How a playlist kickstarted writing ‘The Girl From Plainville’

Lisa Hannah.

Liz Hannah is the showrunner and producer of The Girl From Plainville.

(JJ Geiger / For the Times)

Liz Hannah starts every script by creating a playlist. For the author of The Girl from Plainville, music sets the tone and style of each project. It will be their Pole Star.

“It’s like the first step at work for me,” says Hannah, who is also a known procrastinator. “When I make a playlist, I’ve started making decisions, even if I don’t want to admit them. You know, picking a Talking Heads song over a Biggie song – they’re two different things.”

Stepping into the world of “Plainville,” the tone was inherently dark. The eight-part Hulu series stars Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts teenager accused of the 2014 suicide death of her boyfriend Conrad Roy. The only charge was essentially manslaughter via text message.

Hannah felt like she had to justify spending two years in this room and telling such a painful and uplifting story about very real people who are still in the world. Ultimately, she felt, “there was a humanity in a long form that we could explore, and I thought it was deserved.”

Balancing the bleakness of the story with this humanity and even lightness was the challenge she and her co-creator Patrick Macmanus took on. This is where the playlist came into play.

She often gets stuck in the early stages of a project trying to work out the tone, character and story, “and often listening to a song — whether it’s the lyrics or the melody or something in it — will unlock something. For me it almost always comes from the music.”

An obvious starting point was the music that the real Michelle and Conrad shared and in many ways found their identity.

Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan face off in a scene "The girl from Plainville."

Elle Fanning as Michelle and Colton Ryan as Conrad in The Girl from Plainville.

(Steve Dietl / Hulu)

Michelle was obsessed with the series Glee, which inspired Hannah to write several musical sequences that reveal the character’s fantasy life. The pilot episode culminates with Fanning standing in front of a mirror and speaking in sync with an emotional Lea Michele singing Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” on “Glee.” It’s a performative and disturbing scene that leaves the audience questioning Michelle’s sincerity and conscience.

As the series follows her budding romance with Conrad, she fantasizes about doing a full song and dance sequence to REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” with him – and as things unravel, she envisions the school choir her sister she molested the song “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus.

“It originally came out of research that Michelle would use ‘Glee’ quotes in her text messages as her own dialogue, sort of to validate them as things she’d said or quotes from ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and things like that. says Hannah, who portrayed Michelle as sort of a chameleon depending on who she was around. “So it gave us that one person, but I think it also kind of arched a little bit in terms of that’s a girl who wants to live in a fantasy.”

But even before Hannah thought about these literal incorporations of music, she had to find the more ethereal vibe or spirit of the show herself. She did this through songs that would not necessarily be made into the series but would help her find their way into the script and then communicate this to her team.

The first song she put on her “Plainville” playlist was Bon Iver’s “iMi”.

“I was driving home and this song came up,” she says, “and there was something about the way technology was brought into this song, like the electronic nature of it and the kind of sadness of the lyrics — there’s almost.” something of a narcissism in the lyrics. It was the first time I heard something that clicked.”

Another was a choral cover of the Ronettes song “Be My Baby,” which ended up accompanying the opening montage by Michelle and Conrad writing lyrics.

A woman poses for a portrait in front of a bush.

“It’s like the first step at work for me,” says Hannah, who is also a known procrastinator. “When I make a playlist, I’ve started making decisions, even if I don’t want to admit them. You know, picking a Talking Heads song over a Biggie song – they’re two different things.”

(JJ Geiger / For the Times)

“The song kind of kickstarted that idea,” says Hannah, “because it’s a very haunting cover of the song. It’s a duet, and it’s very possessive, and it spoke to me.”

Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” guided Hannah’s understanding of Conrad’s mother, Lynn (played by Chloë Sevigny). Jack White’s “Love Interruption” articulates the feeling of “a very violent, toxic love,” says Hannah, “but it’s set to this very heavy melody and this very distinct beat.”

Hannah originally wanted to bet on Queen’s “Bicycle Race” for Michelle and Conrad’s happy courtship montage – riding their bikes around the Florida coast. It worked well, but ultimately it was too obvious. Instead, editor Libby Cuenin found Tommy Roe’s sunny song “Sweet Pea,” which was then used to poignantly wrap up the series.

Hannah is used to working alone — listening to ’70s music and opera while writing the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s The Post — and it can be a lonely process. Making a playlist is one way to boost yourself when you’re hitting a wall, she says.

On television, and especially on a series where everyone needed to clearly know why they were telling that particular story, music was “a unifying way to get the writers’ room on the same page,” she says. “It was just like a group brain that we kept adding to.” How a playlist kickstarted writing ‘The Girl From Plainville’

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