Crimes of Passion and Desperation in Love & Death

Director Lesli Linka Glatter and star Patrick Fugit revisit one of Texas' most infamous murders

Elizabeth Olsen, Patrick Fugit, Jesse Plemons, and Lily Rabe in Love & Death (Courtesy of HBO)

As a director, story comes first for Lesli Linka Glatter. “Everyone has a story,” she says, and hers is as good as anyone’s. Before she was a filmmaker, she was a modern dancer and choreographer. She’d trotted the globe, spending time in London and Paris (“this is back when the American government sponsored the arts”) before working five years in Tokyo. One day she was in the Shibuya district, looking for a coffee shop, and had to pick between two. “Arbitrarily, I picked the one on the right,” and that set her on a path to that led to directing Love & Death, the new true-crime drama from HBO, debuting at this weekend’s South by Southwest Film and Television Festival.

“It’s about the women and the men of that era who did everything right. ... Well, why do you feel so empty?” – Lesli Linka Glatter

Inside the coffee shop, she met an old Japanese man, who told this twentysomething American his life story. Friendship blossomed, “and he and his wife are like my surrogate parents when I’m living there. ... He would tell me these stories about human connection, and I knew I had to pass on these stories, and I knew it wasn’t dance.” Instead, she ended up making her first short film, the Oscar-nominated “Tales of Meeting and Parting,” launching a four-decade career that has seen her work on dozens of shows, from Gilmore Girls to Mad Men. Often she’d work single episodes – an experience she equates to “going into someone’s kitchen and you’re asked to make a gourmet meal. They’re supplying the ingredients, and you can come in with your spices and maybe your favorite knives, but you’re not going to change those ingredients, and you have to make the best gourmet meal you can possibly make.” However, she's also an experienced producer of high-profile series like The Chicago Code and Homeland (for which she also directed 25 episodes): she combined all that experience into developing (with showrunner David E. Kelley) from scratch, as well as directing five of the seven episodes, including the all-important tone-setting pilot.

The story behind Love & Death would attract anyone’s attention. In 1980, suburban Texas everywoman Candy Montgomery (played here by Elizabeth Olsen) was charged with murdering her fellow Methodist congregant Betty Gore (Lily Rabe) with an ax. The killing – a crime surrounded by lust and jealousy – still fixates true-crime journalists, documentarians, and filmmakers: There’s a 1990 TV film, A Killing in a Small Town, starring Barbara Hershey as Montgomery, and a recent series for Hulu, Candy, that was filming at the same time as Love & Death. Most importantly, Evidence of Love: A True Story of Passion and Death in the Suburbs, the nonfiction book by Texas Monthly writer-at-large Jim Atkinson and John Bloom (better known as gonzo cinema historian Joe Bob Briggs), upon which Love & Death is based. “When I read the story,” Glatter says, “I thought, 'You cannot make this up, it has to be true.'”

In a way, it’s the perfect story for Glatter. One of her first major TV gigs was directing four episodes of Twin Peaks for David Lynch – a mentor who she credited with teaching her the difference between “dollar scenes and 25 cents scenes.” That show was also obsessed with the seedy underbelly of Americana, and the connection is never stronger than in the murder scene. Glatter described it as one of the most intense experiences of her directing career, filming an act of astonishing violence between two women “in the middle of this small-town dream. The irony of that, and the juxtaposition of that, is fascinating.”

Such stories come with certain responsibilities – after all, there were real people, many of whom are still alive. Patrick Fugit, who plays Candy’s husband, Pat, has played pulled-from-real-life characters before: Indeed, his first role as aspiring rock journalist William Miller in Almost Famous was based on writer/director Cameron Crowe, who was around to give advice, “but he didn’t do that a lot, because he didn’t want to sway me.” Here he had no access to Pat or any of the other real figures, and he admitted he preferred working that way. “We’re telling a story here that is very much about human nature, and how people make decisions. And obviously there’s a lot of bad decisions made in this particular story.” In fact, his understanding of Pat, and his relationship with Candy, was drawn from Kelley’s scripts and his first meetings with Olsen. “We did a little bit of rehearsal and a little bit of scene play together, but mostly we talked about the characters, and that’s really where it solidified for me.”

It was also a story the Dallas-born Glatter wanted to bring back to Texas, and so Love & Death was filmed around Austin. The team scouted around the original Collin County locations, “but they’re all cities now,” and so they headed south to find the kind of small towns that still have those period-accurate buildings that haven’t been renovated, retaining wood paneling rather than gleaming white modern walls. That was particularly challenging for locations like the motels where Candy and her lover, Betty’s husband Allan (Jesse Plemons), hold their secret trysts. “They have all either been totally upgraded or they’re falling apart,” Glatter says. “The Continental Inn is actually three locations. I can’t even remember how many gallons of paint had to be used. We had to repaint it, because it didn’t look new.”

Much like that first life-changing meeting in a Tokyo coffee shop, Love & Death comes from a time and a place that may now seem alien to many, yet really comes back to the bonds and strains of personal connections. “It’s an American tragedy,” Glatter says. “It’s about the women and the men of that era who did everything right. They get married at 20, they have the kids, they start a family, the men have successful careers, the wives are mothers, they move to the suburbs. Well, why do you feel so empty? Why is there a hole in your psyche a mile wide? And obviously Candy Montgomery picks the wrong way to fill that hole.”

TV Premieres

Love & Death

World Premiere

Sat 11, noon, Paramount Theatre

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