An inside look at HBO's brutal true-crime doc "Mommy Dead and Dearest"

Erin Lee Carr on her new documentary and what led to the "really terrible night in that little pink house"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 21, 2017 3:30PM (EDT)

Courtesy of HBO
Courtesy of HBO

It began as a shocking murder of a mother, the disappearance of her disabled daughter, and an alarming Facebook post. But after Dee Dee Blanchard was stabbed to death in June of 2015, the story grew even stranger and more brutal from there.

Earlier this week, HBO debuted "Mommy Dead and Dearest," director and producer Erin Lee Carr's gripping, twisty documentary about an abusive mother, her pliant daughter Gypsy, and Nicholas Godejohn, the boyfriend Gypsy met on a Christian dating site —  who became her co-defendant in a murder trial. To reveal much more would deprive you of some of film's biggest gasps. Let's just say, see it.

Salon spoke recently to Carr, whose previous work includes "Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop," about the case that fascinated the nation.

It seems the film came together pretty quickly.

To me, coming from the world of Web, a year and a half of your life is a very long time. The story just dictated that it would take that long. It took over a year to get access, in terms of video, to Gypsy.

I happened upon the story like many others. My coproducer sent me a link to a piece about a young woman who was forced to live in a wheelchair. I was completely obsessed with it from the jump, because you'd never heard anything like it before. There are so many elements of tragedy and deception that are all together in this one story.

Michelle Dean did a fantastic job writing that piece. It was so comprehensive. I was like, I hope that there's still enough there. There is. People had not seen or heard from Gypsy, and a lot of the film is her telling her story. It was important to us that I let her speak for herself. I think that's what people will respond to. It doesn't feel like this manufactured version of her that we've seen for so many years. It is her saying, this is the really terrible, dark stuff. There's stuff in the movie that is uncomfortable to listen to, to hear. That is what she told me. For me to purify or edit that — the really dark aspects — it just wouldn't work. 

One of the really crystallizing moments in the film is Michelle Dean talking about how despite everything, despite all of Dee Dee's pathological interventions, this is also a story about adolescent lust gone haywire when a girl hasn't had a chance to express it in a normal and healthy way.

And not to be alarmist, but this is what happens when you only have access to Disney films and the internet. How do you know how to do things? How do you handle conflict? How do you get out of an abusive relationship? She was in two abusive relationships, her mother and then Nick.

It reminded me in a lot of ways of  "Heavenly Creatures," this fantasy world that becomes a real crime.

Oh my God, yes. I saw "Heavenly Creatures" at a very formative age. And I watched it and I watched it and I watched it again. It became this reason for me to be thinking about filmmaking. First I wanted to be a film critic — I was obsessed with watching movies. [Carr's father was the much-missed author and media critic David Carr, who died in 2015.] I re-watched it as I was making this. I re-watched "Room," and a lot of true crime, because it's: What do people do right? What do people do wrong? This could not feel formulaic. I did not want you as the viewer to say, "Okay, I see where this is going." That's why we started with the murder. How do we present this film in an unsettling way, where the viewer does not know where we're going to go next?

How did you get access to Gypsy?

It always starts with letters when you're doing prison access. You can't really talk to them on the phone, you can't get their email. I think a large part of getting access was talking a lot with Mike Stanfield, her lawyer. A lot of journalists want to get around the lawyer. His client was facing the potential death penalty. I said, "I'm going to stay here for the long haul. I don't know if there's going to be a plea deal that's taken. I need you to keep me in mind as we're moving forward." Working with the family, working with her lawyer, working with her, ultimately led to this moment where we were given access. There were other outlets looking to interview her but I think we were the clear and obvious choice. It's HBO. And it's somebody that wasn't frantically trying to get around the defense team.

It's interesting to watch Gypsy on this fast track to adulthood now, as a woman in her twenties.

In our interview with her, she's articulate, she self-referential. She's so smart. And then when it comes to interacting with her family [toward the end of the film], it's so nice for them to be together, it's heartfelt, but she's not acting like the woman we just saw. That felt very confusing for me. I think around people, she acts younger for her age.

I think you do say in the film, as delicately as possible, that this is a girl who's spent her whole life in the company of liars. I believe if you grow up around abuse, you become a good liar yourself.

Well, you co-adapt that behavior, because basically you're looking to survive in those moments. Gypsy tried to run away and she was threatened with physical violence. I think in order to survive, we need to learn the skill sets that are present around us. I'm very lucky that I was able to garner support from my family to use those skills. In some cases it's completely the opposite. It's really unfair.

