[This story contains spoilers from the finale of Love & Death, “Ssssshh.”]
The Love & Death sequences depicting the brutal ax murder of Betty Gore were some of the most emotional scenes Lesli Linka Glatter has ever filmed.
The prolific director whose IMDB profile reads like a greatest hits of television (Mad Men, Homeland, The Leftovers, True Blood, the list goes on), says the two days that she directed stars Elizabeth Olsen and Lily Rabe in the recreation of Betty Gore’s (Rabe) murder, when her friend Candy Montgomery (Olsen) struck her 41 times with an ax, were heart-wrenching for the three women.
“You really felt this was about two real women,” she tells of the HBO limited series’ depiction of the real-life Texas true-crime case. “It took place in this tiny laundry room. It was, I don’t know, really up close and personal. It was horrible. And, yes, we storyboarded it, and yes, we rehearsed the choreography, but once those two amazing actors Lizzie and Lily embodied it, they went for it. And it was just heart-wrenching and terrifying. Every night after we wrapped, we all kind of just held each other. It was emotional and intense and kind of unforgettable.”
Love & Death, which released its finale Thursday, spent seven episodes diving into Candy Montgomery’s story, with the final episode ending Candy’s trial with her acquittal and showing the brutal killing in full, after showing only bits and pieces in the fourth episode. Glatter, an executive producer with creator David E. Kelley, directed the first four episodes and the finale. In the chat below, the president of the Directors Guild (who gave this interview ahead of the May 2 writers strike) brings THR behind the scenes of filming the finale, weighs in on the looming questions around the trial and aftermath and explains the show’s decision to put the audience in Candy’s shoes: “We’re only seeing the murder from one person’s point of view. We’re seeing it from the person who survived.”
You and David E. Kelley said you were attracted to doing Love & Death to explore the “how” of the real true crime, which is interesting for a case people have heard about. Can you elaborate?
We were both sent the Texas Monthly articles and the nonfiction book, Evidence of Love, and I read those articles and I thought, “Oh my God. If this wasn’t true, you absolutely couldn’t tell the story. You could not make this up.” Reality is way, way stranger than fiction. So I was intrigued by that. And what hit me was trying to dig deep into really exploring what is inexplicable about the human condition. We wanted try to understand why this happened; how it could happen; what in the culture? It’s so much about, in some ways, the cracks in the American dream.
Hulu announced its take on the story with Candy while you were two months into filming, and finished before you were done. Did that impact anything you were doing?
We had licensed all the underlying rights. So we thought that we had covered all our bases, but it’s public domain material, so there’s nothing you can do. So I have to chalk it up to this being a story that explores what, really in some ways, is inexplicable. Because I believe if Candy had gone to Betty Gore’s house and any number of things had happened differently, I don’t think that horrible incident would happen. Like, if [their daughters] Alyssa and Jenny hadn’t had a playdate that day. If Alyssa didn’t have a swim lesson. If Candy had been in too much of a rush to go inside. I think we would have had a very different outcome. And we wanted to show empathy for all of these characters.
Did you watch the Hulu show, for curiosity of approach?
For a long time I did not. We were already on our path, instead of watching something else with a different approach to it. Though I respect everyone has their own way of looking at material. In fact, when I’m a director at the Sundance Directing Lab, which is one of the uplifting and amazing things I’ve been fortunate enough to do, one of the first exercises is that everyone is given the same scene to direct, and no one directs it the same way. There are many ways to approach material and what was challenging in Love & Death was that in the real story, there are many things that have humor. Hopefully, there’s humor and anxiety at the same time, but the reality is that Candy and Allan [Gore, played by Jesse Plemons] talked for months about having their affair. They talked for three months, it’s the most unsexy beginning of any affair ever known. And that was true [and is captured in the beginning episodes].
