Defending Jacob Team Talks Creative Changes from Source Material, How Interpretation is Key

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Defending Jacob is a brand new drama coming to Apple TV+. 

It stars Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery as parents who are stunned by the revelation that their son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is being accused of murdering a teenager. 

We had the pleasure of chatting with series creator Mark Bomback and director Morten Tyldum about how they adapted the show for the small screen, the changes made, and how interpretation is key to enjoying the series. 

Accused of Murder - Defending Jacob

How did you decide to create a series out of Defending Jacob, the novel? 

Mark Bomback: Well, the book was sent to me initially as a film project. Anonymous Content knew that the rights to the book had become available, and because I was primarily a screenwriter for film, they sent the book to me to read. 

As I was reading it, I was starting to think that this isn't the kind of story we really make for multiplexes anymore, but it's the kind of thing that we're living in this amazing age of the limited series, where we could take the story. 

The film version would have been very plot-heavy and not have afforded enough time to dive into the characters, and this, to me, as a writer, was just an amazing opportunity actually. Not only do we tell this story in this book, but we get into places where the book doesn't event go, and so that's where it came from. 

I'm a father of four, and that's probably my central preoccupation is all the damage I'm doing to my own kids, so it spoke very loudly to me. 

Helping Their Son - Defending Jacob

When I sent the script to Morton, who is also a father. I think he also really responded, first and foremost, as a parent. 

I did some research on the book, which I didn't read. I understand that some avenues were changed. The one that I think was changed, probably most significantly, is there's more ambiguity in the book, at least from what I could tell from readers. How did you guys come to that decision? 

Mark Bomback: The book is told from first-person, and it is very much Andy's perception of what's happening. And so, the book does make it less ambiguous in terms of who Jacob is. He's written much darker in the book.

In crafting him for the story, it seemed to me like it would be more compelling if he was, in some ways, more enigmatic, and more typical of your average teen, who has good days and bad days, sometimes quite affable, and easy to reach, and other times more remote. 

That is a change from the book and hopefully for the better. 

Is He the Killer? - Defending Jacob

Morten Tyldum: It was something we talked about. First of all, Laurie is very different in the series than in the book. That was a very conscious choice that we wanted to bring her more into it and give her a journey. 

This feels more central to the series than it is in the book. We wanted people to feel like one moment, he did it, and the other one, feel like he didn't. That was the whole thing because that is the nightmare that these parents have to go through. 

You don't really know. You're kind of left in this big situation, you know, guess if the child did this horrible thing or not. How do you survive as parents? How well do you know your children? What are you willing to do for them, and how does your moral compass change when it relates to your children?

Things you wouldn't do otherwise, you will gladly do now because it's about your child. 

I understand from Jaeden that you allowed him to approach the character however he wanted to play it, whether or not he was guilty or innocent.

djacob ppste

Did the same thing apply to Michelle and Chris, and how they approached their characters, and whether or not they thought he was guilty or innocent. How did all that come together?

MT: Jaeden had to play a lot of the scenes in a way that he could interpret it. Usually when an actor plays, you want to communicate one very specific set of emotions. You want it so you want the viewer to understand. 

Jaeden had to play it so you don't really quite understand everything that goes on with it, it has to be a history around him. You have to be able to interpret it. You have to swing between it. 

We changed how his intentions are a lot from scene-to-scene. If this scene is the Jaeden who did it or the Jaeden who didn't do it, you can swap him. We changed that up a lot because we wanted it to be up to each and everyone to interpret. 

When it comes to the characters, at some point, Chris and Michelle could have confided in themselves how much they believed him. What's more interesting with their character is that Chris's character is not so much about if he believes he did it or not. 

defending jacob

It's more that he chooses not to go there. He decides that, no matter what, the importance is not if he did it or not. It's important that he's my son, and my only job is to get him free. Protect him. 

We have a moral responsibility here if he's guilty, we're guilty. That's another way of looking at it, and I think a lot of the clash between the parents, it's those two different ways of going into this.

That's what they had to deal with, and that's what was interesting, so yeah, in how much they really believed and when they agreed, I think an actor should have their own private process about these things, and I think that's what makes it interesting. 

MB: I think Chris and Michelle are incredibly smart about storytelling, and so they were really good about knowing where we were at that point of the story. It's a very long shoot, and they are really gifted at knowing where their heads would be at that moment in the narrative. 

The audience is experiencing this story in that they are constantly deciding is he guilty, or is he innocent. They are doing that, too, but they have such a vested interest in the innocent version of it. 

Hiding Out - Defending Jacob

I think a lot of the drama is watching your perceptions and their perceptions either align or apart depending on where they are at. They are both really smart about the tone that they should be taking in certain scenes when they are interacting with Jaeden. 

Was there anything about the cast as they were bringing these characters to life that made you rethink the way that you were shooting it, or maybe caused you to go off direction at all? 

MT: We changed some of the characters when we started casting. I mean, there were both Betty's character, Duff, and Klein were actually men in the book and in the first version. 

We struggled to find the right actor that brought everything into it, and then we started opening up and casting for females, and it's kind of interesting because we didn't change the dialogue at all. 

Cherry Jones Attends Critics' Choice Awards

Shows how similar people are. 

MT: We literally kept the same dialogue, and we just cast the women, and it worked perfectly. 

That's awesome. 

MT: When you cast something, the character starts to form, and they start to change. It becomes also, even when you start to put clothes on them and dress them, they suddenly become their own thing, and that starts to change. 

So, for sure, they took on a whole life that is different from the book, and some of what we planned. 

If you're talking about things that are different from how we started it to how we actually ended up, i think the biggest change is that we chose Cherry Jones to play the part that was actually written for a man, and Betty came in, and she took a role written for a man. 

That was the biggest thing that changed in the casting process. 

Cherry Jones Attends Emmys

Casting Cherry Jones was a very good choice. I think she was great in that role. 

MT: She is so good!

She is ... in everything!

MT: She's also the nicest person. 

That helps. 

MT: It helps. We actually decided between ourselves that we didn't want cast difficult people. This is going to be a long shoot. Let's just case nice people. 

I bet you hope that is the case across the board. 

Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery

MB: Cherry is on another level, though. 

MT: She's the nicest. 

The community and media reaction is really important to the story. I would say that the ambiguity and then the community and media reaction and how it affects the family. What did you find interesting about that in kind of highlighting what this family goes through?

MB: We live in this time now where there's such a fascination with true crime. I liked this notion that it is hinted at in the show where podcasts. 

There is this notion that criminality is entertainment happening, and it's really having its heyday in the world of the podcast and social media. To me, that was an interesting facet. It's funny because the book was published in 2012. 

It wasn't as much of a thing. That as an interesting thing to explore. 

Defending Jacob premieres Friday, April 24 on Apple TV+. Three episodes will be available at launch, with the remaining five unspooling weekly. We will have episodic reviews each week.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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Defending Jacob Quotes

There's nothing worse than a kid.

Andy

We're sailing towards an iceberg, this little white peak in the distance getting closer and closer, but really it's been underneath us the whole time.

Jacob