An irresistible offer

An irresistible offer

By Michael Pickard
April 28, 2023


DQ gets dangerously close to Fatal Attraction showrunner Alexandra Cunningham to find out why she couldn’t ignore the chance to take on Paramount+’s reimagining of the 1987 thriller and how she sought to explore the story from alternative viewpoints and with a modern focus on mental health.

In 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close’s character Alex Forrest famously says: “I’m not gonna be ignored.” Yet when showrunner Alexandra Cunningham was presented with the opportunity to helm a television adaptation of the iconic film, it seemed she would be the one doing the ignoring.

Paramount had been scouring its film library for titles that might suit a move to television when they came across the Close- and Michael Douglas-led feature, about a married man who has an affair with a woman who then becomes obsessed with him and attempts to destroy his family life, with deadly consequences.

The studio’s execs felt it had all the qualities to be extended over the length of a series, and approached Cunningham (Dirty John, Chance) about leading the adaptation.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Absolutely not,’” she tells DQ. “I mean, I said that for a lot of reasons – and I’m not necessarily a person who thinks adapting existing IP means you’re creatively bankrupt. Everything’s in the execution. But still, it’s so iconic and had such a seismic effect in the 80s.

“I was a teenager then and I don’t remember seeing it, I just remember that I saw it. But then I took a moment before I said no. I am interested in a lot of things that it became clear could dovetail with a re-imagining of the film, and I love the film.”

Alexandra Cunningham

Under Cunningham’s guidance, the eight-episode series, also called Fatal Attraction, now looks at that original story through a lens of privilege, personality disorders, family dynamics and murder, in a story split over two timelines.

In the present day, 15 years after he is jailed for the murder of Alexandra Forrest (Lizzy Caplan), Daniel Gallagher (Joshua Jackson) is paroled and hopes to reconnect with his family and prove his innocence. Meanwhile, flashbacks show the audience how Dan first meets Alex in 2008 and his world begins to unravel after their brief affair threatens to destroy the life he’s built with his wife Beth (Amanda Peet) and daughter Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels).

Produced by Paramount Television Studios for streamer Paramount+, the show also stars Toby Huss as Mike Gerard, Brian Goodman as Arthur Tomlinson and Reno Wilson as Detective Earl Brooker.

The series had its international premiere when it was screened out of competition at French television festival Canneseries, and will debut on Paramount+ in the US this Sunday. It will then launch the next day, May 1, in the UK, Australia, Latin America, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France, and on May 11 in South Korea.

Cunningham developed the series with fellow executive producer Kevin J Hynes (Parry Mason), and it was her work on Hugh Laurie series Chance that gave her a way into this new project. That series sees the former House star play a forensic neuropsychiatrist who who reluctantly gets sucked into a violent and dangerous world of mistaken identity, police corruption and mental illness.

The main character was based on one of Cunningham’s friends, a real-life neuropsychiatrist, and it was that link that led her to become interested in the impact and effects of personality disorders, with the same doctor then also working as the mental health consultant on Fatal Attraction.

“So I was thinking about that, and also fathers and daughters is a subject I’m interested in,” she says, speaking to DQ in Cannes. “Obviously, I had a father, I have a daughter, she has a father. But just being a woman in my industry and being intrigued by the other women I meet and their relationships with their fathers is something I’m interested in.”

Watching the film again and watching Dan’s young daughter Ellen experience everything that happens to her parents, Cunningham wondered how she was processing those events from a psychological standpoint – a theme that became key to the television adaptation.

“As a daughter, you learn how to relate to the world and relationships through your father, so I was wondering what might happen to young Ellen as she grows up, having witnessed all these traumatic things in such a short period of time. Those things kind of became my way into saying yes [to taking on the project].” she continues.

Reading interviews Close gave around the release of the film, Cunningham was also fascinated by how much work the actor put into Alex’s psychological make-up after talking to mental health experts.

“She was thinking about Alex’s motivations in every scene and saying that when she did talk to those mental health experts, none of them brought up diagnostic words at all because it was the 80s,” the exec explains. “We didn’t talk about that stuff then. Even as a teenager, I never heard anyone say ‘bipolar,’ ‘manic depressive,’ anything like that. So to see all the work she put into the character on the screen that isn’t in the script, it just seemed like there were opportunities there to explore a lot of things I was interested in.”

