'Home Before Dark' Showrunner Dana Fox And Director Jon M. Chu On Making Dark Subject Matter Accessible [Interview]

Director Jon M. Chu has built his career making mostly bright, poppy entertainment like Step Up 3D, Jem and the Holograms, Crazy Rich Asians, and the upcoming In the Heights. But he's dipping into darker territory in Home Before Dark, a new AppleTV+ drama which hails from creators/showrunners Dana Fox (New Girl) and Dara Resnik (Daredevil).

It's a mystery series centering on 9-year-old journalist named Hilde Lisko, played by The Florida Project's Brooklynn Prince, and inspired by a real-life kid journalist. In the show, Hilde's dad (Jim Sturgess from 21 and Across the Universe) gets fired from his job as a reporter in New York City and moves his family back to his hometown, where something horrible happened when he was a kid. Naturally, Hilde goes looking for the truth – and the small town doesn't like the fact that she's digging through their old buried secrets.

I spoke with Jon M. Chu and Dana Fox over the phone about the importance of truth, working with Apple, creating the visual style of the series, and more.

Home Before Dark Interview

Dana, can you give me a quick rundown on the exploits of the real Hilde and how she inspired this story?

When I first learned about her, it feels like a thousand years ago now, she was this little 9-year-old girl who had fallen in love with journalism through her father, who was also a journalist. He had been reporting on a pretty dark story that had sort of screwed him up, and he had become pretty disillusioned with journalism and had quit his job and said, "You know what? We're leaving Brooklyn, we're moving back to my home town, back into my old house." And I think he was really sad and messed up – didn't want to leave the house, and was kind of done with journalism. Hilde said, "Look, you may not be a journalist anymore, but I still am. This doesn't change anything for me." And she just got on her bike and started riding around town looking for stories to report on. She had this little self-started newspaper, and two weeks after they got to the town, she scooped the local paper on a murder.

I heard the story and thought, "Oh, everybody must have thought that was amazing," and actually, everyone in the town hated her and just thought she was the worst. Some of the comments were along the lines of, "Little girls are supposed to be having tea parties. Go back from where you came. Sit down, shut up," kind of comments. Instead of giving up, she asked her older sister to record her, and she read all of the nasty comments out loud and name checked the people and put it online, and it went viral. That was kind of how I learned about her. As a person who has experienced nasty online comments and sort of rolled over and given up, I was so inspired by the fact that she didn't do that. The part of the story that I found so particularly amazing was that it was Hilde's pure love of journalism and the fact that she didn't give up that was what brought her father out of his depression and got him back into journalism.

Jon, this show is darker and moodier than anything in the upbeat pop wheelhouse in which you normally work. What was it about this story that made you want to get involved?

When Dana first came to me with it, I had heard about Hilde. I remember being fascinated by her story – this idea of a young journalist that was so brave and courageous and read the bad comments of people online on YouTube. It was just fascinating to me. When she brought it up, I remembered hearing that story, and then Dana and I really talked a lot about the importance of truth in our world right now. The importance of journalism. We tell our kids not to lie, to tell the truth, and yet we lie to them more than anybody. I love that idea, and I'd just had a daughter at that moment and I'm the youngest of five, so I'd never taken care of anybody. I didn't know really how to frame the world for this little girl. So I loved exploring that through this, with Jim [Sturgess], who plays Matt, and Brooklynn [Prince], who plays Hilde. When she said, "This has adventure, wonder, it will make you laugh and cry and has this true crime mystery to it," I was all in. Those are all the things I love.

And Dana, coming from the world of romantic comedies, this is a dark turn for you as well. Were you excited to get to work with such different material here?

Yeah, it's funny because having worked mostly in comedy, I was a little afraid that people would say, "You can't do this." But then I remembered that I'm a writer, so I can just do it. [laughs] No one has to give me permission. I can just sit down at my computer and do it. So I worked with his wonderful woman, Dara Resnik, who had done a lot of procedural stuff. I think for me, the place where I felt like I had the confidence to do this was, I have always learned that there is no such thing as plot. All plot is character. I feel really confident that I understand people, and I understand character because I've always been fascinated by them. My mom was a psychologist. I grew up reading psychology textbooks instead of fairy tales because I found people so interesting. So I was always coming at it from this standpoint of, the mystery is only going to be compelling if every plot point is also something to do with the character and their journey and their emotions.

