Alexandra Cunningham had never written for TV when the late Steven Bochco tapped her to write an NYPD Blue script back in 2001. Things went well for the Juilliard School playwriting fellow, even though the first draft she turned in was 85 pages long. “He called me and said he had to talk to me because this is unshootable,” Cunningham recalled with a laugh. “I was like, Really? I had no idea. At the time, there really weren’t very many playwrights working in television. Steven was at the forefront of that.”
Seventeen years later, Cunningham is the creator and showrunner of Bravo’s Dirty John, based on the L.A. Times true crime series and hit podcast that registered over 10 million downloads in its first 10 weeks. Dirty John is the story of self-made millionaire and entrepreneur Debra Newell, who meets John Meehan on a dating app and embarks on a whirlwind romance with him, not realizing he is diabolically conning her every step of the way and has a sordid past. The series, which premieres Sunday, stars Connie Britton as Debra, Eric Bana as John, Juno Temple and Julia Garner as Debra’s daughters Veronica and Terra, and Jean Smart as Debra’s mother, Arlane.
Ahead of Dirty John’s premiere, Cunningham spoke with Vulture about adapting the podcast for TV, the unused material L.A. Times journalist Chris Goffard provided from his investigation, why Debra Newell’s horrific experience is relevant to all women, and what she wants to do for the second season of the anthology series.
You read the L.A. Times series before you listened to the podcast. Tell me how you got involved with making it into a TV show.
I discovered it through procrastination, just like so many wonderful things are discovered when you’re supposed to be doing something else. The great thing about coming to the podcast through the [L.A. Times] articles was that the articles had embedded photos and videos. So when I listened to the podcast, I already knew what everyone looked like, and so my mind just went wild building this world while I was listening and populating it with the people that I’d seen. When I saw the first picture of Debra, I was like, Whoever does this should cast Connie Britton because you got to have amazing hair to play somebody in Orange County.
Around this time last year, I was going to take a vacation and then my agents — who also represent the L.A. Times — called and said, “Have you ever heard of Dirty John? Would you be interested in making it into a TV show? We’re asking you first.” I have no idea how I got that lucky, but I was like, “Yes, do not speak to anyone else. I’m diving on this with both feet.”
What made you think this story could be a good TV show?
Besides the spine of it — the innocent victim and the manipulating, machinating con man — and the true-crime element, I’m a woman of a certain age. I’m not going to say what that age is. But I’m a woman in society today and I’m a mother. And I always turned over concepts in my mind about why women don’t listen to their intuition. Years and years ago, I read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker, and basically his mission statement in that book was that you’re an animal, so why don’t you listen to your body and your psyche when it’s telling you that you’re in danger? When it comes to women, his thesis was: You don’t do it because society tells you that if you do, people will think you’re a bitch. Would you rather have that or would you rather be dead in an empty elevator? And that struck me so hard.
Debra is a truly kind and innocent person, the kind you definitely don’t run into in Hollywood—somebody who really takes people and what they say and do at face value. She truly sees the best in people and this man weaponized that against her. I also think that her upbringing taught her a certain way of being with a man and what is important in those relationships. I think all of those things went into making her someone that John Meehan was very excited to meet. So all of that — and The Gift of Fear, and wondering why [de Becker] is still right all these years later, and also just being fascinated by all the specifics of Debra’s situation that resonated both generally and specially with my own psyche as a woman and a mom today in the world — I just felt like there were a lot of great opportunities to tell a fun, twisted fairytale story.
The story really addresses a lot of important societal issues: the #MeToo movement, online dating, the corruptive quality of social media.
Whoever embedded photos of the matching selfies of John Meehan and Debra Newell in the original L.A. Times articles was genius. You have John showing his abs with the phone covering his face and then you can see behind him that the living room is full of garbage because that was just the kind of person he was. And then Debra just looking so beautiful and hopeful. These are people over a certain age. At least one of them is playing a game she doesn’t understand. And that’s relevant too. We’re all fascinated with how fast technology is moving, but we’re all playing a game we don’t understand unless we work in data retrieval or technology advancement. We’re all just babes in the woods.
Debra’s been married four times when she meets John and she’s still so hopeful about love. That’s the thing about her.
Elizabeth Taylor said that she felt like every man she fell in love with she had to marry because that’s what you do. It’s the Prince Charming and the white horse of it all. And I do think that that’s how Debra viewed it also. I wish I could have stopped her from that because I don’t think it’s a thing that she’s happy to look back on. But that’s what she did.
Debra Newell has four children. Why aren’t they all reflected in the TV show?
She has an older daughter and an older son. While they obviously were involved in this experience, they did not want to participate in talking to Chris [Goffard] about it for the original story. Our non-writing executive producer, Richard Suckle, was in constant contact with the family, and that includes the older children as well.
Honestly, the only reason we made a composite of the two of them is because I felt that it was very important that Debra have grandchildren. In her dating life prior to John, she was made to feel embarrassed. If you have grandchildren, that means you’re above a certain age. It was just another thing to be judged about, as a woman out there trying to find romance. And John, as far as she knew, found that to be a feature, not a bug. He just thought she was a wonderful mother and grandmother, and what adorable grandchildren, and Yes, let’s have them over, and I’m gonna play Santa Claus. It was just another strand to the web, honestly. So I didn’t want to not have her be a grandmother, but I definitely wanted to make sure that I respected the older children’s wish to not be in the show.
