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Writing a True Crime Series Through a Subjective Lens with 'The Girl From Plainville' Creators and Showrunners Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah

'The Girl From Plainville' showrunners, creators, and writers Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah shares with Script what their initial connection to the core of the story was, finding the right balance between taking creative liberties and sticking to the facts, Liz's television directorial debut and much more.

The Girl From Plainville is inspired by the true story of Michelle Carter's unprecedented "texting-suicide" case. Based on the Esquire article of the same name by Jesse Barron, the limited series explores Carter's relationship with Conray Roy III and the events that led to his death and, later, her conviction of involuntary manslaughter. 

Adapting a true crime story, especially one that has been recently sensationalized in the media is no easy task. It takes great risk and great care, respect, and attention to detail. Such was that case in Hulu's The Girl From Plainville which was thankfully guided by showrunners Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah, as well as their cast and executive producers, including star Elle Fanning.

I had the utmost pleasure in speaking (and sharing a lot of laughs) with showrunners, creators, and writers Patrick Macmanus and Liz Hannah about their initial connection to the core of the story, finding the right balance between taking creative liberties and sticking to the facts, Liz's television directorial debut and more. Plus, the two share invaluable advice for writers interested in adapting a true crime story - in which case, should be a guiding principle for all. 

Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter in The Girl From Plainville. Courtesy Hulu.

Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter in The Girl From Plainville. Courtesy Hulu.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did you two initially connect over this story? And what was that intrigue that spark that creative fire in you to tackle this story?

Patrick Macmanus: I was working in the writer’s room of Dr. Death when this article came from UCP, they wanted to have somebody talk to Jesse Barron, who wrote the article for Esquire. I think that Liz will end up agreeing with this, we really only knew what the press had said about the story. And so, until I sat down with Jesse, and he started to walk me through how much deeper the story really does go because he had embedded himself up there throughout the course of the entire trial and he'd gotten to know most of the main players. It was only at that point where I realized how much there was to this story to tell, and that it was genuinely an important story to tell.

Patrick Macmanus

Patrick Macmanus

Then over the course of the next couple of next few weeks, to a couple of months, Liz, thank God, I came into her orbit, and she'll tell you why she got involved, but immediately when we met for the very first time for coffee, I knew that we were simpatico as related to our approach to the story and the reasons why we wanted to tell the story. And also, our process is very similar. I'm nothing but grateful for the fact that Liz became part of it. And then we got Elle Fanning, she was never just an actor. She was vital to the process, not just on the creative side, but also on the producorial side. And I feel like the three of us and also Brittany [Kahan] Ward, who was another EP, we wouldn't be able to tell the story without the group as a whole.

Personally, I will just say that the reason I was attracted to this story was the fact that Michelle Carter wasn't just a two-dimensional villain that she genuinely was an individual who was just as ill as the gentleman who died by suicide and it was vital to me. I believe for Liz that we draw her into the three-dimensional character that she really was. That she wasn't somebody that could just be villainized and set aside. And so that that was part of the process, for me, at least.

Liz Hannah: I was still in the room on The Dropout, and it was a really hard show to break and to figure out and I was kind of burned out and was going to take a break. And then Brittany Kahan Ward, who's also my manager, called me and said that they had read this article that Elle was considering doing; and Elle and I had worked together on All the Bright Places and had always wanted to work together again. And I was like, I just don't know if I can do this. Frankly, as Patrick was saying, all I knew was how the media had presented Michelle and how the media presented the case. And I was just like, I don't know that this is something that I feel is right to do is right for me to do. And they said to just read Jesse's article, and then to watch the documentary I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter. So, my persistent no's fell on extraordinarily deaf ears. And much like all the good decisions in my career, I listened to Brittany and I read the article and watched the documentary and very quickly realized that we were barely scratching the surface of, I think, the complexity of Michelle, the complexity of Conrad and then further their relationship.

