×

Listen: ‘Dirty John’ Boss Talks Playing With Perspective to Dive Into John Meehan’s Mind

Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.

In this week’s episode, “Dirty John” showrunner Alexandra Cunningham sits down with Variety‘s senior features editor of TV, Danielle Turchiano, to talk about working with Connie Britton to develop a scripted version of Debra Newell and the importance of offering not only Newell’s perspective in the storytelling but that of the others in her life, including John Meehan (Eric Bana).

One of the things Cunningham notes she specifically wanted to do when setting out to write a scripted series inspired by Christopher Goffard’s podcast of the same name was play with perspective.

“That was a thing that I could do, that Chris couldn’t do, was hear from John, as opposed to about John,” she explains.

As a podcast listener, Cunningham recalls moments when Meehan would take Newell’s car to run errands but didn’t have a job, which led Cunningham to wonder what he actually did all day — something she then explored in her version of the story. But she also took it farther to dive into his past, sometimes with present day investigative work done by characters such as Debra’s older daughter Veronica (Juno Temple) leading to revelations about his character and sometimes through flashback scenes with his first wife, as well as his biological family, including his father (Shea Whigham).

Still, Cunningham says she was “very rigid” about point of view in the writers’ room. The show starts with Debra’s point of view of John and slowly expands out to Veronica’s and then Debra’s younger daughter Terra (Julia Garner). Cunningham doesn’t allow the story to be told from John’s point of view until the very end of the sixth episode.

“Because I knew I wanted to tell a certain amount of story before we got to him, then I knew I wanted to maintain not being in his point of view until then,” she explains. “That kind of informed the structure in a back-filled kind of way where it was like, ‘Well, if we cannot be with him alone until this point, how can we get out certain information?'”

Her solution was to see John through the eyes of characters such as Debra’s mother Arlane (Jean Smart) and his sister in episodes in the middle of the season.

“When the door closes and he’s alone in the apartment at the end of 106, that’s the first time you’ve ever been alone with him, and that means now you’re going to be in his brain, which is not the nicest place to be,” Cunningham says.

As “frightening” as diving into Meehan’s mind might seem, Cunningham says it was also fun for her as a writer, as well as Bana as an actor and Jeffrey Reiner, the series’ director, because of the sociopathy they got to explore.

“I don’t want to try to explain why he is the way he is,” she says. “But I do want to talk about it. I at least want to talk about why he chose to try to manipulate and con other people — where that came from as an idea for your life.”

But most importantly, Cunningham wanted to ensure they would not portray Newell as someone who appeared “stupid” for the way she fell in love with Meehan. After all, Cunningham notes, even while weaving his story in, the “spine of every episode” and the “true heart” of the show is the character of Debra.

“When Connie and I talked about what we wanted for Debra, it was important to both of us, sort of immediately, that we wanted people to understand that this could happen to them,” Cunningham says. “People are going to judge it — obviously — but it won’t be because we haven’t tried to present the whole picture as far as we can, as far as what happened.”

New episodes of “Remote Controlled” are available every Friday. Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Soundcloud, or anywhere you download podcasts. You can find past episodes here and on Apple Podcasts.

Let us know what you think of Variety’s podcasts: Email us at podcasts@variety.com to offer comments, suggestions, and ideas for interview subjects you’d like to hear from.

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • Stefano Sollima for Web Story

    'ZeroZeroZero' Creator on Making an Old Story New and How Andrea Riseborough Got Hurt (EXCLUSIVE)

    Stefano Sollima, the Italian director known in Hollywood for “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” and TV show “Gomorrah,” is the main creative force behind cocaine-trafficking series “ZeroZeroZero,” which will world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 5. Festival chief Alberto Barbera has praised it as blowing “Narcos” out of the water. Sollima directed [...]

  • Ballers HBO

    'Ballers' to End After Season 5 on HBO

    “Ballers” is coming to an end after five seasons on HBO. Star and executive producer Dwayne Johnson confirmed the news via an emotional Instagram video. “My heart is full of gratitude to all of you for rocking with us every season. You made us HBO’s highest rated comedy for years and most importantly, you helped [...]

  • Sublime Primetime

    How Emmy-Nominated Writers’ Rooms Keep Politics in Mind

    In a world filled with elections, social movements and national tragedies, how open should the doors of a writers’ room actually be? For some of this year’s Emmy-nominated shows, those doors are wide open. Before the 71st annual Primetime Emmy Awards air on Sept. 22, the Writers Guild of America West and Writers Guild Foundation, [...]

  • Disney Villains Series 'Book of Enchantment'

    'Book of Enchantment' Series Based on Iconic Disney Villains Shelved at Disney Plus

    Disney Plus has decided to not move forward with “Book of Enchantment,” a series based on some of Disney’s most iconic villains, Variety has learned from sources. The news comes the day before Disney is set to unveil its streaming service at the biannual D23 convention in Anaheim. The prospective project was based on the [...]

  • ITV STUDIOS PRESENTS VERAFILM 2Pictured: BRENDA

    Brenda Blethyn to Star in New ITV Sitcom 'Kate and Kolo'

    Oscar-nominated Brenda Blethyn is set to star in the new sitcom “Kate and Kolo” for ITV, the U.K. broadcaster announced at the Edinburgh TV Festival. Blethyn takes on the title role of Kate in the comedy alongside theater and film actor Jimmy Akingbola as Kolo. Blethyn is a popular star with ITV audiences after having [...]

  • Sean Spicer Emmys

    Sean Spicer's Casting Explained? Red States Love 'Dancing With the Stars'

    ABC faced backlash this week after casting former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on “Dancing with the Stars.” But that outrage might actually spice up the dancing competition’s dwindling ratings — particularly in Trump Country. “Dancing with the Stars” has faced a relatively alarming decline in ratings over the past two cycles, falling 32% [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content