Comic book author Jeff Lemire stepped into the role of showrunner for the first time to adapt his graphic novel trilogy Essex County for Canada’s CBC. He discusses world-building, swapping solitary creative endeavours for collaborative ones and why a multi-season adaptation didn’t feel right.
The release of Essex County, a five-part limited series commissioned by Canadian pubcaster the CBC, marks the culmination of an eight-year journey to adapt the acclaimed graphic novel trilogy by Jeff Lemire, one of Canada’s most highly regarded and prolific comic book authors.
Lemire’s work has provided fertile ground for screen adaptations in recent years, with Susan and Robert Downey Jr producing an adaptation of his post-apocalyptic fantasy drama Sweet Tooth for Netflix in 2021.
Many of his other comics are in development with studios, including space opera Descender with Universal and Black Hammer with Legendary Entertainment, while he has also worked extensively for both Marvel and DC Comics.
Essex County differs from those adaptations, however, as it sees Lemire – a creative who has spent the majority of his professional career working alone – stepping into the role of TV showrunner for the first time.
“I’m so used to my days and weeks being at my drawing desk by myself, which I love, so it was the complete opposite experience, where I’m immersed in this collaborative, social, creative process,” he tells DQ. “But it was probably really good for me, honestly, to do something so different.”
The series, which explores loss, betrayal and trauma through the intertwining lives of two families living in a rural community in Lemire’s home county of Essex in Ontario, was put into development by the CBC in 2015, with Toronto-based First Generation Films producing.
The adaptation process proved to be long and complex, though, and hit several creative roadblocks in the early years of its journey to screen.
Initially, the project was envisioned as an ongoing series, with showrunner Aaron Martin (Slasher, Another Life, Terror Train) serving as head writer and Lemire as a consultant. Ultimately, development did not make a great amount of progress and Martin ended up stepping away from Essex County to work on other things.
“It was almost painful to see others adapt it. Not because of what they were doing but just because it was so personal to me that it felt wrong that someone else was writing these characters,” says Lemire. “They’re such a big part of my life.”
While he admits he signed on as showrunner “without really knowing” what it would entail, Lemire became head writer and executive producer in 2017 and began reimagining the adaptation as a limited series rather than a multi-season project.
Around the same time, First Generation Films CEO Christina Piovesan, who had initially fallen in love with the book and taken it to the CBC, was introduced to Chris Law of European financier, producer and distributor Media Musketeers Studios, which boarded the project and was later joined by ITV Studios (ITVS), which distributed the finished series.
Piovesan said the international partners “fully understood” the material and embraced Lemire’s vision. They also grasped that this was a Canadian story that should not sacrifice any of its local specificity.
“We didn’t talk about the Canadianness of the project in any way, nor did we talk about it tweaking it for an international marketplace. Media Musketeers and ITVS felt that, at its core, it was a universal story that was set in a specific place and time and that it would resonate.”
But while the project was gathering momentum in terms of partners and financing, Lemire was still grappling with how best to reimagine his graphic novel trilogy as a TV series.
One of the primary reasons he did not want to do an ongoing series was a sense that the story would become filled with “artificial plot points” that were not part of the source material.
“In comics, you can suggest so much between panels – time can be very stretched or compressed in different ways using that medium – whereas on screen you need a lot more story to fill the time,” he explains.
“So, using the book as a skeleton worked, but we needed to add material to fill out enough for five hours. Every time we tried to add things, it felt artificial and didn’t really fit the tone or the world.”
Enter Toronto-based Irish screenwriter Eilis Kirwan (The Whistleblower, Nurses), who joined the project in early 2021 as a writer alongside Lemire.
Things immediately began to “click” when Kirwan came on board, says Lemire, and the pair soon began to expand the worlds of each character in a way that felt organic.
In the graphic novel, the two main characters are Lester (played by Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), a grieving 11-year-old boy who moves in with his uncle Ken after the death of his mother, and Lou, an old man whose dementia is worsening, causing his present memories to merge with his past.
The key to the series lay in expanding the worlds of two slightly less prominent characters in the novel: Ken, a farmer who battles his own grief while trying to raise Lester; and Anne (Molly Parker), who begins to unearth family secrets after she takes over the care of her estranged uncle Lou.
“The suggestion of who Ken and Anne are was there in the graphic novels, but there was some exploration to be done,” says Kirwan, adding that they “made them leads” and in doing so reimagined the story as a four-character ensemble.
“Once we started going at it that way, we found the characters and we found a four-part harmony as we weaved those stories together,” she says.
With growing momentum and a conviction that they had found the best way to tell the story, the project soon had an official greenlight from the CBC and filming took place in North Bay, Ontario, in late summer 2022. In addition to the CBC, ITVS and Media Musketeers, the series also received funding from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation. It is executive produced by Lemire, Kirwan, Piovesan and Schitt’s Creek director Andrew Cividino, who directed all five episodes.
Debuting in Canada on March 19, the show has given rise to a new creative outlet for Kirwan, who says she is now “taking baby steps” towards writing her own comic book, under Lemire’s mentorship. “The direct creation and releasing of a story to an audience is extremely appealing,” she says.
But as for whether the Essex County story could continue in some form on the screen, Lemire says that is not on the cards.
“It’s definitely a one-off,” he says. “I think we told the whole story the best we could. If we were to continue as a team, it would be on a different project, with a similar aesthetic possibly, but not Essex County.”
And as for whether he would be interested in being a showrunner again, Lemire says it’s too soon to commit to anything: “It’s too early to tell. It was certainly a great experience and I’m open to it, but I’m also anxious to get back to the drawing board.”