The pair reunite to discuss David E. Kelley’s treatment of the infamous Texas true-crime story of Candy Montgomery, a housewife accused of killing her paramour’s wife.
HBO/Max’s Love & Death is, in the words of its director, Lesli Linka Glatter, about an American tragedy. Following Candy Montgomery (Elizabeth Olsen), the seven-part limited series examines a Texas woman who seemingly had it all — the perfect family, the perfect marriage — but there was something darker under the surface. After she embarks on an affair with Jesse Plemons’ Allan Gore, the picture-perfect facade fades away. And the tragedy that unfolded is a shocking one: When Gore’s wife, Betty (Lily Rabe), discovers the affair, she — at least according to Montgomery’s testimony — attacked her husband’s mistress with an ax, at which point Montgomery snapped and struck Gore 41 times with the weapon.
The 1980 murder has compelled readers since it was written about in Texas Monthly — so much so that Love & Death is the second time the crime has received the limited series treatment (following last year’s Candy, starring Jessica Biel in the title role).
Glatter and Olsen spoke with THR about the films that inspired the show’s tone and what it was like to shoot the grisly murder.
What was your reaction to the project when it came your way, and did anything stick out that you thought might be a challenge?
LESLI LINKA GLATTER I read the Texas Monthly articles. If this story wasn’t true, you couldn’t make it up. I could not quite believe that this was real life. I was totally fascinated by it, because the circumstances were so beguiling and intriguing to me. And then I jumped into reading the nonfiction book, Evidence of Love. And then lo and behold, David E. Kelley had been sent the same stories. We had never worked together, and I had always wanted to. What immediately made me excited and nervous simultaneously was that there was a big tone shift. There are many things in the beginning that have an inherent humor. You have an affair that starts with people talking about it for three or four months. It’s the most unsexy beginning of any affair ever. And then, this horrible murder happens. The tone shifts pretty drastically in episode four.
ELIZABETH OLSEN Candy was a character that I felt like I hadn’t played. And then [there was] the writing. There was some quirk and absurd oddity to it. I was curious when I spoke with Lesli and David to see if that was just my perspective or if that was intentional and if that was the goal. It was a world that I was excited to play around in and a woman I wanted to understand.
As an actor, what was your way into the character, beyond just reading what was given to you?
OLSEN I always start with a voice for someone, especially if there’s regionalism or a time-period shift. I don’t know what she sounds like; there were no recordings that I could listen to. Then I was trying to find what made sense — how would someone from this place, who has the value system that I was building in my mind, use their voice? Their femininity? Their agreeableness? What in the sounds will help them get what they want? And then it was like a virus … The voice became a walk, physical gestures. It was really fun building her.
Lesli mentioned the tonal shift in the series. I’m from the South, so I know how easy it is to put on a Southern accent and get people to laugh at it. How did you find the natural humor while still respecting the characters in the story?
GLATTER I grew up in Texas. My family was from New York, so we were liberals in the South. There’s something about Texas: It’s a land of possibility and wide open spaces, and there’s an incredible beauty there. I wanted to be sure that we captured that. There’s something very bucolic on the surface, but what’s underneath is quite different. A place, a town, a world is never one thing. There are always many more colors in that.
We had such an extraordinary cast. They were living through who these people were at the time, and that helped create the world in a real way, and the circumstances are what happened in the story. Like, I would never have made the choice to set an [extra-marital] encounter in a hotel that looked like Medieval Times, but that’s where it happened. There they were, having these serious conversations about being truthful in your relationship, with a knight in shining armor there. I mean, the irony of that — I love it.
Elizabeth, did you worry about going too far with the humor? Because I do think Candy is very funny.
OLSEN As I get older, something feels more inspiring and exciting about [performances] that feel braver, bigger. I felt like I was taking care of her. I do know that sometimes Patrick Fugit [who played Candy’s husband, Pat Montgomery] and I would think that we were in The Three Stooges, and that is when Lesli would say, “I actually don’t think this scene is about you guys making a joke right now.” So yeah, I did ham it up a bit. But also the women that I was thinking about that I have come across in my life, they ham it up in life, but they love it. I was finding inspiration from those who live life in a bigger way. And tonally, what was helpful were film references that Lesli used as a language for us as actors before starting. We understood tonally where things could be funny and then take a sharp turn.
I’d love to hear some of those references.
GLATTER To Die For was definitely [a film] where I thought that it never makes fun of the characters, but it has this extraordinary tone. Election, Fargo, Blue Velvet …
OLSEN One of the hardest movies to watch.
GLATTER Again, it’s so much about what’s beautiful on the surface: You’ve got the perfect white picket fence, but the paint is all peeling. And The Accused, which couldn’t be more different. I felt like because the crime was, in some ways, as horrible as that rape in The Accused — you need to see it. Now, we didn’t show 41 blows of the ax. That would be intolerable.
Speaking of which, I can only imagine how difficult it was to film the murder scene. Did you always know how far you wanted to go?
GLATTER I took beat-by-beat from Candy’s description of what happened in the room, literally down to the Mother Goose book that was on the floor and the child’s toilet and the dog bowl. She’s very detailed about what happened. I storyboarded everything, because anytime you’re doing anything with actors that has any danger in it, you want to be sure you’re being impeccably safe. I’ve done a lot of action sequences. I’ve blown shit up all over the world. But this was so up close and personal with these two women. Being there watching it, it felt like they inhabited every take with full adrenaline. And Lily was very pregnant. So that’s a whole other thing out into the mix.
OLSEN Yeah, I didn’t want to do physical things to her while she was pregnant.
GLATTER I remember her saying, “You can do this full out with me.”
Was this something you were able to shake off at the end of the day?
OLSEN What’s hard is that it happens in such a compact amount of time, and you’re doing it over multiple days. You reflect and focus and you go back and do it again, and hopefully it doesn’t get watered down. I really try not to think about my experience of [acting]. I understand, yes, things affect me, but to talk about it seems odd. It’s, like, you’re just doing your job.
GLATTER I took it home. At the end of that first day, I just thought, “Oh my God.” Because it felt real, and I knew it was a true story. That hurt in some way. I think we showed enough for you to know the horror of what really happened. It was not one blow; it was over and over and over. Hopefully, all that was necessary to tell the story.
Were either of you tempted to watch Hulu’s Candy? I know Love & Death was developed first …
GLATTER We were actually two months into filming, so we were well on our way. I think we were much less of a true-crime story and much more into why this happened rather than how. It’s an American tragedy. It’s something about a crack in the American dream. But no, I did not watch it.
OLSEN I love all those actors involved. There’s an attachment to what we made, and I don’t need to see it. I would have loved to have watched it if I hadn’t had this experience.