women in the writers room

The True Story Behind Hulu’s Twisted Munchausen Drama The Act

Photo: Getty Images, Brownie Harris/Hulu

In 2016, reporter Michelle Dean wrote a story for BuzzFeed that became an unexpected viral sensation, called ‘Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter to Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered.’ For years Dee Dee Blancharde, who had Munchausen syndrome by proxy, had faked her daughter’s illness, confining her unnecessarily to a wheelchair and feeding her through a feeding tube. When Gypsy was in her early 20s — though her mother still claimed she was a teenager — she murdered Dee Dee with the help of her boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn, who she had met online. (Gypsy is currently serving out a ten-year sentence for second-degree murder.) The story, with its gothic noir overtones and a fascinatingly twisted mother-daughter relationship at its center, attracted immediate interest from Hollywood; now, three years later, it’s the subject of a new Hulu true-crime anthology called The Act, written, showrun, and co-created by Dean and TV veteran Nick Antosca.

The Act is the rare prestige drama created by predominantly women; four of its six writers are women and five of eight episodes were directed by women (The Mustang director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre directed the pilot). Yet a recent interview that Antosca did with HuffPost was criticized by many of Deans’ peers — including Slate books and culture columnist Laura Miller and feminist writer and critic Roxane Gay — for appearing to underplay her contributions. The historical erasure of women is a subject Dean is well-versed in; before she was a TV writer, she was a prominent feminist critic and wrote a book called Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, featuring biographical portraits of important female writers and critics who helped shape the the cultural conversation of their time. We spoke to Dean about the transition from journalism to TV writing, the importance of women in the writers room, and what it was like bringing Gypsy and Dee Dee’s story to life.

Where did this story begin?
Someone sent me a wire report and it had Gypsy and Nicholas’s mugshots, and they just looked really scared. The story below was like “there’s some scammers in Springfield, Missouri, and she’s faking being disabled.” But what really moved me into the story was the sense that these people had not expected to end up where they were. They didn’t look hardened. They didn’t look like criminals. They looked like people who had really been through something. That was the week that the body was found, and then I spent about a year hoping to gain the trust of people in the case. And then the story went super viral and that was really shocking.

I knew that people were very interested in the story when I tried to give them a capsule summary, and I knew that a certain sector of the public is really interested in true-crime stories. I didn’t necessarily know if the public would understand that Gypsy was both perpetrator and victim here.

How did you decide what direction you wanted to take the story once people became interested in telling it through film and TV?
I had not prepared for any kind of Hollywood interest. But when I started talking to the producers who were interested in buying rights to the article this woman named Britton Rizzio really stood out. She was thinking along the same lines as I was and she was interested in shepherding the project in a way where there were a lot of women involved. And then she introduced me to Nick because she thought he would be a good collaborator for me. I hadn’t been looking to get into TV writing but I did know the medium had some possibilities for conveying what I always worried people weren’t getting, which is that Gypsy was human. I thought there was a brave creative choice to be made in getting at something that was more grounded, and Nick was also totally on that wavelength. When he started describing it as a coming-of-age journey I really just felt like we were on the same page.

How did it feel to go from writing this story as a reporter to having the creative license to fictionalize elements of it?
The best part of this for me was the collaborative nature. You can really feel like you’re in a foxhole, especially if you are a freelance journalist, toiling away at her computer a lot of the time and being alone with this really dark subject matter. I’ve always lived in the realm of literary non-fiction or immersive journalism, which is focused in creating atmosphere and a sense of place along with just reporting facts, so in a sense, the step into fictionalization is not that far from that. But then also it is tricky when you know the people. It’s also tricky when it’s a high-profile case. That started really to weigh on me a little bit. We would be doing something that so many people already had a kind of rabid interest in.

What were the biggest gaps that you had to fill in terms of things that you wanted to dramatize but that you didn’t have reporting on?
Oh my gosh. There’s a lot that I don’t know and one of my responsibilities is to remember that there’s a lot that I don’t know. One thing I really did want to dramatize and I was really captivated by was the idea of the girl [in a wheelchair] who gets up at night and walks down the hallway, though there’s not a specific night I was told about that that is based on. We all go through this thing where we try to figure out who we are outside the frame of the references that our parents give us. Gypsy obviously went through like a really horrible version of it, but there is something that broke my heart about this idea that this was the world that she could have and she’s trying to make the most of it.

Did you have specific targets you wanted to hit or a specific goal when it came to hiring and hiring women?
The writers room was four women and two men, including Nick and me. Everybody was very keen on hiring women for this particular project. It was important because I think one of the things that can make the show unique is that it takes you into a darkened femininity, both in terms of like the way that Gypsy was infantilized as a kind of doll and the idea of the “good mother” and the kind of value that we put on it. The idea of a drama and particularly a dark drama that had so many female voices on it is unusual.

Some of your peers expressed frustration on Twitter recently about an interview with your co-showrunner Nick in which they felt your contribution was underplayed. Did you also feel that way?
I think that we have certain rhetorical habits when talking about creators and some of them are related to just entertainment journalists relying on somebody they have interviewed before, and some of it is the way things get edited. Nick and I were collaborators on this, full stop. It was very important to both of us that it be something that didn’t belong to any one person. I was so lucky that I got to collaborate with so many amazing artists and to have this great showcase of women during the kind of work that women are often not invited to do.

I just wanted to see whether that was much ado about nothing.
When I was a culture critic I used to write about showrunners like, Oh my God they’re these creative geniuses they have a hand in everything in the show. When you do a production like I did, there are so many people who have a strong creative hand in it. I want to focus on the collaborative aspects of it, which are very real. I think I think one of the problems is having this idea or this coverage of showrunners that privileges their creative vision above everybody else to the point where journalists don’t think about the existence of other people in the mix. And that is a rhetorical thing that happens in a lot of coverage.

What do you wish that you were asked about more?
I wish we were talking more about the female directors on the show. It’s a really unusual situation to have a huge cable show where the majority of episodes are directed by women. In terms of a serious prestige cable show, that’s unusual. Many of our cast members remarked on it, saying they hadn’t been used to having so many so many female directors and they felt that they brought something a little bit different.

And our writers here. My first love. I love them. I love having a writers room. We had discussions about femininity and about things like clipping toenails. Just talking about the process of painting your toes in a room that is majority women — that’s a different kind of conversation than a room that would be majority men.

As you mentioned the show is so much about this sort of dark underside of femininity which I think can in the wrong hands become kind of a caricature, but this felt very human and the characters felt real.
That is the best compliment you can give me. One of the reasons I stayed attached is just that it is so important to me after listening to so many people say that “this was a crazy story ” — and I know what they mean and I know they don’t mean any harm — but I wanted them to understand that this was a crazy story that happened to real people and those real people had a real emotional experience of it. For them it was not a crazy story on the internet, it was not a fun documentary, it was something wrenching and sad and sometimes even kind of an exhilarating in terms of the fun they used to have together. Which is so sad because it’s part of the trap.

I know you said recently that you hadn’t spoken to Gypsy. Do you feel the urge to?
I don’t know. She has my number.

So she knows she presumably knows of its existence.
She absolutely know of its existence. That I’ll correct the record on: she does know. You sort of get used to, when you’re a journalist, sometimes writing about people and then them having their own responses, and she’s entitled to that.

The True Story Behind the Twisted Munchausen Drama The Act