we knew exactly how we wanted Season 1 to end. But when you go into television, it’s so difficult and it’s such a huge effort to make a show. It’s all hands on deck. It’s incredibly collaborative. There’s a willing suspension of disbelief, where you have to believe that you’re gonna get six seasons, or else you’d never do it ‘cause it’s too hard. It’s this insane marathon where, at the end of it, you’re like, “I’m just trying to win the ability to start the next marathon? This is crazy!” But we always knew we wanted it to be a show that could grow with this family.
So, we knew that it couldn’t put Hilde in a box that was only interested in keeping her a child. We knew we had to figure out a format that would allow the mysteries to grow with her. I often think about Harry Potter and the books, where the books grew up with the audience. That’s what we’re trying to do here. And so, I always knew I wanted the first season to end as a very satisfying conclusion to the mystery that you’re watching, but instead of that being the end and starting a completely new thing, what you realize, when you end the first season, is that it’s actually the beginning of a much bigger mystery that you didn’t realize was there.
Home Before Dark is currently. available to stream at Apple TV+.