“I’m always looking for stories about complicated women,” says Erin Lee Carr, who premiered her two-part project “I Love You, Now Die” during SXSW. “And I think anytime where someone feels like they’re vilified in the press or one-dimensional, I always think there’s a larger story there that I can investigate. And so with Michelle Carter, it felt pretty clear that there were other things lurking beneath the surface.”
The 30-year-old documentary filmmaker and daughter of the late reporter David Carr approached HBO about exploring Carter’s story four years ago, after reading coverage of the case in the Washington Post. Carr’s film explores the dynamics involved with Carter’s court case as she was tried and convicted of manslaughter for encouraging the 2014 suicide of her boyfriend Conrad Roy through text message. The resulting film is one that presents a more nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of its main subject.
“One thing that I hope to bring to every project and never to lose, is an empathic response to a tragedy,” Carr says. “And whenever I pitch people, I say that’s what I can bring to this: a clear and present understanding, and one that’s imbued with feeling.”
Carr has honed a careful approach to her subjects in part due to the influence of growing up in the house of a “master class journalist.” “He taught me how to talk to people and I think that is really demonstrative in the work,” she says of her father, adding that one of the most important lessons she learned was to always approach an interview having done the research. “I have a good idea whenever I sit down with someone what they would like to talk about. Is it small talk? Is it sports? Is it about the case? Have they ever given an interview before?” she says. “I don’t want to be an aggressive true crime ambulance chaser, because why would the world need another one of those? I want to be a careful, sensitive, journalistic reporter.”
In addition to the release of “I Love You, Now Die” and another documentary for HBO, “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” Carr is also releasing a memoir next month about her father following his unexpected death in 2015.
“The night he died, I went to his friend’s house and I typed in this e-mail he’d written me on my 26th birthday. And it was just this epic, amazing letter, where it felt like he was talking to me, and I felt like I could hear his voice in it,” Carr says of the book, “All That You Leave Behind.” “So the months that followed as a documentary filmmaker, when something would come up, I’d keyword into Google and look for if he could talk to me through these e-mails,” she continues. “It’s a testimonial to my father and the advice he gave to me, while still honoring my story as somebody who went through [the experience]. He was a really challenging mentor — he was my mentor, he was my father, he was my mother, he was my friend. One person isn’t supposed to have all those roles because if they die, what do you f–king do?”
For Carr, the answer seems to be continue making thoughtful work and carrying the journalistic torch. “I don’t ever want to be the person who’s begging people to watch their doc. I want to create watchable, interesting television that’s also rigorous and intellectual, and I think there’s a lot of stories out there that fit the bill,” she says.
Her next project is a film for Netflix, which she recently started working on and isn’t yet able to discuss.
“It feels to everyone else I’m doing all this work and it’s like no, this is just many, many years in the making,” Carr adds. “Each year my job has gotten more ambitious and more challenging, and I’m finally feeling the weight of it. Like ‘Oh, did I bite off more than I can chew?'” She barely pauses before delivering the upbeat verdict: “No, it’ll be fine.”
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