Besides that, I am an obsessive podcast listener. I'm totally obsessed with true crime podcasts. It's creepy how many weird podcasts I've listened to. I'm going for my Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours. [laughs] So I actually felt uniquely qualified to do this, because I have listened to so many bingeable true crime podcasts that I just knew how I wanted [the show] to feel. I was lucky enough to work with Dara and a bunch of great writers who were really able to help me bring that to life.

Even with the real Hilde out there in the world, there's something about the idea of an intrepid young girl reporter that feels like it's from another era of movies and TV shows. Why was it important to you to resurrect that trope and bring it back into the public consciousness?

Dana: For me, I grew up on the couch watching things with my mom, my dad, and my brother. I didn't want to watch the kid stuff that was made for me. I had absolutely no interest in it. I took myself really seriously at a very young age, and sort of thought I was a small adult and I couldn't understand why the rest of the world wasn't treating me as such. The only kinds of things I ever wanted to watch were the kinds of things I wasn't allowed to watch. And I ended up conning my way onto the couch with my parents at a very young age to watch things like Close Encounters or E.T. or some of those amazing Amblin movies or '70s movies.

What was so special about that was that I felt like there was something for all of us, and I felt like I was experiencing something alongside my entire family or around a group of people. I craved that feeling of connection and felt like we didn't really have it in our world. I wanted to try to create the experience of a four-quadrant movie, but in a television show, to bring everyone back to the couch together. Sometimes there's scary stuff, but you can grab the person next to you. Sometimes there's emotional stuff and you're embarrassed and you're trying to hide the fact that you're crying. All of those incredibly cool feelings you can have in a moviegoing experience with a big group of people, I wanted to bring that to the couch.

There's one exchange in which Jim Sturgess's character says, "I didn't want you to know that the world could be that scary," and Brooklynn's character says, "Dad, the scary thing is not knowing." That seems particularly relevant to what's going on in the world right now in a number of different ways. Piggybacking off of what you just said, Dana, were there discussions about how far to push the darkness in this series? How did you two find a balance where the show would still be mostly OK for kids to watch content-wise, while also having that "true crime, prestige TV" sheen to it?

Dana: I think there were endless conversations about that.

Jon: [laughs] We're still having conversations about it.

Dana: [laughs] That was the biggest issue. That was the hardest part of the whole entire thing, was the tone. It was very, very difficult to turn that dial. I felt really sure that kids are ready for what we were dishing out. When we started this project, it was a long time ago, we had no idea what world we would be living in. But what we did know is that our children were getting put through lockdown drills at school. So to ask them to come home and watch a goofy animated TV show about silly stuff just didn't feel right. You bring up that one line from the show, and I love that you bring that up because that line was so important to me because that's how I remember feeling as a child. I remember feeling like I knew there was stuff that was wrong, and everybody was lying to me about it. Everybody was saying, "No, everything's fine! It's all OK, it's all OK." And I had a pit in my stomach and I felt sick because I knew that wasn't true. Once I finally found out what those secrets were from my childhood, it was all fine. Everything was fine. What was so hard for me was feeling like people were lying to me and feeling like there was a secret that I didn't know what it was and everybody was lying about it.

So that's kind of where that came from, and I felt like, "Let's respect kids, let's give them something we know they can handle." Guess what? Yeah, it's a little bit scary, because the world is a little bit scary. But fundamentally, this show is trying to say, "Yes, it's scary. Yes, the world is uncertain. But we can face it together, and if we're together, it's going to be OK."

There's a Sherlock Holmes reference very early in the pilot, so it's obvious you don't mind leaning into that comparison. One of the most interesting things about Holmes adaptations is seeing how filmmakers choose to visualize scenes of him gathering and processing information, which is an internal thing. So Jon, I was hoping you could tell me about how you approached moments like that for this series.

