Four years ago, journalist Michelle Dean saw a news report about a woman who had been murdered in Missouri. Included were the mug shots of the woman’s daughter and her boyfriend, who had been arrested for the crime. It took a year of reporting to piece together what happened, specifically why Dee Dee Blanchard’s sickly daughter, Gypsy Rose, whose medical care was Blanchard’s full-time job, would want her mother dead. It turned out Gypsy wasn’t really sick, didn’t need her wheelchair and that this disturbing murder involved a case of Munchausen by proxy syndrome, in which a caregiver fabricates illnesses to attract sympathy and financial support, or for other reasons.
Gypsy is in prison serving a 10-year sentence for second-degree murder. Her then-boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The 8,000-word piece Dean wrote in 2016 for BuzzFeed about Gypsy’s life and Dee Dee’s death immediately went viral, and filmmakers began contacting her about turning the story into a feature film. But Dean wanted the time and space to explore the emotion of the story, in addition to presenting the gory details of the crime, so she decided to go down the route of TV dramatisation. The result is the miniseries ‘The Act’, starring Patricia Arquette and Joey King as Dee Dee and Gypsy.
In a phone conversation, Dean (who created the show with writer Nick Antosca) discussed what it’s like to walk onto a TV set for the first time as a showrunner, the emotional experience of telling Gypsy’s story across different mediums and why it’s important to have women well-represented behind the camera as well as on-screen. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What was your thought process going into production?
The goal was to make people understand at a base level that there was an emotional logic to what happened here, for the people who lived through it. There’s a tendency to say, “This is such a crazy story; can you believe these people?” And the truth was that after the process of reporting, I could believe these people, and I wanted whatever project we did to reflect that.
And I hope we got that emotional logic right. It’s the kind of thing that even when you interview everyone, they’re still processing it, so you’re always kind of guessing. One of the things I want to emphasise is that I didn’t know everything, and I’m not sure anybody knows everything here. Still, years later, people are putting the pieces together.
Often true-crime shows or documentaries are produced with the explicit goal of getting justice for the people whose stories they tell. Did you have a similar goal in mind when telling Gypsy’s story?
I think the justice system in this country, and specifically the United States’ system of punitive justice, is not great, and it is especially not great at apprehending a case like this where the circumstances of the murder were extremely complicated.
I don’t think that the right place for Gypsy is prison. I think that her needs are not necessarily going to be met by the prison system, and that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. And one of the things that this show could do is complicate people’s reactions to a sensationalised true crime story.
And that goes for Nicholas Godejohn, too. No one is denying that a violent crime happened here, but the reason that he became involved and his own family background are things that I wish had played more strongly into the consideration of his sentence, which was pretty harsh: life without parole.
Do either Gypsy or Godejohn know that the show has been made?
I believe they both know.
Some of the press around the show has been criticised for downplaying your role as a showrunner, and emphasising the role of your co-creator, Nick Antosca.
Everyone, including myself, was aware going in that my expertise was not in [TV] production, and that’s why I chose Nick as a partner. And so I think because of that, and because of the fact it’s not always the way that things get covered in the entertainment press, sometimes people miss things. Mostly I’ve been hoping that people would pick up on the fact that there were so many women involved in the show. In our writers room, we had four women and two men. Most of the episodes were directed by women. It was a real goal for everyone involved, right up the chain to Hulu.
What did having so many women involved in the production mean?
At its core, it’s the story of the relationship between a mother and daughter. I think there was a lot of willingness to talk about menstruation and subjects that would have been a lot more uncomfortable for male collaborators than it was for me and my female collaborators.
There’s certainly a universal story about coming of age here that could apply to men as well, but repressing Gypsy’s sexuality was a big part of the power being held over her. It was a priority for pretty much everyone that we get across that it shook out the way it did because Gypsy was a girl, and that entailed things like the mother dressing her up like a doll, which a lot more people than Gypsy would report as their experience of their mother.
There’s a lot of interest in dark female stories since ‘Gone Girl’, and the story that we’re pretty comfortable with is of a female detective who is trying to solve murders, and who ends up just being pulled down by the experience. But that’s not really the extent of female dysfunction in the world, and in fact it feels like a very safe kind to depict. Whereas here, this wasn’t a very safe kind of female dysfunction, and it still doesn’t feel that way, three years in.
The show is an intense watch. What has been your experience of working on this story for so long?
It’s emotionally intense to make a television show under any circumstances. But this one has a relationship to reality, plus the story itself is so wrenching. I know that the show is intense, but in a way that is the truest thing that I can say about what happened here: that it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t a cool, crazy time where people were just scammers of some kind. It was a deep, emotional experience, and when it fell apart everyone was left feeling like they were in the aftermath of a bomb. I’m proudest of the show when it gets that across.
Don’t miss it!
The Act is now streaming in the UAE on StarzPlay.