The Essence of Essex County – Interview with Jeff Lemire and Eilis Kirwan

Recently, a new series just got released this week, it won’t around for too long, but it will be interesting while it lasts. Let me tell you about Essex County. A lot of people have been looking forward to it and now it’s out. Based off the graphic novel by Jeff Lemire, Essex County focuses on two families in a rural Canadian area dealing with all kinds of problems, such as loss, trauma and some pretty big emotional subjects. It stars some of the greatest people ever: Molly Parker, Brian J. Smith, Finlay Woltak-Hissong, Tamara Podemski, Daniel Maslany, and so many more. So far there’s only going to be 5 episodes, each nearly an hour long, but it’ll be worth checking out. I spoke to Jeff Lemire one day last week regarding and eventually Eilis Kirwan joined us as well. The conversation was full of detail, and I felt a great emotional connection while talking about this show.


HNMAG: The story is based off a graphic novel. What was it like transitioning to live action?

Jeff Lemire: It was a real process. It was a graphic novel back in 2005/2006. Returning to those characters, was a bit of a process of getting back into the story and thinking of the characters again. Then for me, I’m used to working in comics, a different medium, sort of figuring out which parts of the graphic novel translated well onto screen and which ones sort of needed to be changed or added to. That was also quite a long process, I think we developed the series starting in 2015/2016, so it was a good several years of wrong turns and missteps before we clicked into where we ended up. When Eilis came on board, that’s when things really turned out well.


HNMAG: Would you have considered trying animated instead?

Jeff Lemire: No, I never really thought of that. It was always a drama at heart, and even though it was originally illustrated I thought doing it as an animation would’ve been too close to just repeating what I had done with the comic. Working live action was a new medium and a new challenge for me, so there was never a consideration for animation. It was always to do it as a drama.


HNMAG: And were the stories based off any particular experiences that were had?

Jeff Lemire: Somewhat, nothing is directly autobiographical. The locations and the setting, is where I grew up and I was taking locations from my life and everything. The characters themselves were all sort of fictional but pulled from different people I knew, sort of combined and meshed together into the fictional versions of characters. Maybe the character of Lester is probably closest in that he like me kind of grows up feeling isolated on the farm and getting lost in his imagination and drawing comics. That was certainly me, but the other circumstances of his family life and the situations are all fictionalized.


HNMAG: Was the team easy to work with?

Jeff Lemire: Yeah, it was great. I haven’t been involved in a production of this size, so it was kind of my first time doing the whole process from pre-production with the director Andy Sevetino, and then casting, and being involved with the actors. That was all really exciting and it was a great group. They were all super-invested in the story, the book, and trying to do it justice.


HNMAG: It focuses on a lot of issues given how people are isolated and lonely. What issues does the series tackle?

Jeff Lemire: Yeah, I mean the main themes of the book and the show are the things that can make people feel vulnerable. In Luke’s case, he’s older and at the end of his life, lost in his memories. In Lester’s case, he’s sort of the flip side of that being a young kid, and escapes through his imagination. But really, it’s about a group of people at a crossroads in their lives and sort of the secrets that come up that can either destroy this family or pull them back together. You’re dealing with a lot of themes from grief and isolation, but also these things that help reunite people.


HNMAG: And how do these characters solve these kinds of problems?

Eilis Kirwan: I think it depends on each character. Some people are more resistant and some are pulled into confronting their problems by circumstance. Lou is literally pulled into it by being drawn through the degeneration of his mind back to face his memories again. He’s forced to realize the decisions he made in the past and that he has an opportunity to reach out and kind of overcome the thing he regrets and then he decides if he wants to confront it or not. With Molly Parker’s character Anne, she’s reaching a crossroads at the middle of her life. Her daughter’s going off to college and her marriage. She has a choice to remain disassociated and on autopilot or to face the truth even if it’s really painful and make some choices about where she wants to go. With Ken (Bryan J. Smith), I think he is presented by the challenge to look after his nephew and he doesn’t believe in himself. He doesn’t think he’s the right guy in the sense of self-worth and capacity, he just faces it by just showing up over and over and hoping it works and his journey of finding the sense of this job. 