Fatal Attraction stars Lizzy Caplan and Joshua Jackson

Splitting the story into two timelines meant Cunningham could examine these subjects in the present-day setting while the flashbacks reveal the illicit affair that was similarly explored in the film.

In particular, looking at how a grown-up Ellen might have processed those earlier events became the jumping-off point for using that narrative structure.

“In order to show that, she’s got to be older,” Cunningham says of Jirrel’s character. “You want to portray the events of the film, but then you want to see the fallout and the consequences of the consequences. So to make Ellen an adult was a natural progression, and that’s where the timelines came from.

“I still pity my line producer and the first ADs and all the people who had to be like, ‘Oh my God, Josh [Jackson] needs age make-up here,’ because our schedule changed a lot because of Covid. It would have been challenging if we had one timeline, but to have two timelines where you’re going to have to age people up and down and change their hair and all that, people wanted to kill me.”

After establishing the show’s structure, Cunningham brought in former criminal prosecutor Hynes to help develop the project. It was that experience alongside her own fascination with law and order that then informed the backdrop to the series and how it could also take a view on the way the justice system treats mental health.

The series focuses on mental health through Caplan’s Alex in particular

“I love crime shows. I love cops and lawyers. I’m always going to put a cop in something, no matter what it’s about,” the showrunner admits. “It could be about four old ladies on a desert island and there would be a cop show up. And so I definitely wanted to do that here.

“Dan in the original movie is a lawyer. But I had recently watched Presumed Innocent, which is a murder story about someone who works in the DA’s office, and I thought, given that we want to put emphasis on the fact Alex is wrestling with mental illness, it was an interesting opportunity to interrogate our broken justice system, its attitude towards people with mental illness and how it demonises them, even when they’re the victim. And so Kevin was invaluable in mapping out this new path for Dan to be on as a narcissist who needs to be liked and who has a midlife crisis. And that’s where we started.”

The pair then began working out the “scaffolding” for a 10-episode season, which was subsequently reduced to eight. Cunningham pitched the entire show to the studio, and it was greenlit. Then she assembled a writers room with four writers alongside herself and Hynes, and they pieced together the series over four months.

“We fleshed out all of the arcs and everything I had initially pitched, and then we produced outlines for each episode,” she says. “I usually write very long outlines because they are the thing the studio wants from you. But for me, they can be a writer’s tool that can include everything we talked about in the room. It’s the greatest chance of having the first draft be in the wheelhouse of what we needed it to be.

“Then we just started writing the scripts – and I wanted to have as many of them as possible done before we started shooting because I knew I was going to be directing a bunch of them. There was just no universe where I was going to be polishing scripts and prepping. And then, of course, Covid threw everything up in the air anyway, so it was good that we had them all done.”

Unfolding across two timelines, the series opens in the present with Jackson’s Daniel getting parole

The pandemic meant Fatal Attraction became one of the first series to host an online writers room, which may benefit a studio’s bottom line but removes the intimacy and comfort of in-person discussions.

“The writers room is an ecosystem where people are really baring their souls, depending on the kind of stuff you’re talking about, which obviously is the case with this series,” Cunningham says. “The material does lead to people talking about psychological issues, drama with their families, the horror of their parents’ divorce, but we always gave everyone permission to ask for things to be deleted from the room notes if we got too personal.

“I always refer to myself as the air traffic controller of the room because, if someone feels like they got interrupted, if they were starting to say something and then someone jumped in the way, which happens when people are excited when we’re talking about an idea, I can tell from someone’s body language; whereas on Zoom, I can’t necessarily tell just from their thumbnail face that they’re upset.”

As a result, Cunningham made extra efforts to ensure her writing staff always felt like they had every opportunity to speak and contribute to the conversation, no matter how difficult the subject matter. “That kind of stuff is invaluable,” she notes, “but I can’t monetise it. I did this on Zoom and then I executive produce another show on Apple [Rose Byrne-led Physical] that we were doing right at the beginning of lockdown. That was the first one of the first Zoom rooms I think that anyone had, and I hate it. I just hate it.”

It’s all part of being a modern-day showrunner, a role that puts numerous demands on a single person leading the creative vision of a series.

“At this point, it might be the only thing I know how to do,” Cunningham jokes. “I don’t know how to do anything else. There’s no time for anything else. My job should not exist. Probably not for human beings, anyway.”

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