Setting the Secen

In Season 2, Shailene Woodley’s character (left), Jane, can’t stop running from memories of a rape, even after her rapist is dead.

Gregory Alpert knows that you don’t take Bixby Bridge to get from a Monterey waterfront coffee shop to your kid’s neighborhood school. He’s heard your critique, and he’s heard it before –

“You would never take that bridge to go to Cleveland,” for example – but that’s not the point.

“Sometimes what’s truthful or accurate is not cinematic,” says Alpert, the location manager for HBO’s Big Little Lies. Put another way: This is fiction, so suspend your disbelief.

It’s easy for locals to watch this show and delight in seeing neighborhood spots on screen. It’s also easy for locals to cringe: No, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), there are no homes on the beach like that. (Of the five main characters in Season 1, only one house – Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård’s – is actually local, in Carmel Highlands. The rest, like much of the series, was filmed in the Los Angeles area.)

But Alpert encourages viewers to drop the geographical inconsistencies and appreciate what this show is about as far as metaphor, and metaphors here are heavy-handed. The churning water along the rocky coastline? It’s not just moody or pretty, it’s meant to invoke violence. The houses? They’re tiered, according to each woman’s status. Renata (Laura Dern) is on the pinnacle, literally looking down on the world. Celeste (Kidman) lives up high in the seclusion of redwood trees. Madeline on the beach, in an airy, bright home. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) lives in the trees, and in a more working-class, sea-level place. Jane (Shailene Woodley) is in town, in a post-war bungalow that’s on the dumpy side, and uncomfortably small for her and her son, Ziggy.

Whenever the women leave these homes, they have a tendency to cross Bixby Bridge. Metaphor alert! They’re leaving these palaces or prisons, and “going into another world,” Alpert says.

Even before Alpert and the other members of the production crew left another world in Los Angeles to find scenery for Season 1 of Big Little Lies, they knew they wanted to set the story here. The novel by Liane Moriarty is set on the rugged Australian coast, and creator/writer David E. Kelley, along with co-producers Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea, asked the question early on, according to Alpert: “Where are we going to set this so it has that same ruggedness and feel?”

They spent a few days driving around the Monterey Peninsula, taking in the scenery, and Kelley adapted the book for the screen with the place in mind.

“This place is magnificent,” Alpert says. “It’s fraught with danger and beauty.”

He says Andrea Arnold, the director for Season 2, wanted more nature than Season 1. The new hangout for the Monterey Five is the Blissful Drip coffee shop, an open-air set that was located at Lovers Point during filming, with the ocean and cypress trees in the background.

With nature came some challenges: “Some days we had to reschedule because it was too cold, and you could see breath coming out. In some scenes, you might see an actress shivering.”

(HBO donated the coffee shop to the city of Pacific Grove, along with plans for how to reassemble it – and the understanding the film crew could get access to it again in case there’s a Season 3.)

Lots of scenes that look local are in fact shot in the greater Los Angeles area – a bar with the fire pits was meant to resemble the now-defunct 1833, a spot the crew used to frequent while filming Season 1, but the production team found a spot in Pasadena that looked similar enough. The Fisherman’s Wharf coffee shop was largely re-created on a green screen.

Local filming was up in Season 2, with 35 days in Monterey County, compared to 20 days for Season 1 – partly for the scenery, and partly because the crew loved hanging out here. “Everyone wanted to spend more time in Monterey,” Alpert says. “Everyone lobbied hard.”

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