under the bridge
John Russo
under the bridge

Riley Keough plays author Rebecca Godfrey in Under the Bridge

John Russo
under the bridge

Lilly Gladstone plays police officer Cam Bentland in Under the Bridge

John Russo
under the bridge

Under the Bridge stars Riley Keough and Lilly Gladstone

John Russo
Fill 1
Fill 1
May 10, 2024

How the Creative Team of Under the Bridge Adapted a True-Crime Bestseller for Television

Riley Keough and Lily Gladstone investigate a real-life teen murder in Hulu's new thriller.

Having rehearsed a murder for weeks, a group of teenagers in Vancouver was ready to do it for real — or as real as things ever get on the set of a television production. They were practicing kicking someone to death — sometimes kicking the air, but usually a stunt person. Nobody was supposed to get hurt, of course. But 13-year-old Vritika Gupta was a little nervous anyway. "I think it really hit me when we were doing stunt rehearsals, and a leg got super close to my face," she says. "I know I'm not going to get hit. But there was always that moment of, like, 'Am I?'"

Now 14 years old, Gupta was portraying Reena Virk, the real-life victim of a brutal 1997 Canadian killing. Virk, an Indian-Canadian, was hit and kicked and ultimately drowned by a group of teens who were barely out of puberty, few of them old enough to drive, some of whom had planned the violence in advance. (The others hadn't but took part anyway.) Some of Virk's assailants hadn't even known her. The coroner's report is a tough read: She had severe bruising over her entire skull, with an imprint of a sneaker on her head and a bruise in that shape on her brain. Internal organs were crushed. Pebbles were found lodged in her throat. If she hadn't been drowned by her tormenters, she wouldn't have survived her other injuries, which were equivalent to having been run over by a car.

The case was anything but typical, confounding notions about the degree of savagery teenage girls — many of whom are described in the series as “Bic girls,” as in, disposable, like Bic lighters — are capable of committing. Many filmmakers might have been tempted to play up the story’s gruesome nature, but Under the Bridge softens the biggest horrors by using a specialized camera — a Phantom, which can shoot in slow motion at a very high frame rate. “It adds a dreamlike quality,” says Samir Mehta (Tell Me Lies), showrunner and executive producer on Hulu’s eight-episode limited series. “We’re seeing the moments through the perspective of the kids. We bring the audience up to the margin and then cut to allow the imagination to run wild.”

According to the creators of Under the Bridge, it was important that Reena Virk be more than just a dead body or a plot device. They wanted to give a nuanced, three-dimensional view of the crime, the motivation, the investigation, the social tensions, the lives of the people involved and, of course, the victim. After a six-month search, they found Gupta, who turned 13 during production. “She saved us,” Mehta says. “It would have thrown it off if she felt 18-plus.”

Author Rebecca Godfrey, who wrote the 2005 book Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk, is a character, too, played by Emmy nominee Riley Keough (Daisy Jones & The Six). Her inclusion in the narrative gives the series even more hindsight than the book has, including how the process of her reporting changed perceptions of the crime and its perpetrators.

Watch the exclusive interview with Riley Keough and Lily Gladstone during the emmy cover shoot.

The part of Rebecca necessitated a counterpoint character, someone who could see the investigation through the intersectional lenses of race, gender and sexuality. In stepped Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone (Killers of the Flower Moon), who filled the role of Cam Bentland, an amalgam of real officers on the case.

"We didn't just want to say, 'Oh, it's this racially motivated crime; a group of racists killed a young Indian girl,'" Mehta says. "That's one piece, but not the entire puzzle. To me, the show was built as a Greek tragedy, where you're coming at it from a bird's-eye view, and the audience can see — across decades — all parts of this tragedy ultimately coming to be."

FIVE YEARS AGO, SHOW CREATOR AND EXECUTIVE PRODUCER Quinn Shephard (Not Okay) wasn't expecting her first meeting with Godfrey to start with an auto accident. But en route to the author's upstate New York home, Shephard almost drove off the road into a ravine. An admittedly bad driver, Shephard was hanging sideways out of her car, trying to get out, when she first spotted Godfrey, who gave a friendly wave. "She was like, 'I'm a terrible driver, too,'" Shephard recalls.

Quickly bonding, the women started a series of picnic interviews on the author's lawn, talking for hours over wine and cherries as they began developing the Under the Bridge pilot. The wilderness setting reminded them both of scenes from Girl Pictures, an art book by photographer Justine Kurland; coincidentally, each bought a copy of the book for the other. Shephard recalls, "We realized that we were operating on a level of spiritual connection."

Shephard had never been much of a true-crime reader, but the unusual approach in Godfrey's book fascinated her — the characters' voices, the attention to detail, the attempt to find beauty in tragedy. Reviewers compared the book to Truman Capote's celebrated In Cold Blood, but with a focus on the innocence and cruelty of adolescence.

Godfrey had used her youthfulness to earn trust and gain access, to move between the kid and adult worlds. She told Shephard stories about making sure the kids didn't see her with the cops, how she'd duck down in the police car while driving past them. Then she'd change into a T-shirt and lowrise jeans to go smoke cigarettes in the skate park. Although Godfrey did not include her own story in the book's narrative, Shephard decided Rebecca should be a character. "So much of her real story — her childhood and the things she went through as a kid — informed the way she wrote the book and all of her actions."

Defining who TV Rebecca was, Mehta says, was a "large process" that required synthesizing many perspectives. "Everybody sees themselves in her," he adds. But since Keough had experience with youth advocacy, she understood Rebecca's instincts, however inscrutable they might have seemed. "From the viewer's perspective, 'Do I understand what she's doing?'" Mehta says. "A big part of that was dialing in with Riley how much this should be like the real Rebecca, and how much we have to throw the audience a bone so they can get a little more inside her head."

"[TV Rebecca] is certainly not the hero of the story," Keough notes. "Rebecca didn't want her to be. I think that she recklessly inserted herself into a situation and maybe got in over her head. So I embraced her impulsiveness and the confusion. I don't think she knows exactly what her plan is, what her angle is, how far she's going to go, how she feels. Existing in a world of uncertainty, things get a little muddy for her."

To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine here.

This article originally appeared in its entirety in emmy magazine, issue #6, 2024, under the title "Hidden Depths."

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