Pop Culture

Filmmakers and the scramble to make made-for-TV films accurate

The day before Lifetime began filming "Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret," its true crime movie about the Jodi Arias case, the now-convicted murderer shocked everyone by taking the stand at her trial. As Arias regaled the jury and public for 18 days with the minute details of her life and intimate relationship with Travis Alexander, the ex-boyfriend she killed, the movie's writers realized they could no longer end their story as they'd planned -- in a police interrogation room with Arias denying she'd even been at the scene.

As real life played out in a Mesa, Ariz., courtroom, it "was just too dramatic," to gloss over, said Arturo Interian, vice president of original movies for Lifetime Networks and A&E Networks. "To have [prosecutor] Juan Martinez suddenly becoming a hero in the public's eyes. And Jodi, now the villain of villains, going at it with Juan on the stand for multiple days—she was lying; he didn’t believe a word. He's nailing her and confronting her on her contradictions. You could not stop watching that. There's no way we could leave it out."

What to include and exclude in a true crime movie can be tricky business, especially when the case is not over. Legally, writers, producers and executives are bound by some of the facts as they reveal themselves in court but that doesn't mean that a movie has to wait to be made until all is said and done or that writers can't fill in the blanks. It depends on the point of the view the film is taking.

Lifetime's Arias film premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. -- the network began developing the movie 15 months ago, when no one expected the trial to last as long as it did or for the defendant to spend as much time trying to sell her self-defense claims. It put Jace Alexander, who was directing his first true crime movie, in the position of balancing artistic license with a story that was playing out in front of the world and simultaneously impacting real people. Her conviction meant that legally, producers could show her killing Alexander; without it, they would have had to focus on their rocky relationship and leave the conclusions to the audience.

"We are taking moments where no one knows or had access to the private closed-door moments of these people and imagining ourselves what happened," said Alexander who is not related to the victim. “The minute that happens, we can't be held accountable for what other people think might be the truth. But there were a lot of facts we were privy to and we were faithful to those facts. Although I have nothing but the most respect for these people who have been living through this horrible tragedy, at the same time, we had to construct a narrative that may or may not sit well with them."

It was a first for Alexander but not for a network that built its brand when it seized on a gap left by the broadcast networks when they stopped making made-for-TV movies. Writer Teena Booth, who has written about 30 non-fiction movies, including Lifetime’s second biggest true crime hit, “Drew Peterson: Untouchable,” says real life can get in the way of telling the story—even when the case is long over.

When she was writing a Lifetime movie that aired in 2008 about the murder of Las Vegas casino magnate Ted Binion, the court overturned the conviction of his girlfriend, Sandra Murphy, sending Booth into frantic re-write mode because she could no longer show Murphy killing Binion. Last year, as she wrote “Fatal Honeymoon,” about Tina Watson, the newlywed wife who died while diving on her Australian honeymoon, the case against her husband was dismissed, though he had pleaded guilty to manslaughter in Australia.

“Those are real hair pullers,” Booth said. “You can lose sleep. I am very committed to telling the truth as I understand it and what my research is showing. About 95% of the stories are pretty clear—you’re pretty sure that Jodi Arias did that. With Drew Peterson, I never had a doubt in my mind even though we were making the movie before he was convicted. But something like the Watson case is very ambiguous and there are many passionate conversations along the way with the network, producers and directors. Everyone wants to do the right thing and we also want to make a good movie.”

As a true crime writer, Booth researches her cases and follows a storytelling formula but her job is to dig beyond the facts and address a question that often is left answered in court—why? Trial watchers can surmise, for example, that Arias acted out in a jealous rage or that Peterson felt he owned his wife, but no one will ever know unless the murderers decide to reveal it. When preparing for a script, Booth reads whatever material she can find, but she also travels to where the crime occurred and interviews people who know the major players.

“My job is to understand the emotional content,” she said. “I want to know who this person was. I feel a huge sense of responsibility toward the people I talk to because they’re sitting there telling me some of the most awful moments of their life, some of the most terrible things that have ever happened to them.”

Booth said she’s relieved not to have been charged with writing the Jodi Arias story because some stories “are too upsetting too tackle.” When she wrote “Amish Grace” for Lifetime about the 2006 Amish school shooting in Pennyslvania, Booth said she was on “an emotional tear” for two months because it involved small children.

Michael Yarish / Today
Rob Lowe starred in Lifetime's "Drew Peterson: Untouched," the network's second biggest true crime drama.

“Drew Peterson was a larger-than-life figure,” she said. “You could keep a certain emotional distance from him because he’s like a clown. But Jodi Arias, there’s something more disturbing about her. She has this really dark side. It gives you a little bit of the creeps.”

At times, the horror of Arias' actions also got to Alexander who knew nothing about the case when he decided to direct his first Lifetime movie. The director opted to show the extreme violent nature of Arias’ actions in spite of how difficult they are to even fathom because of what the horror reveals about the woman behind it.

“This man was brutally murdered and he shouldn’t have been and there are some deep emotions because of that,” Alexander said. “There were 29 stab wounds and a gunshot and I felt it would be dishonest for me to just clip that and move forward. I want to show that it’s not OK. It’s hard for me to watch. I want people to watch this movie but you may need to cover your eyes a little bit.”

Those who followed the trial won’t be surprised by the gruesomeness of the murder, but critics have questioned whether Lifetime should be airing the movie so soon after the trial ended, especially because the sentencing portion has to be redone and the victim’s family will have to live through it again.

“When a story is as exposed in the public as this one, I feel like it’s open for people to interpret an artistic approach to these people because they are now in the public eye,” Alexander said. “Whether that is fair or not, I’m still wrestling with. And believe me, I feel it. I’m not entirely comfortable with it at all.”

Booth said she’s never received a single complaint; in fact, often the families of the victims thank her for telling their story. “I’ve never had a family come at me and say that it was horrible and they feel exploited,” she said. “If that did happen, it would hurt. I would feel terrible.”