Erin Lee Carr On 'I Love You, Now Die,' Her Favorite Documentaries, And The Essential Elements Of Great True Crime [Interview]

Erin Lee Carr is one of the most prolific creators I know. In 2019 alone, she has released two documentaries and published a memoir. Her latest film, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, hit HBO this past summer. The film chronicles the case of Michelle Carter, who made international headlines when it was revealed that she had encouraged her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, to commit suicide.

As usual with all of Carr's films, I Love You, Now Die looks beyond the headlines and gets at the deeper story behind both sides of the case. I had a chance to chat with Carr recently. We spoke about how she chooses which stories to tell, what drew her to the story of I Love You, Now Die, and the essential elements of great true crime documentaries.

The below transcript excerpt has been edited for brevity and clarity. You can also listen to our full conversation in the latest episode of my new interview podcast, Culturally Relevant.

David: One thing I like to do is talk about breaking-in stories. How did you break into the filmmaking industry? Erin Lee Carr: I was a producer at Vice for about three years. I was able to make short-form video content. One of the films that I produced was a film called Click. Print. Gun. It was about a guy that was 3D-printing lower receivers for AR-15s. It was pretty dangerous, scary stuff but at the forefront of the technological invasion of our society. So, that got like 10 million views, I think, in the first week or something. And so, I very pigheadedly was like, "I know how to do this, I got this." I took informationals around town after I was fired from a job. I love, 30 seconds in, just talking about being fired.

I met a filmmaker named Andrew Rossi. He is a celebrated documentary filmmaker. He's done Page One: A Year in the New York Times, Bronx Gothic, Ivory Tower, all these different things. So we're in a coffee shop. And I was asking, "Should I work at the Guardian? Should I work at Frontline? Do you think they'll have me?" He was like, "I think you should make your own movies." And nobody had ever said that to me. I thought it was preposterous because I needed health insurance. But he ended up introducing me to a woman named Sheila Nevins who is the doc king.

Yeah, the head of documentary at HBO, right?


Your work is so diverse and you cover so many different topics. I'm curious like how do you decide what to work on? Because these projects can take months, if not years to complete, right?

Always years, to be very clear, for documentary filmmaking. Yeah, I think that it's a very... It's kind of like a formula that I have now for work. And I'm happy to share a part of it is I have lieutenants that are looking for things that feel like something I would be interested in. It always has to have a technological component. It has to be multi-layered. I think a lot of crime stories, unfortunately, are pretty linear. And I think the only way to get it on networks are, is it not about the crime but is it about this societal question. Is it about loneliness? Is it about suicide? Is it about obedience, power shifts? Is it about how we relate to one another? And so, I practice, it's called an elevator pitch.

And when I'm considering working on a project, it's "Can I explain it to you, David, and are you going to ask me more questions about it?" If someone just says, "Oh, that's cool." Don't do it, no one will watch it. There are too many things out there. No one will watch it. And so, it has to pass these set tests. It has to pass my own test and then it has to pass the network test. And then it has to pass the, "can you actually get access into the story" test.

I think that I'm very cognizant of what networks like. I have to watch a ton of stuff, things like that. I'm pretty commercial in terms of my work. If you think about Mommy Dead and Dearest, that's not going to be winning an award at Sundance. But it is going to be talking about mental health and about sexuality. And it's going to hit these buttons that people want to talk about. So I think that I have made a consistent effort to think about what about true crime is commercial, but also how do we elevate it? How do we elevate the genre so I can continue to have ethical discussions? I want to hide philosophy into these commercial doc projects.

I'm curious about your overall documentary or documentarian inspirations. Are there any films or filmmakers that you're particularly inspired by or that inform your work in some meaningful way?

I love documentaries. I love watching them. I love thinking about them. I try to watch as many as possible. I mean, early big loves in terms of figuring out how this worked was definitely Alex Gibney who made Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client Number Nine, Wikileaks. He's just this incredible force that continues to make thoughtful, intense, probing documentaries. He's been a huge inspiration.

And then there's a filmmaker, Liz Garbus, who made the seminal film, There's Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, about a Taconic State Parkway crash that happened and it was a crime story. And I recommend everybody to watch it. It's on HBO. It's about what happened to that mother as she drove the wrong way with her children in the car. Then it morphs into this meditation on motherhood. And what does it mean to try it, to attempt to be the perfect mother? I mean, it just haunts me. I've watched it like 14 times. Then my other one is Capturing the Friedmans by Andrew Jarecki, which is the guy that made The Jinx. And it is one of the most intense, crazy films about a nuclear family exploding due to a pedophilic scandal that happens with the family. I don't know. All these are horrible and dark but I just... They kept me thinking about it.

