Elisabeth Rohm directing Girl in the Basement
Judd Nelson and Stefanie Scott in Girl in the Basement
Stefanie Scott and Elisabeth Rohm on the set of Girl in the Basement
Diane Neal and Tahmoh Penikett in Circle of Deception
Tahmoh Penikett and Diane Neal in Circle of Deception
Tamara Tunie in Circle of Deception
Stephanie March in A House on Fire
Stephanie March in A House on Fire
Stephanie March in A House on Fire
For many fans, the strong, smart, and effective line of female ADAs in the Law & Order franchise was a reason to tune in each week.
Angie Harmon, Jill Hennessy, Carey Lowell, Alana De La Garza, Annie Parisse, Elisabeth Rohm, Stephanie March, and Diane Neal all graced the screen in one or more of the original and spinoff Dick Wolf series. All went on to other pursuits, some with their own shows, others to films and other acting challenges.
This year, three of them will appear back to back to back in episodes of Lifetime's Ripped from the Headlines series of movies. Elisabeth Rohm directs Girl in the Basement (February 27), starring Judd Nelson, Diane Neal stars in Circle of Deception (March 6), and Stephanie March stars in A House on Fire (March 13).
Each film depicts a true story based on a central woman who either overcomes or is destroyed by her circumstances. And each film is helmed by a female director, two of them first-timers in the director's chair.
The first of the three, Girl in the Basement, tells the story of a girl who was kept in a basement bomb shelter in her parents' house by her father. The film follows her ordeal through a 20-year captivity.
For a first-time director, it's a lot to take on, but Rohm was ready for the challenge. She says, "It's really been a long time coming. I think that when you grow up in an industry where it's very male-dominated, you don't know that that's a place that's open for you. And I've always wanted to direct.
"And finally, thankfully, I'm surrounded by a tribe of incredible women and some incredible men - [including] Manu Boyer, who's my creative EP who had directed me a couple of times at Lifetime, and said he would come along with me on the journey and support me as I went on to my directorial debut.
"But his wife. Kim Raver, and he produced those two movies that I did. And she really encouraged me to reach out to Tanya Lopez and say to her, 'I want to direct.'
"There's a long list of phenomenal people, from Demi Moore to Kyra Sedgwick to Angela Bassett, and so on, and Kim Raver, that have gotten their directorial debuts at Lifetime. And so I reached out to Tanya. And Tanya said, ''OK, all right, we're going to do this. '
"And then we went on a journey to find the right material. And she presented this Girl in the Basement, which is inspired by true events, one of which is the Elisabeth Fritzl story. And I happen to be pretty knowledgeable about that and felt like, 'OK, it's a lot to bite off for your first film - a story of incest that spans over 20 years.'
"But it felt like it was my purpose to tell that story and hold the flame of that truth in that film with those actors. And I am very proud of the movie. And I'm glad I didn't do a little Christmas movie to start, that I really jumped into the deep end."
The material is extremely dark, but that didn't scare Rohm. In fact, it was part of what attracted her to this particular script. "I think I do tend to like true stories. I tend to care about big issues," she says.
"And I like to play very difficult dark characters, complex characters. So it doesn't surprise me that that's the language in which I want to communicate as a filmmaker - but stories of inspiration and hope. Because it's not just a story about incest. It's actually a story about survival.
"And in many cases, much like this, the ones that we have been inspired by, including Elisabeth Fritzl, are ones where the victim has found her way to freedom, found herself again, found her way to heal, and like a phoenix, risen from the ashes of her pain and suffering.
"So I think dark, complex human stories that have a point of view but that are about the inexhaustible human spirit, really, which is what we all have to tap into so often in our lives, how to hang in there despite what's being thrown at us."
Beyond the difficulties of getting a story like this just right, Rohm and her colleagues also had to deal with the realities in the world around them. She notes, "It's interesting to be given my first film during COVID. Nothing was like I anticipated it to be because the majority of my experience in preproduction was remote.
"Post-production has been remote, editing a movie from your laptop, and then casting a movie from your laptop, and choosing locations from your laptop.
"And obviously, we did a little bit of location scouting in person. And we did shoot in person, obviously. But it's an unfortunate way to create what needs to be a really intimate storytelling."
