In her Michelle Carter documentary, filmmaker asks viewers to be the jury
It was a case that captivated the nation, first with its disquieting details, then with the legal implications of its outcome.
Seventeen-year-old Michelle Carter bombarded her suicidal boyfriend with dozens of texts encouraging him to carry out a plan to take his own life — until he did, flooding his truck with carbon monoxide fumes in a Fairhaven, Mass., parking lot.
Throughout the highly publicized trial that followed, prosecutors successfully cast Carter as a cold-blooded manipulator, who goaded Conrad Roy III into suicide so she could bask in peers’ sympathies at school.
But did Carter’s part in Roy’s death constitute criminal action — as first ruled in 2017 with her involuntary manslaughter conviction, and upheld five months ago in Massachusetts’ highest court — or immoral behavior by a troubled young woman?
“Michelle Carter is seen as almost this indefensible character,” says director Erin Lee Carr, speaking by phone. “I’m doing the exact inverse of that; I’m creating a defense but also allowing you to see the prosecution.”
In her two-part HBO documentary “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter,” airing Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m., Carr sketches a complex picture of Carter and her toxic, mostly text-based relationship with Roy, imploring audiences to make up their own minds on whether she belongs behind bars. The film’s first half focuses on the prosecution’s case against Carter, while its second shades in her personal struggles more sympathetically.
In opting for a bench trial, Carter left her fate in the hands of a judge; viewers of Carr’s film, the director hopes, can serve as the jury she never had. And with Carter’s lawyers expected to appeal her case to the US Supreme Court this month, the film arrives at a critical juncture.
“I love that documentary filmmaking is an additional venue to discuss fraught criminal cases,” says Carr, 31. “Sometimes, the court system has an inability to see nuance. This is a possible route to recontextualize and reimagine cases.”
All Carr’s films dig deep into dark, complicated subjects. Her first, “Thought Crimes,” covered the infamous case of the cannibal cop, who fantasized about raping and eating women, while “Mommy Dead and Dearest” probed Gypsy Rose Blanchard’s murder of her abusive mother Dee Dee. Her latest HBO doc, “At the Heart of Gold,” shone a light on the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal, letting victims of now-imprisoned ex-sports doctor Larry Nassar share their stories.
Producer Andrew Rossi, Carr’s frequent collaborator, says “I Love You, Now Die” looks intently at whether one person can truly be responsible for another’s suicide.
“It was always a question of what kind of legal precedent is being set,” he explains by phone. “How comfortable are we as a society with this determination, ultimately, that she was guilty?”
Asked whether she feels justice was served in the case, Carr avoids taking a personal stance. “It’s even-handed,” she says of the documentary. “For me to answer that shows you my hand.” That said, the filmmaker has issues with how media outlets covered Carter and prosecutors framed their case.
“I do feel safe in saying that I believe Michelle Carter was demonized,” says Carr. “Here’s this pretty girl with eyebrows, who knew what she was doing and killed him to become popular is a good story,” she adds. “But is it the actual story? No.”
Before investigating, like many others, Carr had been morbidly transfixed by those text messages. “It’s now or never.” “You just need to do it, Conrad.” “No more waiting.” And most chillingly, after Roy is alleged to have gotten out of the car in which he was dying: “Get back in.”
“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” says Carr, recalling her “vitriolic” reaction to first reading Carter’s texts. “I’ve seen bullying, and people have said mean things to me, but to see this — a strategic, intense pushing of someone toward an act that will irrevocably change their life and their families’ lives — a lot of people would look at that and say, ‘She’s sick.’ ”
But Carr suspected there was more to the story and felt compelled to take a closer look. The daughter of David Carr, the late New York Times columnist, she grew up around storytelling, grasping early on the importance of treating interview subjects with compassion. Carr learned harder lessons from her father, too. A complicating force in their relationship was his addiction to alcohol and crack cocaine. In the journalist’s 2008 memoir “The Night of the Gun,” he interviewed people from his past to confront shaky memories of his life on the street, including the time he put Erin and her twin sister into foster care.
“My dad, through his own admission, did terrible things and grew into somebody respectful, empathic and with humility,” explains Carr. “As I approach people seen as indefensible, there’s a part of me that really wants to prove otherwise.”
Researching the case, Carr soon came to understand it as a tragedy of not one but two young people in free fall, both with severe mental issues, both rapidly uncoupling from reality.
Carter and her family members declined all requests to be interviewed (Roy’s family is heavily featured). But Carr and Rossi nonetheless felt they could effectively include Carter’s voice by drawing upon tens of thousands of her texts.
“It’s a trove as a filmmaker,” says Carr.
Staring such darkness and despair in the face has taken a personal toll, Carr admits. “It’s hard to think about suicide for four years,” she says. “It’s not great to melt your brain in.”
Carr has projects in the works at HBO and Netflix, though she’ll take a breather once her next one wraps in August. “I listen to my therapist,” says Carr. She plans to get a dog.
Still, she remains drawn to true crime, in all its stomach-churning detail. “I’m in this little pocket of telling stories about people who did terrible things, but [for whom] maybe there’s something else there,” she says. “It’s something I feel I was put on this Earth to do.”
I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth V. Michelle Carter
On HBO, July 9 and July 10 at 8 p.m.