500 Movies Later, Lifetime Is Still Making Audiences ‘Empathize’ With ‘Murdaugh Murders’

Eight months and two strikes after the conviction of Alex Murdaugh, Lifetime is once again first on the scripted scene

Murdaugh Murders: The Movie
"Murdaugh Murders: The Movie" (Lifetime)

At times it feels like if a news story breaks on Friday, Lifetime is there on Monday with an original movie at the ready. The speed of this brand that’s been around since 1984 isn’t just surprising to fans and reporters in the TV space.

“We surprise ourselves sometimes,” senior vice president of scripted programming Tia Maggini told TheWrap.

One of those surprising turnarounds happened around “Murdaugh Murders: The Movie,” a two-part project that makes history on Saturday for being the 500th original movie to air on the network. 

According to Maggini, the team at Lifetime had been following the story of the Murdaugh family murders from the beginning. Though the “crazy” story captured their attention, the team was hesitant to move forward “legally” until the had a more definite idea of who committed the murders. But once Alex Murdaugh was arrested, the team went to work “towards the top of this year.”

Typically, if enough of a story has been reported and Lifetime can get the rights quickly, the network can have a movie ready in “six months or less.” “It’s usually a bit more than that,” Maggini said. 

But there was another obstacle to this particular production: the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. A day before the writers’ strike started, the scripts were finished. The team also knew they had to finish production by June 30 in case the looming SAG-AFTRA strike moved forward. On top of everything else, the plan was to make not one movie but two two-hour movies so as to chronicle both the crimes and the court case.

“That one was much more rushed than normal, but we also knew that it was a topic that was very much on people’s minds,” Maggini said. “We wanted to get something on screen as soon as we could.”

This seemingly impossible challenge fell into the lap of director Greg Beeman, known for his work on “The Mysterious Benedict Society,” “Falling Skies,” “Heroes” and “Timeless.” Though he was more used to “100 to 110 pages,” he had to stare down about “220 pages” for this project. That daunting prep work was only part of this project’s challenge.

Murdaugh Murders: The Movie
“Murdaugh Murders: The Movie on Lifetime” (Lifetime)

“There was just more work, and we also didn’t have much time. I only had three weeks of prep,” Beeman told TheWrap. “We had to work our schedule in a pretzel to make sure Bill [Pullman] was finished. We even had to work a couple of six-day weeks.”

Beeman recalled that Pullman had to be done with filming by midnight the day of a major cutoff due to the strike. “He literally was finished at like 11:55 p.m.”

“I still don’t quite know how we did it,” Beeman added. 

As stressful as this time crunch was, Beeman now sees it as “advantageous, ironically.” “There was nothing to do but be intuitive. I didn’t have any time to second guess my plan,” Beeman said. “And I think Bill had to do the same thing with his performance. He had to work intuitively.”

Beeman leaned on people who knew the specific forensic details of the case better than he did. Instead, his focus was on the emotional journey of Pullman’s version of Alex Murdaugh. During his first conversation with Pullman prior to production, Beeman laid out how he saw the man who was found guilty of murdering his wife and son.

“I felt like when I read the script, I understood this man,” Beeman said. “He went from a place where he was on top of the world, and he ran that town. He ran the judicial system… And he loved his wife. He loved his son. No one ever says that wasn’t true. So how does a person go from being someone who is on top of the world with everything going for him, who loves his life, loves his wife, loves his children, to a man who murders them?”

It’s that arc Pullman also wanted to emphasize rather than turning the Murdaugh patriarch into a “villain” or a “caricature.” Beeman opted to visually replicate this emotional journey rather than just relying on the performances of his actors. For example, the beginning of “Murdaugh Murders” is very calm with a lot of warm lighting. But as Alex Murdaugh’s life begins to crumble more and more as a result of his own actions, the lighting becomes colder and the visual style becomes “more edgy.”

Murdaugh Murders: The Movie
“Murdaugh Murders: The Movie” on Lifetime (Lifetime)

Beeman praised Pullman’s performance, risk-taking and professionalism for elevating the project. “Everybody’s game got upped, including my own,” Beeman said. “I’m pleased with the results.”

On nearly every level, “Murdaugh Murders” exemplifies the Lifetime brand. First, there’s its timing. The two-part movie will mark the first time a scripted series or movie has been released about a court case that ended on March 2 of this year (HBO, with “Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty” and Netflix, with “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal,” have produced and aired recent docuseries). When it comes to its movies based on real-life cases and people, Lifetime strives to be first and to produce the “definitive” version of that story. 

Maggini pointed to 2018’s “Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance” as a prime example of this. In late 2017, Prince Harry proposed to Meghan Markle. By May of 2018, Lifetime’s movie was on the air. 

“I think we broke records, even for ourselves, with how quickly we turned some of those [movies] around,” Maggini said. “When Harry and Megan, their love story, broke, we had a movie on there five months later. It was crazy.”

“Murdaugh Murders” also falls into the true crime category, a genre Lifetime has dominated for years and that Maggini refers to as the brand’s “bread and butter.” Over the decades, Lifetime has produced several movies about true crime stories and shocking real-life stories. In fact, “Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story,” an examination of the untimely death of newswoman Sela Ward and her struggles with addiction, still stands as the most-watched movie in the history of the brand. That 1995 movie secured 7.1 million viewers, an audience that was impressive at the time and is nearly impossible in today’s TV landscape.

But whether you’re talking about true crime, biopics, Christmas movies or V.C. Andrews adaptations, there’s one through line that makes a Lifetime movie distinct.

“Our audience, more than anything, really wants to empathize,” Maggini said. “They’re always looking for stories and characters they want to connect to, people they want to root for and stories that have a relatability factor. The stories that really work for our audience especially are the ones where people say, ‘What if this happened to me?’”

Part 1 of “Murdaugh Murders: The Movie” premieres Saturday on Lifetime Saturday at 8/7c p.m. Part 2 premieres on Lifetime Sunday at 8/7c p.m.

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