‘We Were the Lucky Ones' Director on Highlighting a Family Reunion in the Shadow of the Holocaust

We Were the Lucky Ones wasn't just years in the making for director and executive producer Thomas Kail - it was a matter of decades. He met author Georgia Hunter - whose novel inspired the Hulu series about a Jewish family determined to reunite after being separated during World War II - in 1999, around the same time she began learning about her family's history.

Before Hunter even had a notion to put the Kurc family's Holocaust survival story on paper, Kail had already heard many of the real-life accounts. The stories stuck with him after the book's release in 2017, and several years later, Kail took his idea of bringing the "beautiful story" to the small screen to Hunter and creator Erica Lipez.

Their initial adaptation pitch failed, Kail says, but their second attempt - six months into the pandemic - caught Hulu's eye. "We took that same pitch about a family trying to have dinner together and their struggle to get back around the dinner table," he recalls. Once Joey King was attached to the project, it moved full speed ahead.

Here, Kail opens up to THR about depicting this story from one of his oldest friends for a new audience.

What was it like working alongside Erica Lipez and Georgia Hunter?

Everything is so vital and vibrant, and that's something we talked about a lot. How do we make this representative of the urgency and the full color of the time? We look at things sometimes as sepia tones because the way it was captured is photographic or in black-and-white, but to the people who are being photographed, the colors are not black-and-white. So we wanted this to be something that felt close to us and not dusty. And if we could do that, then it would make the viewer feel like this could happen yesterday or it could happen today or could happen tomorrow.

How important was it for you that Jewish actors be cast in these roles?

What we wanted to do was not just get a group of people that get along - we had to make a family. I want to make sure that any of the actors that I'm working with have the deepest possible connection to the story we're telling. And the thing about being Jewish is it means something so different to everybody, depending on how they were raised.

What preparations went into directing the first and final episodes?

My feeling was that the first episode that Erica wrote, there's about 20 minutes where you get to be with the family before everyone starts getting pulled apart. We wanted to make sure that we understood the depth of their love, why they wanted to be together, because that was going to be such a beacon for them as the world pulled them apart. In many ways, for us, the story was quite simple: How does this family get back around the dinner table together? How do they find each other again? It takes eight years, but they eventually get there.

Talk about the importance of tying those two episodes together.

That last Passover scene, where they're finally back together after all these years, there's a moment where they stop to remember those who are not [with them]. And I think that in the midst of it, holding both those things - having this unfiltered joy of looking across the table and seeing their siblings and being back with their mother and their father, and then also taking the necessary moments to remember who didn't make it - there was something about the contrast of that, that makes this show so honest.

Was there a scene that was most impactful for you?

There's a moment [in episode eight] that Erica put in the script that I really wanted to honor with Halina [King] and Mila [Hadas Yaron], who have both been through so much. These two women walking, there's like this vista of nature around them, and they just start running and they're not running from anything, they're just running to run, and I found that so meaningful just to see them so free.

‘we were the lucky ones' director on highlighting a family reunion in the shadow of the holocaust

Thomas Kail (right) directing Logan Lerman, who plays Addy Kurc, in Hulu's We Were the Lucky Ones.

Was there added pressure knowing you're depicting real lives?

I felt responsibility. It did not feel weighty. Sometimes pressure can feel like it's constricting - I did not feel that. I wanted to deliver for all the people in the family. I wanted to deliver for this cast and this crew. I wanted to deliver for all the people that didn't make it.

What conversations did you have with the actors throughout filming?

I think the director needs to be able to have specific relationships [with each actor]. I need to know what they need from me. The way that people like to be directed really varies. It's a little different with each moment, and my job is to try to be the Swiss Army knife that the moment requires. Sometimes the job is to get out of the way. I think sometimes you can feel when the hand is too heavy from the director, and I like to make things that feel like it just happened.

Do you think this show was needed at this particular moment in history?

The job of the maker is to try to make something that feels like it has honesty and truth in it, and that hopefully it can be whatever the viewer needs it to be. Because we all come to stories needing different things or expecting certain things, and sometimes we get something that we didn't know we needed. This is a show that was about a moment in time that we hoped would never repeat itself. And it has to be a caution and it has to be something that makes us understand that when we look around and see things that are similar to what's happening in this particular story, something needs to be done about that to stop it.

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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