What it's like to be a talking head on a true-crime show

Eve takes the true-crime anthology show chair

Long before the current era of so-called “prestige” true crime, there were always those standbys. Snapped. Unsolved Mysteries. America’s Most Wanted. You know the drill: narrator/host introduces the case, camera pans over photos and redacted report docs, and between those visuals someone in a chair — a cop, an “expert,” a family member of the victim, a reporter who covered the case — shares their recollections of the case. Well, in today’s Best Evidence, the person in the chair is me.

This story begins in October 2019, a date my mother would refer to (in a manner that continues to worry me) as The Before Times. A producer for Jupiter Entertainment, the company behind Fatal Attraction — not the Glenn Close movie; this is an eight-year-old domestic homicide docuseries — asked if I’d come on the show to discuss a case I’d written about in 2010.

Sarah and I were already doing Best Evidence together, and I forwarded the guy’s email to her. She encouraged me to participate, so I agreed. The plan, the producer said, was to film in the spring of 2020. So, you can guess how that turned out.

The same producer emailed me again this past May, saying that the company was slowly trying to get the show back on track. They expected to be in the Bay Area (I live in San Francisco) in the next couple months because, yay, the pandemic is practically over now! Yay, I agreed, finally life is normal again! So, you can guess how that turned out, 2.0.

At some point in the fall, Jupiter, along with the rest of us, decided to go ahead and just start doing what they/we do again. The producers sent me a packet of media coverage (including mine) of the case, as well as some court filings from the suspect’s trial and sentencing. This was super-useful, as the case was 11 years old, so when I’d googled when they first reached out, I’d gotten a lot of long-dead links. They also managed to snag some court filings I hadn’t been able to score at the time.

The producer called me while I was visiting family in Indiana, my sister’s kids taunting each other in the background. Jupiter would be in my area in October, would I be back by then? It would be two years nearly to the date of when they first reached out, and, yes, I wasn’t planning on being in Indiana forever, so we’re good. Due to safety concerns around COVID-19, though, I wouldn’t be interviewed in person — instead, I’d talk to a producer via a laptop, from a hotel conference room in Emeryville, just across the bridge from SF.

“We picked the location at the request of the victim’s family,” the producer said, which I liked hearing. I know he’s just trying to get a show made, but let’s face it: these folks would probably drive any distance to tell their mother/grandmother/sister’s story. That the show extended this small kindness to them felt like a good sign.

I pored over the packets they sent me the night before, pulling up my notes (aha! This is why I keep EVERYTHING) to confirm the many details and conversations I’d forgotten. I would have been fucked without that packet they sent, though. But if you wonder how some of these talking heads on these shows seem so well-prepared, it’s likely the folks making the series deserve some of the credit.

The next day, I freak out over what to wear (no one had told me anything about that) and if I should wear makeup (no guidance there, either) show up at the hotel, and ask the worker at the front desk where I should go. He directs me to a conference room that has “Jupiter Entertainment” on the door. This is what I see when I go in.

Yikes, right? Surely this is not right. Am I being tricked? Is someone at my house stealing my dog since they know I’ll be here like a chump? I dig through my email to find the number for the producer, who says he’ll track the crew (whew, so there’s a crew) down. The camera guy finds me a minute later — the production had changed rooms, all is well. I am relieved.

The next room feels far more official.

As you can see, the crew is masked, and I was too. When I sat down in the chair, I unmasked (I’m vaxxed and boostered). The crew kept theirs on and kept a distance from me. I felt safer there, unmasked in a dark hotel room in a city across a bridge from my home, than I did in most gatherings in Indiana, just saying.

“Your glasses are really cool, but…” said the camera guy, and I knew where this was going. I’d worn a jacket with a breast pocket because I assumed I’d need it for my spectacles, which have massively thick lenses that basically become mirrors in direct light. The glasses have to go. So now I am unmasked and blind in a dark room with two strangers. (Still safer than Indiana, ha ha!)

The camera guy takes a few test photos, sends them to “the bosses,” and I start wondering if they’ll just say I’m too hideous and send me home. That, apparently, does not happen. He opens a laptop that’s on a table about 7-8 feet away from me, and dials in the producer, who I cannot see, because: no glasses.

“This is just going to be a conversation,” the producer says, before reminding me that since this is TV, I need to essentially restate his questions in my answers. As a person who watched UnREAL, I was prepared for this.

We ended up talking for a lot longer than I expected, over two hours. I don’t know if this is because I am a blabbermouth, or what? The producer was a good interviewer, and I felt like he picked up on my leanings right away, following breadcrumbs I didn’t fully realize I was dropping when it came to the suspect’s ultimate guilt, as well as to some issues with media perception/reaction to the case. It was interesting to be the interviewee instead of the interviewer, and to feel some of my same techniques being used on me.

In general, I didn’t feel pushed to conform to a narrative, except in one area: the victim spent a lot of time in, and eventually died in, a neighborhood in San Francisco that’s become a Fox News-type banner for “everything wrong with cities with Democrats in charge.” I’m talking about the Tenderloin, a neighborhood near downtown SF that is tremendously diverse — income-wise, culturally, and racially — and is also the site of many city services for folks with mental illness, substance-use disorders, and no other access to health care. There’s a lot of supportive housing there, and a lot of folks living on the streets.

He tried a couple different runs at the Tenderloin to get a quote, I think, asking me to describe it a couple times, and pushing me to explain why “it seems like things like this happen there.” It’s true, the Tenderloin has its fair share of issues, but it’s not that simple — as I answered, I thought about the way The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel characterized the L.A. neighborhood surrounding the Cecil, and I knew I didn’t want to be a talking head who provided a similarly superficial take on an area.

In the end, I was left with renewed respect for my fellow talking heads, all of whom manage to remember details of a case while restating the question, not embarrassing themselves, and being mindful enough not to swear. Oh, and not sweating and shining like the top of the Chrysler building — the camera guy had to stop at least once to deal with the Exxon Valdez that was my face. (I had settled on concealer, powder and lip tint to resolve the makeup question.)

And I hope I did OK. I was their first interview for the show, so I’m sure if they get better stuff from folks with an actual involvement, you’ll see my beady, un-vision-corrected face on the cutting room floor.

And that, my friends, is what it’s like to be a talking head on a true crime show. — EB

Friday on Best Evidence: Happy birthday, Ann Rule!

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