“There Was Baby Powder in the VHS Tapes Themselves”: Erin Lee Carr on Mommy Dead and Dearest
Sometimes the only way to escape an overprotective household is to resort to extreme measures. Erin Lee Carr’s latest documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, about a young girl raised from birth by her mother to believe she was physically incapable of surviving on her own, is impressive in the way it caresses its true crime story into being a film about redemption through murder as the only means out. A victim of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, Gypsy Rose Blanchard spent much of her adolescent life in hospitals as a walking test tube, a medical experiment shopped around by a possessive mother desperate to keep her daughter incapacitated for monetary (and governmental) benefits. After years of living as an enslaved offspring, Gypsy successfully conspired to murder her mother with the help of a mentally ill boyfriend. Now imprisoned, Gypsy reflects on the the horrible circumstances she grew up under and the future repercussions of the crime she spearheaded. A story in which a terrible situation only grows more horrible, Carr’s documentary is not without its optimism, and its family ties only tighten as the narrative comes to a close.
As Mommy Dead and Dearest prepares to reach broadcast shores on HBO the night after Mother’s Day, I spoke with director Erin Lee Carr about structuring a true crime story and the multiple ways you can conduct a good interview.
Filmmaker: How did the story of Gypsy Rose Blanchard and the subsequent murder of her mother, Dee Dee Blanchard, come to your attention?
Carr: I had made my first film, Thought Crimes, for HBO, and really loved investigating the space between crime and the internet. After that film, I wanted to stay in that space and see what other stories I could find. I work with this immensely talented woman named Alison Byrne who is my co-producer, and she sent me this long, rambling, Thought Catalog piece about this young girl named Gypsy Rose Blanchard. Once she started describing the highlights, I said “Stop. Are you kidding? This is real?” She said it was, and that it had happened in the Ozarks. I knew we had to look into this.
Filmmaker: From there, did you collect more articles for research or begin reaching out to members of the Blanchard family to get going?
Carr: It was a very slow, long process, a year and a half, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount of time but for me it’s a very intense amount. It was the gathering of resources and slowly reaching out to friends and family. One of the first women we spoke to was Aleah, Gypsy’s friend from the neighborhood where they lived. We met and had conversations with her off-the-record and then moved to on-the-record. We talked with other neighbors too. We had to figure out and then work through the dimensions of the story that had not been reported.
Filmmaker: Did that in any way affect the way you decided to tell your story? It’s framed as a crime procedural of sorts, in which the audience knows of the tragedy that took place but not necessarily the elements (or the players) that lead to it.
Carr: I think it was a conscious decision. I worked with our editor Andrew Coffman and he doesn’t cut with a script. He doesn’t say, “Hey, write the movie out for me first and we’ll edit it.” He’s a really organic filmmaker and editor and lets the material speak to him. The interrogation footage is so fascinating and weird and scary that it made sense to have it at the start of the film because it replicates how everyone is introduced. It starts with [the fact] that there was a murder, and from there the story unfolds in this very organic way. I can take credit for the creation, the idea, how the interviews were executed, etc., but a lot of the heavy lifting was done by Andrew.
Filmmaker: Had you done any prior research in the field of Munchausen syndrome by proxy?
Carr: [laughs] I was on “The Leonard Lopate Show” on WNYC this week, and he asked me if I could please explain Munchausen by Proxy, and I had to very quickly know and explain what Munchausen was. Research pays off when you’re making a movie and when you’re putting a movie out! But yes, there was a lot of research and I spoke to experts who had been studying this for many years.
Filmmaker: Gypsy went through so many medical procedures and surgeries that she had as much a presence in American hospitals as she did her own home. In the Mercy Hospital sequence, your camera roams the hallways and corridors of the hospital, surveying the site that hosted much of her life. Did you talk with your cinematographer about encompassing the hospital in that way?
Carr: Yes. We used a camera called the Osmo, a small handheld camera, because we wanted to replicate the walking through of the hospital. Part of us, of course, wondered what a hospital would be like if viewed from [the point-of-view of] a wheelchair, but there’s a very fine line of taste there, getting in a wheelchair and then acting like Gypsy. Ultimately, we had to be very critical every step of the way and think how these choices were going to be perceived. That’s not to say that critical thinking got in the way of making good art. It didn’t. It’s just that when you’re dealing with these heavy themes of handicapped men and women, crime and criminal justice, you have to be very careful.
Filmmaker: Was the Disney theme, of Gypsy’s desire to be a princess and live a real-life fairy tale like the animated woman she saw on screen, always apparent to you?
Carr: Yeah, I’m a weirdo and immediately wanted to include that. There’s a lot of archetypal themes played out in Disney films, and when I heard that Gypsy was a young woman whose mindset and way she viewed things were born out of the internet and Disney films, I knew that that was one hundred percent always going to find its way into the film.
Filmmaker: There’s mention of Dee Dee always needing to hold the hand of her daughter, to hug her tightly and bring in her in close everywhere they went. Her possessiveness and physical overbearingness was apparent even on self-supplied videotapes. What did you learn about the case by going through the home video footage shot between Dee Dee and Gypsy?