In constructing this story, what were your priorities? How did you know what you did and didn't want it to be?

For me, it was that Gypsy feel her voice was present. All her life, people were trying to silence her. I could not be another woman doing that to her. That felt deeply important. I am very sex positive; I don't want to be looking at BDSM and things like that like "Oh, this is wrong." But I did believe that Nicholas Godejohn, her co-defendant, used it as a form of abuse. And that felt like a really specific and difficult line to communicate in terms of a feature doc. I think third, that it felt like a mystery. That you kept watching. We open with a murder, so it's not confusing that somebody ends up dead. I wanted there to be tension throughout the whole film. In terms of what it was not going to be, you can look at many programs where there are flashes of lightning, it's heavily edited. They immediately say that Gypsy's dangerous. There are moments in the film when you consider if Gypsy is dangerous, but I want that to be a question. And is it because of the abuse?

Did that change as you got to know her?

It did. There are inconsistencies that happened in her story. I say that with respect, knowing that stories can change when you're under duress and when you have been abused your whole life. Putting something together, it was really important to me that it be as close to the truth as possible. I do not feel that Gypsy is a physically dangerous person. I think the only person that she can be dangerous toward is herself as she moves forward in life. She's well-meaning. The question is, can she move forward after the trauma that she's been through?

And yet when you look at the conversations and exchanges she and Nicholas were having, it is extremely shocking. Or that video of them in the hotel room after the murder.

I literally can't be in the same room with that clip. It makes me so uncomfortable. [Co-producer] Andrew Coffman and I had a long discussion about it. He made the very important point that this is archival that puts us in the moment the day after the murder. This is how she was feeling at that moment. It's not her telling us now.

It's also fascinating because, how did they think they were going to get away with this?

I don't think they did think they were going to get away with it. From what Gypsy has told me, they thought that Nick was going to take the fall if they got caught. That shows no understanding of the criminal justice system, no understanding of reality. She did not live in reality. She thought, "Nick will take the fall and then something will happen to me." Absolutely not! The fact that they mailed the murder weapon! What were they thinking?

Nick remains such an enigma, but I think the film does the best it can in terms of presenting who he was and how he was able to have this hold over her.

Honestly, I think it could have been anyone. I think she was so desperate for a way out. It's very tragic that this happens to have been the person that was the other end of that chat. In terms of his ability to manipulate, I don't think he was gifted in that department. I think he was there. He was willing.

Of course it's a tragedy, but had Dee Dee not died, that would have been a tragedy too. I think, what would have happened to Gypsy if her mother hadn't died? Part of what makes this terribly fascinating is that you can't look at this horrific, twisted crime without wondering, where's another scenario where Gypsy gets out?

I think her mother would have murdered her. I don't know if I've said that before but I do. I believe that. [Gypsy] had a feeding tube. You can see the pictures of the medication in that padlocked closet. Gypsy was growing more and more defiant of her mother and Dee Dee was a very mentally unstable person. I think it would have been really easy for Gypsy to murder her. Gypsy's stepmother tells the story that she and Dee Dee were having a conversation, and Dee Dee said, "If Gypsy dies, I hope I die too. We can't live without each other." What? Does that mean you were going to murder her?

Not everyone knows about Munchausen by proxy syndrome, and as someone says in the film, "Gypsy fell through every possible crack imaginable." That's another thing — how does this happen? How does this girl wind up with dozens of surgeries, hundreds of hospital visits, multiple medications? 

It says something about how we see handicapped men and women. We think that they're helpless. We think that they're taken care of. We think that someone else will take care of them. There is something that happens when we see a young person in a wheelchair that causes people to say, "Oh, that's so sad. I'm going to look away now." It is too uncomfortable for many people to consider. And there's been no general discussion of how handicapped men and women are just people. Constantly, people talked to Gypsy like she was a baby. Her mother did say she was mentally incapacitated, but a couple of years younger. There was no need to talk to this girl like she was a baby.

Do you think about what happens next for her, when she does get out of prison as a woman in her early thirties?

My hope, and I believe this to be true, is that her family will be there when she gets out. She will have a support network and she can find out what she wants to do next. I would want her to continue working on herself. I know it's important to her that she have children. That is her choice as a woman who has control over her body. I just hope that she can experience happiness, can experience driving, putting on makeup. I hear my voice getting lighter as I talk about her. I'm hopeful. There's been discussion about whether we would or would not film when she gets out, because it's, what happens next? It's a hostage story. What happens when you've been released?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams