“The Truth Is Ultimately Knowable” Dana Fox Talks ‘Home Before Dark’ on Apple TV+
Dana Fox is best known for her comedy writing on films including Isn’t It Romantic (2019) and Couples Retreat (2009), and TV shows like New Girl (2011-2012) and Ben and Kate (2012-2013). Recently, she followed her more dramatic instincts to develop Home Before Dark, streaming on Apple TV+. Dana chatted with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about her drive to get the story of a nine-year newspaper reporter called Hilde Lysiak who uncovered a murder in her small town.
The spark that ignited this show was a serendipitous moment. Fox, who co-created the show with Dara Resnik, bumped into Joy Gorman Wettels (one of the producers on Home Before Dark) at the Tribecca Disruptor Innovation Awards. A nine-year-old girl by the name of Hilde Lysiak (changed to Lysko in the TV show for legal reasons) took the stage to tell her story. “Joy was stunned by how amazing and driven this girl was to find the truth. Hilde always wanted to be a journalist and stood up for what she believed in,” said Fox. Hilde always stood by her convictions that the truth was ultimately knowable. As if that chance event wasn’t fortuitous enough, “It turns out that Joy was sitting next to Hilde’s parents and struck up a conversation with them.”
Similar to the events on the TV show, Hilde (Brooklynn Prince) moved back to her father’s small-town from the big city. “Matthew Lysiak [Hilde’s father played by Jim Sturgess] had become disillusioned with journalism and basically quit.” Hilde didn’t really believe that her father wanted to quit journalism and decided she was going to carry on the family tradition and look for stories to report on. It was Hilde’s passion for journalism that eventually led her father to come back to it. Hilde’s tenaciousness was a truly universal story Fox had to tell.
“At the heart of Hilde’s story lies our desire to save our parents and right their wrongs. It was a poignant story of the younger generation bringing an adult back to life,” continued the showrunner. Home Before Dark also explores the universal theme of getting through difficult times together no matter how difficult things get. Hilde just got back on her bike in her search for the truth and another story.
Hilde was also driven by her parents who believed in her and encouraged her journalistic pursuits. This parallels Fox’s childhood where her parents encouraged her to follow her passion. “I thought all parents were like that, but when I grew up I realized most parents weren’t.” There was nothing extraordinary about Hilde in the traditional superhero sense other than having supportive parents and a singular drive.
From Comedy To Mystery
Dana Fox didn’t have any difficulty in pivoting from her comedy writing roots to mystery drama. She confessed to being an avid listener of true crime podcasts, so her interest in Home Before Dark wasn’t entirely unexpected. “I listen to horrific murder stories during my spare time.” Fox prefers a calm female voice telling the story on these podcasts because it’s scarier. “As I was listening, I was wondering if there was a way to write a TV show with the tone of an old-school movie.”
Fox widened her influences when deciding on the tone of the show. “Close Encounters [Of The Third Kind] was a big influence on me.” Consider the similarities in the family dinner scenes in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind with those in Home Before Dark. “Matt Lysko is building a mountain out of Cheetos. You know something’s wrong.”
Fox decided to hang the basis of Home Before Dark on family dramas and murder mysteries. “I love family shows that give me a sense of hope, but I also like the dingy qualities of mystery films.”
Home Before Dark has gritty elements as well as lighter moments. “The tone of the show is so specific and the hardest thing to get right. It’s the most special thing about Home Before Dark because it feels like a lot of things that are familiar, warm and comfortable.”
“It feels like you’re putting on your cardigan and sitting on the couch in front of a fire with your family and watching this mystery.”
Apart from the specific tonality and the historical nature of the show (set in the mid-nineties), Fox believes Home Before Dark is told through the lens of who we are today. “When Hilde stands up to authority, it resonates with current activists like Emma González and Greta Thunberg. It feels very much ‘today’, but also incredibly nostalgic.”
Four Quadrant Audience
Dana Fox has spent a considerable portion of her career writing movies and is therefore familiar with this term in film parlance. “I’ve seen a four quadrant film but never a four quadrant TV show.” Family TV shows don’t generally have that level of specificity. The term indicates that it must work on four generational levels.
“There’s a way for young kids to watch a scene. They might say, ‘Look at those silly dogs being crazy,’ while the teen girls might say, ‘Look at that incredible outfit she’s wearing.’ That’s what it feels like to be a teen-aged girl and misunderstood by her parents. Parents and grandparents see different things in the same scene,” Fox continued.
Dana Fox consulted with Jon Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) who directed the show and decided they had to completely fill out their four quadrant vision before they pitched the show. “We showed the executives multiple visual presentations because we couldn’t leave anything up to anyone’s imagination. We had to show them what the entire show was going to look and feel like… from music, the look of it, to the editing style… how are we going to illustrate what Hilde’s mind is like, how are we going to treat her as seriously as Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock.”
