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After the Episodes: Monsterland's Mary Laws breaks down the horrors
Hulu’s Monsterland anthology series has been lurking out there in the world long enough now for some spoilers, so SYFY WIRE connected with series creator/executive producer/writer, Mary Laws about the specifics of adapting Nathan Ballingrud’s short story collection, North American Lake Monsters.
Laws, who was personally responsible for writing four of the eight Monsterland episodes, says having Ballingrud’s approval to transform his stories into what they needed to be for a different medium helped tremendously in figuring out how to make all of the characters feel real to audiences. And she readily admits, not all of the protagonists in the eight disparate stories are easy to like.
“Nathan is so good at having empathy for every single character in the story,” Laws says. “It's hard to actually pinpoint who is the villain in any of his stories because the beauty of them is that everyone is so complicated and has such complicated motives for their actions.”
Laws says it was important in her small writers' room, which included Ballingrud in the early days, to ensure that the characters existed in their stories without implied judgment from the writers. “We made sure that we loved everyone because then you can have them do the terrible things that they're meant to do as characters, and that they have to do as characters,” Laws explains. “If you’ve done a good enough job, then the audience will be able to see why and understand. I always think that that's true about anything that you hate, if you can understand it a little bit more, then you'll start to love it. Or, you'll at least start to accept it for what it is. And I think that's true of characters in hopefully all of my writing, but certainly hopefully of that in Monsterland.”
Below, Laws tells SYFY WIRE some of her favorite themes and moments from a few of the episodes she penned...
(***Spoilers for Season 1 of Monsterland below***)
Port Fourchon, Louisiana (Episode 1)
On how Laws came to cast Kaitlyn Dever as Toni, the character who opens the series and appears throughout:
I saw Kaitlyn Dever in Short Term 12 a few years ago. I was just like, "Who is this person? She's going to take over the whole world." Knowing her and getting to work with her, I feel even more confident that she is going to be one of our greatest American stars.
On portraying the troubled relationship between Toni and her daughter, Jack:
I look at that episode with a lot of pride when I think about the two of them together. Jack was played by a really sweet set of twins who are incredibly talented young actresses. I think it's really hard to find young actors that age who can do [that role]. They have a lot of lines and a lot of presence in that episode and that's really challenging for a young kid to do. But I think that off-screen they bonded [with Kaitlyn] quite a lot and I think you can see that in the footage.
On showing the horrors of Toni and Jack’s existence together:
To me, it was really essential that you see the stress that this child causes Toni. But then you also see in different moments the real, true love bond that they have and how complicated teenage motherhood is because she's essentially a teenager. Toni’s just into her legal adult years in the episode. Those are women who we don't take care of as a society. And it's shameful. This episode really hit me close to home because as a woman myself, I was thinking about all of the different times when I haven't felt protected or haven't felt supported. It causes you to go to great, great lengths sometimes to protect yourself, or defend yourself, or give yourself the kind of life that you need.
I knew that that was going to be really important because Toni does what she does and leaves Jack at the end of the episode. We really needed to see what kind of complicated decision that was. She did not hate her child. She, in fact, loved her child very deeply. But that at the same time, she herself is a child and she can't imagine a life with the burden of that child that she didn't actually ever really want. And maybe still doesn't want in a lot of ways. The push and pull of that, I knew it was important to get that on screen. And I think that our director Anna, and Kaitlyn, and our young little actresses who played Jack, Charlotte, and Vivian, did a really great job doing exactly that.
Palacios, Texas (Episode 6)
On why a story about a mer-monster is personal to Laws:
That episode, in particular, is very special to me because it's set in Texas and I'm from Texas. I used to go down to that area all the time when I was a kid and go to the beach. These are blue-collar, working-class fishermen who don't usually have their stories told. And why shouldn't they? Why the f*** not? We are able to eat delicious seafood because of the work that they do. Their work is so valuable in our literal day-to-day lives. But there is so much pain and heartache on that coast. So much racism... And they were hugely affected by the BP [oil] spill and are continuing to be affected by the Taylor oil spill, which no one even talks about.
On making Sharko big catch:
Greg Nicotero's company [KNB FX] made that mer-monster. What a feat it was to put that wonderful actress, Adria Arjona, into a mermaid costume and then stick her in the water and make her actually swim. That was such a fantastic feat for the whole crew to really come together and make that happen.
On Law's favorite aspect of the episode:
I also feel a lot of personal pride that we were able to cast Trieu Tran (Sharko) in that lead role. I think that he's a phenomenal actor who just has not gotten his day and I think that that's part of the inherent racism in Hollywood. And we, as a writers' room fought really hard to make sure that we cast a Vietnamese actor in that role as a Vietnamese trawler. And it was really exciting when we were actually able to do that. It's so exciting to put faces in the spotlight that they usually get tertiary roles or secondary roles. And I just think that he's so spectacular. It gives me a lot of pride to be able to be in the driver's seat and to create opportunities like that for people like him who are so deserving. He's been working forever and ever, and ever, and yeah, he needs his moment in the sun and he's just spectacular.
Newark, New Jersey (Episode 8)
On changes in the adaptation from page-to-screen:
Our finale is adapted straight from one of Nathan's stories, “Monsters of Heaven.” It’s probably the one we did the most work on because it's deeply from the point of view of the father, Brian, played by Mike Colter in the series. It's truly more his story than it is Amy's. And I didn't feel like that was quite right because, for me at least, I was interested in a pair of parents mourning their child. Often when parents lose a child, the statistics are staggering, as more times than not, it ends up in divorce and it breaks the parents apart. I was really interested in that kind of dynamic push and pull. What happens when you and your spouse, who you have loved wholeheartedly your entire life, reach a crossroads that you can't quite cross? We really felt Amy's point of view was just as important as Brian's. And that it was really that push and pull that made the story come to life for us on screen, so that when we got to some of those final moments of the angel cutting its throat and bathing them in angel blood, that was really about the resurrection of them as a couple and the coming back together for them. And you can only really do that in my opinion, if you really had both of their perspectives super present in the story.
On filming the insane sequence when the fallen angel bathes the couple in its blood:
It was completely nuts! I just want to praise our crew and our production team for a minute because that day I literally cried on set. It was one of those days when I was like, "This is why I do what I do." It was such a big, specific, special effects stunt that we had to do where the makeup on actor who played the angel had to be absolutely perfect. And our special effects team had to be perfect. Our actors had to be perfect. There was so much prep that went into that moment. And we had such a short shooting schedule that we ended up having like two hours to shoot that entire sequence, which was just insane!
But everyone was on the same team 100 percent. Everyone was trying to make it easier and better for their neighbor so that we could say, "Action!" and that this magical thing could happen. And we had one shot to do it. And they totally did! Everyone was so positive and so on board and it was the only reason that we got it done, because it was an impossible stunt. We should never have been able to do it in that amount of time. It's such a community on set on those days and in those moments, and that's 100 percent why I keep returning to this because I love that energy, and I love that symbiosis of everyone being a family together.
Season 1 of Monsterland is available now on Hulu.