Jeff Lemire‘s careful, contemplative storytelling has made his body of work one of the best—and most varied—in comics. He’s written everything from Swamp Thing and Black Hammer (some of his most inventive work) to Frogcatcher and Sweet Tooth. One of his early works, the Essex County short story collection, is among the best, most personal projects from Lemire, a quiet rumination on loneliness, heartbreak, hockey, and friendship. He channels many of his formative interests and feelings into the young boy Lester, who serves as one of the main POV characters in the story.
Essex County is an impressive feat, one steeped in its creator’s love for the comic book medium and his willingness to bare his soul. The three-story collection explores the intertwining lives and fates of two families in Essex County, Ontario, Lemire’s birthplace.
Its forthcoming TV adaptation, slated for broadcast on March 19th, promises to be just as meticulous and impactful. We recently caught up with Lemire about Essex County, discussing everything from fatherhood and loneliness to magic realism and the near-medical need for artists to create.
Hayden Mears: So let’s start with just a walkthrough about Essex County‘s journey from page to screen. How did this adaptation come to be?
Jeff Lemire: Yeah, I mean I think it’s been a really long process. Maybe around 2014 or ’15, a producer here in Canada named Christina Piovesan approached me with interest in developing the book. And I had held off on optioning Essex because it was one of my more personal books, and I didn’t really feel like I wanted anyone else to adapt it or you know what I mean?
And so I was a little hesitant, but at the same time I really hit it off with her. And I did think that if it was ever going to get done properly, it would probably be best to have it be made in Canada by Canadians, where I would have a little more creative freedom than I would in Hollywood and people who understood the cultural tone of it.
So I began developing it with her and at first, I wasn’t attached as a writer or showrunner. I was still really just, at that time, super busy with comics and not as experienced with film and television, so I let… She brought on another showrunner and they developed it for about a year, but it never really came together and it didn’t really feel like Essex to me. And it almost died until she just asked me if I would take a shot at writing it. So that was about 2018, I think, and I thought, “Well, this is probably a good chance for me to do this myself and do it here.” And so I did. I dove in and took on the role of the writer and showrunner, and we spent a few years in writer’s rooms and things developing that.
And it was hard to find other writers that I could gel with and click with and have who really understood the tone and everything. And it wasn’t until… And we worked with some really great people and everything, but it just felt like… One of the things about comics as opposed to film or TV is that, especially television, is that TV just really eats up story. Just because of its structure, you need a lot of story to fill five, six episodes of TV. And my graphic novel was so sparse in the way it’s executed that it wouldn’t fill five episodes of a series on its own unless we start adding things. And every time we tried to add new things, it felt artificial and weird. We were coming at it by adding plot elements instead of loving the characters, and it just always led to wrong turns. So there was a lot of that.
And then another writer came in named Eilis Kirwan a couple years ago, and we just instantly clicked. It was like the right person at the right time, and she just got it. And instead of building out plot, we just started building out the characters. And it just came together really quickly at that point. So around 2018, we just really clicked, and the scripts came together really quick and then it went into actual pre-production.
Mears: I wanted to bring up a recent example of a screen adaptation done right: The Last of Us. I want to say that creator Neil Druckmann polished the story for television, but he really just massaged it into a slightly different shape. So yeah, polishing isn’t really the right word because, as with Essex County, The Last of Us is really, really great as is. It doesn’t need polishing. It just needs maybe some restructuring if it’s going to be put to the screen. It needs some building out like you said. Which elements of Essex County, whether it was the characters or the concepts, and you partially answered this, but I want maybe a more in-depth answer about what parts of this story and the characters and the concepts did you have to massage to optimize for television?
Lemire: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it was interesting. Right from the beginning, the two characters from the book that just seemed to work really well were the boy Lester and his story and Lou, the old man. Even from earlier drafts of the scripts and everything, those two stories stayed intact pretty much throughout and acted as our spine. They translated quite well cinematically, but it was all the supporting characters from the book that just didn’t have enough to them.
They served the purpose in the graphic novel. In a different medium, they worked well. But the uncle, Ken, and the nurse, Anne, as they were in the book, they just weren’t rich enough characters to have equal weight with Lester and Lou. And we really were trying to build something where we had four lead characters and their lives were intertwining. So what we really needed to do was take the essence of Ken and Anne and then build them out as real people, and I think that’s… When we started doing that and seeing how their lives could interconnect with Lou and Lester’s, that’s when the structure really clicked and everything. So I guess that’s the specific answer, yeah, that that’s where we were at.
Mears: How much of the casting process did you have a hand in? Were you pretty heavily involved in casting these people?
Lemire: Yeah, I was.
Mears: That’s a big part of it.
Lemire: Yeah, it’s a huge part of it. And it’s such a quiet show with a quiet, slow cadence that the cast needed to be of a certain quality that it would… I guess what I’m saying is it’s not the most high concept show, so we needed a great cast to help sell it in the marketplace. But we also needed to find the right people. So yeah, it was a long… Like all of this, it was a real long process of finding the right people.
But Molly Parker was the linchpin. She was on our list early to be in. And then when she expressed interest and read the material and we got her to come on board, everything clicked around her. Yeah, that was really a turning point for us in casting.
