Brad Ingelsby: The Showrunner of Easttown

June 7, 2021
WARNING – MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, as we speak with the creator of 2021’s biggest streaming hit, Mare of Easttown starring Kate Winslet.

Mare of Easttown wasn’t a show only watched, but also talked about. The HBO miniseries hit the zeitgeist, drawing viewers into its murder mystery, and having them ask all the right and wrong questions. Similar to its titular character (played by Kate Winslet), viewers played detective. Every detail was examined under a microscope.

Nonetheless, the identity of Erin McMenamin’s killer still came as a shock. It was a twist pulled off without a hitch by the miniseries’ creator, Brad Ingelsby, and all involved. Few saw the killer’s reveal coming. It was far from the only revelation in the finale, titled “Sacrament.”

During a recent interview with Ingelsby, he took us behind-the-scenes of crafting the ending of Mare of Easttown.

 WARNING – MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

The finale is very much about mercy. Did you know from the beginning that was both the overarching theme and what the finale would emphasise?

“Absolutely, because the second person we cast in the show was Julianne [Nicholson]. We cast Julianne because we knew what Lori would have to go through in episode seven. We knew we needed an incredible actress to go through that, just the range of emotions and devastation Lori experiences. Julianne was the second person we cast in the show after Kate.

“You have to keep an audience entertained; I want the mystery to be surprising. I want an audience to be wrapped up in what’s going to happen. I don’t want to say I didn’t care about the mystery. Of course I did, and I wanted it to work and I hope it did work, but I was always way more interested in the character and what it said about this community and have it be a moment of empathy, mercy, and taking care of each other. It’s what I wanted the show to be about. I was always hoping the audience would leave the show and be glad they got to spend time with these people that they truly cared about and weren’t still wrapped up in the mystery.

“In addition, they left the series thinking, ‘Mare is going to be okay. It’s not going to be easy, but I think she’s going to be okay.’ Otherwise, it becomes too heavy. You know, Ryan’s arrested, you can’t really end on that. You have to end on a moment of hope. You have to let the audience think these people are going to be okay.”

The twist that Ryan was behind the murder is shocking. What were the challenges in pulling off a twist that major?

“First, I started to plan out the characters in the community. I didn’t know where the show ended, but once I landed on Ryan, in terms of the themes of the show, Mare’s lost her son, and Lori is her best friend… It felt like it was going to be emotional. Mare has to arrest Ryan. The one person who stood by her in her life was Lori, and she takes away her son too. I think the hardest part, honestly, was in editing the show. You had to have seen enough of Ryan so that when the surprise happened, it had to be believable and also surprising.

“So, that’s the tightrope we walked.

“There are plenty of moments in the show that we edited out, but then we put back in, just moments that linger on Ryan’s face. I think my greatest worry with the edit of the show was that if you arrived at the end and you realised it was Ryan, but you didn’t know him at all, you didn’t care about him at all, and you hadn’t experienced him or lived with him at all, it would have been flat.

“How do you have enough of him where it’s surprising, but also not too much of him where the audience’s head was always weighing… ‘Is there enough of him? Is there too little of him? Have we planted enough seeds, that the payoff will be rewarding and not cheap?’ That was always the issue I had with it.”

Was Mare lying to Ryan when she said it’s going to be okay?

“I think it was her trying to convince herself he was going to be okay and trying to be strong for him at that moment. Am I convinced Mare knew he was going to be okay in saying that? No. I’m convinced Mare wanted to send him off with a little bit of… I don’t want to use the word, hope… There’s not much hope in that scene, but maybe a bit of courage is the right word. There’s a lot of empathy in Mare, which is one of the parts of her that I genuinely love; that she’s not very nice to the people that are closest to her, but she’s empathetic.”

That’s true of a lot of people.

“Yeah, exactly. That is so true. I think there is this thing about Mare that she has a lot of empathy. It’s just not often shown in the best ways or with the people closest to her. And so, I think that is something that I believe Mare would have said to someone, even if it wasn’t Ryan who was going off. She wants to take care of this community and to be a pillar of strength in the community. It was believable that she would say that even if she wasn’t entirely convinced of it herself.”

