‘Shining Girls’ team needed Chicago’s look and ‘amazing’ talent to tell the story
Elisabeth Moss, star and producer of the upcoming Apple TV+ series, calls its serial-killer plot ‘an analogy for trauma.’
As the lead and executive producer of the Apple TV+ series “Shining Girls,” Elisabeth Moss found herself in the driver’s seat. Literally.
“This was the first time that I got to know Chicago, purely in a personal way, not in a work-related way,” says the “Mad Men” and “Handmaid’s Tale” star. “I was there driving myself around as opposed to [riding] in my uncle’s car.”
Moss, whose mother grew up in Chicago and later lived in Skokie, returned to the area last May to shoot “Shining Girls,” an eight-episode series debuting April 29 with a premise that’s equal parts grounded and fantastical.
Moss plays Kirby Mazrachi, a Chicago Sun-Times archivist in 1992 who is recovering from a sexual assault that occurred six years prior. When a colleague begins reporting on a recent assault case, Kirby recognizes clues suggesting that the perpetrator in her own case is still at large.
Meanwhile, some supernatural elements emerge: The villain has a habit of snooping on his victims for years before he assaults and kills them, yet doesn’t seem to age. In fact, his presence can be noted over an almost 100-year span. Is he a time traveler? The victim of an aging experiment gone horribly awry? And exactly how many women has he assaulted and killed?
Silka Luisa, showrunner of “Shining Girls,” found herself attracted to the story after reading Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel of the same name, specifically admiring how it focused on the aftermath of a traumatic event, not simply the event itself. “It gave a lot of voice to the survivors as opposed to simply the attacker,” Luisa says. “It felt like something I hadn’t seen or read before.”
Moss came aboard excited to tackle the multilayered story elements. “For me, [the show is] an analogy for trauma that is a Trojan horse into a story about a time-traveling serial killer,” she says.
Luisa and Moss quickly concluded that shooting needed to take place in Chicago. Sure, the book was set here, but the pair felt that no amount of set building or clever camera tricks could successfully transform, say, Toronto, or a back lot in Los Angeles, into the vibrant and dynamic city that drives the plot.
In shooting here, they also earned the opportunity to tap into our city’s wealth of performers. “Your local talent is amazing,” Luisa says. “I didn’t realize how lucky we were going to be until I got there. The roles that are really capturing the sense of Chicago, I feel like they brought so much to it. And they add so much color and specificity that it makes the show feel even more real. … Everyone there was so passionate about making the show as good as it can be and really grinding it out.”
Working in Chicago afforded additional opportunities for total immersion. Wagner Moura (“Narcos”), who plays the reporter spearheading the Sun-Times’ coverage of the serial assaulter, visited the Sun-Times office and spent time with staff reporter Robert Herguth to reconnect with his early days as a journalist in Brazil.
“This is a very important moment to be playing a journalist [on TV] because journalism nowadays is in such a weird spot,” Moura says. “People are getting information through social media and [there’s a] spread of fake news—and world leaders [are] discrediting the work of journalists, putting these people’s lives in danger.”
Luisa, formerly a producer and writer on the Paramount+ series “Strange Angel,” tweaked the show’s source material. The book placed the abuser Harper (played by Jamie Bell) in the center of the action, but Moss’ Kirby is the main character in the TV adaptation. This decision allowed her to ground the show’s more fantastical elements in something tangible and novel: journalists, not cops, putting puzzles together and hunting a serial killer.
Though Luisa left the most unbelievable aspect of the show — that few characters speak in a Chicago accent — to circumstance. “When you’re walking around the city, what’s interesting is that there is this huge mix of accents — and in the ’90s, the mix becomes even more eclectic,” she says. “I didn’t want anyone to put on an accent. So, if you hear somebody that has an accent, they, as a person, have that.”
WHY THE SUN-TIMES?
Besides being key to the plot of “Shining Girls,” the Chicago Sun-Times helped make it, advising the team and providing access to historical photos and headlines related to its 1992 setting. Here’s why showrunner Silka Luisa (a Cubs fan) chose to set the series at the city’s tabloid paper:
“[The Sun-Times] is a working man’s paper—somebody told me that it’s [written for] people that ride into the city on the train vs. driving in. They were in the city, they actually knew the streets and were more focused on stories that were relevant to the city and the local community.
“The way I see the Chicago Sun-Times is as more of an underdog paper. In speaking with reporters, [we learned that] they had to do much more with less resources. And for me, that creates characters that are more interesting because they’re more dogged, they’ve had to find workarounds and had to develop deeper relationships.”