Liz Hannah

Liz Hannah

I met with Patrick, and we had a coffee at the R.I.P. Sycamore kitchen. I was still looking for reasons not to do it. It was a big undertaking, and I was very nervous about doing it. And so, I was like, ‘Well, this is what I think. And this is what I think.’ That felt like fairly harsh, ‘yes’ or ‘no's’ that I would not normally walk into a meeting with but Patrick agreed, and then jumped off of some of these extreme thoughts that I had come in with. And so, I couldn't say no at that point; when you're in alignment on the story, you want to tell it in the hardest way. And I think that was the thing that really compelled me to do it outside of some of the personal reasons of really feeling like we could dive into having a conversation about mental health in a really three-dimensional way. And show it that mental health is specific and unique to everyone. Not everyone has the same mental health journey. And that felt like something we could talk about, and in a way that you don't necessarily always have the opportunity to do. But also, neither of us wanted to tell a quote-unquote, true crime story – that was something that Patrick was currently doing, that I was currently doing. And that as much as the case falls under that umbrella, what we really wanted to tell, which I think was for us, something that felt like we would have to dig deep and figure out was a very gray character story, and a very complex story of relationships between not just Coco and Michelle, but of the families. And what makes all of that work is that you have somebody like Elle who is willing to do the really hard stuff you write for her and pushes you to write things that are very difficult to do. And you won't get it in the first conversation, you'll have to keep pushing and going. So basically, it was really hard. [laughs] And that was why I was interested in doing it.

Sadie: [laughs] Well, I'm glad you finally caved and did it. So, a big thanks to your team collectively for pushing you. I'm curious for the two of you, because you both came off shows that are based on true crime stories, do you find as a writer, that it's more difficult to take those creative liberties when the person is still alive rather than dead? Or does it matter and just do what you can do in purpose of serving the story?

Liz: I think, in terms of creative liberties with this show, obviously, the fantasy, I think is where we felt we had - and fantasy I mean the Glee fantasies in Teenage Dirtbag - I think we felt that we had the most opportunity there. The reason we did that was that Michelle is such an opaque character. She's very interior. And there's so much going on with her. We watched the trial, and this is a girl who in the media was depicted as being cold and unfeeling toward what was going on. Whereas we saw somebody who was very detached and our interpretation of her was somebody who didn't fully understand what was happening. And so that kind of led us into to creating these conversations that I think we felt would be a step too far. How do you show the interior life of somebody who's going through that? And so the fantasies felt like an expression of that.

[L-R] Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter and Colton Ryan as Conrad "Coco" Roy III in The Girl From Plainville, Episode Seven Teenage Dirtbag. Courtesy Hulu.

[L-R] Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter and Colton Ryan as Conrad "Coco" Roy III in The Girl From Plainville, Episode Seven Teenage Dirtbag. Courtesy Hulu.

Then in terms of any other liberties, Patrick, you can tell me if I'm wrong, but I think we stayed as accurate as possible to the events that happened and the only things we really did were compress time. In all of the text reenactments, those are their actual text messages, those are everything that they sent to each other, aside from again, like sometimes compressing where they would go off on a tangent, talking about Drake or something - we would keep it specific. But I think that also comes from the experience of doing true stories in that, anytime that I have tried to make something what I think would be fictionally more interesting, it is much less interesting than the truth, and much less interesting than how the humanity of these real people shows. And that's where you find the interesting, unique aspects of their personality are - what is the decision we make when we're at a crossroads? When you start to go through each of these characters and the millions of decisions we all make as humans, I think that's where that really started to take shape when we started to understand them.

Patrick: First of all, I would never tell Liz that she's wrong, ever. [laughs] Yeah, just to just go on the record about that. Just to dig like a couple of inches deeper about the text messages to what Liz was alluding to, because we had access to all of their interactions online, which was basically the totality of their relationship, it did allow us to be able to build out a pretty clear picture of who they were as people. And this is a story as they all are, that's inspired by the true story, right, it is definitely not a documentary. But it did allow us the opportunity to be able to paint a picture of who they were as individuals as a couple quote-unquote, and how they interacted with their friends and their families. It gave us a clearer picture of their school life, as well as their home life. It really was a treasure trove of material that allowed us to paint a pretty clear picture, while also obviously dramatizing things to a certain degree.

