The ‘The Good Nurse’ writer had a sordid story at her fingertips, but as she tells IndieWire, that’s exactly why she approached it in a new way.
Even “The Good Nurse” screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns felt a bit drawn to true-crime stories when she was first approached to adapt Charles Graeber’s book “The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder” in a widescreen version.
Nearly 10 years ago, the future ‘1917’ and ‘Last Night in Soho’ screenwriter had just graduated from the National School of Film and Television and landed a spot on the blacklist. from 2014 with his sci-fi storyline “Aether”. which followed a serial killer in the near future. When the aspiring screenwriter’s new agency sent her a stack of books to potentially fit in, at the top of the list was Graeber’s, which followed the incredible (and horrifying) true story of Charles Cullen, now considered a America’s most prolific serial killer.
“I remember I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do another serial killer thing,’ because the script I had [previously] it was written, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to read it to be polite. I will do my due diligence. I sat down to read it and then I read all night,” she told IndieWire during a recent interview. Graeber’s book was “so compelling and brilliantly written”, with an “insane” story at its heart. Wilson-Cairns couldn’t live without it. “I was like, ‘OK, I want this more than anything else in life,’ and I started to go for it,” she recalled.
Wilson-Cairns was hired to write the adaptation in 2014, with the project eventually heading to Netflix with director Tobias Lindholm attached, as well as a star-studded cast that includes Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne as killer nurse Cullen and Jessica Chastain as fellow nurse (and eventual foil) Amy Loughren. But even then, the screenwriter was careful about how she wanted to tell this story.
“The true crime genre is so broad now,” Wilson-Cairns said. “I think the podcast medium has affected the screen medium a lot. I think it’s about bite-sized pieces, it’s about hooking people, it’s about to hold people, and I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think everyone should watch what they want to watch. But me personally, I think there’s an impulse to do real crime and making these heinous crimes sexy.
JoJo Wilden / Courtesy of Netflix
It’s something the Glasgow native grew up seeing a lot, and it’s exactly the approach she doesn’t want to take with stories like ‘The Good Nurse’. “A lot of times you would watch these crime dramas, and it was a dead, hot, naked young prostitute on the floor,” she said. “I always said to myself, ‘I never want to write about a rape or a murder or anything like that where someone can get into it. I think that only happens when you write it from the perspective of the murderer or from the perspective of the rapist, or who the perpetrator is. When you write it from the victim’s perspective and understand what it feels like to go through that, then that’s the most truthful version and that’s the most important version.
That means no “sexy” violence or anything salacious, but that doesn’t mean skimping on the details. It just means approaching them from a different angle, one that seems to be lacking in other true-crime projects that are so hot these days.
“So for me, this sexy violence, the kind of sexy degradation, is not enough,” the writer said. “I don’t think it’s fair and I think it’s misogynistic. Look, I know a lot of people who like true crime, and I get it, because it’s something terrifying because it’s real , it’s worse than your nightmares, it’s worse than you can ever imagine. But for me, keeping it true allows it to be scarier.
Like many people, Wilson-Cairns had never heard of Charles Cullen before reading Graeber’s book. “I had no idea America’s most prolific serial killer had arrived in my lifetime,” she said. “You hear of many other prolific American serial killers, but…his victims are potentially over 300 people. It’s unfathomable. He killed for 16 years. I remember putting the book down, to check the back cover and say, “Oh, that’s a fact. I really struggled with that because I felt like the story had been buried in a one way or another.
Much of Graeber’s meticulously researched book focuses on Cullen’s childhood and upbringing, but that’s not what Wilson-Cairns wanted to dramatize in his screenplay. She didn’t want to tell Cullen’s story from her perspective; she didn’t want to try to “understand” him because she feared that would make him some kind of hero, or at least an anti-hero.
“We never wanted to do anything salacious and we didn’t want to make it up,” she said. “These people who do these terrible things, you are always tempted to make them different from you. So you can sleep at night you say they are possessed by the devil, they are demons, they are monsters, they had horrible childhoods, they had this and that. And actually, I think what’s really scary about these people is that they’re just like us. They may have chemical imbalances in their brains and stuff like that, but they can move through society like we do. They can hide it. And it’s way scarier and way more real.
She needed another way in, and she found it in the last third of the book. “That’s when you hit nurse Amy Loughren, and that’s when the book really became something I wanted to write, because it’s the story of a single mom from the working class who is basically a superhero,” she said. “She saves countless lives, she stops this killer when she risks everything. She is risking her health, her livelihood, the lives of her children. She does this to protect the people she cares for and to protect people in the future. To me, this is the absolute pinnacle of human achievement.
Graeber gave Wilson-Cairns access to all of her research, introduced her to Detectives Danny Baldwin (played in Nnamdi Asomugha’s film) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich), and even helped set the writer up in a Connecticut hospital, where she worked two weeks of night shifts alongside real nurses. He also introduced her to the real Amy Loughren. The couple spent a weekend together that turned out to be crucial.
“She very graciously opened up her life story to me,” Wilson-Cairns said. “Keep in mind I was in my twenties with no credit and no idea what I was doing. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can capture you with all your complexities and all the stuff. amazing things you did, but I’m going to try really hard. Could you help me?’ And she did. She helped me every step of the way.
Even now, Wilson-Cairns remains in awe of Loughren. The two became “friends for life,” she said. They recently took a helicopter ride to a Hamptons Film Festival event together, because why not indulge in something crazy and fun like that?
“A lot of superheroes are billionaires in bat suits, billionaires in iron suits. You can’t be them. I will never be Batman, and I will never be bitten by radioactive spiders. So they are amazing to watch, but I could never achieve that status,” Wilson-Cairns said. “But when you look at people like Amy Loughren, you can think, ‘I can actually be a better human being, I can live better, I can make the world a better place.’ And for me, that was where the real interest lay.
Still, Wilson-Cairns is well aware that her film output tends to get darker. From the horrors of the “1917” war to the sleazy underbelly featured in “Last Night in Soho,” the screenwriter isn’t afraid to embrace the tougher stuff. But even in these horrific stories, she can’t help but find the good in each one. That’s what she wants to bring to the world.
“As my mom would say, I’m a very twisted bitch, and I wear that with pride,” she laughed. “Yeah, World War I and the way women were treated in the 60s and America’s most prolific serial killers, those are all really awful things, and they’re all true. But in all these horrible things, there are humans doing something absolutely extraordinary. [to help]. The world isn’t always a lovely place. It’s not terrible, it’s not horrible, but bad things happen. When you look at the people who change it, when you look at the people who save us and they’re human, and they have flaws, and they’re not billionaires in bat suits, then I think, ‘Oh fuck, isn’t that great humanity? So I guess, although they’re all very dark, I actually think they’re extremely full of light.
“The Good Nurse” is in select theaters now and will be available on Netflix’s streaming platform on Wednesday, October 26.