Nichelle Tramble Spellman read the manuscript for Kathleen Barber’s Are You Sleeping before it was published and knew she wanted to turn it into a TV series. The author of two crime novels, The Dying Ground and The Last King, and writer on hit TV shows The Good Wife and Justified, Spellman wanted to take the psychological thriller about a podcaster who reopens a murder case and expand it to explore the impact on all of the people the crime touches, including the podcaster’s family.
Truth Be Told, which launches Friday on Apple TV+, is the first series Spellman has created and run. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays Poppy Parnell, the journalist-turned-podcaster who decides to reinvestigate the case of a man she incriminated in the murder of his neighbor, a father of identical twins; Aaron Paul plays the convicted murderer; and Lizzy Caplan plays the twins. Spencer also serves as an executive producer.
Spellman, who is now working on a feature film for State Street Pictures, spoke with Vulture about the adjustments she made to Barber’s story to make it work for television, her experiences as a first-time showrunner, and how her passion for true crime helped her shape her first TV series.
The process of adapting a book is different than creating a TV show from scratch. Where did you start?
It’s very different. Kathleen wrote a great book and she had great characters. She and I had a conversation before I started. I just really wanted to pay my respects, thank her, and talk to her about her motivation. I also wanted to know if there was anything that she didn’t include that was important to her. It was some of the same things that interested me. The Poppy Parnell character was more of a minor character in the book, which worked on the page, but on screen we needed a character that would drive the story a little bit more. And so making the podcaster the center of the story felt like the natural way to do it. It felt like it opened it up and that would allow her to cross paths with everybody involved. Since she’s functioning as a traditional journalist, she can go out and meet whomever she needs. In the book, it plays more from the point of view of the sisters.
Did you change the character of Poppy at all as you expanded her role?There were some changes that we made because it had to be specific to the actress. Once Octavia Spencer was on board, I really needed to craft it to suit her, and one of those things was building out a family. Her family is not in the book, so those are all new characters.
At what point in the process did Octavia Spencer join the project?
I got a call one day that she might be interested and they set up a meeting. They just wanted me to talk to her about the book and my idea, and where I saw it going, and what kind of character. We had this great meeting. It was easy from the beginning, so I never wrote anything without her in mind. Once I knew she was our lead, we went out and pitched it and sold it.
Then I sat down to write the pilot. It was such a gift because there’s nothing she can’t do on screen. There were no boundaries. I told her Poppy was going to be a bit of a prickly character, a little unreliable. I told her she’ll live way more in the gray area than people are used to seeing from her. And then the second piece was Aaron Paul. I was thinking Oh my god, it’s not gonna get any better than this. And then it was Lizzy Caplan. I thought I should go to Vegas. This is great!
What was your biggest challenge as a first-time showrunner? What scared you the most?
Realizing how much you don’t know no matter how long you’ve been in a [writers] room. It is different on the other side of the table. So it was about recognizing very early that I needed people around me who knew more than I did and people that I could trust so that I could very openly say, “I have no idea what this means. I have no idea what I’m supposed to do here. You tell me.” So, one of the executive producers on the show was my husband, Malcolm Spellman, who is a TV and feature writer. Also a good friend of ours Ben Watkins, who created Hand of God. They were the first two pieces I put into place. And then we built out from there. At every turn, as I met with department heads or different people, it was like, “Can I trust this person?” because I need to able to trust people 100 percent, because I was vulnerable. It was a little bit of a talent test and a personality test.
What did you learn about being the boss from working with Robert and Michelle King on The Good Wife and Graham Yost on Justified?
The Kings were ideal. Good Wife was my favorite room. I learned how a married couple could work together and they did it so beautifully. They were such a great example. Previous to that experience, I was thinking that Malcolm and I will probably never do this. So he and I did a test run in a mini room on another show. It worked. I had a really good example. And then Graham is just the best. He was a great showrunner in that he loved all the ideas in the room. Sometimes you get people who aren’t looking for the best idea, they’re looking for their own best idea, and that wasn’t him. He had this great, collaborative room, with all these amazing storytellers. So I took the most from those two, and also from my first bosses, Liz Craft and Sarah Fain, who I worked for on Women’s Murder Club, and really showed me what a safe work environment was like. I’ve had the luxury of great bosses and great showrunners to learn from.
How did you cast Aaron Paul?
