Emmy-nominated director Lesli Links Glatter has directed some of the best shows on TV. If you watch TV, you’ve seen her work on shows such as The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, True Blood, and Homeland.
She’s an executive producer and director for HBO Max’s upcoming series about Candy Montgomery, the woman who brutally killed her friend Betty Gore with an ax in 1970s Texas.
We caught up with Lesli to talk about the series, what makes it different from its predecessors, and why the crime can be viewed as a great American tragedy.
Hi, Lesli. How are you?
Hi Carissa. Good. So nice to meet you. I love the name TV Fanatic.
We are definitely fanatics about TV. It suits us very well.
Fantastic. So nice to meet you.
You too. Looking at your filmography, I see so many shows that benefited from a woman’s touch in the director’s chair, from Mad Men to Homeland to one of my favorite one-season shows ever, Swingtown.
They were very heavily dominated by men in the director’s chairs, although they had very strong and sometimes lead characters, especially Homeland.
So why do you think it’s important to get that unique perspective that only a female can provide when she’s dealing with female-driven material?
That’s a very interesting question because I feel, at the heart of it, we are all directors, and we’re all here to tell a story and dig deep into the material and find what’s at the core of that in the best possible way.
I don’t know if I think that is gender dependent. I think that’s about creative vision. But I can tell you, having mentored women directors and people of color for years and years, I think you want all different voices to be telling stories. And I think it benefits storytelling to have that.
I think men have been directing women beautifully for years, some of my favorite classic films. So I don’t believe that because, let’s say, I am a woman, I can’t tell a story about a man. I think that would be very limiting. But I want to be able to bring all of myself to the storytelling process.
And I am particularly pulled to complicated, layered, complex female characters. Hence, I directed a lot of Homeland. I was very pulled to the characters in Mad Men. I mean, these are stories that I feel are really important to tell and dig in deep. Does that make sense?
It absolutely does make sense. But what I find interesting is that, for so long, there has been a much more limited perspective of women behind the camera.
And I’ve often wondered how would women on screen have been viewed or how would their onscreen evolution have been different if there had been more women behind the screen. Have you ever thought about that?
Absolutely, of course. I mean, again, when I started directing, there were so few women directing, and thank God things have changed, especially in television. Less so in feature films. But I do feel that the door has opened, and we have to be sure it stays open. And yes, I certainly wondered what that would have been like.
And now, hopefully, we will never have to wonder again. We will have stories told by women and stories told by men and people of color, and all kinds of stories being told. And we will all be better for it.
Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
Certainly, when I first started directing, the women directing were the rarities. Most times, I would walk on the set, and the crew had never had a woman director. The cast had never had a woman director.
You had to create an environment where they felt comfortable with you, and that was part of the process. And I don’t think that’s the same case now.
Well, that’s good to know.
Yes. Again, do I think our work is done? No. But I think it’s much better, and I want to celebrate the good things that have changed and keep working on the things that need to change.
Sure, I think something that has changed is how prevalent women-told stories are on television. They may not be in movies, but I think television is telling better stories right now, in my opinion, than most movies are because we got stuck in that tent-pole superhero vein for so long that we’re just coming back out of that now.
Yeah, I think that’s very true, Carissa. I think that when the studios stopped making medium-budget movies, those interesting character-driven dramas and comedies moved to television. And television became incredibly good as a result of it.
And I also think one of the big game-changing things is the idea of the limited series, that if you have a two-hour story to tell, that’s fantastic. But if it’s a story that needs six hours to really delve in deep, then it’s six hours or eight hours. And if it can be ongoing, okay, that’s something else.
And it feels now it’s much more dependent on what the story is. And that, to me, is very positive, and that the kind of stories that are being told, the range is so huge, and I get very excited by that.
It’s funny; when I grew up, there used to be movies of the week, and they tackled some dramatic stories that you wouldn’t see elsewhere on television. And now we have limited series that have kind of picked up that mantle and run with it.
