Life Lessons With the Lessons in Chemistry Team

Life Lessons With the Lessons in Chemistry Team
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In a landscape filled with bestselling book adaptations, it takes the right ingredients to stand out. Between its beloved source material, A-list talent and wry sense of humour, Lessons in Chemistry successfully blends all those right ingredients to create a TV series that is resonant and genuinely enjoyable.

But it wasn’t always easy. In a case of life imitating art, the process for Lessons in Chemistry to make it to the screen was full of surprises, a few of which executive producer Lee Eisenberg (The Office) and director Sarah Adina Smith (Birds of Paradise), told us about.

Starting with the source material, Bonnie Garmus’ hit novel covers a huge amount of ground. Set in the 1950s, it follows Elizabeth Zott (Brie Larson), a brilliant female chemist who is constantly overlooked by her male counterparts due to her gender. After experiencing a life-changing romance and adapting to the trials of motherhood, Elizabeth finds success as the host of a cooking show where her scientific take on recipes strikes a chord with women across the nation.

The journey for the Apple TV+ miniseries began with its star, Brie Larson, who Eisenberg said was the one who recruited them for the project.

“Brie originated the project, she predates us on it,” he said. “[She] was an executive producer from the beginning and that was something that she treated very seriously. It was not in name only. She was there for everything.”

Larson would sit in on main title meetings, consult with costume and set designers and stay for hours on end in the edit, ensuring the best possible product was going onto the screen.

“That kind of bubblegum pink set for Supper at Six I believe was Brie’s idea, because she was walking the set and had some changes to what the initial concept was. And so she was involved and invested every step of the way.”

The first two episodes of Lessons in Chemistry, which are directed by Smith, are integral to setting up Elizabeth’s relationship with fellow chemist, Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman). The director said that the chemistry (pardon the pun) between the two was evident even from the bland conditions provided by table reads conducted on Zoom.

“You could feel something even in that Zoom room. So it’s really credit to their talent,” she said.

When it came to establishing such a profound relationship in a short amount of time, Smith said it came down to, like many things in Lessons in Chemistry, surprises.

“So many of the choices just came out of the day-to-day intimate character work that I was doing with both Brie and Lewis. I remember one of my first conversations with Brie, one of the things she was interested in exploring on a creative level, on a spiritual level, was this idea of love and how unpredictable and ethereal and ephemeral it can be,” she recalled.

“[We] were just creating an environment where happy accidents could happen and surprises could happen. It’s also just a testament to how much Brie and Lewis were willing to trust each other.”

lessons in chemistry tv series
Image: Apple TV+

From those initial couple of episodes, it’s evident that Lessons in Chemistry combines genres in a unique way, often changing from episode to episode. According to the creatives, this was by design.

“I think we were always interested in treating it like a movie,” Smith said. “Lee had the great insight to also treat different sections of the story as chapters in a way. So [episodes] one and two, you could almost think of it as a romantic comedy, where we’re watching two people fall in love until it takes a sharp turn and evolves into something else.”

“The consistency of tone hopefully is coming from the characters. And then if we’re kind of leaning into something that’s slightly more comedic or something that’s darker, Elizabeth is really carrying us through on our story,” Eisenberg said.

Something that may confuse audiences at first about Lessons in Chemistry is whether it’s based on a true story or not. While the characters and events are fictional, the tone of the show makes it seem like they could have really existed.

“I think the overall tone is one that is really grounded and, I think, as real as possible,” Smith added.

While the team mainly stuck to the source material in developing its characters, there was room to draw inspiration from real-life people and events. Particularly, when it came to one major change from the book, that being Harriet’s (Aja Naomi King) character.

“The closest that we got to drawing from real life is Harriet’s arc. We created that, [it] wasn’t in the book, and it is really inspired from this neighbourhood called Sugar Hill in LA where a group of neighbours came together to push back on this racist bureaucracy and fight to save their community,” Eisenberg explained.

“…So that was a story that we thought was very much in keeping with the spirit of the book. It was a deviation that made a lot of sense to us, and it felt like a great arc for Harriet.”

As Elizabeth says in the series’ trailer “In life, the only constant variable is the unexpected”. Lessons in Chemistry is, at its heart, really an exploration of lessons in life and it served up its share of wisdom for its creative team as well.

“The show is about life, you create a plan and life does not go according to that plan, and as much as you prepare, sometimes it just doesn’t matter. And I think that applied a little bit to this process,” Eisenberg said. “…So I think having humility and being open to change is something that is kind of an essential theme to Lessons in Chemistry and something, in the creative process of making Lessons in Chemistry, I think we all adopted.”

“When I was first told about this project, my gut instinct was to roll my eyes a little bit, because I was like, ‘Oh, do we really need another story about a white woman facing sexism in the 50s? Don’t we already know how that goes?’” Smith said.

“And I’m so glad that I opened myself up to being a part of this project because it truly was unexpectedly one of the most meaningful work experiences I’ve had to date. It was really such a beautiful collaboration with people at the top of their game at every level.”

One last piece of wisdom the Lessons of Chemistry team was able to impart on us came in the form of a cooking hack.

The miniseries explores the relationship between science and food throughout, which results in Elizabeth performing plenty of kitchen miracles – that the crew then had to replicate on set.

“One of the easier ways to peel a tomato is to boil it first and then the skin just slips off versus trying to peel it,” Smith explained.

“It’s really hard to peel a tomato, but, if you submerge it…you can just get that skin right off,” Eisenberg added.

Useful! However, a demonstration of this particular hack didn’t end up making it into the final cut of Lessons in Chemistry, so consider it an exclusive tip.

Lessons in Chemistry premieres its first two episodes on Apple TV+ today.

Lead Image: Apple TV+


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