When Nicole Kidman first met Per Saari back in 2004, theirs would become the collaboration that spawned a brave new wave of television and film production. From their first film Rabbit Hole in 2010, to this year’s second season of smash hit limited series Big Little Lies, Kidman and Saari’s company Blossom Films continues to place passion, stellar storytelling and loyal relationships above the easier road of financial gain.
Working with Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea’s Pacific Standard on Big Little Lies, and now reteaming with Papandrea to produce two more adaptations from the work of Lies author Liane Moriarty, Truly Madly Guilty and Nine Perfect Strangers, Blossom is currently hard at work making HBO’s The Undoing, in which Kidman also stars, helmed by Susanne Bier.
All of these projects are drawn from novels by female writers—Jean Hanff Korelitz and Liane Moriarty. And next up is The Expatriates, adapted from Janice Y.K. Lee’s book—a project Kidman and Saari seized upon as it allowed them to cast women from all over the world in central roles.
In addition to putting female talent at the forefront of all they do, Expatriates—the first project under their first-look deal with Amazon—kicks off their working relationship with studio head Jennifer Salke, a woman Kidman sought to embrace as she stepped into a powerful, formerly male-occupied role.
And it was the resounding success of that female-starrer Big Little Lies that really paved the way for these new projects, a trailblazing effort Kidman and Saari wanted so badly to continue with Lies’ second season that they flew to Australia eight times in three months to persuade Moriarty to produce an unpublished novella for the story basis.
Here, in the midst of shooting prison scenes on the New York set of The Undoing, Kidman and Saari discuss their ongoing mission to tell addictive, quality tales of the human experience, the long list of talented international women they keep at the top of their rolodex, and why Kidman is resisting the director’s chair—but maybe not for much longer.
You’re on the set of The Undoing right now; how’s that experience going?
Nicole Kidman:Absolutely dreadful [laughs].
Per Saari: We’re shooting in a prison.
Kidman: No, it’s been great. We’re working with Susanne Bier, who’s just such a powerhouse. She just knows exactly what she wants and it’s just wonderful having her at the helm. And then we’ve got Hugh Grant and Noah Jupe and Donald Sutherland, so we’ve got a fantastic cast as well, and obviously [writer] David E. Kelley.
What was it about the story that felt like a Blossom Films must-have?
Kidman: Well David said, “I’ve written this and are you interested in it?” And it started with him. He was the one that gave it to us initially, and then the three of us chose to take it to HBO because we felt we had such a good relationship with them because of Big Little Lies. Plus, David loves them. They just jumped on it immediately.
Saari: And this was on the heels of Big Little Lies of course, which was a great experience for all of us and a little bit of a family was formed, which we just wanted to continue forward into the next project.
Kidman: And it was before Jen Salke was at Amazon. We just placed it there and it has been the perfect fit. We have such a strong relationship with them now.
But it was strange because with Big Little Lies Season 2 and The Undoing, it was like, “Which one are we going to do?” With Big Little Lies, we went after Liane [Moriarty] to build that novella, and then that came to fruition, and so we went, “Well let’s do Big Little Lies 2 first and then do The Undoing.”
You took eight trips to Australia in three months to make Big Little Lies Season 2 happen. This was a passion project, and clearly when you set out to do something, you mean it.
Kidman: Well I love hanging out with her anyway, so that’s easy for me. She’s very, very close to these characters, so to then build a novella that wasn’t going to be published, that’s a very unusual thing to do. I’m not sure many people have done that, but it seemed very logical to me. David then went and did his own thing with her, which has always been the way, and then we all go and create our characters even beyond that. So it’s always all of us working together.
We’re all very close. One of the strongest things that we value is, I suppose, the intimacy and the closeness of the relationships. I just think that reaps huge benefits when it goes far beyond just a working, business-like relationship. You’re dealing with art, but you’re also dealing with emotions, and it just has to be deeply personal for us.
Saari: And it is passion-based as you said. That’s a very important word for us. I think sometimes passion means you become a little subversive in what you do, just by the nature of the passion.
