Apple TV+ adds an intriguing new mystery drama to its lineup with Defending Jacob, Mark Bomback and Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of William Landay’s crime novel of the same name. When it was first announced, the eight-part series, which premieres April 24 with three episodes, probably garnered more interest for its casting choices than the taut crime novel that serves as the source material: Chris Evans had signed on to co-produce and star alongside Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell. Defending Jacob is the latest in a series of post-Marvel Cinematic Universe projects for Evans. Like his dastardly turn in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, the role of Andy Barber, an assistant district attorney who finds himself on the other side of the courtroom aisle, represents a departure from Evans’ time as the virtuous Captain America. But TV isn’t new territory for Evans—he was a series regular in the 2000 Fox dramedy Opposite Sex.
Bomback and Tyldum, who serve as showrunner/writer and director, respectively, say Evans’ live-theater roots helped ground their story of a family—and town—torn apart by violence. But Defending Jacob is most assuredly an ensemble piece, one that explores our fears of what we pass on to our children while confronting the past, offering a prominent spotlight for each member of the Barber family. While at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, The A.V. Club spoke with Bomback and Tyldum about revised endings, what Henrik Ibsen called the “life lie,” and how they helped transform the erstwhile Captain America into a beleaguered dad.
The A.V. Club: With William Landay’s book, you basically had a blueprint for the season, a cast of characters, even an ending. How did you go about building—or rebuilding—from that?
Mark Bomback: I approached it as a retelling. For me, that’s a question of, how do I tell it in as cinematic a way as possible? There’s a skeleton of a narrative that I loved; it’s why I wanted to make it into a limited series. Then I sat down to write. Sometimes I wound up relying more on that, and sometimes I felt like it’s not as much use to me and I should just recall, what was sort of the emotional response I had to that part of the story? How can I emulate that now on the page, when I’m writing?
I don’t think there’s that much in the show that’s very strictly faithful to what’s happening in the book. It’s really just more the spirit of the book. Sometimes it aligns quite closely, but more often than not, I thought about presenting it in terms of a limited series. It’s no disrespect to the book, the book’s fantastic. It’s just that the book wasn’t written to be cinema. And as I said in the [TCA] panel, the book’s also written from the first person—it’s really just Andy Barber’s, Chris Evans’ character’s, story, which is at the expense of some of the peripheral characters. To me, this was an opportunity to make it a much richer experience by spending time with the character of Laurie, Andy’s wife, who is, again, given a little short shrift in the book, mostly because that’s not [Andy’s] principle concern in the story.
AVC: As the director, Morten, are you starting with more of a blank slate than the writer?
Morten Tyldum: I hadn’t read the book when Mark approached me. He had a draft of the first episode, so I read that, and then I read the book. I’ve adapted books before, obviously. I really liked the book, but at the same time, I think what you have to do as filmmaker is read the original of course but more importantly, find a way make it your own. So now it’s a different story, because we’re the ones telling it. There are different things that Mark and I found interesting about the book, were drawn to about the original story.
I also loved what Mark did with some of the plot points, where he took what was in the book and twisted it a little bit. So a lot of people would say, “Wait minute, this didn’t happen in the book.” It takes its twists and turns. So, even for those who have read it, they will actually come to a point like, “What is going to happen here?” I think that this is a series that will keep people guessing and talking, on not knowing what goes on. Even the people who have read the book. As a filmmaker, when you adapt something, the movie or the TV series is more of the book’s spiritual twin. That’s what we are. We’re not identical.
MB: Yeah. I mean, novelists have different agendas, right? Novelists are really about the experience of reading it. It’s why I love working on adaptations because in a sense, if it’s all coming out of me, I, because I’m neurotic, will sometimes guess, “Well, is this as good as I think it is? To what extent is this just my ego driving this thing?” There’s something great about responding to something as a piece of art that wasn’t written to be in the medium that I’m working in, and saying, ‘Okay, there’s a story there. Someone did some great thinking about how it’s the best version of this story. Let me pick up the baton now and retell it in the language that is the language that I respond to, which is moving image.’ I love adaptations for that reason. In this case, I just want to mention, the author, Bill Landay, could not have been more collaborative. He was thrilled with every change I made. At some point, he actually said, “Just stop telling me. I actually want to be surprised when I watch the show.”
MT: Because he used to be an assistant DA, he was also a consultant for the show.
AVC: That’s not the only story you’re rewriting here. Chris Evans has been acting for decades now, including roles he’s taken on since joining the MCU, but he’s still best known for playing Captain America. How did you set up him up for that journey from someone who’s very principled, whose morality is very black-and-white, to someone whose actions become more questionable as the show goes on?
