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.”
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