You’re really showcasing women. You’re working with Susanne Bier on The Undoing, you’re adapting books written by women, you’ve collaborated with Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea…
Kidman: I’ve always worked with a huge group of male and female directors. We’re working with talent. We’re working with people we like. I mean, yes, female stories and female directors. For me as an actor, I’ve really gone after female directors recently because the statistics are so abominable. But our company is really based on the unique voices that we discover.
Saari: And fostering those voices and allowing those voices to be pure and authentic and protecting those voices. And making sure we protect those stories and those storytellers as we bring those stories into reality. That’s something that I think Blossom really believes in.
Your first-look deal with Amazon—Jennifer Salke has talked about there being a need for the kind of addictive content you’re producing. Was it specifically Jennifer that drew you to the deal? Did it just seem like a natural fit for Blossom?
Kidman: For me, it was very much about Jen. I met Jen, I liked Jen, I wanted to support a female leader of a company taking over a massive position, and that was very, very personal. It was so much about her.
So many of the things that we do are about the actual people. We’re not going to just sign on to something because we’re told, “Oh, this is a great project,” or, “This is going to be financially viable,” or any of those things. We couldn’t care less about that stuff.
Saari: We’re also very, very hands on. Nicole and I really get into the trenches and it’s something we’re very proud of, that we can offer filmmakers and writers and people that we work with. And that takes real decisiveness and focus about what projects we take on. So again, the passion factor is very important because it determines what we can actually take on as a company.
Kidman: We’re global in the sense that we have relationships with people all over the world. So we’re very diverse like that, and we also understand different scenarios for making up financing for different projects. We’re willing to work anywhere. I love that we’re international, that we can go anywhere to make something. That was the appeal of The Expatriates, that we have the opportunity to give women from all different nationalities lead roles and base it somewhere overseas, which is really interesting. Then we have Truly Madly Guilty at HBO, and also Liane’s other really, really good book, Nine Perfect Strangers, at Hulu. David E. Kelley is writing that.
Saari: The format of all of those series is really important for us, too—matching the format with the material. Big Little Lies was a little bit of a new thing for us because we were able to explore essentially making a big seven-hour movie, and that felt like the right format for that particular story. The Expatriates is an ongoing series, and Nine Perfect Strangers is a limited series. That’s something that’s important for us, too—how we look at projects and ascertain how they’re going to end up in the world.
Kidman: Then I go and work as an actor separately on certain things, like I just did with Jay Roach, where I’m not producing. Charlize [Theron] was producing that, and I’m happy to go do that. It gives us time when I do that. We’re able to still develop and really take the time, because the other thing we don’t like doing is being rushed or backed into a place where we’re suddenly under an enormous amount of financial duress.
You place the relationships and the talent above the financial side of filmmaking. Do you recall a moment where you said, “I’m going to use my powers for good. I’m in this position, I’m going to change things”?
Kidman: Oh, I don’t know. It sounds very grandiose. I don’t know. We’ve never thought like that, right?
Saari: No, although our first movie was Rabbit Hole, which was intended to be a $15 million studio film and ended up being a $3.5 million, tiny independent film, but with all the creative control in the world. And I remember looking at Nicole and John Cameron Mitchell, the director, and all of us just thinking to ourselves, We have a responsibility here but we can kind of do whatever we want. And there’s tremendous freedom in that—thinking and working outside the system a little bit, really changing the parameters in a way that makes things creative and beautiful.
Kidman: And also trying to think laterally. Right now the industry is so open to so many different possibilities that if you can think laterally, you can come up with ways to make things. You can really forge new territory, or forge a different path, which is really exciting.
Like for Nine Perfect Strangers, we were going to buy the book before we’d actually seen the book finished. Partly that was because we trusted and knew the synopsis—we knew what [Moriarty] was going to do with it—but that was where we jumped in. That’s very unusual.