When she discovers Ryan killed Erin, she doesn’t question arresting him. She does her job. Was it ever considered that she would hide the awful truth, though?

“Some people have asked me about that. Like, ‘Why wouldn’t you hide the secret? Why wouldn’t Mare let it go?’ The truth is, what does that say about her as an investigator, as a detective? What does it say, I think most importantly, about her commitment to Erin? It’ll feel like a total betrayal, right? In episode two, she stares at Erin in the creek, this young girl whose life was taken away at such a young age, a young mother. She makes a silent vow, ‘I’m going to find the person that did this to you.’

“If she looks the other way, what does it say about her and Erin? It felt like a betrayal of Mare as the character. When I was writing it, it never ever crossed my mind that Mare wouldn’t arrest him. It never crossed my mind.”

Another question answered in the finale is what else drives Mare, which she either discovers or finally admits is grief. How’d that reveal come about?

“That was such an important part of her character. She is adamantly not going to grieve and confront the death of her son. She is going to walk away from conversations where her son is mentioned. If you’re going to have a woman as stubborn as Mare walk up into the attic and then have those ultimate revelations, they’re so crushing and heartbreaking that they’d break down any walls. Not that they’re completely broken down, but there is a crack, if that would be enough to get Mare to go up there.

“Grief was something that Kate was just able to tap into silently all the time. One of my favourite moments in the show, and it’s just because of Kate’s performance, is when Brianna [Mackenzie Lansing above as Brianna] says, ‘No wonder your son killed himself.’ The look on Kate’s face is devastating. It takes the wind out of her.

“I think Kate was able to convey so much in the silence, the looks, and angst. Every time you mentioned Kevin on the set, this is the truth, Kate would start crying as if it was her own son that had taken his life. When the actor who played Kevin ever came on the set, she couldn’t even look at him without crying. She took ownership of this role as a mother who lost a child in such a way that it became so emotional to her and a testament to her commitment.”

You wrote [last year’s] The Way Back, which, similar to Mare of Easttown, ends with the protagonist returning to a place he didn’t think he could go back to. In this case, it’s the attic for Mare. What inspired the final shot?

“It’s funny, I have to give credit to a grief therapist we had on the show. We had a grief therapist, Ariel Stern, that we used on the show. The original version of the script ended with Mare and Lori on the floor. It ended there, actually. The ending image is of Mare saying, ‘I’m here,’ which is a callback to the homily Deacon Mark gives in episode two where he recounts a story where some woman confronted him, and he didn’t know what to say in a moment of grief. He said, ‘If I had to do it again, I would just say, “I’m here, I’m here for you. I’m here.’” But we had a conversation with Ariel and I said to her, I’m just trying to get a sense for what these sessions would look like and what a therapist would say.

“I remember saying to her, ‘Would you tell if someone who’s lost a child to suicide, would you tell them to go and visit a place where they had a happy memory? Or would you tell them to go somewhere and sit in a place where they had spent time together?’ And she said, ‘No, I would tell that person to go to the spot where it happened.’ I was surprised by that. I didn’t think that would be something that a therapist would suggest. She said, ‘I would tell them to go where it happened and to sit there and to confront it.’ Once she said that, I was like, ‘Oh, that could be a moment.’

“We started to think about it in terms of the structure. It was like, ‘Wait, here’s a woman that refuses to confront the loss of her son, so it makes total sense that the ending is an act of confronting it.’ We ended up using that at the ending, which I think is so appropriate now. Like, ‘Of course that’s the ending.’ It wasn’t until Ariel told me that, though. Obviously, it has a callback to The Way Back, which is him literally picking up a ball again. It does have some nice echoing there.”

Brad Ingelsby on the set

 

A lingering question remains, which is, will Glen one day say hello to Helen at the grocery store?

“[Laughs] Yes, we had one of the most hilarious shots that didn’t work tonally. During the homily, we had a shot where Glen looks back at Helen and kind of smirks at her and Helen’s like, ‘Urgh.’ It’s so hilarious in his reaction, but there was so much emotion leading up to that, it would’ve thrown the audience tonally out of place.”