Jon: Yeah, even from the very first discussions between Dana and I about "Hilde-Vision" and what is she actually seeing and what is she processing, one of the main things was, Dana had this idea of a great journal she would have. This generation is not just digital, they're actually both physical and digital together in this sort of mix. So we really wanted that sense of layers and handmade and texture to this idea, and that she would write these things down in her journal, she'd take notes in her iPad, she'd take photos with a camera that looks vintage but actually has a digital feel to it, and then we would communicate this to the audience. Also, young people think in non-linear ways anyway – the way [they] process information is just different from the way maybe we grew up processing information. So when [Hilde] is curious, she can actually go find the answers and go searching and dive deep and find information about people, without necessarily giving her a cell phone.

So then to visualize that, how to both see it through her eyes and also when she's explaining to people, this unfolding – layers and layers of paper that unfold. We worked with a company called Aspect Ratio to really communicate like, it's a physical thing. Everything actually has to have physical gravity and hand-touched in some sort of way. That's how we started to approach it. In a weird way, when you talk about the tone, it's driven a lot by Brooklynn herself and Jim. Their relationship, how they act, the reality of their truth really sets the tone for everything else.

Dana: And one of the things that's so amazing about working with Jon, if I may, is that he takes so seriously the subject matter of what he's working on and believes that it deserves its due. That was something that was so meaningful to me in collaborating with Jon – I don't know that I was necessarily as brave as Jon was in certain moments. He would constantly be pushing for excellence and pushing to try to do something that you've never seen before, or to be the absolute best at whatever it was that you were doing. To bring "Hilde-Vision" to life. He'd done that in his movies, with Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights, where he's taking it seriously and believes that the subject matter deserves this very big stage. The fact that he helped do that with a young girl protagonist is honestly the most beautiful part of this whole thing for me.

I think people are taking it for granted that there's a little girl who is getting this stage, but I can't think of another thing that is like this. I've never seen anything like it, and it's something that I wanted so badly as a young girl, and it's something that I want to be able to show my sons and my daughter. The fact that, the other day we were talking about the world and fake news and truth and lies, and we were listening to the news...my kids are very young, and [the newscaster] said something about a journalist, and I said, "Do you know what a journalist is?" And my son said, "Yeah, it's Hilde." The fact that, to him, that wasn't a big deal is just so powerful to me. I'll be grateful to Jon forever for that.

You two are the first people I've spoken with who have worked on an AppleTV+ project, so tell me about your experience working with Apple.

Jon: We've got baskets and baskets of iMacs and iPads. It's amazing.

Dana: [laughs] Wait, Jon, you got a basket? Wait a minute!

Jon: [laughs] No, it was great. And Dana, you can really talk most about this, but one, they're from my hometown. I never thought I would be able to work with Apple. I'm never smart enough. So the fact that our worlds collided is great. But they strive for excellence. They're about quality, not quantity, and they're also new and young. So I loved going through this process, because it almost felt like a startup sometimes – they were finding their voice, we were finding ours, and they trusted us so much. Dana, you can speak more to it, but that was my experience.

Dana: Yeah, I had a similarly really good experience. At first it was very, very scary that they were so obsessed with security and wouldn't let us show the show to anybody. Because I am so used to the feature world where you get to have all of these test screenings and get to see whether people are laughing, or if they're getting bored, or when they're leaving or when they're staying and all that data that helps you craft the thing into what it's going to be. At first, I hated [not having] that. But then it actually became the best part of the whole process, which is that I kind of had to, at a certain point, trust my gut and the brilliant people around me whose guts I also trusted, and just say, "Look, I'm not trying to make it all things to all people. I'm trying to make it the thing that we are really trying to do here. Let's really lean in to who we are, and let's let the show tell us what it wants to be." That was ultimately how we ended up kind of fighting off a lot of the instincts to push the tone in one direction or another. I do credit Apple with being brave enough to say, "No, let's make this premium and adult and sophisticated, and let's not dumb it down, let's not make it kiddie." The fact that they let us do that was pretty extraordinary.


Home Before Dark is available on AppleTV+ right now.