Guilty Party follows Beth Burgess (Kate Beckinsale), a discredited journalist desperate to salvage her career by latching on to the story of a young mother, Toni Plimpton (Jules Latimer), who has been sentenced to life in prison for maiming and murdering her husband, crimes she claims she did not commit. In trying to uncover the truth, Beth finds herself in over her head as she contends with Colorado gun-smugglers, clickbait culture, the doldrums of marriage and her own tarnished past.
Creator and writer shares insight into creating characters, where the idea for Guilty Party was inspired from, and why writing for television was her true calling.
Tackling themes like justice and women liberation, what was the overall seed for this series?
The initial seed of inspiration came in casual conversation with one of the producers of the show. We were joking that it seemed as if Sarah Koenig had been "in love" with Adnan Syed, her incarcerated subject on the podcast Serial. While we were only teasing, something did get planted in my brain that day. I began to draw connective lines between Sarah and Adnan and Truman Capote and his infamous subject Perry Smith from In Cold Blood, and then to Normal Mailer and Gary Gilmore, and so on. Janet Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" was also a big influence for me. While all of these stories were objectively about a murder, what made them more compelling than your standard true-crime fare was the messy, human, and deeply personal relationship forged between the storyteller and her subject. I was fascinated by the degree to which the storyteller inserted herself into the storytelling process. The characters of Beth and Toni emerged from this blueprint -- the goal was to tell a true-crime story on the surface, but to actually tell a story about a journalist who goes too far and inserts herself too wholly into the story she's attempting to tell. As we dimensionalized Beth and Toni, we realized we also had an opportunity to comment upon and reflect racial prejudice, privilege, and injustice in America with two very different women from different backgrounds.
It’s so great seeing more women in whimsical and dynamic lead roles, especially the character Beth Burgess. When creating these characters, what was the character development process like?
Beth was an extremely fun but difficult character to develop. We meet her at a time in her life when her desperation is at its zenith and she'll do anything to get back to her former glory. This leads to impulsive and often fatefully bad decision-making - which can be fun to write! The tightrope we were walking was to create a character whom we might disapprove of - we recognize her choices aren't great - but still find compelling to watch.
We faced a different challenge in writing the Toni character. Prison is a dehumanizing environment; it replaces specific people and identities with the hateful brand "criminal." This is how we first meet Toni... she's an incarcerated "criminal", which adds layers of conscious and unconscious bias to our viewing. Our goal in writing Toni was to peel those layers of bias away, steadily, episode by episode, until what's revealed is a very real, very specific, and very human lead character.
Can you speak about the pitching process for this series – after coming off such a great show like Dead to Me?
Funnily enough, I was pitching Guilty Party while I was still working on the first season of Dead to Me. That's how long we've been working on Guilty Party! A global pandemic sure didn't help speed things along. So, while no one I was pitching to was truly aware of Dead to Me's reach and popularity yet, I did have a great studio team by my side during those pitches... the same studio who developed Dead to Me. I knew they were wonderful and smart people, and because of the overlap with both shows, there was a familial vibe to our collaboration.
Taking a step back, what inspired you to become a writer, especially for television?
I started "writing" when I was very little, seven or eight. I'd write poems about how disgusting older brothers were, short stories about baby cows, and all manner of scintillating subject matter. I've also always been a lover of comedy, and as I grew older I found that television was the source of the most transgressive, weird and hilarious comedy: The Kids in the Hall; early Conan O'Brien; Mr. Show, etc. But it was when I started to realize that TV was where women went to be funny - that's when the penny dropped. Carol Burnett. Shelley Long. Bea Arthur. Gilda Radner. Candace Bergen. Molly Shannon. Tina Fey. TV stars, all of them. And so, I turned my writing efforts to scripts, specifically for TV, and things clicked. It felt organic. I loved the problem-solving of story breaking the "what beat comes next" conundrum, coupled with the freedom to create funny, flawed female characters. Other than deviating into feature screenplay writing, I haven't stopped writing for television since.
You’re definitely a creative force to be reckoned with – any plans to direct on your new series or any feature work in the pipeline?
I actually had the opportunity to direct the last two episodes of season one of Guilty Party! I directed episodes 109 and 110, the finale, and it was mayhem and an absolute blast. The show really ramps up by season's end and gets rather action-packed. Without giving too much away, I'll say that two of the great joys of making the show were one, being able to set a boat on fire and two, choreograph a vicious woman-on-woman fistfight! I've directed one feature film Paper Year, and do have plans to get back to feature-making, though nothing official to speak of at the moment.
Do you have a writing routine?
Making this show has completely destroyed any semblance of a routine I had! Showrunning suddenly meant spending my days on set or in the editing bay or on the mix stage, for months on end. But while my writing has gone fallow, I've gained so many other priceless storytelling skills. If and when I do get back to a routine, it'll probably go like this: coffee, coffee, coffee, sit down at the laptop and pray I don't write anything stupid. More coffee. Call it a day.
What is something you wished you had known before staffing on your first television series?
That I didn't always have to carry the ball. When I first staffed, I felt such a responsibility to earn my keep that I was always pitching. Any story obstacle we hit, I'd chime in. Any character question, I'd pipe up. And sometimes I would get very passionate - read: annoying. Until I realized - and was coached by some kind mentors - that I was just one of many writers... it was OK to let someone else carry the ball. In fact, sitting back and listening can often be more useful and lead to better, more thoughtful pitches.
Any advice for budding television writers – what is something they should consider having in their writing samples or maybe not including?
While staffing Guilty Party I read a ton of scripts, and while this may not be the most helpful advice the thing that always stuck out for me was originality. Be different. Be specific. Be unique. Be you. If I was meeting characters and situations, worlds, that I'd never seen or read before, my interest was kept. I know we all think we're original, but we must try to be honest with ourselves when we're being derivative or aping popular ideas of the time.
Guilty Party is streaming exclusively on Paramount+.