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Hillary Atkin

‘Dirty John’: A Cautionary Tale Made From ‘Story Concentrate’

Nov 20, 2018

The scene is set in the ultra-wealthy enclave of Newport Beach, Calif. An attractive, successful business owner, divorced, goes on a series of dates, meeting potential suitors in some of Orange County’s swankiest restaurants and bars.

By turns, these men are boring, self-centered, obnoxious and clueless, but the search goes on — until Debra Newell meets a handsome and charming doctor, John Meehan.

After one false start at the outset, a whirlwind romance begins, a liaison that will tear Debra’s family apart.

And thus begins “Dirty John,” a harrowing real-life cautionary tale of deception, betrayal, terror, manipulation, drug abuse and violence first chronicled in an October 2017 series of investigative reports in the Los Angeles Times by Christopher Goffard and then made into a podcast hosted by him that’s been downloaded 30 million times.

The scintillating source material has been adapted into an eight-part series for Bravo, starring Connie Britton as Debra and Eric Bana, in his first U.S. television series role, as Dirty John.

Created and written by Alexandra Cunningham and directed by Jeffrey Reiner, the anthology series also features Jean Smart as Debra’s mom and Juno Temple and Julia Garner as her concerned daughters, who are suspicious of their mother’s boyfriend from the get-go.

We spoke by phone last week with Cunningham about lessons that can be learned from the true crime saga, how she got a major movie star on board and the challenges involved in the production.

TVWeek: We’re very familiar with the source material, but how did you translate Christopher’s investigative journalism and the podcast to a scripted format?

Alexandra Cunningham: Podcasts are a breeding ground for going to TV. One of my colleagues said podcasts are like “story concentrate.” They are really about character and dialogue but obviously don’t provide any visuals or any other stimulus to your eyes, so you are concentrating on the story being told. So it’s like adding water to the story concentrate. We expanded on a lot of things that Christopher was doing in an amazing investigative series. In scripted you can add all the emotional elements of being in the experience with the actors and what it felt like.

TVWeek: Let’s talk about the elements of bringing the multi-layered character of Debra to the screen for Connie.

Cunningham: In this instance, people were judgmental of Debra. Scripted can remove that distance and show you what it was like to live in the moment and to put you in the middle of the tornado of romance John unleashed immediately. She’s a self-made multimillionaire with a successful business and 30 employees but she still has emptiness within her and John made her feel fulfilled. A lot of terrible decisions were made as the relationship went on. The podcast doesn’t let you know how Debra was feeling as she made those decisions. Everyone is lonely and wants to be seen. If you have someone in front of you that tells you that you matter and how special you are, if it’s missing in your life, you find it very appealing. We show her dating and looking for Prince Charming, looking for particular traits. John Meehan figured it out and weaponized it against her.

TVWeek: You said people were judgmental of Debra, yet many can relate to why it was that she got sucked into the relationship with John.

Cunningham: Although she has all the trappings of success, at the same time she’s very kind, generous, and an innocent person in the sense she takes people at face value and does not have a cynical eye. She believes others are as honest as she is and she is not constantly judging people. If someone apologizes to her, she accepts it. Obviously she goes on a journey with John that ends up to be really sad. Because she’s kind-hearted and generous, people tend to dismiss that as being naïve. She trusts that you’re not a dishonest person. So when John apologizes, she chose to believe him just like she would with anyone. One of the saddest things is he took that away from her — and her family — their belief in other people.

TVWeek: It was a casting coup to get Eric Bana, who is known for films like “Lone Survivor,” “Hulk,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife” and “Munich.” As an Australian, he does a flawless American accent.

Cunningham: I’ve wanted to work with Eric for years. He’s always been particular about roles, and wanted particular parameters because of his kids, who are now older teenagers. I had always been looking at him since [the 2000 Australian film] “Chopper,” based on a real character named Mark Chopper Reed. He’s played strong-jawed military men in films like “Black Hawk Down,” but in Australia he had done sketch comedy and he’s always been funny, and famous for it. “Chopper” combined all those elements of being scary and charming, but he’s never played a role like this. When I listened to the podcast, in my secret heart I wanted Eric and I went all in to convince him. He listened and we talked about fleshing out the character of John. I wanted to go down roads that I knew about from all the resources. He was on board, and it was a dream to work with him.

Connie was the very first person on board, before director Jeff Reiner, who had worked with her for years on “Friday Night Lights.” So it was just the two of us at the beginning. Then Eric, then Jean Smart, the linchpin to all the emotional decisions. It’s great to have Juno Temple as Veronica and Julia Garner is one of the best young American actresses. It’s a pinch yourself moment and a tribute to how great the podcast was. We all knew that.

TVWeek: Did members of the production meet with the real people involved and get their input?

Cunningham: I encouraged everyone, and Connie met Debra. One of our executive producers, Richard Suckle was in constant communication with the family, letting them be in the loop. For making story and writing decisions, I needed to maintain distance in case there were decisions in storytelling that I might have to do regardless of how they might feel about it. I was going to be respectful and not hold them up for ridicule, but I didn’t want to call them every time I had to make a story decision because I knew I wasn’t going to do anything they couldn’t live with.

TVWeek: What were the biggest challenges you had during the production?

Cunningham: The number one challenge was the rented house on Balboa Island. It’s hard to get film trucks there with one bridge and a little ferry. We did it on Lido Island off Long Beach, which gives you the exact same feeling of the house being on the water and their romance. You’re not missing anything, and we are giving you more of the feeling. We had amazing production design and art design that worked hand-in-hand with our DP to create the right color palette to draw you in to the beauty from the beginning — and then make it frightening going forward. We were all committed to the visual journey, which the podcast couldn’t be.

TVWeek: What are the lessons to be learned and what do you hope viewers take away from “Dirty John”?

Cunningham: One of the reasons I wanted to do it in the first place is that as a woman adapting it, there were a lot of things that spoke to me about a woman of a certain age, a mother, three generations of women, and how society affects our decision-making. Why we don’t listen to our gut instincts about when we should remove ourselves from the situation. We make a lot of decisions based on thinking we might be unfeminine or overreacting, but it’s OK to go with those feelings — and know they are for your own safety. Hopefully for the next generation, stories like this will act as cautionary tales. If one woman choses to listen to herself, that’s what I want and what Debra wants.

(“Dirty John” premieres on Bravo Sunday, Nov. 25, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)

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