‘The Staircase,’ ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ and More Limited Series Scribes Talk ‘Tightrope’ of Writing About Real People

What’s harder to work with when it comes to writing a limited series — true stories taken from real life, or the stuff of fiction? A panel of top writers debated the challenges of working with headline-driven and historical material during the final hour of Variety‘s Night in the Writers’ Room on June 9 at 1 Hotel in West Hollywood.

“There’s a little bit of a tightrope-walk in a true story that you don’t necessarily have to walk in fiction,” said Dustin Lance Black, the writer-producer behind FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven.” He noted that the series, about the 1984 murder of a woman and her infant daughter in Salt Lake City, deals with three intertwined stories, one of which is fictional. “That one to me, I had a slightly easier time with. If I hit a dramatic wall and needed a complication, I was able to make it up. That’s lovely,” he said.

Drew Crevello, creator of Apple TV+’s “WeCrashed,” stressed that writers adapting true stories have to take some narrative liberties to keep the plot moving and the audience engaged.

“We’re all painting paintings. These aren’t photographs,” he said. But there’s a larger truth to strive for that is important in the storytelling, he added. “I did feel responsibility to find the truth even in the things we were inventing between the reported facts.”

Moderator Joe Otterson, Variety‘s senior TV writer, opened the session with a specific question for Maggie Cohn, showrunner of HBO Max’s “The Staircase.” The series is adapted from the famed true-crime docuseries about Michael Peterson, the North Carolina man who maintains his innocence despite having been convicted of the 2003 murder of his wife Kathleen Peterson.

“Do you think he did it?” Otterson asked. “I don’t know. What do you think?” Cohn replied. She emphasized that the series did not set out to solve the murder once and for all. “The show is about embracing that ambiguity and being comfortable with it. My opinion is not fundamental to understanding the show,” she said.

Molly Smith Metzler, creator of Netflix’s “Maid,” which is adapted from a memoir, asserted that making up stories, characters and plot engines is the harder job. “Writing something original is horrible,” she said. “I’m writing a play right now, and I want to die.”

The conversation also turned to the question of how the scribes feel about tackling characters who commit heinous crimes, such as the subjects of “Dr. Death,” “Maid” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.”

Starz drama “Gaslit” revolves around a less-explored aspect of the Watergate scandal — namely the role that Martha Mitchell, wife of attorney general John Mitchell, played in making it public. Writer Robbie Pickering outed himself as having been a “Nixon geek” since age 11, saying: “The fun in looking at all these people is part of finding your truth. You find people from your life that you recognize or you find traits of yourself in them.”

Peacock’s “Dr. Death” follows the now-convicted Dallas surgeon, Christopher Duntsch, who left 31 patients maimed and two dead after operating on them. Even with a sociopath like Duntsch, creator Patrick MacManus said it’s important to make the character a person and not a caricature.

“It’s vitally important when you’re writing anything like this to completely cancel judgment and find little bits of yourself in these things. That’s how you build a three-dimensional character,” MacManus said.

Crevello added, “The more you vilify people, sometimes, the less insights you can glean about what led them astray.”

Danny Strong, writer and executive producer of Hulu’s “Dopesick” (which picked up a Peabody Award this week), addressed another aspect of parsing the truth in narrative form: the use of composite characters. Strong called them vital to signaling the scope of the opioid crisis that is tackled in the miniseries. Strong and his team were able to weave in many experiences and perspectives from their extensive research into the character played by Kaitlyn Dever.

“We were able to use archetypes for so many different people,” Strong said. “We were able to cover so many things that people with addiction issues go through. In an odd way, it’s more truthful than if we’d stuck we one person’s story.”

Nikki Toscano, writer and showrunner of Paramount+’s “The Offer,” also had to grapple with depicting real-world characters — including such notable public figures as Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Francis Ford Coppola in telling the story of the making of “The Godfather” from the perspective of producer Al Ruddy. Toscano knew going in that the project would receive tough scrutiny given “Godfather’s” well-earned status as a landmark Hollywood film. The focus was on leaning into Ruddy’s story of being the outsider who barreled his way into Hollywood in the mid-1960s. But producers also did research through the many books, documentaries and memoirs penned about the making of the Oscar-winning 1972 mob drama based on Mario Puzo’s popular novel of the same name.

“The story of Al Ruddy was largely untold. There was a lot of freedom in that. There’s a lot of freedom in the fact that it’s ‘The Godfather’ and a lot of people have a lot of different stories,” Toscano said. “We were using the Al Ruddy story as the north star and using everybody else’s stories as a vehicle of gut-checking it.”

Every panelist spoke with intensity and passion about their projects. But Black delivered the show stopper in discussing the importance of shining a light on a story about the dark side of the faith he grew up in, the Mormon Church. He pointed to the shocking shift in American politics and the rise of fringe movements and dangerous extremists.

“We’ve hit hard times. People are looking to ancient dusty documents written by straight white men a long time ago when we didn’t know anybody and we weren’t doing better. And now there’s a movement to go back to that,” he said, pointing to the possibility that the Supreme Court will soon overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that established abortion rights for women a half-century ago, which he likened to “using originalists interpretation of fundamentalist documents in the name of God.”

Black took a breath and acknowledged that turning the lens on a faith tradition that runs deep in his family is difficult. “For me, I’m going after people who rationalize their own selfishness, their own desire to hold on to power and control with these originalist documents. That to me is not blind faith, that is manipulative and it is evil and dangerous.”