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How creating a playlist kickstarted the writing of ‘The Girl From Plainville’

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Liz Hannah.
Liz Hannah is the showrunner and producer behind “The Girl From Plainville.”
(JJ Geiger / For The Times)

Liz Hannah starts every script by making a playlist. For the writer behind “The Girl from Plainville,” music guides each project’s tone and style. It becomes her North Star.

“It is, for me, like the first step of doing work,” says Hannah, who’s also an admitted procrastinator. “If I make a playlist, then I have started to make decisions even if I don’t want to admit them. You know, choosing a Talking Heads song over a Biggie song — those are two different things.”

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Delving into the world of “Plainville,” the tone was intrinsically dark. The eight-part Hulu series stars Elle Fanning as Michelle Carter, the teenager from Massachusetts who was prosecuted for the suicide death of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, in 2014. The unique charge, essentially, was manslaughter by text message.

Hannah felt she had to justify spending two years in that space and telling such a painful and incendiary story about very real people still out in the world. Ultimately, she felt “there was a humanity in a long form that we have the opportunity to explore, and I thought was deserved.”

Balancing the bleakness of the story with that humanity, and even lightness, was the challenge she and co-creator Patrick Macmanus set for themselves. That’s where the playlist came in.

In the early phases of any project, she often gets stuck trying to work out tone, character and story, “and often listening to a song — if it’s the lyrics or the melody or something in there — will unlock something. It almost always comes from music for me.”

An obvious starting point was the music the real Michelle and Conrad shared with each other and where they, in many ways, found their identities.

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Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan stand at a bar in a scene from "The Girl from Plainville."
Elle Fanning as Michelle and Colton Ryan as Conrad in “The Girl from Plainville.”
(Steve Dietl / Hulu)

Michelle was obsessed with the series “Glee,” which inspired Hannah to write several musical sequences that reveal the character’s fantasy life. The pilot episode climaxes with Fanning standing in front of a mirror, mouthing in sync to an emotional Lea Michele singing Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” on “Glee.” It’s a performative and disturbing scene that casts doubt in the audience’s mind on Michelle’s sincerity and conscience.

As the series tracks her budding romance with Conrad, she fantasizes doing a full-on song and dance sequence with him, to REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” — and as things unravel, she imagines her sister’s school choir harassing her with the song “Teenage Dirtbag” by Wheatus.

“It was coming initially from research that Michelle would use ‘Glee’ quotes in her text messages as her own dialogue, sort of lifting them as things that she had said, or quotes from ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and things like that,” says Hannah, who depicted Michelle as a kind of chameleon depending on whom she was around. “So it gave us that one persona, but then I think it also crafted a bit of an arc, in terms of this is a girl who wants to live in a fantasy.”

But even before thinking about those literal incorporations of music, Hannah had to find the more ethereal vibe or spirit of the show itself. She did so through songs that wouldn’t necessarily be included in the series but would help her find her way into the script, and then communicate that with her team.

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The first song she put on her “Plainville” playlist was Bon Iver’s “iMi.”

“I was driving home and that song came up,” she says, “and there was something about the way technology is brought into that song, like the electronic nature of it, and the sort of sadness of the lyrics — there’s almost like a narcissism in the lyrics. It was the first time I heard something that clicked for me.”

Another was a choral cover of the Ronettes song “Be My Baby,” which ended up accompanying the opening montage of Michelle and Conrad texting.

A woman poses for a portrait in front of a bush.
“It is, for me, like the first step of doing work,” says Hannah, who’s also an admitted procrastinator. “If I make a playlist, then I have started to make decisions even if I don’t want to admit them. You know, choosing a Talking Heads song over a Biggie song — those are two different things.”
(JJ Geiger / For The Times)

“The song was sort of the impetus to that idea,” Hannah says, “because it’s a very haunting cover of the song. It’s a duet, and it’s very possessive, and it spoke to me.”

“Because the Night” by Patti Smith guided Hannah’s understanding of Conrad’s mom, Lynn (played by Chloë Sevigny). Jack White’s “Love Interruption” articulated the feeling of “a very violent, toxic love,” says Hannah, “but it’s set to this very hard melody and very distinct beat.”

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Initially, Hannah wanted to set Michelle and Conrad’s happy courtship montage — riding their bikes around coastal Florida — to Queen’s “Bicycle Race.” It worked well, but ultimately it was too obvious. Instead, editor Libby Cuenin found the sunny song “Sweet Pea” by Tommy Roe, which was then used to poignantly bookend the series.

Hannah is used to working solo — she listened to ’70s music and opera while writing the script for Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” — and it can be a lonely process. Making a playlist is a way of kickstarting herself when she hits a wall, she says.

In television, and especially on a series where everyone needed clarity on why they were telling this particular story, music “was a uniting way to get the writers’ room on the same page,” she says. “It just was like a group brain that we kept adding to.”

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