How Editing Makes the Case for ‘The Girl from Plainville’

When “The Girl from Plainville” creators Liz Hannah and Patrick Macmanus decided to tell the story of Michelle Carter — who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the “texting suicide” case of her boyfriend Conrad Roy — they were faced with an immediate challenge. “We had to remove our own bias,” Hannah told IndieWire. “The most fundamental conversation that Patrick and I had before we hired anybody for the show was approaching the characters with empathy and without judgment. It’s not our job to be the judge or jury, it’s our job to present it as it happened and present the characters in a way that we think is truthful to them and also shows sides that we haven’t seen before.”

That philosophy has yielded a compelling, poignant, and unsettling true crime series, as Hannah and Macmanus — aided by Elle Fanning’s career best work in the lead role and a flawless supporting cast — have taken a sensationalized case and revealed the humanity of everyone involved, from Michelle and Conrad to their parents, friends, attorneys, and more.

A great deal of the show’s power comes from the sophistication of its structure, in which flashbacks depicting Michelle and Conrad’s relationship inform later events and vice versa. The two most recent episodes — “Talking is Healing” and “Teenage Dirtbag,” both of which focus on Michelle’s trial — are the most structurally inventive yet thanks to an idea from supervising producer Ahmadu Garba. “He suggested that in Episode 6 we present the prosecution’s case in the courtroom and a ‘defense’ of Michelle in the flashbacks, and then in Episode 7 we see the defense in the courtroom and a ‘prosecution’ in the past,” Hannah said. “That gave real shape to the episodes in the way that those perspectives could speak to each other.”

In order to find that shape, Hannah, who made her directing debut with the courtroom episodes, worked closely with editor Libby Cuenin, who enjoyed the directness of working with a director who was also the showrunner. “Usually you put your editor’s cut together, then the director comes in and they may take the show in a slightly different direction,” Cuenin said. “But ultimately the showrunner is going to come in and they’re the final word; they’re going to take it in the direction they think the show needs to go. So working directly with Liz was a luxury, because she has such a firm grasp on the show and a very strong internal compass. She knows where the show should go, but she’s also open and listens.”

One of the most remarkable components of the editing in the courtroom episodes is Cuenin’s unerring instinct for reaction shots; the trial scenes often include nearly all the important characters in the show, and Cuenin and Hannah consistently shift perspective to provide an overview that gives the viewer a sense of the big picture while also allowing for an abundance of heartbreaking moments — brief close-ups that express deep reservoirs of anguish. “It’s a juggling act, because in a regular scene you’ve got two people talking — one person says a line, you see somebody else react,” Cuenin said. “But when that person says a line in a courtroom, there’s a large crowd of people watching and everyone has a different and heightened emotional reaction. My job is to find the moments that convey where everyone is at emotionally, and to figure out the puzzle of who to check in with and when. It’s challenging, but it’s also fun, because it’s a little bit of dealer’s choice. There are so many angles you can pull from.”

Cuenin’s editing made the most of the contrast between the clinical way in which the lawyers present Michelle’s story and the messy and complicated lives seen in the flashbacks, a contrast that was accentuated by the production design in the courtroom. “On the stage we built an almost exact replica of the courtroom where they had the trial, and it wasn’t a warm place architecturally,” Hannah said. Because the cast and crew were in the courtroom for six shooting days, Hannah had to find a way to keep things interesting for both the filmmakers and the audience. “We made sure there were building blocks for the cast, goalposts in terms of how they were emotionally changing as characters.”

For Cuenin, one challenge was maintaining fresh eyes watching that footage over and over. “I always try to remember how I felt the first time I saw something, because that’s how a viewer is going to feel,” she said. “I usually keep a list of things that I felt when I first watched the cut or even dailies to remind myself.” Cuenin added that, in terms of footage to work with, “The Girl from Plainville” provided an embarrassment of riches. “The actors were so good that most of the takes could work, so it became about calibrating where we were emotionally. Should we heighten a moment, or play it more calmly? In a vacuum every performance was, in and of itself, fantastic.”


“The Girl from Plainville”

screencap / Hulu

One of the most striking performance moments comes at the end of Episode 7, when Michelle sits in an auditorium watching her sister give a choral performance. She has a fantasy about the chorus singing to her that begins happily, then turns dark, and the episode ends on a close-up in which we see Michelle’s mental and emotional breakdown in one stripped down yet complex image. “I originally had a different take in there,” Cuenin said. “I wasn’t bold enough to let her do the smile at the end.” The take that was ultimately used was the last one Hannah shot, and she says it grew out of the mutual trust between her and Fanning. “We have a good shorthand, and often we’ll say ‘Let’s do a weird one,’” Hannah said. “I don’t think any of us know exactly what that means, it just means something different.” The result was a simultaneously eerie and shattering coda in which, as Cuenin explained, “the smile was covering up what she felt.”

The opportunity to craft those kinds of intimate moments against a more sweeping backdrop made “The Girl from Plainville” a unique opportunity for Cuenin. “I never worked on a drama with this kind of scope before,” she said. “I’ve worked on relationship dramas about marriage and friendship and family, but not something this big that involves heavy subjects like suicide and involuntary manslaughter and the media frenzy that ensued. I was really excited for that, and the collaboration on the show was a dream. I’ve definitely had jobs where it’s like, ‘Push that button, monkey, and I’m not going to ask what you think,’ but this was a true collaboration. It felt like a healthy editing room, and that was good for the show.”

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