Viewers also had questions about Richard, especially because he’s played by Guy Pearce. Were Richard’s lines, such as how women respond to him, meant to cause suspicion or was it always intended as natural conversation?

“It felt like natural conversation, but when you’re in the edit, you’re always looking at opportunities to have the audience leaning one way. Discoveries you make in the edit make you say, ‘Wow, that could be a moment of suspicion audiences linger on.’ You’re always trying to lean into those moments, but really, he was always written that way. We always imagined Richard as a character that came into her life at a very challenging time and helped her get through it. I wanted it to be just that.

“I have got to give credit to Kate because there were conversations we had about when Richard drives off at the end. We had a scene that we shot where they did a FaceTime call and we caught up with them and they were still talking. Kate made a great point, which is, ‘If Mare’s life is so good and so wrapped up and she has this love interest, then she makes her gesture or her act of going to see Lori easier.’

“Her life is still not perfect, and we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t know if she’s in a good place with Richard. Maybe if that relationship is over, then it’s more valuable, it’s more meaningful. The word I always came back to with Richard was tenderness. He offered her a level of tenderness that she didn’t often get; he listened to her. It certainly helped us as a mystery show to have Guy Pearce because every audience member is going, ‘It’s got to be Guy Pearce, right?’”

He’s a good contrast to Mare, too, as someone who’s accepted his mistakes and how things turned out, the good and the bad. Maybe indirectly, but is he a good influence for Mare, just another path she can see…

“I think so. I think Richard is a guy that has had some perspective. He’s made enough mistakes in his life that he can look at things now with a certain level of honesty and give Mare a perspective of a guy that’s made enough mistakes. He’s able to look at his own life and be honest about his shortcomings. I think that his honesty helps Mare be honest with herself, but also merciful with herself; to not be so hard on herself. I think that his honesty, his ability to confess to his own shortcomings as a father, as a husband, allows Mare to be open with herself. I don’t want to say he gives her lessons, but I think there are moments of honesty with him that allow Mare to be honest with herself.”

People were suspicious of Deacon Mark as well. Mark’s homily at the end is a real Rorschach test. Inspiring words about empathy and community, but at the same time, he has a previous allegation against him. It wasn’t answered whether he committed the crime, right?

“We actually had answered it at first. There’s this scene where Mare says to the Deacon, ‘I went and saw that girl that had the previous allegation.’ I think we got rid of it, the previous allegation. I will say to you, I’m not sure we explained it away enough, but in the script, what we learned and the intention is that the previous allegation wasn’t true, but had haunted him in such a way that he’s willing to throw Erin’s bike because he didn’t want to have to face the scrutiny of the allegations coming back.”

Not knowing if the allegation is true, it could greatly alter your perception of the homily, right?

“I think that’s true. One of the things that we talked about so much as well was, ‘Is it realistic that he’d be welcomed into this community? This is a merciful place and we’ve tried to portray them in a merciful way, but is it realistic?’ We went back and forth.

“One of the things that was helpful about the homily, in terms of the structure of the show, is that it allowed us to have a check-in with everybody that we had come to know and grow to become invested in over the course of the series. In the initial scripts, we had this big, long montage where we checked in with everybody and we saw how their lives were moving on.

“Structurally, I kind of lost it. I was talking to editors and saying, ‘This is a show about Mare and Lori. It’s not them splitting apart but coming together.’ And that’s what the episode is about, ultimately. There’s a lot of other things going on, in terms of the chase and the reveals, but let’s not get lost in other people at the end. Let’s just make it about these two women. The congregation gives you a little glimpse of everybody in your community.

“I felt we needed one little moment that nudged Mare enough to get her out of the house that morning to go and save Lori. We could have just had it with a therapist, we could have had it be any number of things, but it felt right that would nudge her. I wanted the ‘I’m here’ to resonate. It was nice to see the Deacon one more time, because those were his words when he was up at that podium initially. In terms of the structure and payoff, that was the best way to go about it.”

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