Erin Lee Carr Talks Kim Wall True-Crime Doc and Revisiting the Michelle Carter Story (Exclusive)

Erin Lee Carr
Divya Akhouri

The filmmaker turns her attention to the mysterious disappearance and murder of a Swedish journalist.

After tapping into the zeitgeist with the documentaries, Mommy Dead and Dearest, I Love You Now Die, At the Heart of Gold and Britney vs. Spears, Erin Lee Carr is back with Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall, another must-see examination of real life events. “Anybody who hears this story, I think it’s hard to not want to know more. It’s just so bizarre,” Carr tells ET about the 2017 submarine case surrounding the murder of Wall, a Swedish freelance journalist who died and was dismembered aboard a miniature submarine while interviewing its owner, Danish entrepreneur Peter Madsen.  

Premiering on HBO, the two-part documentary goes beyond the headlines and even the scripted version, The Investigation, which aired on the same network in 2021, to chronicle the events leading up to the ill-fated interview, to get new perspective on the case, and to examine what happened when Madsen went to trial. Most importantly, Undercurrent gives a voice to the journalist, whose life was not only cut short but whose story has since become a series of footnotes in her killer’s multiple and varying accounts of what happened aboard his submarine. 

“I was trying to make it as much about Kim as possible,” Carr says, before explaining that there were so many ways to tell this story, and that there were so many different fascinating elements to focus on, particularly the trial. “Peter Madsen was somebody that lied on the stand again and again and again, because it’s not illegal to lie in Denmark. And so, here was this sort of textbook case about misogyny run wild. And even in the court setting, it was all about him.” 

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When it comes to the prejudice against Wall, the documentary pushes back the questions surrounding her interview, including the way she was dressed, why she went alone and other specifics that wouldn’t necessarily be asked of a man. There was no doubt she was there to do a job and encountered a predator in the process of doing her work. “The people in the documentary explain to me it’s not because she was a journalist, it’s because she was a woman and she was smaller and she was there and it was only that she was lured on the submarine,” Carr says, adding that “she was killed because Peter Madsen felt that he could.”

As for Madsen, who was convicted of Wall’s murder, sentenced to life in prison and reportedly confessed to the crime in a 2020 interview, the documentary alleges that this may have not been the first time eccentric entrepreneur has killed. “Just based on my reading and working in this true-crime space, it is fairly atypical to have this type of brutal crime be your first crime,” Carr says. “I think time will tell if there were previous incidents. But it’s incredibly confusing to think that this was the first time he did something like that.”

Given that The Investigation, from Mindhunter director Tobias Lindholm, came first, Carr found it interesting trying to understand what she can add to the discussion from a documentary lens, especially when it came to adding new voices or expanding upon certain topics. It’s the reverse of so many true-crime narratives, which often start as a documentary before getting the dramatized, scripted treatment – in the same way the texting suicide case involving Michelle Carter went from an explosive investigative Esquire article written by Jesse Barron and Carr’s 2019 documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, to an upcoming Hulu series starring Elle Fanning

“I tried not to be star struck,” says Carr, who, as a consulting producer on The Girl From Plainville, had to get on Zooms with Fanning to figure out how to tell Carter’s story in a way that’s really about mental health.  

“I know I was put on earth to make documentaries. I love doing it. And I think one of the ways that society is having conversations is obviously documentary, but it is also episodic television,” she continues. “We’re all in this tango with each other, but I find it to be inspiring and interesting. And I think with the right people, very sensitively done.”

The filmmaker also acknowledges what an incredible time it is to be in the documentary space “and to be involved in these large scale discussions and projects with people like Elle Fanning and [showrunner] Liz Hannah and things like that.” Nowadays, Carr, who is working on a scripted project of her own, is able to approach stories from multiple perspectives. “I’m always looking for that next big thing… and the best way of doing it,” she says.

Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall debuts with back-to-back episodes on Tuesday, March 8 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and HBO Max.