Despite the potential obstacles, Rohm feels she found the right people to cast in her film. "I looked long and hard for the perfect Girl in the Basement. And Stefanie Scott is like a young Natalie Portman. She just exudes truth, authenticity, vulnerability, beauty. And she has this indistinguishable light and fire-- fire as well; this ability to not give up on herself.
"And much like Brie Larson's character in Room, find that magnitude inside of herself to create a normal life for her children down in the basement so that they could sustain in that story, 24 years, in our movie, 20. But that's the kind of person that has that light, that source inside of her that Stefanie has.
"And Judd Nelson being such a veteran - and I have always loved him. I just felt that he had that bravery in him and that experience and that fearlessness. And he's really intellectual, really bright.
"And he approached this character much like a Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, with complete fearlessness to do something shocking and never judged himself and only elevated the script and elevated the writing and elevated the character and was also very knowledgeable about events such as this; very specifically, also, the Elisabeth Fritzl story.
"So he just kept raising the bar every single day. And it was easy - they both were easy to choose."
And once they were cast, Rohm found an even deeper respect for their work. She says, "It was so brave. And they were so brave. The content in that basement is horrifying. And they really they were so incredible, brave, and respectful to each other, and really have the utmost respect for both Stefanie and Judd and Joely Fisher also.
"She's oftentimes thought of as a comedian, as a singer and songwriter. And she has an incredible one-woman show. But she has that Allison Janney rawness. She's experienced a lot of pain in her own life.
"And to tap into that abusive relationship with her husband and somebody that's so frail that she can't even protect her own children because she's so desperate and needy inside of herself. Joely really has that depth as well. And I wanted to create that space for her to explore that. And she did an incredible performance."
Rohm also has nothing but praise for the rest of the people with whom she worked. Of the production team at Lifetime she says, "I will be forever grateful to Lifetime for telling this film. It's really very, very brave of them to get into this story because it's complex. And they really gave me the free rein to express my version of it and use the cinematographer, Pierluigi Malavasi, that I wanted.
"And Manu Boyer was an incredible creative executive producer. We've made three movies together. And Malavasi and I have made three movies together. And it really was a great team.
"So I'm very grateful to Tanya Lopez who continues to be my mentor and my advocate. And we're looking for the next thing for me to direct and make with them. And I'm developing a story called Nurturing Healing Love based on Scarlett Lewis's survival of her son's murder in the Sandy Hook shootings. So I'm talking to Lifetime and some other people about that project."
Diane Neal also worked with a first-time director, actress Ashley Williams, in her film Circle of Deception. Neal says, "Mostly I just wanted to do a good job because Ashley was so amazing and I just wanted to do my best for her. I wanted her work to shine. I honestly couldn't believe it was her first time directing as well, because she just had this really commanding presence on set, but she was kind.
"There was no meanness, nastiness, no one was afraid of her in any sort of way. And she was also wildly prepared, but she also had this innate natural ability. And I was like, 'Wow, what a rare combination of gifts to have.' And so if I did a good job, I would give all the credit to Ashley, for sure."
The film came at an auspicious time for Neal personally, as well. She explains, "It was a phone call out of nowhere. You know in the theory of storytelling there's this God in the machine, Deus Ex Machina, that comes out of nowhere to save the protagonist at the end. And life had been particularly difficult the last couple years. And Lifetime is a very big proponent of stopping violence against women.
"And I had been in a very severe DV [domestic violence] experience and had been really running for my life. Fleeing from place to place to place, staying on the down low. Yeah. Very, very not easy for an actor to stay on the down low.
"You have to stay off social media, you have to stay off everything when you're living like that. And it was one of those points in life where I didn't know what was going to happen. I didn't know where I was going to go next, I didn't know what I was going to do.
"And I got a call from Ashley saying, 'would you like to star in this movie?' And it was a gift. And then to show up and have it be such an incredible set and group of people and producers and the network has been amazing. It has been one of the highlights of my life and I will be eternally grateful."
The character of Peggy Sue Thomas was just the tonic Neal needed after her harrowing real-life experience. Peggy Sue takes complete control of her life and those around her, often to their detriment and her own, but with no hesitation and no regrets. Neal was amazed to know that this was a real person.
