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‘Dirty John’ Team Talks Adapting True Family Horror Tale for Scripted Series

After her real-life romance gone wrong with John Meehan went viral thanks to journalist Christopher Goffard’s investigative podcast, Debra Newell felt like her story wasn’t accurately represented.

“It wasn’t really talking enough about what a bad guy John was or what he did,” she tells Variety. “And I’d never seen myself as desperate or insecure. I saw myself as an accomplished woman who really had it all except love.”

Neither Newell, nor her family was involved in the podcast’s production, but they did meet with various members of the team behind Bravo and Universal Cable Productions’ limited series adaptation of the same name.

“I was hoping this would reach a broader market and be able to help people through [experiences] with this type of man and realize what was out there,” Newell says of the scripted show.

Having the real-life people involved aided some areas of the storytelling, namely the performance of star Connie Britton, who plays Newell on-screen. But showrunner Alexandra Cunningham admits she wanted to write the episodes as she envisioned them and then “cross fingers [the family] liked it.”

Still, Cunningham didn’t want to fall into the trope of “it’s just a woman in peril story,” she says. “The first episode is doing something that the podcast didn’t do — it’s putting you deep into the emotional situation that gave birth to all of this in the first place. We wanted to put people into the middle of the experience that Debra was having with John so they could understand why all of these things happened.”

Although she started the show with Debra falling for John (Eric Bana), Cunningham accelerated the story to get her to “the part where she understands what she’s dealing with, as opposed to telling one of those stories where everyone knows he’s bad but her for a very long time.”

For Cunningham, the appeal of the story was not the “twisted fairy tale” of a woman who gets romantically involved with a con man. Instead, she was interested in the more psychological aspects of the people involved — from Newell to Meehan to Newell’s daughters, who expressed from the start that they did not like, let alone trust, their mother’s new boyfriend.

“I’m an avid reader of Gavin de Becker and all of his books about ‘how do we take care of ourselves in this world,’ starting with ‘The Gift of Fear,’ which is very relevant to this world because why don’t we listen to our intuition?” Cunningham says. “That’s the perspective I was listening to this story with. Why don’t women listen to themselves or each other, and what does that have to do with how we’ve been conditioned to relate to each other and men?”

Cunningham invited Goffard into her writers’ room to take advantage of his “hundreds of pages of research” on the case, but she did want to take some liberties in the way she told the story, too.

“Because John is dead, there is no perspective for him in the podcast,” Cunningham says. “But I had an opportunity to present John from his own perspective in a scripted show — the way he must have been with the people he wanted things from, the charm and the humor and the handsomeness, and the scary things.”

Additionally, Newell’s daughter Jacquelyn is now a woman named Veronica (Juno Temple), who Cunningham calls “secretly my favorite because she’s the id.” Veronica is the one who opens the door when John comes to pick up Debra for their first date, and she immediately expresses disgust over the way he is dressed — something Cunningham pulled directly from the podcast.

Still, Newell admits she “didn’t remember Jacquelyn coming off that tough in the beginning [with] the attitude that I saw on-screen. I saw her a little bit softer than what was portrayed here.”

Veronica also gets in her younger sister Terra’s (Julia Garner) ear about John early on. “My sister and I definitely have had issues with my mom’s boyfriends in the past, and that was definitely hard to see from the podcast, so I wanted that to be seen in there so they could see how my mom would not want to listen to us,” Terra Newell says.

Britton shares that during a “crucial moment” in the series when Debra decides to take John back after all she has learned about him, the show adds a drug rehab element that did not exist in reality.

“I struggled with this,” she admits, “mostly because I really wanted to explore why Debra took him back without the additional rehab component, because that actual choice on her part is where for me the most challenging pieces of her psychology live.”

However, she says that knowing what she does about Newell and what she went through, she “still tried to access and account for the true internal process that took place in her real life decision making, based on what she knew and also what she didn’t want to see.”

Perhaps most notably, though, “Dirty John” will “slow down” the pivotal event when John attacks Terra in a parking lot that then turns fatal for him.

“That happened so fast,” she recalls. “I wanted to make sure it was accurately portrayed, but there [are] a few things that were embellished because it’s TV. … You’ll really get to see it from a good perspective of how to survive if you were in that position.”

The Newell family story hardly ends with “Dirty John.” In early 2019, Oxygen Media will air a companion documentary entitled “Dirty John, The Dirty John Truth.” Produced by Herzog & Co., this special will dive into the life of Meehan through the eyes of the real people he deceived, many of whom were long before Newell.

“This isn’t for me right now, it’s more so for others,” Newell says of both projects. “It was really important to me to get through to other women what could happen for them, and for the ones that it has happened to, to let them know that they’re not alone.”

The premiere of “Dirty John” is available for early sampling online now but airs Sunday, November 25 at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

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