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With no shortage of murders, rapes, abductions, and unexplained disappearances dominating the news, the true crime drama has risen in popularity, with programs about perpetrators and victims dominating the cable landscape on channels like Lifetime, Oxygen and Investigation Discovery.

The heinous crimes of two notorious serial killers, a child kidnapper, an Olympian who shot his girlfriend and a surgeon who killed his family get the TV movie treatment in these exciting new offerings.


THE LOST WIFE OF ROBERT DURST

The subject of the 2015 HBO documentary series The Jinx, real estate heir Robert Durst is currently in prison for the murder of his friend Susan Berman. He’s also the prime suspect in the death of his wife Kathleen McCormack Durst, who disappeared 18 years earlier in January 1982 and was never seen again. Lifetime’s The Lost Wife of Robert Durst focuses on their relationship, what went wrong, and why.

The Jinx did a great job of revealing the character of Robert Durst but what it didn’t touch on that much and what people really don’t know, is what happened to Kathie,” says executive producer Linda Berman. “How did something that was so loving at the beginning turn so bad? We wanted to do a story about that psychotic marriage.”
THE LOST WIFE OF ROBERT DURST
Katharine McPhee (Scorpion) plays the beautiful sometime model who fell for the quirky, fun, charming Durst (Daniel Gillies, The Originals). She became fascinated with the Durst story watching The Jinx and was eager to jump in and find out more about his marriage to Kathie. But research sources were limited.

“There aren’t any voice recordings or anything like that. There are a few journal entries but the family has kept much private,” she says. “So the work was done with my director, just talking through her story and trying to understand her reasoning for things. I had to just go with my instinct on a lot of it. I chose to play her as a strong woman, though. I think it was important to not play her weak because I truly don’t think she was weak.”

While the marriage seemed happy at first, “The relationship soured and became very abusive, and [Kathie] couldn’t get out,” Berman says, offering reasons why. “She was Catholic. Her mother encouraged her to stay. He wouldn’t give her money. He threatened her. But I don’t think she ever thought that he’d do what he did to her.”

Katharine McPheeMc Phee offers another reason. “I’m always so interested in how things go so terribly wrong,” she says. “And in the case of Kathie, I was interested in playing a woman who fell in love, was swept off her feet and then realized that she was married to a sick man. I was interested in understanding why she stayed for as long as she did, not because she thought she had no choice, but because she was just waiting to get through her schooling so she could be completely independent of him. She was a very smart woman, just months away from getting out of medical school. It’s a total tragedy.”

According to Berman, Daniel Gillies had “an intensity that was perfect for Robert. He’s very good looking and charming yet he was able to turn on the menace in a very believable way,” she says. The actor was diligent in his preparation. “He got the accent down and changed his voice and his look, and lost weight to try to portray Durst in the correct way,” she adds.

Journalist Matt Birkbeck’s book A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst was the main source for the movie, but screenwriter Bettina Gilois incorporated other written sources and interviews with Kathie’s family and friends. Vancouver locations stood in for New York and Vermont, where the Dursts had a lakeside home. Director Yves Simoneau “made it look like a feature film, with different color palates to the past and present,” Berman says.

Durst, now 74 and reportedly in frail health, is appealing his conviction in the Susan Berman murder, which is expected to be heard in court in early 2018. “The more I’ve read about the testimonies it does seem that there’s fairly incriminating evidence,” against him, Berman says about the case. Kathie’s disappearance, however, remains a mystery.

“The sad part is I don’t think Kathie’s family will ever know what happened to her. There’s been testimony that friends heard from Susan Berman that she knew that Bobby killed Kathie,” Linda Berman reveals. “But I don’t think it can ever be proven.”

The Lost Wife of Robert Durst premieres Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.


OSCAR PISTORIUS: BLADE RUNNER KILLER

OSCAR PISTORIUS: BLADE RUNNER KILLERSouth African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, a Paralympics gold medalist, rose to international fame as the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics. He participated in the 2012 games in London where he carried his country’s flag in the closing ceremony. The following year, Pistorius’ fame turned to infamy when he shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp to death. The story of their relationship and what led to its tragic end are dramatized in the Lifetime movie Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer.

“Lifetime is always looking for stories that are current and relevant to today’s audience and also tackle subjects of issue. The Pistorius story is a terrible, tragic story of a woman being victimized,” says executive producer Leslie Greif, who was approached by the network to tell it. “We tried to be as objective as possible so people can make up their own minds.”

Timeliness was another factor. “We wanted to do something that was timely and current,” and with Pistorius back in the news with a Nov. 3 court date, that box is checked. The athlete was initially convicted of manslaughter and served one year of a five-year sentence, but that conviction was overturned by an appeals court and he was sentenced for six years for murder. That sentence has been appealed but the State.