I fundamentally agree with Liz about the fact that when you're given that much information, the idea that you allow your imaginations to go wild does not prove to be fruitful in any way, shape, or form. We did not have to dig too deep to dramatize this story, because the true story was so dramatic in and of itself. And the last thing I'll say along these lines, and I know that Liz and I agree with each other, but about this is that you do have to take care about how you present these people and not because they're alive. Even in death, it's important that you do your best to be able to be respectful, and to honor people's memories, whether they are positive or negative, and that you go out of your way. And it's one thing that Liz and I did do and that all the writers of the entire talented writer's room did, which was to do our best not to sensationalize the story. It was already sensationalized. And what it needed was a level of care what it needed was a level of empathy. And that was ultimately what we were setting out to do.

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Sadie: Michele does go through a gradual arc through these episodes, and we start to see these nuances and tics. Was that something that was originally written on the page for this character? Or was it something that Elle brought in for character development?

Liz: I think it was both. There was a lot of conversation about Michelle being a chameleon. And so, there was a lot of conversation with Elle that she was playing sort of four different parts that were all inhabited in one person. That was the sort of consistency throughout and who is she at her core, who is she really? And I think that is the question that Elle really dove into the most and that is the thing that she brings to this role that is intangible that we couldn't write that we couldn't put down on the page or tell her because I think it's coming from Elle of finding the connective tissue between all of these characters. I think the hardest part for us and for Elle was when Michelle is bigger and more dramatic in her real life, because it just feels false. And it feels, I mean, for lack of a better phrase, it feels like bad writing, because you're like, ‘this isn't how a person would actually act in real life.’ But it is how she's acting, because she's performing. And she's putting on a show for everyone. And I think finding the balance of that and making sure that came across so it didn't feel like we were just setting up Elle for something unachievable. So that was a real balance between Elle and us, figuring out Michelle's arc.

The show is also sort of cyclical, and if you start up episode two, and then you keep watching to the end of the finale sort of twice if you lay it out linearly, so plotting out Michelle's timeline for Elle was really important for both Patrick and me, and for the whole room - if we start at the beginning of episode two with her, then we loop back around, then it's the end of the finale twice that she actually has fully explored herself. So that was, I think, just a real challenge for everyone.

Sadie: Oh, wow! That’s wild. I’ll need to chart that when watching.

Liz: It's a little bit of a mind palace deep dive.

Sadie: There's been an onslaught of true-crime dramas and thrillers as of late. And it's pretty clear who is in the wrong in these shows, but I feel like, with this one, this is seen through more of like a subjective lens. As the audience, we get to make our own decision, ‘Was she in the right or was she in the wrong?’ Was that intentional?

Patrick: It was 100% intentional. One of the things that Liz and I spoke about in our very first meeting was that if we were to do this, that we had to ensure that by the end of the story, people did not know whether who was right and who was wrong. Because there were no villains. And there were no heroes in this story. And that includes not just Michelle and Conrad, but also their parents. I will say, having come off of Dr. Death, no one was on the side of Christopher Duntsch, no one was saying, ‘Yeah, that patient had it coming to them.’ There was nuance to that character, there were reasons why that character existed and why he did what he did. But in this case, it was sort of weirdly reversed, which is that the media had painted Michelle as this Black Widow, as this uber-villain. And the truth of the matter is that it was so much more nuanced. So, at the end of the day, if people want to critique the show for not coming down on a side of right and wrong, well, personally, I won't speak for Liz, but personally, I take that as a victory. That is exactly what we were intending to do, because, at the end of the day, no one knows what anybody is going through in this world, especially people who are struggling with their mental health. And everyone is responsible for, hopefully, holding people up and trying to try to help them out. And Michelle needed just as much help as Conrad did. And so yeah, that was 100% a guiding principle from the very beginning.