To come back to something you said earlier: you made the point that it’s not always about making decisions around gender; basically, it’s great people and great talent…
Kidman: But it is about, for me, every chance I can get, going, “I know this woman is really good.” So what we’re doing right now is we always explore and have a long list of woman all over the world whose careers we’re interested in or we’re tracking. And that’s passion. Because we’re excited.
Your narratives—particularly the ones you’ve selected from Liane Moriarty’s work—deal with hidden issues that women have typically found shameful, like domestic violence in Big Little Lies, and in Truly Madly Guilty there are elements of maternal guilt. Do you consciously choose to bring those to light?
Kidman: We’re interested in yearning and desire, and temptation and shame and loss and grief.
Saari: And families and all of their dimensions. This is important, though, because I think what draws us to material is an exploration of a lot of those things. There’s a whole spectrum and that’s something we’re really interested in exploring as the human experience.
Kidman: Obviously it was very important [in Big Little Lies Season 2] that Celeste is on the road to healing, but she’s in a very, very raw place and she’s still dealing with what got her into an abusive relationship in the first place. Those parts of your personality which put you into a relationship like that, unless they get dealt with and healed in a particular way, you can continue the pattern. That’s frightening. You’re dealing with the loss of an abusive man, but still the man who was the father of her children. There’s raw truth to that. What does that mean? And you’re dealing with grief. Not just her, but her mother-in-law and her children. They’re all grieving.
With The Expatriates, you touched on grabbing the opportunity to have different female roles from all over the world, but what else about that particular story was so compelling to you?
Kidman: There’s this thing of, when you’re away from home, what do you become, when you’re trying to set up a life that isn’t home—isn’t your hometown, or your home country—and being away from loved ones and family members? Abroad is really fascinating to me. My sister is an expat, and all of my friends, having come from Australia, have lived that expatriate culture. It’s just ripe and I’ve never seen it.
Saari: And I think exploring another world too. I mean Hong Kong is such a fascinating and delicious place, just as a character. We really were interested in exploring that for a television show. It hasn’t been done before.
Obviously all Liane’s stories are fantastic too, and Truly Madly Guilty is next…
Saari: There’s also The Last Anniversary, which we’re making as an Australian show. It’s a fantastic book, by the way, if you haven’t read it.
Kidman: That’s her favorite. That’s the one she says she most wants made. I’m not in The Last Anniversary.
Saari: There’s a bit of multitasking going on here, just in terms of the various productions, but they’re nicely staggered. From The Undoing to The Expatriates and Nine Perfect Strangers, there’s a nice pacing to it, all which seems to be working out.
You showcase these brilliant female writers who might have otherwise been dismissed as ‘chick lit,’ despite their literary abilities.
Saari: It’s allowing those stories to be out there, because things get lost. And if people lose track of a book after three years and then it disappears, it’s something we feel a real responsibility [to get made]. We’ll tell an author, “We really will do our very best,” and we take that very seriously. Starting from that standpoint of protection and a belief in the material is really the center of everything that we do.
Will you ever become a directing/producing team? Are you feeling the pull of the director’s chair?
Kidman: No [laughs].
That was a very emphatic no.
Kidman: Right now, with the producing and the acting… I mean I love acting, and that’s still so much a part of who I am and what I do. So the idea of moving into directing is just overwhelming and, I think for me, it’s lovely to bring directors in. It’s an enormous amount of work and time to be the director of a series; it’s exhausting. So I don’t have that wherewithal right now. I also have young children, so it’s just not possible. If it was one pilot or something, maybe, but even then, we’re very day-by-day. We do have a series called Roar…
Saari: Yeah, Roar. Everyone thinks Nicole says ‘raw’, but it’s as in, ‘the lion roars,’ and it’s an anthology. You’ll love it because it’s an anthology. It’s by… Oh, we probably shouldn’t tell you too much about it because we’re not supposed to. I’ll stop.
Kidman: Done! We’re done! [Laughs]
Saari: There might be something in there for Nicole to direct. I don’t know, I haven’t lost hope on that one.
