Using TV techniques to create high tension


26 April 2024
Psychological thriller author Emily Freud looks at documentary filmmaking as a storytelling device in fiction

There are many examples of documentary makers' and podcasters’ investigations reviving cold cases whose active participation has finally locked up dangerous criminals. These investigative journalists are doing police detective work, so it is only natural that this shift is reflected in today's fiction writing.

Having come from a television background, I’d always had in the back of my mind that one of these days, I would love to frame a thriller around the production of a TV series and tell a story about someone trying to tell a story.

The format lends itself perfectly to the beginning, middle, and end: pre-production, filming, and editing. Hanging a plot around this process felt like the perfect mechanicism for a novel. It was enhanced by my own memories of the visceral rush you get as a filmmaker – the highs and lows, the pressures, and the morality issues you are swept up in.   

I write psychological suspense thrillers, often with a ‘did-he-didn’t-he’ element. For my third novel, Her Last Summer, this element comes from a fictional true crime, a notorious cold case from the noughties where two teenage backpackers left for Southeast Asia, and the girlfriend never returned. Luke, the boyfriend, contacts a documentary filmmaker intent on finally, twenty years later, putting his side of the story across. Did he harm Mari, his girlfriend, or has he been unfairly treated all these years?

There are various recent examples of novels that play with this dynamic. Instead of a detective taking the reader through a story, it is a filmmaker or podcaster. In Lisa Jewell's fantastic None of This is True (what a title), Alix Summer begins to tell the story of her 'Birthday Twin' and is taken down a rabbit hole of deceit. Cara Hunter's Murder in the Family is formatted like a live cold case re-examination TV series and is written exactly how we ingest true crime. Hunter says an Agatha Christie novel inspired the story – but with this modern twist, it feels incredibly fresh and relevant.   

When you are filming with a contributor, you trust they are telling you the truth, and they trust you to tell it. I often think of The Jinx, the excellent HBO limited series about Robert Durst, a notorious killer. In 2010, director Andrew Jarecki made a film starring Ryan Gosling. After watching, Durst was so incensed that he phoned the shocked director and asked him to make a documentary featuring himself. The filmmaker caught Durst confessing, which was later used as evidence in court.

One of the most successful elements of this series was watching Jarecki struggle with his growing relationship with his contributor. It is evident that Durst had done terrible things, but on the flip side, he had given Jarecki the chance to tell this incredible story from a perspective so rarely gained.

Similarly, director Nick Broomfield and his relationship with the serial killer Aileen Wuornos becomes part of the film. It is evident to the viewer that his emotions have crossed over the line from bystander and information collector to genuine sympathy – that play out within the film - about her exploitation by various people.

While making The Staircase, the French film editor Sophie Brunet fell in love with Michael Peterson, who was accused of pushing his wife down the stairs. Does this mean she edited the film in his favour?   

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The relationship between a filmmaker and contributor is complex. I wanted to take it that much further – what if my protagonist, filmmaker Cassidy, fell in love with her subject, Luke? The jeopardy is pushed to the extreme. Here she is, falling in love and having no idea if the story she is being told, and will be telling, is the truth. Is he a sociopath intent on pulling her in to manipulate the film – or is he innocent? Are the feelings raw and honest?

When writing a thriller, you must drip-feed information in the way you see filmmakers put together our favourite binge-worthy true crime documentaries and podcasts. When done well, they are a masterclass in withholding information, hitting the right notes, making us gasp for the twists and a perfectly timed cliffhanger. When you are filming, you are firefighting – and what better way to ramp up the jeopardy of a story than to become an insider with your protagonist?

I loved making TV, and I love watching it – anticipating the answers to the questions which will be posed; watching a character squirm in an interview chair before they reveal their story. The story that will allow you, the viewer, to discover if they are innocent or guilty. Those quiet incidental moments the director leaves in are put there on purpose to either lead you or mislead you. But what if you are on that journey with the filmmaker from the beginning of the project - before the filming and investigation have been finalised - when they don’t know the answers either? I found that idea very exciting.

Is Luke guilty or innocent? Find out in Her Last Summer.

Her Last Summer by Emily Freud is published by Quercus (£8.99)



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