MB: I really think once you start watching the show, you start to forget it’s Chris. I mean, I forget it’s Chris sometimes that I’m watching. First off, I think it helps that it’s set in Boston. It’s his world. He could’ve, theoretically, gone to the middle school that the characters are in. It’s rare when you’re working on something that is truly like the world you came from. It’s just a side of him that I don’t think anyone’s seen. If you’re a hardcore Avengers fan, there’s probably a distraction for the first five or 10 minutes of watching Chris in this role. Then hopefully you just forget. I know the few people I’ve shown it to have all remarked on the same thing, that they just can’t believe it’s the same actor who played Captain America. They’re night and day.
MT: He transforms. I think that it takes one minute, then he’s no longer Captain America. I think he embraced playing a character that has been in this 17-year relationship, has a 14-year-old son, who has a completely different life than anything he’s played. I think he really welcomed that. That was something Chris, also, was really eager to do. Chris is, at heart, a theater actor. He acted in theater before he became Captain America. It’s not that he’s Captain America first and then something else. His whole training, his skill as an actor, comes from complex characters.
AVC: It probably helped to have someone as big as Pablo Schreiber on the other side of the courtroom to bring him down to size a bit.
MB: I do think it was helpful to have someone with Pablo’s physical stature, just in the optics of it all. I didn’t realize–I know Morten didn’t either. When we met Pablo in person for the first time, he’s massive. He’s like 6'5" or something.
MT: [Laughs.] And he was bulking up for doing Halo.
MB: At first, we’re like, “Oh my god, Pablo’s quite a big guy.” [Laughs.] But it was great. I think it actually really helps. If anyone was to look at the show and say, “Which of these people would play a superhero?” you’d actually point to Pablo ahead of Chris because he’s so massive. Pablo’s just a phenomenal actor, too.
MT: We actually cast him not to be strong physically, but because we wanted to create the sense of the two of them sort of like dueling throughout the whole show. So we wanted somebody whose presence could feel like a challenge to Chris. They’re similar in age, similar in a lot of things that could have something that feels a strong sparring partner.
AVC: There’s another Apple TV+ show out this month, Home Before Dark, that’s not so much an adaptation but it also has source material that it draws from. There seems to be a shared theme between the shows—there’s this sense of a parent’s fear of what they’re passing down to their kids. It’s not just your genetics or your temper, but your trauma. Is that something you wanted to explore?
MB: Yes, definitely. It’s really what the show’s about.
MT: It’s at the core of the show, yes.
MB: It’s certainly what I responded to the most, in terms of what I wanted to write about. I have four kids, and my central preoccupation is, “How much have we screwed them up? What little things have we contributed to this?” Again, whether it’s genetics–I have terrible posture. One of my kids has bad posture. I’m like, “Oh my god, this poor kid.” And the bigger things, like when I just blew up at my 11-year-old. How scarring is that going to wind up being? Will she forget it, or will this be the thing, in the same way there are things that my parent did that I still remember that I’m sure they’ve forgotten? That’s a central preoccupation of our show.
AVC: It certainly fits into what seems to be, more broadly, an anxiety about the world that we’re leaving or creating for the next generation.
MT: Yes. There’s always a part of you that hopes your kids will be the best version of you, and you’re always afraid that they will be the worst version of you. And what can you do to change that or shape that? But you also have to come to terms with the fact that they’re actually becoming individuals that will be really nothing like you. It’s like, how well do you know your kid, your child? And your perception of your child—how correct is it? Those are the big questions this show asks, and challenges these two parents to consider.
AVC: Did you always plan to follow the book’s flashback structure?
MB: The book was the inspiration; we start out similarly, but in writing the flashbacks, I just asked “When is a good point to now check back in in the present?” We really wanted the audience to think “Is everything we’re hearing in the present actually accurate to what it was in the past?” Again, it was inspired by the book, but the original story is all first-person—Andy is the only character who’s flashing back. But there’s a limit to what he knows. In the show, these flashbacks aren’t just what Andy recalls; they’re actually scenes that he’s not even privy to, which gives us more opportunities to branch out. They really function as kind of a skeleton for the storytelling.
MT: For us, it’s been great fun, how to reveal things, show who knows what. You think it’s this big secret when you see him throwing away the knife, but then he openly talks about it. Like, “Yes, Mother, I know you know that.” What? We’re setting up things and then twisting things around. I think it’s a very smart device, which we’re using to try to keep people a bit on the edge of their seat. You know, what’s actually going on? As far as the big secret, we talk about a trial, but is it what the grand jury’s about? What is actually going on?
