“The place that I start is with empathy. Every project, I start that way. Can I empathize with these characters?” Golden Globe winner Liz Hannah told me. “And to be totally frank, I didn’t know if I could with Michelle Carter.”
Hulu’s new series The Girl From Plainville adapts the story of Carter, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend Conrad Roy III to take his own life. Based on the article of the same name by Jesse Barron, the project is the latest time that Liz—who won a Golden Globe for co-writing the critically acclaimed film The Post and recently penned an episode of Hulu’s The Dropout—has helped bring a true story to the screen. But when it came to Michelle Carter, she wasn’t sure that she could do it.
“All I knew before I took the first meeting with [co-creator/executive producer] Patrick [MacManus] was the depiction the media had done of Michelle Carter. She was very much a villain and a black widow, and in some ways, a one-dimensional person,” she explained. “Once I read the article and watched the documentary, and then really, once Patrick and I started to dive into the text messages, I realized how much more there was to the story. How much there was to Michelle, and Conrad, and their relationships with their families. And that made me lean in and realize that I could empathize and that Patrick and I could do something different.”
With that in mind, she didn’t perceive The Girl From Plainville as a true crime series, even though it’s based on an actual criminal case. The project focused on elucidating the people involved in—and affected by—the crime. “It was much more of a ‘who is it?’ and a real exploration of not just Michelle and Conrad, but of their families,” she said. “Evaluating what would be in the show and the story we were telling, we felt very strongly about things that were telling their story and their relationship. And then in the present day and with the fantasy stories that were telling Michelle’s interior experience, trying to tap into what she was going through during that time and how it felt to be in this position.”
The Girl From Plainville joins The Dropout and Netflix’s Inventing Anna as TV series based on true events that place the alleged criminal at the center of the story. Particularly with Inventing Anna, there’s been criticism that these projects are overly sympathetic to the suspect or that they glamorize their bad behavior. Liz, who not only wrote and executive produced The Girl From Plainville but directed certain episodes as well, discussed how she was able to tell a three-dimensional story that didn’t diminish the impact of Michelle’s actions.
“I don’t put any value in whether anybody likes these people. I don’t think liking them is important at all to care about the story or be interested in what’s happening,” she said. “It’s very important that people empathize in this case with Michelle. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with what she did, condone what she did, or forgive any of these things that she did. But I do think if you start to realize there was more going on in her life than you had anticipated or thought you knew, and it was more complicated, then you can open yourself up to a little bit more of a conversation of looking at your own life—of looking at judgments you have or preconceived notions you have, not necessarily about Michelle, but of other people. That, for me, is the importance.
“I can’t really care about people liking the characters, because I don’t necessarily like them all the time. That’s not the point,” she continued. “My job isn’t to make somebody like them. It’s to feel for them and feel with them. And then, at the same time, just because I feel for them doesn’t mean that I think they did the right thing or that I think that they’re a good person or a bad person.”
One example of that is a moment at the end of The Girl From Plainville‘s first episode, “Star-Crossed Lovers and Things Like That.” There’s a specific scene for Michelle, played by Elle Fanning (from Hulu’s The Great), that not only resonates with viewers but made the whole series click into place.
“That moment in the mirror was something that we talked about very, very early on when it was just Patrick and myself and Elle and our producing partner Brittany [Kahan Ward],” Liz recalled. “I found Michelle as a character so opaque. I was just searching for ways to get into her head constantly. I had worked with Elle before. I knew how incredibly talented she is, but also how much she pushes you as a writer and as a filmmaker. That was a moment that culminated in a lot of these things for us.
“We ended up shooting it twice—and the second time, Elle did that performance for about six and a half hours straight,” she revealed. “All of us were watching it at the same time, and it was a pretty remarkable moment. It was frankly as written, and as we were shooting it and as we were editing it, it was always the moment that I would be really positive and great. And then I’d turn to Elle and our producer and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know how this show’s going to work if this doesn’t work.’ It really worked and it’s all because of Elle’s performance. And s that is special for me just because I felt like we knew what we were doing at that point, which is always a rarity in production.”
With The Girl From Plainville, Liz Hannah reminds TV viewers that she’s one of the preeminent voices when it comes to telling true stories—not just in bringing them to the screen, but in telling them completely and finding the parts that haven’t been heard or that are difficult to handle. She ventures where other writers aren’t always able to go, and she’s tackled her most complicated project yet in a way that will both captivate true crime fans and engage those who’ve never followed the genre. Most importantly, she’s told a story that doesn’t flinch from the truth, no matter how messy it may be.
The Girl From Plainville is now streaming on Hulu. The first three episodes are available now with the remaining five premiering on Tuesdays. Stay tuned for more from my interview with Liz next Tuesday!
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.