She says, "I did all this research. I read Ann Rule's book [the film is based on Rule's book Practice to Deceive]. I kept looking up things about Peggy Sue and I'm like, 'how is this a real person?' Like that she was even a beauty queen and she became a beauty queen at age 35.
"Especially after what I've been going through in my real life-- it was very cathartic to play a sociopath and kind of get to get all of that out after having been on the receiving end. So I had a really, really, really good time. It was really fun to be guided into these places where you're really not an awesome person and you just don't seem to know why.
"But that's what I find the most fascinating is that a lot of these people that do evil things or will do bad things, they really don't think what they're doing is wrong in any way, shape or form. And they're very confused when other people think that it's not OK. And so it was just incredibly fun to play. It was exactly what I needed. "
Neal also enjoyed an onscreen reunion with another Law & Order alumna, Tamara Tunie. Neal says, "More fun than you could possibly imagine. I started [Law & Order] when I was 24, and she was like this golden goddess that was so erudite and put together. She's everything that I will never be. A good dancer to a good singer to just so classy. Just innate things that I do not have.
"And I have loved her and looked up to her forever. So I loved getting to play with her again, because we genuinely enjoy each other. And then to be in Vancouver. So when we got out of quarantine where we could actually go and have dinner with one another in restaurants it was so wonderful.
"We were like, 'this is great.' Any time we had off, Tamara and I had the best time. We're taking seaplanes up to Arctic lakes. We had such a blast. We had such a blast. She is one of my favorite people on the planet and it was a delight. And I don't want to give anything away about the movie, but If you're going to be taken down by anyone, that's a pretty fun way to go.
"And when you've known someone for 20 years now, it was really fun. Because sometimes she'd give me - no one gives a look side eye like Tunie. Like, 'is that for me, or was that for Peggy Sue?'"
While Peggy Sue Thomas is a exuberant sociopath, Stephanie March's character in A House on Fire is a much quieter character who is in many ways a victim of her circumstances.
A harrowing story of a woman slowly driven to horrific acts, the script put March through some very tough emotional scenes. Add to that the timing of starting the film, March of 2020, and it is almost miraculous that the film got made.
March, however, has nothing but praise for the team. She says, "I'm going to give an incredible amount of credit to Shamim [Sarif, the director], who is fantastic. She's probably one of my favorite people I've ever worked with. And Shaun [Benson, March's co-star], who is a terrific scene partner and shows up 110% of the time.
"It was a really tiring, physically exhausting job, but it was one of the most satisfying experiences I've ever had personally, working on anything.
"I was supposed to go to Winnipeg, I think I was supposed to fly out March 20. And I was texting with Shamim on, this was March 10. Texting back and forth, talking about what to do for preparation. We'd been in contact before that, but just discussing the nuts and bolts. And we had exchanged texts on the 12th, and it was all a go, and then I woke up on March 13 and the whole world just - specifically America - had fallen apart.
"And it's so interesting to me that now, exactly a year later, after so much has happened, it's going to have its air date. But a lot has transpired, of course, between that 13th and this upcoming 13th.
"And it gave me quite a bit of time to prepare, but I started by doing a semi-deep dive into the documentaries, or whatever was available to me, about Debora Green. And honestly, I found most of it pretty disappointing, because it seems to date from another time, let's say the '90s. And it feels like most of the information out there is really keen to - I just think our awareness of mental health, it wasn't what it is now.
"It's not as good as it could be, of course, but it wasn't what it is. And there's a desire to - any woman who perpetrates or is accused of committing a crime like this is a Jezebel, is a harlot, is a demon, a monster. And the truth is, I felt, and Shamim and I felt very strongly that she should be a person, as she is.
"And trying to find out what makes her human, just like the rest of us, was one of the most interesting parts of doing this role."
What could be a completely unsympathetic character - a woman who kills her children - becomes in the film a woman who could be any one of the viewers watching it. March explains, "I felt very strongly that it should be hopefully a window into what might happen to any of us were our better angels not to prevail.
"You always think, 'Oh I would never do that.' But you never know, you never know what you would do until you are really confronted with exactly the same set of circumstances, with the same pressure cooker, with financial or physical problems, with desperate insecurity. You know, she's very lonely. She doesn't have a great group of friends. She is operating in an extremely sexist world.