How do you feel that your mission as a company has evolved over time? You launched nine years ago; have the goalposts moved as the industry is evolving and changing?
Kidman: We’d love to give Amazon a massive series. We consider ourselves very responsible, but I think we’re still incredibly dedicated to getting small films made. We’re sitting on a number of screenplays that are smaller budget and independent and we’re still very committed to them. We would love to continue creating a couple more successful series but it’s always big dreams and [then] reality.
Saari: And big swings which we’ve generally enjoyed taking, and I think we’ve learned from those and understood that great things can come out of those big swings. And there’s some confidence in that which allows us to really formulate things going into the future.
Kidman: And always being open to joining forces with people. We love collaboration.
Saari: We’ve found some wonderful partners over the years, all of whom we really like, and that’s a little bit of a secret weapon right there, I have to say. Those really fantastic partners.
Will you team up with Reese and Bruna again?
Kidman: Obviously we’re with Hello Sunshine and Reese for Big Little Lies Season 2, and we would do another thing with them in a heartbeat. But we’re working with Bruna Papandrea on Nine Perfect Strangers and Truly Madly Guilty.
Saari: And then David Kelley on Undoing.
Kidman: And David on Nine Perfect Strangers. Love David.
Saari: And the other David, David Lindsay-Abaire, is doing something for us which will be announced soon.
Loyalty and those ongoing relationships are very important for us and something we really, really value in all of this topsy-turvy world.
Kidman: And we love Susanne Bier. I’d love to work with her again.
If you had your way, what kind of changes would you like to effect in the industry through the course of having this company?
Kidman: Getting things made, which seems like a no-brainer now, was actually something that hadn’t been done in the sense of five females at the forefront of a series that was considered a very, very particular, niche demographic. When you’re making a thing about mothers with kindergarteners, that sounds like a very small demographic type of series where you go, “Well, who’s going to be interested in that?” But I love putting topical issues with entertainment. And then Jane Campion said to us when she saw it, “It’s a latte, because it’s frothy on the top and bitter and strong underneath.” I was like, “I’m taking that, Jane.”
Saari: And just to add to the pride in Big Little Lies, the second season was a daunting task, bringing that together. There were no deals, nobody was ever planning on making it, and it was only because of that novella that Liane created that we were able to plant the seed in everybody’s mind and form the coalitions to bring everybody back together to make a second season.
Kidman: The second season’s not a latte; it’s a double espresso.
Big Little Lies seemed to really open the door to so many other stories that perhaps wouldn’t have got a look in. Like The Expatriates and The Undoing at HBO.
Kidman: It was this massive surprise to us, to Reese, to all of us, but it has definitely helped changed the landscape, and I’m just so happy to be a part of that. Or a small part of it, in the same way that Ryan Murphy did when he set out and did things like Nip/Tuck originally. I mean, that was unheard of, those series. They were so incredibly different and then you look at Glee, right? All of those things, they’d not been done.
Saari: And that is one of the really exciting things about making episodic television right now, that the formats can change and be very fluid. And Amazon has actually been very excited about the different possibilities of structuring a show. From things that are two episodes, to ongoing, to 15 minutes, to whatever it is. They’re open to all of it because the landscape is evolving so quickly that they know you have to be creative about that. And we love that too, because you’re able to tell different stories that work in different ways.
Just having Amazon behind you giving you that reach will change the landscape.
Saari: And their support of the film side of things, too. And I think this answers your question before about what would you want to change. I think for me it’s actually what would you want to preserve, which is film and that format, which really seems like it’s unfortunately withering a little bit. That’s something I think both of us really believe in. It’s so relevant and something that we want to support. We love movies and Amazon makes them. It seems like fewer and fewer people are making them. It is something that we want to keep out there.
Kidman: And now we go back to prison.
You’re literally shooting in a prison. Nicole, that makes me picture you way back, when you starred in Bangkok Hilton. It came out in 1989. It’s certainly been a long road for you since that show.
Kidman: That was a limited series, and that was my first big success. So in a weird way, I came home when I did Big Little Lies.