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Liz: I'll add to that - I think it was important also in the room that there was disagreement on who was guilty or not guilty, or who was responsible or not responsible. I think it was very important to us to have all opinions and to have people fight for them, because that's the only way that we could ensure this outcome, which is ultimately I think what we wanted. I agree with everything Patrick just said, we wanted people to feel seen in their complexities and in a lack of black and white, and in my opinion, that's very rarely ever the answer. I think though it can be frustrating that there are no answers, for us the most frustrating part of the story is that ultimately there are no answers and that's really unfortunate.

SU-2021-CrimeWriting-500x500-CTA_360x

Sadie: Speaking of your writer’s room, when you were putting that together, what were you looking for specifically in our writer to bring to the room?

Liz: We did not, I think, have any intention of meeting writers who had true-crime experience. Both Patrick and I think, when we put rooms together separately, we want the best writers, we want the most interesting brains and the most interesting experiences to bring to that. So, it was really important to us that we had a diverse group in our room of experiences of opinions. And that, I think, is what fleshed out the story for us. We had a few people that Patrick had worked with on Dr. Death, and then we had some new people that neither of us had worked with. And I think it made for more complex conversation and that knee-jerk instinct for everybody was different when presented with an issue. I think that's how, at least I think we all tackle a writers room is, what are the best ways to do it? What are my weaknesses as a writer, a showrunner, and a storyteller? And how can we hire people who make us look great? And that's hopefully what we did. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] I think you did. It’s like that saying about surrounding yourself with those more talented than yourself for a better outcome, but also having the opportunity to learn from them as well. For you Liz, coming in as a director on this and working with your fellow directors, what was that collaborative process, like, working with them and the writer's room, setting up the tone and the pacing, that rhythm of the show, and making sure it’s all cohesive?

Liz: I had a leg up over other episodic directors in that I was there every day before I went into production on my block. I was able to be an observer and a participant when Lisa Cholodenko was directing or Pippa Bianco, or Zetna Fuentes. And so that I think was really helpful in finding the language, and then the vocabulary of the show for everybody. By the time we got to my episodes, there was a flow going already, and there was a rhythm to it. We had not been in the courtroom yet until episodes six and seven, which we had about 48 hours to shoot and wasn't that little [laughs] but it was not a lot of time to shoot the amount of material that was in a courtroom. And it was also the first time we had almost a full cast there given most of them are bystanders in the pews. But that I think was a real blessing as a first-time director coming in - having the support of the cast and the crew, like everybody was there to help me if I faltered. There was so much going on in terms of the storylines and timelines of the show, that having 12 people who had been on set for four months, was extremely helpful. I really appreciate, in particular, Kai Lennox and Cara Buono and the whole Roy family our full cast and then Elle who were almost silent the entirety of the courtroom - Kai and Cara don't have any lines in the courtroom. And they were bringing it every day, they were in almost every shot because they're sitting behind Elle, but they were making my job so much easier and that I didn't have to worry about narrating a story for them. They already knew it. They already knew what we were doing. Working with the directors was great, but it was really working with the cast for the four months prior to I was shooting that we had a relationship already that translated.

Sadie: Advice for writers tackling a true-crime story?

Liz: I would just say find empathy. It's very easy to pick a villain and pick a side. And it is much harder to find empathy with characters that you don't think you will. And that tends to, in my opinion, offer a more well-rounded depiction, show, film, whatever you're doing. So, I think just finding empathy; find the way into understanding those characters.

Patrick: Along those lines, I think that it's basically a different way of saying it, but it's don't judge them. That's part one. And then part two - I think that what Liz and I and the writers and the cast and the directors, all were able to do is was to find a way of telling a true crime story without leaning into the sensational and that isn't just because of Michelle Carter, it isn't just because it's a story ultimately about mental health. In general, you will have a more successful series if you don't try to sensationalize the story, you try to tell it honestly, and with respect. And as I said earlier, to both sides - whether it's the quote-unquote heroes or the quote-unquote villains. Try your best not to lean into the sensational because it ultimately, in my opinion, will cheapen your final product.

The Girl From Plainville-Hulu

The Girl From Plainville is currently available to stream on Hulu.


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