Erin Lee Carr talks about her true-crime documentary, Lea Michele's influence and why she reached out to Amanda Knox for an interview.
Michelle Carter, who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the case surrounding Conrad Roy’s 2014 suicide and is now serving a 15-month prison sentence, is the subject of filmmaker Erin Lee Carr’s latest documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter.
The two-part series examines the 2017 precedent-setting criminal trial -- popularly known as the “Texting Suicide Case” -- of a teenage girl who was deemed responsible for sending texts that seemingly encouraged her boyfriend to kill himself. The case quickly became a national news sensation, which Carr attributes to the fact that Carter is pretty, privileged, and most notably, female. When there is a gender switch and the male is the victim and the girlfriend is the perpetrator, she says, it got a lot of people talking about it, sparking a huge debate around digital technology, social media and mental health.
And it was that intersection of technology and crime that piqued the interest of Carr and her producing partner, Andrew Rossi, whose two previous films together include Mommy Dead and Dearest and Thought Crimes. “When we found out that a young teen was indicted for involuntary manslaughter for texting her supposed boyfriend to kill himself, that felt absolutely like an HBO story,” Carr tells ET, explaining that they specifically look for cases that fall into a “very specific Venn diagram.”
Through various interviews with expert witnesses, friends, family and reporters who covered the trial at the time and unprecedented access to film the trial in real time, I Love You, Now Die explores the complicated relationship between these two teenagers that existed largely over thousands of text messages exchanged over two years while putting audiences inside the courtroom.
Replicating the experience of what it's like to observe the trial in person, the film is broken up into two parts -- “The Prosecution” and “The Defense” -- so that Carr can show audiences what has been reported and “the narrative that was always put forth,” she says, and then subvert that by then showing what’s the other side of that story. The end result is a true-crime documentary that unfolds like “a psychological thriller,” she says. “This is about the psychological principles of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy. What motivated [them]? Why did they do it?”
While heavily covered in the news at the time, I Love You, Now Die still delivers plenty of surprises, pulling together fascinating insight and shocking details about the relationship between Carter and Roy, and the actions that followed his suicide. For Carr, what she was most surprised to learn was that Carter was a lonely girl who sought validation from people. In the months after Roy’s suicide, Carter was showered with attention and “she’s talking about quote-unquote getting famous,” the director says, particularly when it comes to throwing a fundraising event in his honor. “That’s so misguided and so inappropriate.”
Another shocking revelation, first uncovered by Esquire writer Jesse Barron, is the fact that Carter would quote the show Glee as well as star Lea Michele’s interviews about her late boyfriend and co-star, Cory Monteith, in text messages to Roy. It’s one of the earlier instances that Carter brings up death in their conversations and that she saw herself as Michele or the on-screen character, Rachel, in her relationship.
“Not only was she quoting sort of language from Glee the TV show, which a lot of young girls do, but she was quoting the real-life actress,” Carr says. “And to me, that was really important to put in because it really made you question, like, ‘What is Michelle Carter’s concept of reality?’ And, ‘Is she living in this reality?’”
Also playing into Carter’s reality were films like The Fault in Our Stars, about two teenage lovers dying of cancer, which she saw five days before Conrad’s death. After, she texted Conrad, “I literally can’t stop crying lol what’s up with you?” According to Barron, “it doesn’t seem implausible to me that there were other stories in Michelle’s mind that reminded her of what was happening at that moment. And I think the question is whether or not she was writing some story in her head or writing some movie that for some reason had to end with him dying.”
While Carr says that she did not reach out to Michele for comment, she did reveal that she asked Amanda Knox to participate in the documentary. Knox is famously known as the American college student found guilty and later exonerated of murdering her roommate while studying abroad in Italy. The case became tabloid fodder, blurring the lines between hard news and sensational storytelling and was later re-examined in the 2016 Netflix documentary Amanda Knox, which finally allowed her to tell her own story. “This is one of the only people that can understand, in a small way, Michelle Carter’s fight,” Carr says. While Knox wrote an op-ed about the case, saying that Carter “deserves sympathy and help,” she declined an interview for the film.
Additionally, Carter and her parents declined to participate in the film, the director says, largely because they were still in the middle of an ongoing legal battle, trying to appeal the involuntary manslaughter conviction. Following her 2017 conviction, her legal team immediately filed an appeal in the Massachusetts court. In February 2019, she lost her appeal and was taken into custody. As of Monday, July 8, Carter took her case to the U.S. Supreme Court by filing a petition that the conviction violated her First Amendment right.
With that said, Carter’s voice is still heard thanks to all the text messages that are featured in the film. “I know this is very convenient to say, but it’s almost like you didn’t need to have her voice because I don’t know what she would have said in the interview,” Carr says. “It’s like, ‘What does somebody say when they feel like they’re not being watched?’ And I think that’s what our film does.”
I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter premieres on back-to-back nights from July 9 to July 10 on HBO.