MB: It’s an interesting thing because again, it’s a grand jury hearing, not a trial. There’s a point where you’re saying to yourself, “Will there even be a trial? Is this the courtroom drama that is promised?” Or, “If there is a trial, how does this relate to that trial?” It forces the audience, hopefully, to keep on trying to get ahead of the story, and, knock wood, they won’t succeed at that.
AVC: In reading the book and thinking about how you were going to approach the material, did you ever see Andy as an unreliable narrator?
MB: I think he is potentially an unreliable narrator in the context of those grand jury scenes. But it’s a good question, because in the book he certainly is an unreliable narrator. But there’s something more objective about filmmaking that doesn’t allow that, unless you were really going to do this very, very subjective, “only Andy” story. I think what we start to discover, even in the first episode or two, is that he’s capable of not telling the whole truth to the people he loves, in the service of maybe thinking he’s protecting them. Therefore, we, the audience, might also say there are things that we haven’t learned yet from him. To that extent, he is somewhat unreliable.
MT: Yeah. I mean, one of the big themes is the cost of lying. It’s about the energy that surrounds big lies. That’s being explored. They’re all keeping secrets. Will those secrets, at the end, come back to bite you? Not only because the truth will come out, but because what that does to your own relationships with people and your own conscience. At the same time, maybe we also all need to tell ourselves some lies. There’s sort of a very Ibsen theme that comes in later on: the life-lie, the lie we need to be able to continue our life, that we tell ourselves, that we tell others. What’s the cost of living with these lies? I love that the series actually explores some of this, and actually goes somewhere with it. As an audience, you can be in it for the thrills, for the crime mystery, all that. But I think what people will actually really love is that it dares to go deep and challenges character.
AVC: The life-lie really seems to be a part of the tension between Laurie and Andy, because she sees the cracks in their lies more readily than he does. He seems more motivated to preserve the illusion than she is. Is that what we’re seeing early on?
MB: Yeah. I think it’s really where they come from—Andy’s character is someone who we discover came from very rough circumstances, and has sort of created an idea of himself. It’s not that he’s living a false identity, but he’s someone for whom the success of having a strong marriage, having a son he loves, having a stable household, having a job that he knows is not only admired by others, but he knows is a good thing to do with your life, I think those things are really important to him. I think he is willing to do a lot to preserve those, even if it means sort of pasting over the reality of things. Whereas Laurie came from much more the stable of background, and in some sense is ultimately more vulnerable because she’s had it better. So, when things start to go south, she’s the one who feels it harder, earlier, and I think that’s part of the friction of the marriage.
MT: It’s hard because you can’t give it away.
MB: It’s hard to do without spoiling it, I know. [Laughs.]
MT: I’m not going to spoil it, but it is kind of how you deal with two persons, two parents—one who more easily will accept lies and one is struggling with them, and the moral dilemma of what you can accept to be true and how guilty you yourself are, in that circumstance. That makes up the big conflict that sort of centers around them.
MB: I mean, I’ve been married for coming up on 24 years. There are still things that I don’t know about my wife and she doesn’t know about me, and that’s part of being married. You really can’t ever know another person. I think that’s also something that a lot of people are preoccupied by and think about a lot. I think it was a way of talking about that, as well. But what I love is when there’s a story that’s sort of obeying genre conventions, but leaves itself enough space to be about a lot. I know when Morten and I first spoke, the very movie we both referenced immediately was Mystic River, where it’s a similar thing, a real white knuckle thriller. You can’t wait to find out what’s happening, but your big takeaway from it is the experience of who these characters are, and the trauma they’ve endured. That’s what we’re aspiring to.
I think in some ways it’s a very hard tightrope to walk, to have to keep the plot on track and keep the audience guessing, and also try to do what dramas do, which is really just explore what it means to be human.
AVC: There’s also a question about enabling. Andy is someone who’s been trusted with keeping that town safe, with upholding the rules. But the moment it’s his son who’s in trouble, he says “He doesn’t belong in jail, not even for one night.” Suddenly, he doesn’t care so much about those same rules. But Laurie seems more willing to face up to what might be the truth. It makes me wonder how the show fits into the bigger question about what we do with bad men who start off as bad boys.
MB: It’s a very good question, one I don’t want to give you a glib answer for. I think that that question is raised over the course of the show. Again, I’m sort of hesitant. I feel like I could give you good examples and give away half the show. There’s a bizarre quality to this narrative in particular because Jacob happens to be the son of someone whose whole job it is to sort of make sure kids like this are not jeopardizing the lives of others. And his blind spot, potentially, is a thing. Gosh, I wish I could give you a better answer to this without stepping on the show.
AVC: We’ll have to pick this back up in the spring then.
MB: Yeah, once you finish watching it, we’ll talk again.