The Maiden and the Cult
After rejections from major networks, Raelle Tucker found a home for her “baby” in an unlikely place, and she couldn’t be happier.
The word "Facebook" isn't exactly synonymous with dramatic television.
However, with her new Facebook Watch series Sacred Lies, creator, writer and executive producer Raelle Tucker (Jessica Jones, True Blood) hopes to change people's perceptions about where to view quality programming. Sacred Lies, an intense 10-episode drama that premiered July 27, is based on the Stephanie Oakes young adult novel The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, which, in turn, is based on the Brothers' Grimm tale The Handless Maiden.
The gritty drama opens with the main character, 17-year-old Minnow Bly (Elena Kampouris), escaping a cult she has lived in for 12 years. She is arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center after nearly beating a boy to death.
Why she bludgeoned the stranger isn't the only mystery, however. The cult's leader, known as "The Prophet" (Toby Huss), turns up dead, and the utopic community Minnow's fellow cult members created in the woods has been burnt to the ground.
Police, including FBI psychologist Dr. Wilson (Kevin Carroll), believe that Minnow knows more than she's admitting, and try to dig deeper into the brainwashed mind of the young girl as she navigates life in the real, albeit dark, world of juvie.
Oh, and Minnow? She has no hands. They've been chopped off. Why? Viewers have to wait to find out as the show takes them on a voyage, through flashbacks, of Minnow's life in the cult.
For Tucker, reading The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly struck such a nerve and resonance with her own childhood experiences that she optioned the rights to the story immediately.
What was it about this particular story that made you grab onto it so tightly?
I think what struck me right away was the character of Minnow Bly. She was unlike any character I had ever read or seen. Period. She was so complicated, and mysterious, and brave, and dangerous… and handless. I just fell in love with the complexity of a young female protagonist like that.
The flashback scenes are especially powerful, as viewers get hit with the fact that this is just a little girl who has been taken along for a ride with the people she loves. She doesn't even realize the effects of the cult until she's in a different place.
Yes, and that's the other thing that I related to so much with this story, is having grown up in kind of an alternative hippie culture. My mother was a big "seeker," and was always following some religious movement or spiritual practice. And, for a period of time when I was five, six, and seven, we were part of the Rajneesh cult. If you've seen Wild, Wild Country on Netflix then you would of heard of it.
I had a super positive experience living in this commune … it was some of the best memories from my childhood. But I was always really intrigued by what drove all of these people to follow what seemed to me like a fairly ordinary, intelligent, but amusing old Indian man. Their devotion was really curious to me even as a child, and so, as an artist, throughout my career I was always looking for opportunities to talk about that journey. To explore that world.
So what was the process like, bringing the book from the page to the screen?
I was about 20 pages into the book when I called my agents and said, "Is there any chance the rights to this book are available?" I was thinking not, because almost always those things are snatched up before the book even hits publishers.
They happened to still be available, so I spent my own money on optioning the rights and I wrote the script on spec, even though my agents were like, "We can get you a real job. There are people who would pay you to write." I just felt so strongly that I needed to tell this story, and that I needed to do it in my own way, that I paid out of pocket.
I wrote in my free time while I was working on Jessica Jones. Then I took the script out with our director/executive producer Scott Winant, and we went out to sell it.
And how did that go?
We had a lot of meetings, because people were very curious about this strange piece of work that nobody could quite put in a box. But people worried about the darkness of the material. I think they were also worried about how we were going to do a protagonist with no hands, and how and audience was going to feel about watching that.
We have this knee-jerk reaction to people with disabilities, either being afraid of them or feeling like the subject matter is too heavy. And so, people turned us away left and right.
I thought it was all over, and then Facebook called and picked up the series for 10 episodes. I literally was on set at Jessica Jones when I got the call, and I had to go somewhere and cry because I was so overwhelmed and excited that somebody was actually going to let me make the series. I feel like it's so important … There are so many things about it that are important, message-wise, and I really didn't believe anybody was going to be brave enough to let us do it.
Facebook wanted half-hour episodes. Was it challenging to narrow everything down into that 30-minute structure with such a powerful mystery?
It was really challenging to narrow it down, but we also wanted to make sure that we didn't become all about plot. I wanted it to come from a place of emotion and character. That what it's all about in the end - we have to be inside Minnow's journey, and Dr. Wilson's journey, and if we lose touch with that and just start following clues, it becomes like any other procedural.
What makes Sacred Lies special is the complicated characters at its center. I think one of the things that really helped us structurally was focusing the story so that we really only saw the world through two perspectives - Minnow's perspective, both in the past and the present, and Dr. Wilson's perspective, as he investigates what happens to Minnow in the cult.
You mentioned that a lot of networks may have passed on the show due to the complexity of portraying someone without hands. Was that in the back of your mind while you were writing and filming the series? How you were going to tackle that delicately?
We were incredibly conscientious about portraying a double-amputee as our protagonist. I was terrified, honestly, because it's not something I could take lightly. There are 10 million people living in the world without limbs, and they don't often get to see themselves portrayed in a way that is inspiring. So, it was a challenge in the best possible way.
We wanted to get it right. We wanted to be respectful. But we also didn't want to make the entire show about her disability, because she, in the end, is a person. We hope we portrayed that accurately. Our goal was to portray the disability, but that over time you get to know the person, you stop thinking about her disability. You just come to look at her as Minnow, and all the things that she is as a person, besides being handless.
We also worked with consultants on the show. One in particular, named Kristie Sita, is a professional dancer who is the same age as our lead, Elena Kampouris. She lost her hand in a boating accident at the same time our character Minnow did. Kristie joined production before shooting and spent months with Elena, teaching her how to maneuver without hands in a way that would be believable.
She also helped with the emotional journey of what it would feel like to lose a limb. So I think, in a way, we were able to make sure that it was authentic as it could possibly be.
For Minnow, it's not only losing her hands, and coming out of the cult, but also having to adjust to life in a juvenile correction facility and deal with questioning her entire belief system for the first time. What would you say is the biggest message of the show?
The message of the show was clear to all of us. It's a show about how you are not the things that happen to you. No matter what the world throws at you, you always have the ability to stop, and question, and decide what you believe in - and therefore, decide what kind of person you want to be in the world.
If you look at Minnow, she went through a huge trauma, and she's been told what to believe in her whole life. Ultimately she has to unlearn things and figure out the world for herself and answer her own questions. She also has to take responsibility for some of the things that she's done, because she's a complicated person who hasn't always done the right thing.
Ultimately, I just want people to give the show a shot. The platform is something everyone's getting used to, and it can be kind of daunting in peak television with all of the places to find a show, but I think this is unlike anything that we've seen. I feel like particularly young readers and watchers are ready for something sophisticated. And for adults, this show is not just for kids. It's really striving to talk about profound things.
New episodes of Sacred Lies are available Fridays at 6pm on Facebook Watch.
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