Is that why one of her daughter’s names is changed too? She doesn’t have a daughter named Veronica.
Why did you think of Eric Bana to play John?
The first time I ever saw Eric was in the movie Chopper, which I think was maybe the first time anybody outside of Australia knew who he was. That was based on a true story, too — there’s a famous Australian criminal named Mark “Chopper” Reed. And you know, he’s a raconteur. He cracks jokes and he’s killed people and he’s very scary. And Eric just exploded in that part. It was like, Who is this guy? He’s funny and he’s scary and he’s chilling.
As soon as we had Connie and we had Jeff Reiner, our amazing director, we started having that John conversation. I was like, I don’t know if this is gonna sound crazy or not, but … Eric Bana. Luckily, we met with him and he had listened to the podcast, and he was ready to go. And it, honestly, has been one of the joys of my life. He’s perfect. When I pitched Eric on joining the series, I said, “I don’t ever want to try to explain why John is the way he is.” And Eric said, “I don’t need to explain it.” He does such an incredible job that I don’t think anybody’s even gonna be asking themselves that question because we know you can’t. It’s what the Orange County deputy district attorney who opens the podcast says: “Some people’s brains just have green worms.” That might be what we’re dealing with. Green worm brain.
Chris Goffard had 500 pages of material that didn’t make it into the series or podcast. Was that overwhelming to go through?
I’m just fascinated by true crime. If somebody dumps a folder in front of me that’s full of police reports and restraining orders, I’m going to read all of this. And then I’m gonna read it again. There’s just something about feeling like you’re diving into the middle of the details of experiences where the stakes are that high. I guess part of it is curiosity. So I just relished the opportunity. It was like 100 extra podcast episodes. Give it all to me!
Did you end up using a lot of it?
I did, actually. One of the things that the podcast obviously couldn’t do is be in John’s point of view. There a lot of questions that I can answer about what John was doing while none of the characters of our story have eyes on him. And so, in that sense, I was very excited to get my hands on all the extra material to answer a lot of questions for myself.
Will there be an episode told from John’s point of view?
Yes. We are not in his point of view at all until, suddenly, we’re completely in his point of view. I was very doctrinaire and fascist in the writers’ room about point of view because, for better or worse, the season was wrapped around the person who is telling [each] part of the story. In episode three, Tonia is telling that story. That’s the story as it happened to Tonia. It’s not John’s experience with Tonia. It’s her looking at him as she realizes that he is not who she thought he was at all.
And we have an episode that’s the point of view of John’s sisters. He has two sisters in real life that we put together into one sister just for simplification. But this is happening to her. This is her brother who she loves, who she grew up with, who she has hopes for, who she keeps trying to help, and then the wool falls from her eyes as well. And so, it was inherent to me to not leven those experiences with anyone else’s point of view, especially John’s. Until it’s his turn, he doesn’t get a turn. But then when he gets a turn, it’s a really big turn. And from that point on, all bets are off. It’s from everyone’s point of view.
Let’s talk about Julia Garner and Juno Temple, because they’re both spectacular in their roles as Debra’s daughters.
Let’s talk about them for the rest of the day.
Julia’s done such great work on a few shows recently, and she transforms herself here.
I had no idea that she was gonna do that voice until the very first time we rolled on her. Julia isn’t imitating Terra, but she’s giving you that flavor while making it her own. The first day she opened her mouth, I think it might have been the scene where Terra and Jimmy show up on Thanksgiving and find John lugging the mattress, and I just thought she was incredible. The voice just put the cherry on the sundae.
And Juno is a badass as Veronica.
Juno is baby Judi Dench to me. The only limit on what Juno can do is what Juno wants to do, frankly. She made me laugh every single time she shot a scene. And that, secretly, was in my top three things about writing the show: writing Veronica’s voice knowing what Juno would do. Jacquelyn [Newell] in real life, who I completely admire, and Veronica in the show, is the person that says the thing. I don’t say the thing except in an empty room when I get home. She believes in total honesty, which I just think is amazing. She’s just a no-bullshit person.
She totally had me with, “Are you delivering a package?”
I know! I tried to imagine what that character would think when she saw that outfit for a date to impress her mother. It was like, How many cracks can I come up with for Juno? That one definitely made me laugh.
Have you chosen the story for season two yet?
We started having conversations about it at a time that really felt too early, and we haven’t talked about it since then. But I am very interested in the second season featuring a woman in the John Meehan role, for want of a better way to put it. I like getting into the psychology of a woman.
One of the things I’m playing with is, in the Dirty John live podcast episode, the moderator asked whether the Internet made it easier for trolling for victims, which is the understatement of the century. And the detective said, “Yeah, you get to meet hundreds of people at the same time and they have no idea that any of the others exists. It’s not like meeting one person at a time in the Penny Saver.” And the deputy district attorney Matt Murphy went, “Excuse me, I just tried a murder case where the woman met the man in the Penny Saver and murdered him. Sometimes you get married, sometimes you get murdered.” Which was just such an amazing thing! I was talking to him at our premiere event last night and I told him, “I’m interested in talking about Nanette Johnson. She hired her ex-NFL player boyfriend to kill her wealthy, blood centrifuge inventor boyfriend.” That kind of mindset is a completely different kind of manipulation coming from a woman of men. I don’t necessarily need the second season to mirror the first season, but I find that psychology interesting. I know I want it to be a woman.