But I think one of the big changes from the old movie-of-the-week time is that there was a huge difference between how a movie of the week looked and a feature film. And now the expectation of the limited series is that it looks like a movie.
Right. They have much better production values.
Exactly. You have to tell a visual story. And I think that has made TV become so elevated in terms of the kind of stories. You don’t look at a limited series and go, “Oh, this looks different than a feature film.”
The story has to be told in a visual way, whether the delivery system is coming into your TV screen and your home or it’s on a movie screen. And that’s exciting. I think it benefits both.
I agree. And I remember years ago when people said, “Oh, I don’t watch TV.” You don’t hear as much of that anymore, and I love it.
I love it too. I love it too. And long ago, my first actual series was Twin Peaks. And Twin Peaks didn’t look like any series anyone had seen.
It was incredibly cinematic. And you could spend 15 seconds looking at the eye of a crow and pull back from that crow into a huge, incredible sunset. And that was on TV.
I mean, the first series I ever directed was an anthology series for Steven Spielberg called Amazing Stories. And it was cinematic small stories, 30-minute stories. And I think, coming from that background, I never looked at TV as a lesser medium.
Right. And you were on some really groundbreaking series. I saw you directed an episode of NYPD Blue. I mean, when that show came out, people were just gobsmacked with what that show was about and the quality. And every week there was somebody talking about how fantastic it was.
Exactly. And look at West Wing.
Yes. It still stands up.
Absolutely. And it delved into complicated political situations and never pandered down, and had very complicated characters in it.
Absolutely. It makes a big difference. And you get a longer period of time to tell those stories and develop those characters in a series than you do in a movie.
Absolutely. And I have to say, being on Homeland was an incredible gift, working with that extraordinary team of writers led by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon, and the cast was just sublime. And the fact that every year we went to a different country and reset the show.
Depending on our meetings with the intelligence community, we would ask the question, “What keeps you up at night? What are your deepest fears for America and the world?” And that’s where the season would come from.
That’s a great way to look at it too.
And every year, we reset. It felt like we were doing a pilot every year.
And every season was distinct, which is very unique, I think, in television as well.
Yes, yes. Also, of course, we became the traveling circus, the family that traveled the world together, and that’s a really joyous thing about what we do.
Oh, absolutely. So now we have Love and Death.
As a producer and director for Love and Death, what’s your purview?
Well, I was sent the two Texas Monthly articles and the nonfiction book, Evidence of Love. And I read these articles and read this book and thought, “Oh my goodness, if this wasn’t a true story, you absolutely couldn’t make it up.”
Real life is for sure stranger than fiction. And I’m always pulled to the theme of things are not what they appear to be, that you have to look deeper to see what’s really going on. So the idea of this kind of bucolic world on the surface, but what’s going on underneath is a really different story. So I was fascinated by the story.
I happened to have been born in Texas. I’d never told a story about Texas before, and I thought very much it’s kind of the dark side of the American dream. And I’ve always wanted to work with David E. Kelley, but our paths just hadn’t crossed. And this brought the two of us together, and it was an incredible collaboration.
I absolutely adored working with him. And, of course, the cast is sublime. Lizzie Olsen and Jesse Plemons and Lily Rabe, and Patrick Fugit. The whole cast is just extraordinary.
I agree. Were there any concerns that people might not be interested in Love and Death because they’ve already watched Hulu’s Candy?
Well, that’s a very tricky one because we were already filming when they green-lit Candy. So we were making Love and Death already. So we had the rights to the Texas Monthly stories and the book. So I guess we thought no one else would be coming in to tell that same story, but it is public domain material.
But it was definitely a surprise. But I think we approached the material quite differently. So yes, if you watched that, you would know what happened.
To me, what was interesting in the story, it was not just a true-crime story. It was, to me, about this being a story of the times we’re in, of 1978, of women, particularly, who did everything right.
They got married at 20. They had their kids. They moved to the suburbs. They moved there for a better life. And why is there a hole in Candy’s heart and soul a mile wide? And needless to say, she picks a really bad way to fill that hole.
