Ryan Murphy on What Drew Him to Adapt ‘The Watcher’ and Receiving Case Tips During Filming

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Ryan Murphy says he knew he wanted to adapt The Watcher for TV after reading the true story about the suburban nightmare in the 2018 article in New York Magazine’s The Cut.

“I instantly thought of my own family and I think that idea of how we’re living in a world now where everybody all over the world, I guess, seems under attack in some way and that idea of, ‘How do I keep my family safe?’ was something I was instantly motivated by,” says the co-creator of the psychodrama starring Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale. “I wrote it on the note card and I put it by my computer when we were writing the scripts.”

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After he read the article, Murphy, who has an overall producing deal at Netflix, says he knew it was his next project and made a phone call, but the rights had already been sold. “And it had sold to somebody at Netflix. And I went, ‘What?’ So it sold very quickly. And so I found out that it was my friend Eric [Newman].”

Newman, who also has an overall deal with the streamer and is a producer on The Watcher, then received a call from Murphy. “I said, ‘I’m such a fan of this piece and I’m such a fan of this genre that I will write this for free; just let me write it.’ And he said OK. And so that’s how I got involved,” says Murphy. “I got involved as a fan, just because I was very into the story and I deeply related. It was personal, I think it was personal to Ian Brennan, who co-created it with me, as well.”

Murphy shared the show’s origin story during a pretaped couch chat with the starring women of The Watcher: Naomi Watts, Jennifer Coolidge, Mia Farrow, Noma Dumezweni and Margo Martindale. The conversation (below), produced by the streamer, was filmed ahead of the horror-thriller’s Oct. 13 release and on the heels of Murphy and Brennan’s last Netflix true-crime limited series, Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.

Both The Watcher and Dahmer have since become hits for Netflix, with the latter having 3.66 billion minutes of viewing time in its premiere week and coming in as one of the 10 biggest titles since Nielsen began tracking streaming viewing. The pair of limited series have also sparked conversations around the ethics of the true-crime genre, as well as the glamorization of serial killers, following backlash from the families of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims who have spoken out to say they weren’t consulted about the series and have been retraumatized.

When speaking with his co-stars, Murphy and his leading women noted the high-interest in the true-crime genre, especially from women, and how fear and the collective experience of processing it brings audiences together. And it’s his own obsessive nature that drew the creator of American Horror Story, which also just released its 11th season on FX/Hulu, to both Netflix projects.

“I only make things that I want to watch. I have a very strict rule about that and I always have,” says the prolific producer. “And I always think the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes. I don’t know if that’s one of the secrets to my career, is I become obsessed with things.”

He continued, “When I did Dahmer, which I did right before this, we researched that for 3.5 years, and that was interesting to me. [The Watcher] is a very universal theme for me, which was parenthood — I have three children — and that idea of you work so hard, you get the American dream; what if somebody takes it away?”

(L to R) Noma Dumezweni as Theodora Birch, Naomi Watts as Nora Brannock in episode 105 of The Watcher.

Noma Dumezweni as investigator Theodora Birch with Naomi Watts as Nora Brannock in The Watcher.

Courtesy of Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

As was detailed in The Cut in 2018, Derek and Maria Broaddus (played with fictitious names by Cannavale and Watts in the series) were new owners of a six-bedroom house at 657 Boulevard in the idyllic suburb of Westfield, New Jersey, when they started receiving anonymous letters from someone calling themselves “The Watcher.” The letters, some of which are re-created in the series, included specific and threatening details about the family. The Cut writer Reeves Wiedeman detailed the emotional and psychological torture this brought to the family as time went on, as investigations by both the local police and the family themselves never turned up The Watcher’s identity.

The story eventually went viral when the Broadduses sued the previous owners and, after the article came out, Wiedeman said there were many offers to option the story. “One horror producer offered to buy 657 Boulevard, hoping to use the house as a set,” wrote Wiedeman in a recent follow-up article, where he explained that, after Lifetime made a movie without the family’s permission, they decided to sell their story to Netflix to maintain a “modicum of control.” They had two requests to production that were granted: that the show change their name (Watts and Cannavale star as the parents of the Brannock family) and that the Watcher family look as little like theirs as possible.

The case to this day remains unsolved, and The Watcher spends its seven episodes casting doubt on every character. The series, in the opening title card, bills itself as being based on a true story, but most of the castmembers, when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter at the show’s premiere, said the show is heavily fictionalized.

Murphy — who says he wrote each part with the actresses in mind, and that they all said yes before even reading a script — said the investigation was still ongoing during filming, leading him down “wormholes” and even putting him on the receiving end of tips. “When we were shooting it, there would be things coming out on Reddit like, ‘Here’s a new suspect, here’s another idea. Here’s another thing,’” he says. “It was like working on something that was alive, we were constantly adding characters.”

Their style of filming was to work script by script, so the actors were also unaware of how the whodunnit would end. “We would get tips of, ‘Here’s another suspect.’ I would get anonymous emails: ‘Don’t forget this suspect.’ And then I would follow the wormhole of this person,” says Murphy. “And of course … some identities have been changed, as one does.”

(L to R) Terry Kinney as Jasper Winslow, Mia Farrow as Pearl Winslow in episode 101 of The Watcher.

Mia Farrow as neighbor Pearl Winslow (background: Terry Kinney as Jasper Winslow) in The Watcher.

Courtesy of Eric Liebowitz/Netflix

The Watcher marks a return collaboration for Murphy with Coolidge (Nip/Tuck) and Martindale (American Crime Story: Impeachment), and Watts will appear in his upcoming second season of Feud. But this was the first time Murphy booked Farrow for a role, having pitched her the American Horror Story pilot more than a decade ago, which she turned down. During their conversation, all of the women thanked Murphy for writing such meaty roles for women over 40.

“When I wrote the pilot of American Horror Story, I wrote a part for you and begged your agents to get it to you, and they were like, ‘Oh, Mia doesn’t want to work right now,’” he recalled of the time period when Farrow was not acting. “I’m really sorry I didn’t do that,” replied Farrow, who also said she has only watched her own horror classic Rosemary’s Baby once. “I regretted not doing it.”

Coolidge had also circled around with Murphy during AHS, when one of the seasons filmed at her house. She said she tried to angle for a role while “Jessica Lange was upstairs in my bedroom,” but Murphy never picked up on it. Perhaps in a bid to correct that, he threw out an idea for The Watcher season two to end the chat: “The Further Adventures of Karen Calhoun, taking over the Darren Dunn agency,” he said of the White Lotus star’s character, who ends the season on a high note. Watch the 33-minute conversation, below.

Ryan Murphy on What Drew Him to Adapt ‘The Watcher’ and Receiving Case Tips During Filming

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