×

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.

More TV

  • Janene Drafs KTLA

    Janene Drafs Becomes First Woman to Lead KTLA

    KTLA-TV is poised for a historic changing of the guard as Seattle station executive Janene Drafs takes the reins of the storied Los Angeles TV station as general manager following the retirement of local broadcast stalwart Don Corsini. Drafs, who is the first woman to lead KTLA, is set to begin her post as VP and [...]

  • Conductor and Composer Eímear Noone pictured

    Oscars to Feature Female Orchestra Conductor for the First Time

    A woman will be conducting at the Oscars for the first time on Sunday, Feb. 9, the Academy announced today. Irish-born composer-conductor Eímear Noone will conduct excerpts from the five nominated scores. She is the first female to lead the orchestra in the history of the televised awards, the Academy said. Details beyond that are [...]

  • Marta Kauffman Television Producer

    Marta Kauffman's Okay Goodnight, Fox 21 TV Studios Ink First-Look Deal

    Okay Goodnight, the production company helmed by “Friends” co-creator Marta Kauffman alongside Robbie Rowe Tollin and Hannah KS Canter, has signed a multi-year first-look deal with Fox 21 Television Studios to create projects for linear and streaming platforms, starting with an adaptation of the novel, “The Dreamers.” “Marta Kauffman is a legend and a hero [...]

  • Actor John Karlen

    John Karlen, Actor in 'Dark Shadows' and 'Cagney & Lacey,' Dies at 86

    Emmy-winning actor John Karlen, best known for his work on the television series “Dark Shadows” and “Cagney & Lacey,” has died. He was 86. Karlen died Wednesday of congestive heart failure at a hospice in Burbank, Calif., his friend and spokesperson Jim Pierson told the Associated Press. The actor played conman and scoundrel Willie Loomis [...]

  • THE BACHELORETTE - Hannah Brown caught

    'Bachelorette' Contestant Tyler Gwozdz Dies of Suspected Overdose

    Tyler Gwozdz, a former contestant on ABC’s “The Bachelorette,” has died of a suspected drug overdose. He was 29. According to the Boca Raton Police Department, Gwozdz was hospitalized on Jan. 13 following a “medical overdose.” He later died in Florida’s Palm Beach County after spending a week in the  intensive care unit. TMZ, which first [...]

  • betty gilpin ann coulter

    'Impeachment: American Crime Story' Casts Betty Gilpin as Ann Coulter

    “GLOW” star Betty Gilpin is set to play Ann Coulter in “Impeachment: American Crime Story” at FX. News of Gilpin’s casting comes just one day after it was announced that Billy Eichner had been cast as Matt Drudge in the third season of “ACS,” which will tackle the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Beanie Feldstein will [...]

  • Jim Jefferies

    NBC Orders Comedy Pilots From Jim Jefferies, 'Superstore' Creator Justin Spitzer

    NBC has picked up a pair of comedy pilots for the 2020-2021 season. The first is the multi-cam “Jefferies,” which will star Australian comedian Jim Jefferies as a fictionalized version of himself. Jefferies will also write and executive produce along with Suzanne Martin. Sean Hayes and Todd Milliner of Hazy Mills will also executive produce [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content