Screenwriter Amber Benson pored through court transcripts, public accounts, and newspaper articled in researching the case. “You have to be very precise when you’re tackling real-life situations, particularly ongoing situations.  You need to portray everyone as accurately as possible and be as specific as possible without taking a position,” notes Greif. The film depicts the story from the point of view of Pistorius, Steenkamp and law enforcement.

South African actor Andreas Damm, who had a double amputee stunt double, was cast as Pistorius and German actress Toni Garrn plays Steenkamp. Unknowns were cast deliberately. “We wanted the audience to get lost in the characters,” Greif says. “I think [the fact that they’re not celebrities] “makes the film feel more gritty, real and raw.”

Some reports say the Steenkamp family isn’t happy about the movie, and Greif acknowledges that “It’s a very sensitive subject and I can imagine that opening up tragic wounds is never comfortable for anyone. My heart goes out to them.”
OSCAR PISTORIUS: BLADE RUNNER KILLER
He’ll let viewers decide for themselves. “It’s really edgy, terrifying, horrifying and it's sad because you see this beautiful young woman with a bright future and a man who had the world on a string,” Greif says. “He overcame his physical adversity but tragically, emotionally, he got caught in a web and ruined his life as well as hers.”

Oscar Pistorius: Blade Runner Killer premieres Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.


I AM ELIZABETH SMART

“You may think you know my story, but you don’t—not from me,” says Elizabeth Smart in Lifetime’s new dramatization of the nine-month ordeal she went through in 2002, when she was abducted, held captive, drugged, and raped by a fanatic religious fundamentalist and his female accomplice. Smart narrates and produces the movie, which stars Alana Boden as Smart and Skeet Ulrich and Deirdre Lovejoy as her captors.

“While her story has been in the media for so many years, she really felt that it had never been told properly, that for 15 years everyone's been telling her story for her,” says executive producer Joseph Freed. “This was an opportunity not only to tell her story, but to put her front and center and let her have a quite literal voice. Now we can tell the complete story and do it with Elizabeth herself.”
I AM ELIZABETH SMART
Smart, who serves as a producer on the film, never thought she would have anything to do with telling her story. “When I got home, I swore up and down that I was never going to write a book, I was never going to do a movie. I wanted it all to disappear. I wanted it all to go away,” she says. “But little by little, I started to become more involved in advocacy. And I started meeting more survivors and meeting other people who had gone through similar things. I became more involved, and it's kind of my world now. There are so many other survivors out there who struggle every day because they feel like they are alone. They feel like nobody possibly understands what they are going through. I feel like I need to speak out because I can. I need to share my story for that very reason.”

I Am Elizabeth Smart will be preceded by a two-part documentary special, Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography, airing on Lifetime Nov. 12 and 13, five days before the movie’s premiere. “I'm not apprehensive about what the audience will take away from it,” says Smart. “I'm very proud of it, but I hate it at the same time,” she admits. “Part of me thinks I'll be happy if I never have to watch it again.”

I Am Elizabeth Smart premieres Nov. 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.


DATING GAME KILLER

Rodney Alcala may not be as well known as Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, ‘Boston Strangler’ Albert DeSalvo or ‘Son of Sam’ David Berkowitz, but he’s one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history, responsible for as many as 130 grisly murders. Dating Game Killer, starring Guillermo Diaz (Scandal) as the man so nicknamed for his appearance on the titular game show in 1978, marks Investigation Discovery’s entry into scripted crime drama.

“This is the story of an incredibly charismatic individual who was able to blend in with regular society for years, while law enforcement struggled to catch up with him,” says Jane Latman, ID’s EVP of development. “The most blatant example of this was his appearance on The Dating Game, where he was actually chosen as the most eligible bachelor. One of the more unsettling elements of this story is that you can watch the footage from his appearance, when he was in the middle of his murder spree, and you see the charm and energy that he radiated – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s so unbelievable and yet proves how truth can be stranger than fiction.”

DATING GAME KILLERIt was that bone chilling aspect, and the horrific nature of the crimes Alcala has been convicted of and suspected of that interested executive producer Leslie Greif in telling this story. “We worked very hard to make it feel like a film, rather than your typical TV movie of the week,” he says.  Adds Latman, “This is a very suspenseful movie, which keeps the viewer guessing what will happen next.”

Greif’s writing partner Darrell Fetty “researched extensively,” basing the script on trial transcripts and books on the subject. In the name of verisimilitude, it was important to secure the rights to Arlo Guthrie’s song “Alice’s Restaurant” for a climactic court scene. Guthrie initially refused, but Greif explained that it was “an important story to be told not only for the victims but as a cautionary tale, and he finally allowed us to use the song.”