So the tone changes a lot with episode four, and that, for me as a director, was a very exciting challenge and a bit scary as anything risky is. And then it becomes a courtroom drama. A lot of that came from actual transcripts of the trial. And, we’re only seeing the murder from one person’s point of view. We’re seeing it from the person who survived.
The first three episodes do feel almost like a separate piece, and they all released together with the murder teased right at the end. Then we see bits of the murder in episode four from Candy’s perspective. But you hold most of it back until the finale. It’s effective, because it puts the audience in Candy’s head. Can you talk about that decision?
Yes. That is exactly why. You saw only a small part of what happened; the beginning. But you saw her leaving Betty’s house a transformed person. And you saw her, hopefully in her point of view, trying to pretend almost as if it didn’t happen. If there was any way to blink it away, to sing it away, to make this horror go away, that’s what was going to happen. Of course, she had the information; she was there. And she will never be innocent. She was found not guilty, but she will never be innocent. So it was about being in her shoes, walking in her shoes. The horror of that. Having to pretend, but pretend because she couldn’t face her own horror. The intention was for the audience to walk in those shoes.
And, also, to go through everyone around her finding out the truth. When Allan calls her to find out about Betty when he’s so worried and she says, “Well, let me go over and check” — that’s what she actually said. And I think that’s what she wished was true. But, it wasn’t. I think it’s such an exploration of the human condition and how people react in trauma, and this is something that she committed. Candy is the belle of the ball. This is about public and private self.
The idea to hold it back until the courtroom scene is because then you are seeing literally the whole murder from Candy’s point of view, and you’re hearing her tell it. And I think the power in that is a profound one. Betty Gore, we don’t know her side. It’s not Rashomon, where you have six different points of view and at the end you see the ghost of the woman murdered. We don’t know what happened from Betty’s point of view. To tell it in that way, framed by Candy telling the story, was the most powerful.
Elizabeth Olsen said her biggest question for Candy would be if the hypnosis was real; she felt she was too in control to relax and be hypnotized. Her rage scream in that scene was also powerful. Can you talk about Olsen’s performance and also where you land on the hypnosis: Would that also be your question for the real Candy?
Oh, yes, that is a big question. I think it is an amazing and freeing thing to see a woman go to that deep place and let it out completely, because societally, we’re not supposed to do that. So the times when it comes out, it’s like years and centuries and eons of time that it’s coming out from. I didn’t direct that episode; the two episodes I did not direct were directed by the wonderful Clark Johnson. And that scene is spellbinding. Do I think something happened in that laundry room, that something cracked open for Candy? To lift an ax and throw it down one time is a huge deal. I lifted the real ax and I was thinking, “How did this small woman do this 41 times?” I have to believe something deep cracked open there.
This is not a normal response, even if someone’s coming at you. So I think she was in whatever altered state that is to even allow that to happen. The hypnosis, was it a dissociative reaction? I don’t know. I don’t know if it was from that time when her mother “shh”-ed her in the hospital hallway. I don’t know without talking to her if we’ll ever know that. But, do I believe that something profound happened? Yes. Candy never murdered again. I don’t believe that in her core this is someone we all have to be fearful of. Something cracked open in that circumstance. And obviously what happened is horrifying and we don’t want to glorify it or vilify her, or Betty. I love Betty. And we wanted to present her as a fully formed character as well.
When I talk about Betty, I would say — this is armchair psychology, I am not a psychologist — but having spent a long time on the series Homeland with a bipolar character and having done a lot of research and having talked with a lot of specialists, I would say that Betty could have been undiagnosed bipolar. Because as a young woman, she was the life of the party. And there’s a point in late teens that usually is the time that one becomes bipolar. Other times, you had to walk on egg shells and she was definitely depressed and had some sort of anxiety condition. But she was also warm and loving and was a working woman at that time. Sometimes you can vilify the victim, and I think that’s really wrong. These were two women in a horrible situation in a laundry room. It was up close and personal and incredibly upsetting to film. But, yes, I would want to know about hypnosis. I would want to know if that diagnosis is actually correct. But, do I believe something happened and cracked open? Absolutely.
