Although Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel “Are You Sleeping?” was a direct piece of source material for Apple TV Plus’ limited series “Truth Be Told,” it was far from the only one on which creator and showrunner Nichelle Tramble Spellman relied to create her television series about “a family’s tragedy becoming water cooler talk.”
The story centers on a nuclear family whose patriarch was killed decades before the events of the show take place. The family’s teenage neighbor was accused and later convicted of the crime, and one of the family’s teenage daughters (both played by Lizzy Caplan) testified during that trial. Then, journalist Poppy Parnell’s (Octavia Spencer) reporting on the case made it seem like he was guilty, but now, she is having doubts and re-opens the case by starting a podcast about it.
“It’s kind of a family drama masquerading as a crime drama. The thing that sparked my interest about telling the story was the ripple effect of crime and tragedy on the families and the people involved,” Spellman tells Variety. “So much time is spent away from the aftermath that I thought it was interesting to live in that — and for 20 years later, something you thought you put to bed or healed in a way that you could go on with your life is something that is up and running and people are talking about and your coworkers now know details. What was that like? That’s what drove this.”
Spellman shares she “listened to quite a few podcasts” as research into this world, but a fan of true crime, she also watched episodes of “48 Hours,” “20/20,” “Snapped” and “Making a Murderer” to get a feel for the way crimes are revisited in the media as well as the various tolls they take on family members of both victims and the accused.
“I felt like the one thing that we did a little bit different was to lean way more into the effect of this on these people. So what does this podcast coming up due to all of the people it’s touching: How do they interact with their coworkers, how do they live their lives day to day something that they put to bed 20 years ago?” she says.
For Poppy, the guilt is a driver of her actions, and as such, it “starts to seep into her personal life,” Spellman says. Her journey is one of a journalist ignoring the main rule about not making herself a part of a story, which beings to upend her life. While many journalists, let alone people, might not want to admit they may have made such a big mistake, Spellman says Poppy’s spirituality is what makes her willing to ask tough questions, even about herself.
“She’s a woman who is religious enough to have a prayer room built in her house. I wanted to see what that looks like if it’s put to a real test. She’s the only one that knows this, so she doesn’t have to re-explore this case — she could just keep her mouth shut — and the idea of, ‘Can you face yourself? Are you who you always thought you were if you ignore it?’ She can’t. And that’s what the eight episodes are about and where the journey takes her,” Spellman explains.
Barber’s novel comes with a definitive answer as to who the murderer was, although the motive for pointing the finger at Warren is still a little less clear, with a couple of psychologically complex reasons given as possibilities. Spellman’s version of the story, she notes, is “a deviation” in many areas from Barber’s, which means viewers won’t be able to find many clues in the book as to the who did it, why, and why was Warren (the adult version of whom is played by Aaron Paul) accused.
The biggest example of something Spellman shifted for her telling of the story is how Poppy is pushed to the center as the narrator and more fully fleshed out than in the novel.
“It felt like that was the anchor we needed to build the season around. So once I made that decision, it was about how things would change with the podcaster driving the story,” Spellman explains, adding that the casting of Spencer also inspired some specific changes to Poppy. “I needed to make it specific to my leading lady and build a family around her that was different than what was in the book. We needed to know a lot more about her because she was the main character.”
Still, for Spellman, who started her writing career as a novelist (“The Dying Ground,” “The Last King”), it was important to be “really respectful of the person who created this platform for us to create the show from.” When she first signed on to adapt the story, Spellman says she called Barber to introduce herself and tell her why she was excited about the book. “It was important to hear her talk about some of the things that she wanted to do but maybe didn’t make it into the book and how it might possibly be something we would weave into the story,” Spellman says.
From there, Spellman and her writers’ room endeavored to turn “Are You Sleeping?” into a three-story narrative for “Truth Be Told.” Although Poppy is an entry point for the audience, there are pivotal scenes in which the audience is alone with other characters, including Warren the twins in order to gain more insight into their lives.
“When you look at the show, the music palate is different for each one, the visual palate is different for each one, and the point of view is different in each story. And they’re all a little bit unreliable,” Spellman says. “The flashbacks were fun to play with because they’re from a person’s point of view, and are they remembering wrong or remembering in a way that suits them? Did they block pieces of it out? I have three sisters and we all remember the same moment with our parents differently because we all bring our own experiences to it. None of us are lying — although we may accuse each other of that — but it feels a little bit like, ‘What is truth there?’ It is true for you, but maybe not factual.”
The gray area in different truths for different characters means “a lot of viewers will be surprised by who they can trust and who they can’t,” according to Spellman. “Asking questions to try to figure out who these people are is as important to the answer of the crime — the questions need to run side by side.”
“Truth Be Told” launches Dec. 6 on Apple TV Plus.