As you're listing these movies and these filmmakers, what are aspects of what they do that you've tried to incorporate into how you approach things?

When I was making my first film, Thought Crimes, I watched, I think, a documentary film every single night. And I just immersed myself into the craft. We're talking about like Steve James and Frederick Wiseman and all of these are the legends in the craft. Because I didn't go to film school. I didn't have a complete education in documentary. But here I was and I was making one. And I wanted to figure out how to do it. So, when I think about making these things, I have this awesome book called Tell Me Something. And it's advice from documentary filmmakers. It has all this great, funny, weird, specific language just for this art of documentary filmmaking.

When I'm in production, I try to meditate on a page of that. Because I'm always so stressed during shoot days. It's so much money. I'm interviewing everybody. I have to get it right. I have to make people feel comfortable or uncomfortable depending on the interview. It's just, I hate the aspect of actual production. And so many real documentary filmmakers love it. So it's always been a bit of a challenge to psych myself up for this intellectual sparring match.

You said you hate the actual production. What is it that you don't like about it? Just how stressful it is or is there something else?

I mean, I've really worked on things that are painful. And so, when we're talking about I Love You, Now Die, which is about a young woman that texted her boyfriend to kill himself amongst saying many other things. I interviewed a lot of Conrad, the young man, his family. And it was just, they were scarred. They were in so much pain. It had been a couple of years. And I found the whole process to be painful for me. So I can't imagine what it was like for them.

The camera at the trial for Michelle Carter. There were so many technological components that I didn't exactly know how to do it. Then I would have to chase after people and I really felt like a vulture. I felt like this weird kid begging people to talk to me. I was always sweating. Everybody else looked fancy and there was 20/20 people there, there was Nightline. And they all had heels and blazers and I was carrying a tripod and dripping sweat. I always felt like even on my third film, really like JV squad, if that makes sense.

Even though you are making movies for HBO, right?

Yep. I don't know. I think the imposter complex lives inside us. And during these high-intensity moments will come out. But it's like, I think that why I continue to make stuff is I can withstand that pressure. "Oh, I had a bad day. It was really difficult to do this. "So what? Fuck off. Everybody has hard days. I'm lucky to be doing it. So I think that it's just an exercise in showing up and continuing to do it.

Let's talk about, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter. How did this story first hit your radar?

I was working on finding technological-inspired crime cases. I was developing a series for HBO in which Mommy Dead and Dearest was going to be an episode. And I thought Michelle Carter would be an episode. But the stories ended up being so much bigger than an episodic format that we broke them out into feature films. I was always hunting for stories. And I saw a headline in the Washington Post that said, "It's now or never." It was this picture of Michelle and these really open, intense eyes. I just was like, "What? I don't really... That doesn't make sense. I don't know why someone would say those things. There has to be a bigger story here." And so, I started working on it in 2015 and it was a really difficult one to crack. Because it was an ongoing criminal case and people couldn't really talk.

I had to stay on it for years thinking about it. Then it was the huge coup was that we were allowed to be the camera inside the courtroom for the trial. Because typically, news organizations will be something called pool camera. But news organizations shoot it a very specific way. And that's not the format of a documentary. So we were able to film it with my cinematographer Bryan Sarkinen in the way that was like long takes, big wides, not just focused on Michelle. Focused on the prosecutor's, focused on the witness. And so it was just this thing that very, very carefully and very slowly came to be.

When you're thinking of tackling the trial portion of this film, one of the things that's challenging about courtroom footage is that these things can often happen for months. So I noticed that your other movies also have significant sections that take place in a courtroom. Were you also the in-court camera for those movies as well? Or did you get footage from other people? How was the courtroom footage experience different for this movie?

I feel really grateful to the United States criminal justice system. Not because of how they do their business because it's horrifying and that's why I'm making films. But there is a certain level of transparency in certain states. So when you see Mommy Dead and Dearest, that's a lot of our footage inside the courtroom. When you see At the Heart of Gold, we had a camera inside that courtroom. There was many other cameras but we got a various great documentary-specific vantage point.