They also created an elaborate look book to illustrate what every character was going to look like. They wanted a production partner who aligned with their vision without any tangents. Apple TV+ and Paramount Television immediately saw what they wanted to do and greenlit the project.
Adapting novels into TV series has been a common route for many screenwriters. The fidelity to the source material is also a wide variable when comparing the two. Hilde Lysiak has written an as yet unreleased series of books, so Dana Fox only had live meetings with Hilde and her parents as reference material.
We asked Fox how they plotted the show in the absence of the novels. “We used Hilde’s story more as a person than events that actually happened. The part of the TV show that is true is that Hilde scooped the local paper on a murder at nine years old, but other plot threads were not.” The mystery of her father involved in the abduction of a boy in the eighties was fictionalized.
“We knew we wanted a binge-worthy mystery and wanted to take as many artistic liberties as possible to keep the audience hooked.” That’s why a deep exploration of Hilde’s character was imperative to make the show successful. “The granular nuances of Hilde were real – the way that she talked and her relationship with her father. They’re more like adult co-workers than father and assistant daughter,” she quipped. This gave rise to many fascinating conversations between the two because she’s still a kid. .
Such conversations included scenes where Matt scolded Hilde for not properly fact-checking her sources. These are the worst things Matt can say to Hilde and they’re incredibly emotional. “We all know what it feels like to have our father be disappointed in us.”
Dana Fox has a specific theory that the way to be universal is, “To not try to be all things to all people at the same time.” The audience isn’t restricted to nine-year-old girls because the story is so universal, yet highly specific.
At its core, Home Before Dark is a story about the relentless pursuit of truth. There are less prominent themes such as junior feminism, racism, and under-estimating children neatly woven in. Dana Fox isn’t overly concerned about the so-called iron-clad rules of writing like one theme per show. “There’s no such thing as a rule in writing.”
That said, “I think it’s helpful to know the over-arching theme of the show and let other themes branch off that. It’s nice to have a North Star to help you decide what you’re really trying to say.” Hilde and her search for truth was Fox’s North Star. Jon Chu said, “Let the show be what it wants to be. It will tell you. Don’t search for the theme. Let the theme come to you.”
Dana Fox continued her rebellion against established writing rules, specifically plot.
“There’s no such thing as plot. It’s all character. Plot is where the character is on the journey. Knowing this is freeing. Women are taught that structure is a masculine, mathematical constraint.”
TV Writers’ Room
The showrunner applied these rebellious ideas to her development process. Whenever they got lost in the TV writers’ room, they paused to talk about Hilde and her place in her overall journey. “Hilde is a quiet revolutionary, she’s the heroine of a show, she doesn’t have a superpower. She’s just a girl who works hard. She’s not popular. She goes after the truth no matter what the cost. She doesn’t bend. There’s the truth and there’s a lie.”
Fox scorns parents who constantly lie to their kids because they fear they can’t handle it. Kids can sense when something’s wrong even if people told them it isn’t. “We wanted to explore adult themes through the eyes of children.”
Director John Chu has a more fluid approach to storytelling. “Everybody has a different bar for how much truth they want,” while her co-showrunner Dara Resnick believes, “Secrets are like monsters.”
The challenge in the TV writers’ room is to start the story fast enough “so the audience leans in to learn more.”
Dana Fox also has a unique approach to her role in the writers’ room. Rather than considering herself writer-in-chief, Fox considered herself to be “the keeper of the tone. It’s a difficult concept to convey, but tone affects every single word on the page.”
Tone and emotion are the key drivers of Fox’s development process. On the first day I wrote, “When will I laugh, When will I cry, When will my heart rage, Why do I have to watch the next episode?” on the whiteboard for all the TV writers’ to consider.
Fox relishes her disdain for “plotty plot plot” stories, especially in murder mysteries. One of the greatest challenges in the room was figuring out how much story to put in each episode. “There was a lot of push-pull. I wanted every plot point to feel like an emotional or character moment rather than exposition.”
“Our mystery was an emotional mystery. The external plot was finding out about the kidnapped child, but Hilde was more concerned if her father was okay. ‘How can I save my dad?'”
“The plot was about exploring what the characters were going through. It meant minimizing the numbers of trips and turns in each episode that are common in many TV procedurals.”
Like many aspects of storytelling, Dana Fox believes that editing is the final stage of writing the story. “Editing is the place where I learn most about writing. I want younger writers in the editing room with me because they don’t normally get to see the editing process. It fast tracks their learning.”
“You learn when to come into and out of the emotional core of the scene. What is the turning point in the scene? It helps the process to watch the cuts coming together.”
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