"She's a very bright woman. So many women never get their due. She certainly didn't in terms of her profession. Her husband's on the move and on the rise. He starts to have an affair. I mean, it's kind of a perfect storm, and I think to judge her as truly bad is totally unfair, and probably if we're being very honest with ourselves, not a terribly accurate portrayal of any of us."
The film also explores the assumptions under which many women must live, and that sometimes those very assumptions are what lead to a downfall.
When the family cannot afford continued child care, it is assumed that Deb will retire early and stay home. March says, "They treated it like it was understood. And I really have to applaud Shaun for finding out that part of me and leaning into it in a way that is both really frustrating as a woman to watch, but really compelling as an actor, because he's just a complete person, and he's totally unafraid to be that guy. And it made my job a lot easier. "
Marital issues are also explored in the making of Deb's final act, March notes, "Very few people start a marriage thinking that it's going to go in a downward spiral. It doesn't have to go on this path, but, you know, very few people start that way.
"And the complexities of trying to make a life, and it's two people. A marriage two fully growing people, and so often in a marriage, it is the wife who has to be less of herself in order to make more room for the family, or more room for her husband's career, or whatever.
"And over time, as you become more diminished, things hurt, and it becomes more complicated and harder to deal with the world. And it's not fair, frankly. I just feel it's totally unfair, because I don't really feel like she had a chance, honestly. Without the tools to fix that, how could she possibly be well?"
In playing the character, March had to find the nuances that lead to the final breakdown. March notes, "You can't go at it with all anger or all fear. It has to be more nuanced and more layered than that. And so we're trying. In my mind, it's how do we watch a woman slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly inch her way to the edge of the precipice and then just fall at the end. How do we convincingly do that?'
And it was these kind of micro, macro moments - the moment where she looks in the mirror and she weighs more than she wants, the moment where she's middle-aged and she doesn't feel great and her job isn't where she wants it to be, and her husband's not particularly attentive. And she's responsible for 1,000 things.
"And they all just added up one right after the other. And I will tell you, it's helped to be in quarantine, actually, because it gave me two weeks to really think about it and mull over the script and mark it up the way I wanted to and receive the line changes. It was nice to have a study period. You don't often have that with a role. It was a nice thing about quarantine because what else am I going to do? And that was very helpful."
As the film builds toward the climax, which also opens the film, the building blocks are all clearly delineated. March says, "Shamim did such a great job of, this is the moment where her career, everything just gradually chips away. There's a moment here where she gets shut out at work, and there's a moment here where she gets overlooked for a promotion.
"And then, OK, so she turns her attention towards her family, and her kids are growing up, and they don't need her as much, and she doesn't really have so many friends, and she's kind of worried about her parents.
"She kept trying. She kept trying in all of these different arenas and gradually every single one of them, like a door closing on her, became unavailable to her as a source of support or comfort. And she just, she didn't see anywhere to go."
The film opens with March in the rain on the lawn of her burning home in the midst of a primal scream. It's a powerful image, but it wasn't easy to get. March explains,"I recorded it, and it was the last night of shooting, and it was raining, and it was really cold, and it was a night shoot. And it was a heck of a way to conclude over a month of work.
"And apparently something happened with the set, and shooting outside, whatever, these things happen. So I was in ADR, and they said, 'OK, the first thing you have to record are the first two lines from the movie.' And I thought, well that's not great, because that's a pretty specific emotion. And anyway, I was in ADR, and the first thing I did was see the opening of the movie. Talk about setting the scene, right?
"And I had to scream, and I thought, there I am with my Starbucks in the booth with my headphones on. So I tried it once, and then we waited until the end, until I was really good and tired and I was really worked up. And then I just let it all loose. And it was cathartic for the second time.
"It was a bummer, because the take that we had, I remember walking away and thinking, 'Oh thank God they got that, because I don't know that I have that much in me.' But the good news is with all of the news going on, I was able to draw upon something. There's no shortage of crises upon which to draw."
The three films will air on consecutive Saturdays at 8 PM. The Girl in the Basement airs February 27, Circle of Deception airs March 6, and A House on Fire airs March 13.