The jury acquitted Candy in a quick decision. There was a line from her lawyer Don (Tom Pelphrey) where he says that it’s Texas: They can forgive murder but they can’t forgive adultery. I felt that explained why they didn’t convict her. Is that why you put the line in?
That was from his actual summation. How great is Tom Pelphrey? This whole cast is like a dream; I feel like the luckiest director. I think Candy was tried for the wrong crime. I feel like manslaughter, second-degree murder. She did it. There’s no question. She’s not innocent. Somebody else didn’t do it. But I think she was tried for the wrong crime, and I think she that’s why she was found not guilty. I think maybe the jury did believe that something cracked open. It’s not like she was a fighter of a woman who had a history of violence; she had none of that. I think they believed her.
Some things in the trial went unexplained, like her sunglass shade being found in Betty’s garage. How did having Candy’s real trial attorney Robert Udashen as an adviser on the show help?
He was great. It was great having him there. He thought Tom Pelphrey did a better job defending Candy. He was fantastic, and it was wonderful to have him there to talk about that particular time and how the trial went down and the kind of reactions and who the judge was and the tone in the courtroom and all of that. It was definitely additive to have him there.
Where do you land on who pulled out the ax first, Betty or Candy?
Who got the ax? Again, all we know is from Candy’s point of view. I think that Betty did get the ax. I don’t know how the beginning of that fight took place, and if it is as she testified to, but I don’t know how Candy would even know it was there or what would be the set of circumstances she would go and get it to start. So I’m going to say that I think it probably started with Betty, but then escalated obviously to a degree that no one could have imagined. And filming those scenes were some of the most emotional scenes I’ve ever filmed in my career. And, I’ve blown up a lot of shit.
It was hard to watch. Knowing it was coming, it’s still so upsetting.
So upsetting, so upsetting. And then if you look at how she behaved after the murder, it’s not like she was covering her tracks. I think she was in some other state. She went and took a shower, in their bathroom, to clean up. If the police had been better at their investigation, instead of them and the neighbors tracking evidence all over the house, I think they would have found her that night. Because she wasn’t covering her tracks at all. I mean, she took a shower!
Elizabeth also said this is probably the story Candy would want told, because it shows so much of her perspective. Do you agree with that?
I would never want to speak for the real woman, but I hope that we showed her in a very full way. Again, without glorifying or vilifying but as a fully formed person. And I think you kind of fall in love with Candy in the first three episodes. I feel really complicated feelings about her at the end, and I think that’s what you feel: the human condition. We humans are very complicated creatures and the fact that the story ended in that horrifying way is I think why people have continued to explore it. It is exploring this thing that is quite inexplicable: How did this happen? Why did this happen? And there’s a huge, deep psychological disconnect. So I hope we presented her in a full way.
You didn’t reach out to the real Candy. Why?
I think she wants to live a private life. And she became a family therapist. She obviously wants to help and give back in some way. But this would be a hard one to get over in one’s life.
How would you imagine she feels to see her story being told on TV in these two scripted series?
I think when you’re dealing with true stories and true-crime stories, I think it would be difficult. Though we attempted to approach this not just as a true-crime drama but really an American tragedy, kind of the dark side of the American dream. I think you try to do it with as much respect and research and holistic approach as one can.
The ending title cards that give updates on the people in the story are tragic for so many of the characters. I walked away thinking Candy turned her life around the most. The update says she works in family therapy alongside her daughter, working on depression, which tells me she mended that relationship, given everything that happened. It tells you a lot in a sentence.
And she found a path. Without knowing her, without talking to her and making a lot of assumptions, but she did something that gave back to her community.
She and her husband, Pat Montgomery (played by Patrick Fugit), were united during the trial and time period the show tackles. I was surprised to see they ultimately divorced. Why do you think they didn’t make it in the end?