I think that for me, trial footage is a foundation. It is something that people always like looking at. I think my films are a bit too talking head-heavy. I think there's a lot of people that are explaining things to you. So, I find that as I do these pure screenings, the footage that really does well is inside the courtroom. And people can just sit there and take it in and think about it. So when I'm deciding to work on things, it's like, "Is there courtroom footage? Can I be the courtroom footage?" I think that it's a really special sauce element to making documentaries.

In I Love You, Now Die, you were not able to get access to Michelle Carter. She did not agree to an interview. And I'm curious. What were the challenges of telling a story where you didn't have the involvement of one of the main subjects of the title of the documentary? And how do you approach telling that story?

Yeah, so I think that that's a really good question. My first film Thought Crimes, I had access to the guy in question, Gil Valle. The second film, Mommy Dead and Dearest, I had exclusive access to Gypsy Rose. And here I was, hands out, with nothing in return. Michelle Carter, I asked her about 17 times. I asked her family, I asked friends. I'm somebody that works with access. And so here I was with piles of footage and I didn't have her voice. So, I really saw it as one of the most, one of the biggest creative challenges that I faced as a filmmaker. Anybody can make a good film with access. If you have the person, it's really hard to screw it up. The fact that we were able to put together a portrait of someone we never sat down with, now that's a magic trick. And I think that that's when I really gained confidence that we know what we're doing.

And it really was because of the text messages. Here we had records of thousands of text messages that our subject sent to not just Conrad, the person in question, but other people, her friends, her family. And I think that it really went to her state of mind. Who is she? What is she thinking about? What does she care about? What does she like to talk about? And so the way that it was rendered on screen was for you as a person to really think about her and think about her pathology and what she struggled with. Because when we hear what people have struggled with, it's really hard for us to render them completely as a demon or as an ice queen. And that was the whole reason to make something like this, to add a new layer of understanding to her as a person.

Yeah, I agree. I think one of the great things about the documentaries you make is that many people often only see the headlines or the general concept of this woman told her boyfriend to kill himself. That's all they see. And I love how your movies bring more detail and complication to these people's lives. They invite you to accept these real-life figures in the fullness of their lives and all of the things that that involves.One of the most challenging aspects of a tech-heavy movie is representing things like texting on screen. We've seen various representations of texting in many movies and documentaries and so on. How did you arrive at the solution that you arrived at for this film?Trying to describe it, it's like you see the person's name and then the text with its original syntax and then the sound effect of sending a text on an iPhone. And that often is overlaid with B-roll footage or B-roll photos. How did you arrive at that kind of solution for representing this technology?

What I wanted in this film was not just a ton of text messages. But I really wanted you as a person watching it to live inside the courtroom. Like you were sitting inside because Michelle Carter did not get a jury trial. She opted for a bench trial, which means a judge determined her fate. And so, I thought here was this incredible moment where the documentary could serve as a part of the jury that she never got. My whole creative process was I want you to feel like you receiving that text message or you being inside that conversation.

And sometimes we do it on black screens. Sometimes we do it through a slow-mo, beautiful nature footage. But I think it was really understanding that these were two people communicating in a vacuum. And that's what I wanted for you to understand that there's just so much loneliness and so much intensity to the text messages. It's hard to see those text messages. Because at a certain point, I think I was showing it to somebody and I was like, "Are there too many text messages? Is this painfully boring for you?" And they're like, "No, it is astonishing." I can't forget that the first time you see those, they're pretty crazy. And so I really wanted to keep them as a central character.

You spent years of your life working on telling the story of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy. I'm curious if there's one thing you want people to take away from this documentary, I Love You, Now Die, what would that be?

There's basically this testimonial, these videos that you see in the film of him talking into camera, talking about struggling with anxiety, with mental health issues. It's just this, he's so handsome and he's so smart. And it's just this really amazing picture of him. Then when I was showing it to Lynn Roy, his mother that I was showing the film to her at HBO, she told me that those files were in the trashcan. He never uploaded them. They were never a part of something he could actually say out loud. It only existed in his head. So when you think about this film, yes, think about Michelle Carter.

Yes, think about free speech but think about people who are struggling to just say things out loud. And is there a way to communicate with the men in our life or the young people in our life about, yeah, mental health stuff is not a stigma. It's okay to have social anxiety. Almost everybody has it.

And so I think it's about reaching out to the people in our lives and understanding that suicide is a real thing that people think about. You think somebody's fine until it happens. And so for me, it was an education in that suicide is something that a lot of people think about. If we can just hold a couple of people back and say, "You won't feel like this forever", that is my real hope.