Carr: We screened the film at IFP last night and someone asked about the archival material and I jumped at the chance to talk about it. I don’t know if people laughed in the same way they did at our film festival screenings because I’m not sure I hit the story correctly. Anyway, there were these VHS tapes sitting in the evidence locker, and, as a filmmaker, VHS tapes are everything. That is what you’re searching for, and I heard my producer Andrew Rossi’s voice in my head saying “Get those tapes!” A lot of materials had been returned after the murder to Rod and Kristy Blanchard, Gypsy’s father and stepmother, and I explained to them my process with archival material, why it’s important, and I asked if it would be possible for me to have them and [in the process] digitize the tapes for them. They agreed to it. These were one-of-a-kind tapes. If I broke them, there would be hell to pay. I knew there was a heavy burden on taking good care of them.
When we got the tapes and started to go through the recapturing process, it wouldn’t work. It was another moment of, will anything go right? It turned out that there was baby powder in the VHS tapes themselves. Dee Dee had put baby powder over every surface in the house and it found its way into the electronics and messed them up. We eventually found someone who helped us with the tapes and it was a very expensive and nerve-wracking process. But the material is featured heavily in our film.
Filmmaker: What about the cell phone footage of Gypsy and her boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn in bed together at a hotel room after the murder? Was that documented because it related to the crime?
Carr: Yeah, that was all evidence that we were given access to. It wouldn’t have been possible without a couple of people, but I won’t name names.
Filmmaker: What’s amusing about your interviews with Dee’s family are their bluntness. Dee Dee’s family despised her, thought she was an evil presence and expected her to some day receive her timely comeuppance for one thing or another. How did you find them and what was it like talking with them, including her father, stepmother and nephew?
Carr: Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for that. I was filming with Rod and Kristy Blanchard and said that it was really, really important that we speak to Dee Dee’s dad, for example. He’s a guy that doesn’t know how to email, he barely answers the home phone, and he creates and carves knives for a hobby. Rod did us a solid – he hadn’t spoken with Dee Dee’s father in many years – and said that there were a group of people who want to talk about Gypsy. We went over there and they were so honest and funny and weird. When I walked into the blue room of Dee Dee’s father’s house, that blue room is literally the entrance.
Filmmaker: It’s a very eccentric setting.
Carr: I knew we didn’t have to go any farther. I knew this was the room for me [to conduct the interview].
Filmmaker: About the interviewing of subjects and how you choose to frame them: There are Skype interviews in the film, but most are conducted in close-up, like in the passenger seat of a car, or in two-shots (like Dee Dee’s parents). How do you determine the best way to shoot an interview and does the way you shoot them change how you conduct them?
Carr: It’s a collaboration between me and my DP Bryan Sarkinen. He’s fantastic. He runs three cameras and sound. Sometimes we need two cameras, but often we do three. We look at the space, we take inventory of the space, and we say, okay, what is the proper way to light this? With Gypsy, the majority of her interviews are in a medium shot, from the waist up. We then go to a close-up shot and that’s pretty standard. When you have a room like that though, you have to deviate from form and make sure you get a wide. I’m not sure it was Bryan or me that felt we had to shoot it in a wide, but we both agreed with the choice. I love that image. Sheila Nevins, who this film is sort of made for and is an EP on it, said we sat them like poetry, which is one of the most remarkable compliments I’ve ever received.
Filmmaker: Speaking of that extended interview with the imprisoned Gypsy, what was meeting her like and how did you work on getting her comfortable with your camera? She notes that this will be the first time she’s telling the whole truth. Physically, Gypsy is somewhat restricted as she sits there speaking to you, and there’s even a tight close-up on her wrists, restrained and shackled by the handcuffs she’s now bound by. How did interviewing her under these circumstances alter your approach to speaking with her?
Carr: I had about ten pages of questions and paced around for hours the night before, going over them, saying them out loud and working through them with Alison. When we got to the space, I was so nervous that the interview was going to fall through or that Gypsy wouldn’t show up. There were other press outlets that were waiting to get access to her and that didn’t happen. It was one of the most surreal, crazy experiences of my life.
While I have visceral memories of doing the interview, a lot of it is a blur. It was two-and-a-half to three hours and it was really emotional. Gypsy wept during it and while I felt like I was pushing her, it was important that I ask about what happened the night of the murder. I care deeply about what happens to her, but that’s not to say that I can’t ask the hard questions, and she answered them, much to her credit.
Filmmaker: There’s more of an apparent conversation taking place throughout that interview. We hear your voice off-camera at times, and hearing you interact with Gypsy definitely adds something to the situation.
Carr: Yeah, I always want my voice in there.
Filmmaker: Did you ever attempt to reach out to Nicholas Godejohn, who carried out the murder? Or is this story not even about him?
Carr: If it were possible, I wanted to include him. He did not return my letter (he returned it unopened, actually) and his lawyers did not return my request. It just wasn’t going to happen and I had to make peace with that.
Filmmaker: The film premieres on HBO a day after Mother’s Day, which has to be intentional to some degree. How do you respectfully present a film about a heightened familial tragedy where some of its members are still alive? And what’s it like showing the finished film to them?
Carr: It’s a really careful process. We showed it to them the night before we premiered it at SXSW as we felt it was important that they not feel blindsided when they got in the theater. Being delicate and being careful is not something you would typically connect with HBO or documentary filmmaking. I like to be intense and I like to be direct, but there’s also room for being careful and seeing how people react in certain situations. It’s this kind of mixture.
Filmmaker: Will your interest in true crime continue forward in future projects?
Carr: Oh yes, I have a third HBO movie upcoming (that I can’t talk about!) and it also involves murder.