Boston Strangler Interview: Writer and Director Matt Ruskin on True Stories
ComingSoon Senior Editor Spencer Legacy spoke with Boston Strangler writer and director Matt Ruskin about the Hulu drama film. Ruskin spoke about adapting true stories and how much research went into Boston Strangler. The film is now streaming on Hulu.
“Reporter Loretta McLaughlin becomes the first person to connect a series of murders and break the story of the Boston Strangler,” reads the film’s synopsis. “She and Jean Cole challenge the sexism of the early 1960s to report on the city’s most notorious serial killer.”
Spencer Legacy: We’ve seen some glamorization of serial killers in the past, but your movie really puts the focus on Loretta and Jean’s pursuit of justice rather than the killer. Can you speak to focusing on that human triumph in the story?
Matt Ruskin: Yeah, I think the thing that really grabbed me was the Loretta and Jean’s story about these two women who worked tirelessly to keep the city informed and who were really committed to trying to get to the truth. So that was the focus for me and what initially really inspired the making of the film.
Then, just because it is a true story and these are real victims, we wanted to be respectful of them and didn’t want to create a gratuitous depiction of violence in any way. We also wanted to do it in a way that was equally horrifying for audiences. What I learned along the way was sometimes, the less you see, the more horrifying it actually can be.
We also see the sexism that McLaughlin faced in that era. What did you find most interesting about the difficulty she faced when you went about portraying it?
I mean, this was a woman who studied journalism at Boston University and had been at it for a long time and was still frustrated with the type of stories that she was getting. I think, at that period, newsrooms were even more male-dominated environments and both she and Jean came up against a ton of sexism while they were trying to do the work that was so important to them. But it’s a real testament to who they were, that they were able to create the careers for themselves that they wanted and also do such important reporting — particularly at a time when the police department was coming up short and people really relied on them to stay informed.
Keira Knightley is so excellent as Loretta. What really impressed you the most about what she was able to instill in that character?
Yeah, Keira’s amazing. She has this incredible outward strength, but also this really remarkable ability to be vulnerable and convey this interior life that is just so compelling to watch. So she’s like the perfect person to bring Loretta’s character to life. I also think that she could identify with Loretta on a personal level, being somebody with a demanding career and a family and the challenges that that go along in trying to balance that. She was dream casting for the role of Loretta, and pairing her with Carrie Coon was amazing, to just see their chemistry together. I think it really came across on screen.
In the movie, Loretta kind of has two lives where she has to split between her husband and family and her investigation. How did you go about portraying that and was it a difficult thing to convey?
I talked to Loretta’s kids. I talked to people who knew Loretta and just tried to get a sense of who she was and how she approached her life and her work. And like I said, I think it’s something that Keira could really identify with personally. In many ways, the film is about identity — not just the identity of this killer, but the identity of these women who were doing really important work at a time when there were very few women in their position.
You touched on it a bit, but how much research were you able to do into Loretta and Jean and their investigations?
I did a ton of research. I spent almost a year researching the film before I started writing, so I was able to access everything they had written for the paper. There’s a digital archive of everything from this newspaper, so I was able to read all of their reporting on the Boston Strangler.
I talked to family and friends, people who knew them quite well, and just spent a lot of time trying to understand the details of the case, the politics of the period, and then also things like how newsrooms operated back then. I talked to everybody I could track down
I thought David Dastmalchian was really great casting for Albert. He’s the sweetest guy in real life. How did you know he could play this really terrible, menacing killer?
Yeah, he is like the sweetest guy on the planet. I’ve seen some of it in other roles that he’s done — somebody who is not totally accessible, who seems like there’s so much going on with him on screen. Then in talking to him, he’s the sweetest, most thoughtful guy in the world. That also was a layer of comfort for me because I didn’t want to depict a two-dimensional villain, you know? I wanted to depict a human being who had a very troubled life, and David was also committed to doing that.
The case of the Boston Strangler is so large. There’s different suspects and there’s twists and turns the whole way. Was it difficult to adapt that long story in a way that was true to the multifaceted case, but still easy to follow for an audience?
Yeah, there’s a lot going on. I think that was one of the biggest challenges, was just, “How do you manage all this information and lay it out in a way that’s engaging and not boring or confusing?” So that was, for sure, a a big challenge both in writing and in editing the film — just trying to figure out how to simplify without oversimplifying ]and keeping the story moving.
Crown Heights was also based on a true story. There’s an added weight when you deal with real people and their traumas and triumphs and stories. What do you like most about working within that realm?
I think there’s both like a freedom in knowing that the story exists and all you have to do is interpret it, but then there’s also a limitation because it is what it is. You can’t really change the cornerstones of the story. But when I hear a really incredible true story, one where you say, “I could never make that up in a million years,” I always think that those are … I’m just taken by them and always think there’s some added weight to them because they really happened, that justifies their existence.
You’ve also written the last three movies you directed. Do you see yourself directing someone else’s script again, or do you want to continue to do both those roles?
I’d love to direct somebody else’s script. It’s all about just finding something that grabs me.
You’ve described Darren Aronofsky as a mentor at times. What did you learn most about working with Aronofsky that you’ve applied to your works?
He’s just such an incredibly talented visual storyteller and it just opened my eyes to how a story could be told in such a visual medium. It was the first movie I ever worked on, and he was just such a visualist that it really made an impression on me.
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