Sometimes there are splits that even when you love someone, you just can’t repair. Again, I would never be able to speak for them, but I do think there was a real love between both Betty and Allan, and Pat and Candy. I think so much of the affair between Candy and Allan was about being seen and heard. It was not so much about sex but about having lunch together and talking about what was going on in their lives. And I think neither of them were seen and heard in their relationships. That’s part of what they both needed that they weren’t getting, without making a judgment about that. But she didn’t pick the hottest guy around to have the affair with. She wanted a friend. There’s something that’s very moving about that.
Again, one just has to look at the foibles of we humans and try to understand something about the human condition. And we talked about it a lot. David and I talked about it a lot; all the actors. We were constantly discussing how and why this happened, and treating it with as much respect as we could.
Why did you end it with that conversation between Candy and Allan on his doorstep, and can you bring us inside her head as she’s driving out of town with her family?
I think she had to somehow reach out to him. I think the amount of guilt and pains he felt, will it ever heal anything? No, of course not. But I think she felt like she had to make some gesture to him and say she was sorry, and say: It should have never happened; we were all friends.
Do you think a version of that conversation actually happened? Is there any indication?
We don’t know how the conversation took place because no one would have been there. There are a number of scenes where there’d be no way anyone would know how things were said. The scene where Pat gives Candy the flowers and apologizes [after learning about the affair], that actually happened; nobody knows what was said. Incredibly moving. I love the Tapestry scene between Candy and Pat. That scene where he quotes Tapestry to her hurts my heart. Of course, that’s David E. Kelley. Did they go to Marriage Encounter? Absolutely. Did that scene like that happen? Nobody was in that room with them. You can picture outlines, but no one was there to witness those kind of individual conversations.
Betty wasn’t pregnant the time of her death. Why did you save that for the title card?
Because at the time, she didn’t know it. She thought she was pregnant. But as it turned out, she wasn’t. So all of her fears and anxiety about that were not based on something real.
David E. Kelley and executive producer Nicole Kidman have tackled stories in this genre together before. What did they bring to this experience for you?
I felt like I had the greatest partners on this. Between Per Saari, Nicole’s producing partner, with Nicole, with David. David and I have wanted to work together for years and, as he describes it, in our 60-year combined career, we had never worked together. It was an incredible working experience; loved working with him. It’s how it should be. I don’t want to be the smartest person in the room, I want to be in the room with the smartest people, and I felt like I was in the room with the smartest people.
So where do you land on Candy Montgomery now, how do you feel about her?
I feel a lot of empathy and compassion for her. And I feel, you know, it was a scary thing to take it on, and I hope we did it justice.
Do you have any unanswered questions or something you are still thinking about?
I have so many. But I think we tried in our way of telling the story to answer a lot of those questions. It really does end up resting with the complications of who we are as humans. And I wish there were easy answers, but there don’t ever seem to be. We are so much more complicated and things that people do and feel and can’t talk about and wish they could talk about and wish they could communicate about and, if only. If only a few things had been different that day.
Next up you have the Netflix series Zero Day starring Robert De Niro in his first leading TV role. What can you say about it?
Zero Day is a political thriller. It’s about a zero day event. There’s a lot written about it now, but it’s a deficiency in a software program that can be hacked, and it’s one of the biggest fears in the intelligence community in terms of cyber terrorism. Because the fear is you could shut down sectors of industry. And this has happened, but it usually happens to one industry at a time.
Let’s say the first time was in 2010 with the Stuxnet virus, when the Iran power plants were taken out. The Russians have done this over and over to the Ukraine, because they take out the whole power grid in the middle of winter. So there is a zero day event in America and Robert De Niro becomes the last ex-president who could reach across the aisle, and he takes over the Zero Day Commission, so that’s kind of the setup. And it’s really fascinating and thrilling and deep and looks at a lot of different sides of issues, so it’s super exciting. I never want to be doing the same thing twice, so this one is very different.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Love & Death is now streaming on Max.