But to me, that is a deeply interesting and psychological story. The disconnect between the public self and the private self, that really interested me. So that’s how we approached it.
Well, I agree that the story, and especially, there’s something about women and crime, which I’ll ask you about in a minute. But the story could just be, “Oh, look, here’s the crime, and you did it.” But what you do on Love and Death is you make Candy Montgomery human.
Yes, thank you.
It’s weird to me that so many times in entertainment, when a crime that women commit is at the core of it, it’s often treated comically.
Like, ” Haha. Look, she’s carrying an axe.” It’s just this really weird kind of feeling. It’s like they’re looking at it as if it’s surreal, but these were real people living these lives.
They were real people going through real struggles that had this tragic outcome. And I love that Love & Death pays heed to that.
Thank you. I think we really wanted to look at not just that this happened but how and why and on a character level. And again, these are real people, so I want to treat that with incredible respect. In the first few episodes, there’s a lot that has humor in it, and that’s based on the actual circumstances.
I mean, you could not make up the fact that Candy and Allan talked about having an affair for months before they have it. It is the most unsexy beginning of any affair imaginable, and there’s humor in that. It was not spontaneous.
And in fact, really, the two of them wanted to be seen and heard, wanted a friend more important than having sex was sitting and having lunch and talking.
And the whole section of Marriage Encounter, which again is all based on fact, it was set at a place called… I think it was Dunfey’s Royal Inn. It’s torn down, but it was on Northwest Highway in Dallas, and it looked like a medieval castle.
We tried to recreate that, but if that was not what actually happened, I would never have set that scene in that environment. And in fact, it’s a way that if you did not have access to therapy, that was a way that couples could talk to each other, which I think is incredibly important and serious.
Right. And it’s kind of an amazing part of the story that, with everything that they were going through, Allan said yes and still had that love for his wife, that going to Marriage Encounter wasn’t off the table; I think my father would’ve said no.
I mean, men and women did not talk about their feelings. Certainly, men did not, and look at how we’ve changed in that way. So those were the things that I think David and the cast… I mean, we all fell in love with those characters.
And I think I feel very conflicted about Candy. I mean, she did something horrible. I don’t think we let her off the hook, but I think you still feel her humanity in there, even at the worst of times. But again, she will never be innocent. She was found not guilty.
But I don’t think she’s a murderer. I don’t think she will ever commit murder again. I think it was the set of circumstances that happened that created a horrible situation. And I can tell you that scene in the laundry room was the worst scene I’ve ever shot in my career.
I mean, the actors and I, we shot it for two days. It was story-boarded, but at the end of each day, we… I know there’s no crying in baseball, but the three of us held each other and just were weeping. It was so intense because it was up close and personal. It was two women. It was not like doing an action scene.
And they’re mothers.
And they’re mothers.
These aren’t just two women off the street. These are actual caring, loving women who just clash in such a way that it’s unimaginable. And yet there it was.
Unimaginable. Exactly. And to me, that was another thing that was exciting and challenging about doing this show because there is a big shift in tone in the middle of the series. So the first couple of episodes, there’s a certain kind of lightness in it, and that turns and how you deal with that tonal shift.
And then it goes into the courtroom and becomes like a courtroom drama. So to me, that was incredibly challenging and exciting to do and to go on that journey with David E. Kelley and this particular cast. And I think the cast all had the same feeling of reading these scripts and falling in love with David’s writing and with these characters.
Right. And I think it worked really well how it was segmented like you just mentioned. The beginning is just kind of getting to know these people who are the players. What are their lives like? And then you realize that there’s something a little deeper here. And then, of course, the crime.
And then the courtroom scenes. I think the courtroom scenes were really interesting because then you see how it kind of all rushed back to her.
With a crime of passion like that, it’s always fascinated me to imagine the moment when you are just a normal person who never had thoughts of murdering somebody in your life, and something clicks, and you do. And then what happens after? And who are you after that?
Exactly. And how do you look at yourself and your family? And she went back and, yes, pretended it didn’t happen because the thought of having done it is so totally horrifying.