Mears: I imagine that with those kinds of decisions, it’s more of a feeling than a cognitive thing. You see their performance, you see how they fit into the role if they’re doing tests, whatever, and it’s more of a gut feeling that you get, right?
Lemire: When you’re writing the script, you see them a certain way in your head. And then you start looking at different actors and you see how different actors will bring them to life in different ways. And yeah, it is sort of an instinct thing where I think for the most part, once we got Molly, who just always seemed perfect for Anne, the other characters were a little more easier. Finding jimmy was really… In a way, our first choice was Kevin Durand because we needed someone who was huge physically like Jimmy, but also had a childlike quality. And Kevin really did that. And he also had a history of playing hockey like Jimmy, and things just seemed to really line up. And so yeah, I mean, once you find the person, you know it, I guess.
Mears: So you talked a little bit earlier about how personal this project is. I think artists of all types have this medical need to create. I mean, it’s part of the reason that we are able to be okay. It’s a big part of being an artist of any type. And I think when you write from such a deep place, you often discover things about yourself that maybe weren’t top of mind before. And did anything while writing and drawing Essex County, and maybe even working on this show, did you learn anything new about yourself?
Lemire: Yeah, certainly. I mean, I think that’s a tough one because we’re still finishing the show, so I think I don’t have enough space from it to answer that question, you know? It’s been such a big part of my life now for the last… Well, since we started developing it but especially the last year and a half, it’s been all consuming. My whole life has been taken up by every aspect of the show, and I’m not really out of that yet enough to see how it’s changed me.
But certainly, in some ways I know that it’s made me really appreciate comics even more, not that I… I mean, I’ve always loved comics and everything, but being away from it for a year and not being able to draw every day, and I think if anything, it’s gave me a new appreciation for the immediacy of the medium of comics, where one person or a team of creators can do something on their own, and it can be in reader’s hands in a few months without… And TV and film is such a huge machine. It’s so expensive. There’s so many steps along the way and things that can go wrong. And it can be gratifying, too, but the immediacy of the medium of comics is unparalleled. I really appreciate that. And if anything, I’m just really now looking forward to getting back to that.
Mears: Yeah. So getting a little bit personal on my end, I reread the book recently and I reread Lester’s story. And his story really, really resonated with me because I’ve been going through a lonely spell myself. And loneliness is a huge theme of a lot of these stories. And what can you say about… When you saw his story coming to life on the screen, what was that like? Because I can tell that this was coming from a very deep place for you.
Lemire: There were days where I was brought to tears on set just seeing the stuff that I had drawn actually coming to life in front of me. And so yeah, it was deeply affecting. But it’s also really interesting.
I think maybe this answers your previous question a little too. One thing I noticed creatively was that when I had done Essex the book, I was still just, in a lot of ways, still exploring Lester as if he was part of myself and from the point of view of me as a boy. And now, I have a son who’s about Lester’s age, so I’m now approaching it from that aspect creatively. And as a parent, I guess what I’m saying is I think I had a lot more appreciation or understanding of what the character of Ken was going through trying to connect with this place. So that was interesting, to see the same character and the same story, but maybe this time identifying a little more with the other character because I had changed so much.
Mears: That’s really interesting. Yeah no, it’s life you’ve given him… Just the way that your life has gone, you’ve been able to give him dimension that you didn’t have before.
Lemire: Yeah, I think so. I didn’t see his perspective or point of view. So yeah, that was interesting for sure.
Mears: You see both sides trying. You see both him and his uncle trying to get along, trying to figure stuff out, trying to understand each other, and it’s a really, really solid adult-child relationship. I think it’s really powerful.
Lemire: Thanks. Yeah, we tried to maintain that in the show as well but, just like you said, give it a little more human dimension and stuff. So, yeah.
Mears: Yeah, and there’s a lot of that in the comic as is. I mean, it’s all human. It’s a very, very human book. So what are you most excited for viewers, especially ones who read the Essex comic, the book, what are you excited for them to see when it premieres?
Lemire: I’m excited for them to see the magical realism from the book come to life’s on screen because I think we really captured that with Lester’s story and with Lou’s story, him exploring his memories and his past. I think we were able to translate that very well and use that magical realism in a way that isn’t really commonly seen in television. So I feel like we… Yeah, I’m really excited for them to see that for sure.
Mears: Okay, so it’s coming up. What last-minute things are you doing to prep it for its premiere on the 19th?
Lemire: Well, we’re still sound mixing the last two episodes, so it’s an ongoing process. But yeah, I’m doing a color correction right after this for the last episode and then sound mixing, and so it’s right up to the wire. We’re still doing stuff.
Mears: I guess my last question for you is, do you have any plans to publish any more Essex County comics?
Lemire: No, I don’t. I always felt like when I was done with the book itself, that I was done the book, and I didn’t really have… I’ve told stories with a similar vibe and stuff, but I didn’t feel the need to go back to those characters. And then going back to them now and exploring them in a different medium was great and exciting, but I think I’ve really done it.
So yeah, I think I’m done with the world. I’ve told the story now in two mediums in a way that I’m really proud of. So, I mean, just leave it there, I think.
Essex County will air weekly on the CBC starting this Sunday, March 19th. You can watch the trailer for the series now.