Jeff and Eilis sure know how to come up with interesting characters for stories. Of course, Jeff has been at this for a long time creating all kinds of graphic novels, like Underwater Welder, Mazebook, and Sweet Tooth which became a Netflix series. 


HNMAG: What do you hope people will take away from this series?

Jeff Lemire: For me, I’ve always just wanted to try and tell stories that move people and are emotionally sort of rich and speak to them. Maybe they see some of their own lives, or their own families. I think even though it’s set in a very specific community, anyone who has a rural upbringing could probably relate to this. I’m trying to tell something that really is emotional and gives audiences a cinematic experience that they’re not used to seeing. 

Eilis Kirwan: There’s something that Andy said, all the stories in the show come to a place where the whole idea is that it’s never too late to change direction or reconnect or be some other version of yourself. Maybe heal a relationship that’s messed up, I felt that maybe that a really kind of simple sentiment that all these stories say that. 


HNMAG: It’s going to be short-lived, but do you hope to take on other projects similar to it?

Jeff Lemire: Yeah, I’m always doing new projects in comics and a lot of them. They all have similar themes and tones and I’m certainly open to doing more film and television. Eilis and I have talked a lot about doing new projects together in both mediums so I guess we’ll see what the future holds.

Eilis Kirwan: I’ll be very happy if I get to work on other TV projects that are like this one. It’s been really creative, amazing and satisfying. I’ve been creating shows of my own that are a little bit different but in the same vein as dramatic and thematically rich stories and such. I look forward to collaborating with Jeff again. That’s been a rich experience too.

Jeff Lemire: We had a great connection for sure, we had a lot of writers on the show previously on there who just didn’t quite click. They were really talented people, but for whatever reason, the tone of the show and my vision from the book was very specific, and it wasn’t until Eilis was brought on board and I found a partner who really understood it. Things really came together.


HNMAG: What other plans do you have for Essex County?

Jeff Lemire: No, I think this is it. I think I told the story I wanted to tell in both comics and in film and TV. I feel very satisfied with what I did in both mediums. I think I”ll move on.


HNMAG: Would you like to be commissioned by CBC again?

Jeff Lemire: Yeah, I’ve certainly discussed things with them, and a lot of my books are in development in different places. Who knows which one will really take route next, but I’m open to anything at this point, this experience has been very time consuming and a labour-intensive process bringing this show to life. We’re finishing now, I need to catch my breath a bit.


HNMAG: Now Eilis, since this series was based off Jeff’s original work, how did you keep it as true to the story as possible?

Eilis Kirwan: I was doing everything in collaboration with Jeff anyway, so with the both of us it was always a conversation. I’ve adapted other kinds of material before, like prose novels, true stories, and articles. In the case of those you’re usually compressing the material quite a bit and having to jettison a ton of material. With a graphic novel, it’s such an amazingly powerful medium because there’s less there. To get this done like a scripted television, it involved expanding a bit more. Some areas in the book had more room for expansion than others, and there were a couple of characters in the show that were sort of a bit more secondary in the book and we sort of beefed them up to make them more central. Some of the work we were doing was to build out those two characters and add some layers/story to them. There was really a lot of opportunity to build them out and bring materials that weren’t originally in the book. Then we had to make sure it would interweave in a harmonious and tonally appropriate way for this kind of world.


HNMAG: Was it difficult to adapt to Jeff’s tone or did you manage to get into it rather smoothly?

Eilis Kirwan: I felt very aligned with it from the very beginning. I read the book, and I read a script that Jeff had done. I felt like very clearly I could bring a bit of something from myself as they told me the thing they were looking for. I felt attuned to it and with Jeff as well. It felt good.


Was that interesting enough? Do you want to know more? Check out Essex County which is on CBC Gem right now, and maybe you’ll relate to some of these characters and what they’re going through.

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