BOSTON — An HBO documentary debuts Tuesday chronicling the torrid trial of Michelle Carter and her relationship with Conrad Roy, the young man who killed himself -- ostensibly at her behest.
“The second I heard about the Michelle Carter case I had a gut feeling that it would make national news and so I wanted to be one of the first ones to the story and cover it in a long-term format,” the film’s director Erin Lee Car told Boston 25 News in a phone interview Tuesday.
Carr is a renowned journalist known for her previous documentaries Mommy Dead and Dearest, At the Heart of Gold and Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop.
The first part of her latest documentary, I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter, debuts Tuesday night on HBO and its streaming platforms.
"It’s my third film with HBO that sort of covers the intersection of crime and the internet," the director said.
Carr, daughter of the late New York Times journalist David Carr, has built a reputation as a stellar true crime documentarian.
Her first documentary about a New York City Police Officer accused of writing online about a plot to kill, cook, and eat women drew widespread acclaim for bringing central questions of 21st-century dialogue to the forefront.
“There are a lot of similarities between [the Carter] case and the Cannibal Cop case,” she said. “It’s really about the legal system and whether or not it can catch up with our 21st-century digital innovation. Can a text message be coercion? Can it be action? Can it be a fantasy? There’s just so much gray here in a world of black and white.”
Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Conrad Roy by Judge Lawrence Moniz in a bench trial (meaning there was no jury) in 2017. In the days and weeks, before Roy killed himself, the pair exchanged near-constant text messages about his plans to take his own life.
But it was a message she sent to friends, in which she confessed to telling him over the phone to get back in the truck filling with toxic air from a generator, that convicted her of manslaughter.
The hundreds of texts full of shockingly repetitive urges to go through with his suicidal plans drew attention to her case from around the world.
Carr said her documentary aims to take people deeper into the story and expose the humanity at the heart of the alleged crime. It’s why, she says, her beat is true crime.
“I want to be one of the best true crime filmmakers around,” she explained. “I want to bring us out of just seeking to tell torrid stories of sort of pathological disturbances, but really about human error and all the days and moments that led up to the crimes that the accused is thought to have taken part in.”
Carr says her documentary centers largely on the Roy family and all the loved ones he left behind.
“He becomes the kid on the receiving end of these text messages, but Conrad Roy was a human being who had a lot of people who loved him. It was important to not forget about him for one second,” she said.
The documentary crew did not get a chance to sit down with Michelle Carter or her family.
“I have an open invitation to show her the film once she gets out of jail if she ever wants to sit down with me,” Carr said.
She says this case is so important because of the societal implications, not only when it comes to free speech, but also youth, technology and mental illness. This case is so entangled in a generation’s struggles that she said it was eye-opening to see the world through her subject’s interactions while making this documentary.
“I came into contact with the fact that it's really hard to be a kid,” Carr said. “Once you become an adult…you think that teenagers are always complaining, but we sort of lose sight of [their concerns]. Climate change is getting worse, finances are getting more difficult, college is astronomical, people are completely addicted to their smartphones and comparing themselves to their peers who look wealthier more attractive, have more things, have more friends, are more popular. I mean, I'm not going to lie, I feel some fear for the next generation. I empower and know that they will do great things, but against some odds.”
Carr said it’s getting increasingly more difficult to find ways to stand out in the crowded race for people’s attention and she aims to produce documentaries that are both important and compelling. She chose this one because it contains such universal themes and concerns for both parents and children.
“I was pretty perplexed by the...lack of communication between parents and their kids,” she said. “Specifically, it felt like Michelle Carter and her parents, they were a close, tight-knit family but Michelle did not share a lot of her, sort of, insecurities or mental health struggles, which led to this huge explosion happening with her and Conrad Roy.”
Carr says she was so intrigued to see how supportive Carter had been at the outset of her relationship with Roy. She had urged him to get help and had been encouraging, but Carr said that relationship took a dark turn by the end.
“She wasn't always like, “hey, do it now.” For months and months and months she counseled him to get better, to seek help,” Carr said. “You know, every day when you're covering this...it felt like there was so much more to uncover.”
That’s why Carr says she will continue following this case as it develops. Michelle Carter’s attorneys have filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I know that I'm not a legal professional and a documentary film is not a, you know, it's not a substitute for an entire legal process. And while my film is very in-depth and journalistic. I do honor and respect what was done in the court system and know that everyone did the best they could,” she said.
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