Diaz told Greif that he didn’t often get the opportunity to play as complex a character as Alcala. “He was intrigued by it. He felt daunted by it. But he nailed it,” Greif says. Robert Knepper (Prison Break), who plays a detective on the hunt for the killer, plays against type here. “He normally plays the villain but liked having the opportunity to play a cop in this case,” the producer adds.

As Jane Latman notes, the movie also depicts “the deeply emotional journey of a mother fighting for justice for her daughter, a mother who will not give up until justice is served.” Carrie Preston (Emmy winner for The Good Wife) plays the role. “I wanted to be responsible and respectful in bringing to life one of the countless women who lost loved ones to Alcala,” Preston says. “The stories of the victims are so heartbreaking and devastating, and I wanted to make sure the character I played was handled with care and honor.

“The fact that Rodney Alcala got away with so many heinous murders for so long is baffling and beyond comprehension, so I think people want to understand how something like that could have happened,” Preston adds. “Rodney appearing on a dating show while also murdering women makes it even more bizarre and inexplicable. The movie aims to humanize the victims and puts together a plausible explanation of how this monster was finally brought to justice.”

Eventually, Alcala was found guilty and sentenced to death on five counts of murder, subsequently admitting to three more. Improved DNA testing has linked him to many cold murder cases. He’s 72 and is behind bars on California’s Death Row.

Dating Game Killer premieres Dec. 3 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Investigation Discovery, followed by the documentary The True Story of the Dating Game Killer at 10 p.m. ET/PT.


FINAL VISION

It was a story that shocked the nation: In February 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald, a handsome, respected doctor, was arrested for the brutal murders of his pregnant wife and two young daughters. The sensational case became the subject of Fatal Vision, a best-selling book by Joe McGinnis and a TV miniseries of the same name. Investigation Discovery offers a different take on the story in Final Vision, presenting it as a crime drama and psychological thriller following both MacDonald and McGinniss and their relationship.

MacDonald, claiming innocence, asked McGinnis to write a book that would exonerate him. But as McGinnnis delved into the case, he came to the terrifying realization that his new friend was a killer.

FINAL VISIONDave Annable (Heartbeat, Brothers & Sisters), a true crime fan, was unaware of the story before he was cast as McGinniss. “My curiosity took over when I started researching this case and I continued to dive deeper and deeper to find out the truth. After reading Fatal Vision and diving into this case, I personally needed to make up my own mind on whether or not this charming, affable, Green Beret” committed these murders, he said, adding, “The ‘did he or didn’t he?’ question is fully in play on this one.”

Annable’s research also included reading McGinnis’ earlier book The Selling of the President, in which the author “immersed himself inside [Richard} Nixon's inner circle during his campaign for President. It was about learning his voice and motivations for me,” he says. “I think Joe was an opportunist and was presented a story that unfolded right underneath his eyes.  One of our producers on the movie actually knew McGinniss, so it was nice to have her brain to pick.”

As “someone who loves to do research, I thoroughly enjoyed diving deeper into Joe McGinniss and his life around the time of the crime,” says Annable, who “found a real self-imposed challenge in playing a real person. You want to be able to do your job well and have the audience believe these two characters, all while trying to respect the actual person and their families.”

According to executive producer Linda Berman, Annable was cast because he’s “the sweetest guy and has that look of somebody with integrity, is studious, someone who would do the research yet is capable of liking someone who is heinous. Dave also did a good job of making the switch to being terrified of this guy. He was living in the house with a killer but had to remain there and finish his job. I think he saw a more complex character than was even written and brought it to life very well.”

FINAL VISIONScott Foley (Scandal) brought much more to the role of MacDonald than good looks, she adds. “Scott generally plays this upstanding guy-- likeable, handsome, doing the right thing, [although] on Scandal you’re never quite sure whether he’s good or bad. This role gave him the opportunity to play--and will give America the opportunity to see him play--a really horrible person and that’s fun for an actor. He said yes right away.”

Joe McGinnis, who died in 2014, saw his life “change quite a bit because of his involvement with MacDonald, not necessarily for the better,” notes Berman. He was sued for breach of contract over Fatal Vision, but settled out of court.

Jeffrey MacDonald, now 72, remains in prison, appealing his conviction. “It’s extremely controversial and is known as the longest-running criminal case in U.S. history,” says Investigation Discovery EVP Jane Latman. MacDonald “maintains his innocence, and the debate still rages.”

Final Vision premieres Dec. 10 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Investigation Discovery followed by an encore of Jeffrey MacDonald: People Magazine Investigates at 10 p.m. ET/PT.


www.Dishmag.com / Issue 197 - November 2017
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