‘The Dropout’ was being written live in court and on set

"The Dropout" Showrunner Liz Meriwether poses for a portrait outside.

Halfway through filming The Dropout, showrunner Liz Meriwether received more than 1,000 pages of court documents from the Elizabeth Holmes fraud trial that would inform her story of the founder of blood testing startup Theranos.

(Birdie Thompson / Disney)

I stared at the email. It was just sent to me by journalist and podcast producer Taylor Dunn with the subject “More Text Messages Sunny + Eliz”. Taylor had co-produced The Dropout podcast for ABC News with Rebecca Jarvis and Victoria Thompson, and she had covered the Elizabeth Holmes trial and sent me regular updates when new evidence was introduced.

It was September 7th and we had been shooting the limited edition podcast adaptation for more than two months. We still had a month left. I had a 5 month old baby in the room next to my office and a live feed from the cameras rolling on my computer. I had spent two years on this series – researching, interviewing, writing, rewriting, rethinking, preparing, freaking out, rewriting again, freaking out again. I’d been on conference calls with lawyers for hours, going over every detail, every word, every action in every script. The writers had to justify our decisions with the facts we had, so we dug through them source material and attempted to piece together the mystery of what happened between Elizabeth Holmes and Sunny Balwani behind closed doors in Theranos.

And here I was about to open an attachment containing the actual text messages that Elizabeth and Sunny had written to each other. It was exciting and annoying. I was desperate for those text messages a year ago, even six months ago — not now, not when we’d already shot five episodes of the show, not when Naveen Andrews and Amanda Seyfried had already created their beautiful, nuanced performances in those roles . What if something in this appendix changed everything about the story? I went deaf, braced myself, and clicked the attachment.

The document comprised 1,451 pages. The text messages didn’t start until page 707. rows and columns. Events. Times. The conversations had a confusing, matter-of-fact organization. The drama and emotion, the panic and love, have been reduced to dates in a spreadsheet. These people, who had become characters in my mind and flesh and blood on camera, were living through the worst moments of their lives through subpoenaed text messages.

It was awkward to read, but I had to look.

We were going to start filming the next day’s scenes in a couple of hours, and I needed to know if everything we were going to shoot was still accurate. With constant squinting, I worked my way through 300 pages. I have a sticky note open on my desktop for citations and page numbers. I wrote down anything interesting or sad or funny or human. I wrote the messages where emotions broke through or where I could see a glimpse of life. I wanted to try to understand the everyday reality of Sunny and Elizabeth’s relationship – a relationship they had kept secret for 12 years.

In all the research I had done, almost nothing was known about who they were privately. The scenes I wrote between Sunny and Elizabeth were the hardest to write, and I found myself changing them wildly between drafts, which is never a good sign. Months ago, Naveen, Amanda, director Michael Showalter, producer Katherine Pope and I all got together in masks to read the scenes aloud. It was the first time I heard Amanda’s heartfelt, nuanced words Version of Elizabeth Holmes’ distinctive voice. Even through a mask, it felt electric. I watched these two actors make sense of a relationship that was so difficult to write. The last thing they needed was a million script changes based on those new text messages.

I didn’t have to worry. As I worked my way through the chart, I received a text message from Amanda: “Have you seen those new text messages?” Taylor had also sent the texts to Amanda, and now, like me, she read them through in the middle of the night. Once again, I was struck by the fearless, open way Amanda approached her work. She was already absorbing the new information and finding a place for it in her body, mind and heart.

And it was Amanda’s voice that I heard speaking through the news. There was an unexpected, almost childish, exuberance in Elizabeth’s messages to Sunny. She called him “Tiger”. They spoke about the intensity of their love for each other as if it were written in the stars. A message from Sunny to Elizabeth stood out. During the company’s downfall, Sunny had texted Elizabeth, “It was always your dream, not mine.” I knew I had to work that line into the scene where Elizabeth fired Sunny from the company, but I was terrified clear that we would shoot them the next day.

After the rehearsal, I sat on the floor of the huge, beautiful Theranos office and dictated the new lines to Naveen as he scribbled them into his pages. It had taken less than 24 hours for the words on the chart to become dialogue spoken on camera. The story was written in court and on our sets at the same time. it was crazy I felt alive and scared. That evening, as I watched Amanda and Naveen through the glass office walls, I heard a voice in my head. I’m a writer so I’m used to hearing voices, but that was my voice. And it was loud and insistent. “Remember this moment.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-08-16/the-dropout-liz-meriwether-writes-elizabeth-holmes-theranos ‘The Dropout’ was being written live in court and on set

Sarah Ridley

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