“Boston Strangler” director Matt Ruskin found his film angle into the true story through his own investigation on social media. After delving deep into the layers of the serial killer’s story and identity, Ruskin came across an interview done by Loretta. A social media search based on journalist Jean Cole helped him realize that he was closer to the story than he thought.
Ruskin’s film follows journalist Loretta McLaughlin (Knightley), an aspiring investigative writer constantly keeping a pulse on gruesome patterns and trends. McLaughlin notices the similarities in the deaths of three women and wors hard for long hours on the side of her desk position covering lifestyle to confirm the details and write a strong article. Her editor in chief doesn’t immediately buy into her pitch, but she keeps after the story and eventually gets permission to work on it alongside Jean Cole (Carrie Coon).
As the two women work on the developing story together, McLaughlin comes up against all kinds of threats and roadblocks. Cole, a veteran investigative journalist, supports her most of the time, especially when police and law enforcement aren’t helpful in providing information. Cole has many sources and contacts that help advance the story, but ultimately Loretta’s commitment to reaching the conclusion of the killer’s identity drives the plot.
Ruskin talked to TheWrap about what brought him to make the movie, the challenges and rewards of portraying themes like sexism in the workplace, thorough investigative journalism and female trauma at the hands of a serial killer
The movie, which stars Kiera Knightley, Carrie Coon, Morgan Spector and more, lands on Hulu Friday, March 17. This interview has been edited for clarity. Read the full conversation with Ruskin below:
How did you want to make this film different from other investigative journalism films like “She Said,” “Spotlight” and “The Post”?
Matt Ruskin: Aside from being really interested in the Boston Strangler story and all of these untold aspects of it I was really compelled by Loretta McLaughlin, who’s at the heart of the story. It felt like the underdog story of this reporter who wanted to do much more meaningful reporting [and] who was sidelined because it was a very male dominated environment. I thought it was really compelling. The more I learned about her the more I admired her as a person and as a journalist. I don’t know what necessarily distinguishes it from all these other wonderful films that you mentioned, but it was really inspired by her story, trying to do that justice and get the spirit of her story right.
Were there other ways you wanted to focus on the female journalists and sexism?
I grew up in Boston and I had heard about the Boston Strangler my whole life, but I didn’t know anything about the case. I started reading about it a few years ago and discovered there was this incredibly layered murder mystery, with all these unexpected twists and turns, and I thought that would make for a really compelling film. When I was talking to people, I wasn’t the only one. It seemed like a lot of people, particularly who weren’t alive at the time, didn’t know anything about the real story.
I wanted to find a way in, and then I heard an interview with Loretta and discovered that she broke the story. She named the Boston Strangler during the course of her reporting and worked with this other journalist, Jean Cole. I love journalism stories. I really admire good journalists [and] journalism. I was trying to find out everything I could about them and there was very little information available.
I read in Jean’s obituary that she had two daughters, so I actually looked them up on Facebook. One of them had a Facebook profile and she had one photograph, and in the photo she had her arm around an old friend of mine. So I called up my friend and I said, ‘How do you know this woman?’ And she said, ‘That’s my mom.’ Jean was her grandmother who she revered! So when I told her my interest in the story she introduced me to both Loretta and Jean’s families, and they welcomed me with open arms.
They gave me access to everything, old photos and clippings, journals. They shared with me their memory of that time and the family histories. At that point I felt like it was a story worth telling and something that I, personally, was invested in trying to do. In telling their story you can’t not address some of the challenges they came up against, including sexism and obstacles like that in the newsroom.
In terms of old photographs or any materials that the family gave you, was there anything that really struck you or made it into the film in a certain way?
There’s so many details that I didn’t expect. Anything from the fact that, at a time when there were very few women in the newsroom, particularly mothers of three young kids [who] were expected to be at home. Loretta’s husband was incredibly supportive of her career. They met at journalism school at Boston University, so I thought that was a really nice unexpected piece, that he was very supportive of her career and forward-thinking. Some of the people who are most judgmental of Loretta were the other women in her life: in-laws, neighbors, her own mother.
Since this falls under true crime and female trauma can get exploited in that genre how did you navigate that?
It’s very important to be respectful of depicting real people, of women who are victims of horrible crimes. One of the things that was so interesting about Loretta and Jean’s reporting was they were really the only women covering this story, and they always looked at these crimes from a human perspective. They wanted to know who these women were in a way that many of the other journalists didn’t pursue.
How do you want your film to contribute to to that ongoing conversation about how serial killers are portrayed?
It’s a serial killer story, but it’s also a journalism story. I did not approach this film with the intention of trying to humanize a serial killer or pull people into their world so they knew what made them tick. This is very much a story about a journalist who proved to the world her ability as a serious investigative reporter through the course of breaking the story and working tirelessly to keep the city, and keep women, informed. It’s very much through that through that lens.”
“Boston Strangler” launches March 17 on Hulu.