And I was trying to approach the courtroom as if, even though we know what the ending is because it’s a true story, it could change. I wanted the prosecution to have an incredibly strong argument. So when you listen to Don, you think, “Oh, that was a great closing statement. He’s going to get her off.”
And then you listen to the prosecution and, “Wow, that was a great closing statement. She’s going to be found guilty.” Even though you know the end, I was hoping you would be very much in it for that ride, as if the end could change.
Yeah, as if the end can change. And then also the fact that it doesn’t and that you’ve just seen why you thought that it would is enough of a conversation starter right there to sit there and ponder, my God, how did this happen?
Right, right. And again, they had to leave that town because they could never go on in that town again. I mean, the whole story is incredibly tragic.
It really is.
To me, it’s the dark side of the American dream. It’s an American tragedy, not just a true-crime drama. The how and the why of how this could happen and the actions that were set in motion and created in this situation is what I think we all wanted to explore.
What kind of conversations do you hope the series starts?
I hope the conversation starts with being true to your real self, your true self, and the people in your life and seeing and hearing them completely.
Don’t let things get so far off the beaten path that you can’t get yourself back.
Exactly. And look deeper than what’s on the surface. Things are not what they appear to be. Definitely go down that other level, and you will find a whole different story.
What are you most excited for people to see when it airs?
I want them to fall in love with all the characters and go along with this ride and be there with them. And I think it opens up a lot to think about in terms of, again, this idea of an American tragedy.
Right. And I think it’s the reason why this story doesn’t go away, and people are still fascinated with it; it isn’t just because she got off. It’s because of how normal everybody was on the surface and how easy it is to succumb to something that you would never imagine like that.
Exactly. And what is that thing that tripped that… What is that straw that breaks the camel’s back? And that if that hadn’t happened, this would’ve never happened. So I think it’s about going deeper in all sorts of ways.
You mentioned [Hulu’s] Candy. There are certain stories that people look at over and over again. In fact, when Lizzie Olsen and I were talking, she mentioned with a play, there are certain plays that are done many, many times, and it’s when there’s something that people need to continue to explore. So I have to look at it that way.
I’m a mentor at the Sundance Director’s Lab, which is one of the most joyful things. I can’t even begin to tell you. I’ve certainly learned more than as much, if not more, than all the filmmakers who attend.
But one of the first exercises for the filmmakers is everyone’s given the same scene to direct, and every director directs it differently. So I think we’re looking at the same story, and I think we’re telling it really differently.
I would agree.
Hopefully, people will come along for that ride, even if they know what the end of it is, the end of the story.
Right. That story’s never going to change because it’s real.
And you’ve seen it all.
I have. I enjoyed them both. I think what Love and Death does differently is there’s more human emotion and exploration of who these players are, not just that they’re a part of the story.
That’s what we tried to do. And I wanted to create a visual world, a real world of the town, and a beauty of the town.
I think you achieved that.
Great. That’s great to hear. And now I’m in prep on another limited series, so there you go.
Oh, what’s next?
I am doing a six-part limited series for Netflix, and yes, I am directing all six parts.
And it’s a brilliant political thriller written by Noah Oppenheim, who wrote Jackie and the Divergent Series and Maze Runner, who was also president of NBC News until about a month ago. And he co-wrote it with Eric Newman, who created Narcos.
The story is by Michael Schmidt, who’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times. He wrote about the Mueller investigation. And they have written a pretty nail-biting political thriller called Zero Day.
You know that’s going to get a huge audience on Netflix.
Hopefully so. I’m really excited about it.
When does that start? Are you filming it already?
No. I started prep a week ago, and we start filming in June. And it stars Robert De Niro as the last ex-president who could reach across the aisle.
I saw the casting for that. Sounds very good.
Yes. I’m super excited about working with him. He’s one of my favorite actors.
Well, it sounds like you’re in for a wonderful year.
I’m looking forward to it.
Love & Death premieres on HBO Max on Thursday, April 27.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.