Two summers ago, it was nearly impossible to avoid hearing about Michelle Carter, the Massachusetts woman found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for urging her suicidal boyfriend, Conrad Roy III, to kill himself a few years prior, when they were both in high school. The case had unfolded in a juvenile court and concerned a relationship formed over thousands of private text messages. It held the attention of strangers across the country — including filmmaker Erin Lee Carr, perhaps known most for her 2017 documentary “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” about the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard.
Carr’s earliest recollection of the “texting suicide case” setting off an alarm in her documentarian brain is when she came across a Washington Post headline in 2015 that included one of Carter’s texts to Roy: “It’s now or never.” It was a relatively early glimpse into the disturbing incident, which permeated the national consciousness that spring when Carter, who is serving a 15-month sentence and whose lawyers filed an appeal Monday to the U.S. Supreme Court, was first charged.
“I don’t know if you can be a woman who covers crime and technology and not be interested in the Michelle Carter case,” Carr tells The Post over the phone. “When somebody texts something like that, it’s almost like we used to say: A picture is worth a thousand words ... I had to know what the story was.”
But it was another phrase that wound up at the center of the guilty verdict: “Get back in,” which Carter later told a friend she said to Roy in July 2014 after he got out of the truck he’d rigged with a gasoline-powered water pump. He was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning the next day. Both messages, along with a slew of others, play a significant part in “I Love You, Now Die,” Carr’s two-part HBO documentary that aired its first half Tuesday and concluded Wednesday night.
While the tide of public favor was arguably against Carter from the start, Carr made a point to avoid indicting anyone through her storytelling and instead tried to approach each side of the story with empathy. Carter’s texts to her long-distance boyfriend in the weeks leading up to his death paint a horrific portrait of someone exacerbating another’s suicidal ideation. But Carr also looks beyond that incident, to the time when Carter still tried to dissuade Roy from harming himself, or even to traumatic events that occurred before they met.
“What were the moments that led to this?” Carr says. “In explaining that, you come away with an understanding of why Conrad Roy was suffering, what it feels like, that it was not the first time he had tried to commit suicide and that Michelle Carter had her own mental health struggles. Some might say that explains everything and excuses nothing, but the way that we consider these arcs in these documentaries is, how can we explore these things so it doesn’t happen again?”
It’s an approach the filmmaker says she inherited from her father, the late New York Times media columnist David Carr. Having struggled with addiction, David taught his daughters that people should not be equated with their best or worst actions, Erin says.
“I think that coming from a place of understanding and thoughtfulness has always been baked into how I approach stories, and how he approached stories,” she continues. “It definitely defined and helped shape the way I do my job.”
Thoughtfulness is especially important when it comes to true crime, Carr says, a genre where the line separating journalism and biased commentary is “deeply fine.” Her filmography — which also includes 2015′s “Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop” and the May release “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” — is notable in how it emphasizes Carr’s ability to deconstruct her subjects’ motives.
With “I Love You, Now Die,” Carr does so by devoting equal attention to the defense and prosecution. The defense argued that Carter was mentally ill and, therefore, also at a great level of risk at the time of Roy’s death. Carr looks into these claims, interviewing a psychiatrist who had evaluated Carter and noted that she, like Roy, was on psychiatric medication — medication that could have clouded her judgment.
Prosecutors argued that Carter, who had struggled to connect with peers, was trying to garner attention by creating a situation where she could play a grieving girlfriend. They pointed to her obsession with the television show “Glee” and its lead actress Lea Michele, whose co-star and boyfriend, Cory Monteith, died from a drug overdose in 2013. Carter used to quote Michele’s character verbatim in texts she sent to Roy and, shortly after his death, in those she sent to concerned friends.
The documentary features some of Roy’s video diaries and interviews with his family as a way to elucidate his struggles with anxiety and depression, but it must rely on courtroom footage and the texts themselves to explore Carter’s behavior. (She and her family declined to be interviewed.) Carr and her team pored through the thousands of texts Carter and Roy exchanged in the two years they knew one another — “with lots of coffee on board,” Carr notes of the strenuous process — and highlighted the ones they found particularly indicative of the unusual relationship the teenagers shared.
Although Carter and Roy only met in person a handful of times, it felt as though they “didn’t have a thought that they didn’t express in a text message,” Carr says of the exchanges. In one scene, the idea for which she credits her editor Andrew Coffman, texts flash on screen in the quick manner in which the teenagers presumably sent them.
“How was your day?” Carter asks.
“peachy,” Roy responds.
Word games and free association are unusual styles of texting, Jesse Barron, a reporter who covered the case for Esquire, says in the film. But it was typical for Carter and Roy. Carr points to this specific back-and-forth as an indication of the comfort and ease with which Carter and Roy corresponded: “Yes, there are big moments and they’re riveting and provide anguish,” she says. “But these smaller moments inform who these people were as humans.”
The documentary ends with footage from Carter’s court appearance in February, where she learned that her appeal had been denied by Massachusetts’s highest court. But the upheld conviction doesn’t mandate how viewers might feel after watching “I Love You, Now Die.” Carr says a good number of people, many of whom saw the film at its South by Southwest premiere in March, have told her it completely altered their perception of Carter’s guilt.
“I like ... changing people’s opinions and making them think of (Carter and Roy) not as avatars who said a couple sentences that will forever be cemented in our brains, but to turn them into fully dimensional people where you understand why on earth she might have said those sentences,” Carr says. “That’s always been the goal.”