Zack [Van Amburg] and Jamie [Erlicht] had a working relationship with him when they were at Sony and made Breaking Bad. So my exec at Apple called me and asked what I thought of Aaron Paul as Warren Cave. I said, “Are you kidding? It’s the best thing I’ve heard!” He and I jumped on the phone together and had a great conversation and, and he was like, “I like this because it kinda scares me.” And I was like, “Well, it scares me too. And if we both acknowledge that we’re scared, then we’ll treat the material respectfully.” We signed Octavia from the pitch and Aaron and Lizzy from the pilot script.
In the end, did you feel that showrunning was for you? Would you do it again?
I found out what I was made of, for sure. I did enjoy it, but I enjoyed it because of the team I put together. I think that surrounding myself with people that I respected and trusted, and then being protected on the other side, was necessary because it’s a big job. I’ve been in TV for ten years, and the job was bigger than I thought it was. At some moments, I felt like there wasn’t enough time in the day. We had time in the writers room for months and then, all of a sudden, we were in production and it was a different animal. You want to be on set because you want to be there for actors if they have questions, and make yourself available, but I didn’t want to neglect the writers room. So we just had to find a balance. I wasn’t a set person before this show, but it was so great to watch everybody work, and Octavia sets such an amazing tone on set. She stays upbeat. She’s always prepared. She’s always off book. She gives everything to the other actors. She doesn’t use a stand-in to run lines with them. She’s an executive producer, too, so it’s just as important to her.
Serial the podcast was partly the inspiration for the book. Are you a fan of true-crime podcasts?
I do listen to true-crime podcasts. I probably watch more true crime than I listen to. From Snapped to 48 Hours or 20/20.
I watch and listen to all kinds of true crime too, but it’s a weird feeling to be entertained by these horrendous things that happen to people.
That’s what the pitch was about. I felt like we watch it and we consume it, but we consume it as if these people are fictional characters, and they’re not. And you don’t spend time on the pain and the repercussions. So we really wanted to look at the ripple effect. So the show exists as a crime drama, but it exists just as much as a family drama because we wanted to see what it looked like to descend from tragedy. There’s a murder. What does it look like for the accused family? What does it look like for the victim’s family? And in this case, what does it look like for the reporter who possibly had a hand in this in the wrong way?
Then she breaks the first central rule of reporting by making it personal and making herself a part of the story. And then after that, all bets are off. In this current time, you throw up an IG page or a Twitter page and say you’re a journalist, and that’s all. There’s no one checking you. There’s no one policing that. There’s no editor or fellow team of reporters, or publisher, who says, “Hey, that’s your opinion. That’s not fact.” And so she’s a trained journalist who goes down the road of opinion and not fact, and how that just upends everything she touches. I wanted to get inside what it’s like for the people who have to live with this, who the worst thing that ever happened to them is now water cooler talk. That’s the basis of the whole show … What if the people who are at the center of this never told their co-workers? They didn’t tell the people in their lives and then all of a sudden they have to listen to someone driving by in their car listening to a podcast about their child being murdered. Or they walk into an office and someone’s saying, “Oh, my God! Did you see this?” And you have no idea. Oh, that’s my cousin, or that’s my family. What is it like for all of those people who don’t want to hear it as popcorn entertainment. This is awful. It was awful then, and it’s awful now. So we wanted to live in that for a really long time.
I watch [these shows] with my sisters. We slumber party and we watch all this stuff. And there’s always a moment, no matter if you go into it at the beginning knowing that they’re real, where it stops being real to you. And so we wanted, with these eight episodes to keep throwing it back in your face that these people were real. And they were hurt. And there were repercussions. You don’t want to have someone that you barely know have opinions about the worst thing that happened to you. That’s what we wanted to throw back in everyone’s face.
Poppy starts podcasting at the beginning of her investigation. She doesn’t wait to get the whole story, or most of it, before she starts telling it. That’s not how Serial or other podcasts typically work.
That is so dangerous, and the thing is, it’s more common now. I think that’s why we wanted to get into it. I think it was even more offensive because she was a trained journalist, and she knows better. And there are a lot of people who aren’t, and they don’t know better, and they do it. What is the truth in that environment then? It’s truth for you in the moment, but is it really the truth? She’s a little bit of an unreliable narrator, and so is everyone else. So you’re just really like, Who’s telling the truth here? And is it the truth as they know it or are they just saying it to get a certain result? All of that was on the table when we were building the show.
Does the story come to an end in the eighth episode, or are you leaving it open for potentially more?
Right now, it’s positioned as a limited series. But she’s a podcaster, so there is possibility for more because in real life, she would be hearing from people with other stories about their family members that she could investigate.