Although it’s challenging to pinpoint exactly when, there’s a moment when the theatre-kid fantasy of The Girl From Plainville’s latest musical number starts to crumble.
In the scene, an interlude in episode 4 that lasts less than a minute, Elle Fanning is (once again) playing character inception. As the infamous “texting suicide” defendant Michelle Carter, she is imitating—though perhaps only subconsciously—Lea Michele’s Glee protagonist Rachel Berry. Michelle’s duet partner is her long-distance boyfriend Conrad Roy III (Colton Ryan), who materializes on her suburban street as if by Broadway magic. With Michelle in a plaid skirt and Conrad in a varsity jacket, the two circle each other to the rhythm of a swelling melody, each belting REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” (Die-hard Gleeks will, of course, remember this track as the first sung by Cory Monteith’s Finn Hudson in the series pilot.)
However charming the sun-dappled choreography—and however astounding Ryan’s vocals—the audience can sense something is off. We know, almost immediately, that the musical number is a figment of Michelle’s imagination. We’ve already witnessed her eerie through-the-looking-glass transfixion on Glee in The Girl From Plainville’s first episode: After Conrad has died by suicide, she stares at her reflection in the mirror and imitates, word for word, Rachel Berry’s rendition of “Make You Feel My Love.” The cover maintains a painful reverence in the Glee fandom: It was sung by Michele, as Rachel, after Monteith, Michele’s real-life boyfriend, had also died by suicide.
If the numerous names listed above are a challenge to follow, well, that’s intentional. The lines of reality—who’s a work of fiction and who’s a real person, and what actually happened—became blurred in Glee, and so too in The Girl From Plainville. As her mental state slips, Michelle works harder and harder to convince herself she’s living a chapter out of her favorite show. As the seres co-creator Liz Hannah puts it, Michelle wants to be Michele. But much more than that, she wants to be Rachel, and she’ll do anything to convince herself it’s Rachel’s life she’s living. To quote another beloved fantasy: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Part of The Girl From Plainville’s brilliance is how the series recognizes Glee’s particular brand of escapism. The show was a mecca for outsiders. Theatre kids might be loud outsiders, but—and I’m speaking as a former theatre kid here—they still considered themselves, deep down, misunderstood geniuses. And they lived and died by the musical number: There was no emotional catharsis like belting Dreamgirls after a particularly stressful chemistry class! Hannah and her co-creator Patrick Macmanus understood that—and started searching for ways to incorporate Glee tracks as a signal of Michelle’s myth-making.
But injecting a show literally called Glee into a series about involuntary manslaughter could easily have come across trite, if not downright distasteful. Below, Hannah and Macmanus break down how they pulled it off.
When did you first know you wanted to make Glee a recurring fixture of this show?
Hannah: I think it was in our first meeting that we had about the project. Jesse Baron’s article that the show is based on mentions Michelle’s connection to Glee and her connection to [young-adult entertainment] in general. Once you dig into her text messages, you realize it’s really an infatuation. She was quite—I don’t want to say the word “obsessed,” because that has a negative connotations, but—she was infatuated with Glee. She would lift phrases from different books or episodes of television and use them as her own. And I think, when beginning to craft the character of Michelle, who is quite opaque and quite difficult to find a way into, that was a very early easy access point for us.
When did you know that you wanted to have both Elle and Colton actually sing?
Macmanus: Again, from the very beginning. I mean, we didn’t know Colton. At that point in time, we only knew Elle, but again—we were really looking for a way to get behind Michelle’s veil. We are all guilty of living in fantasy worlds to varying degrees. This is stuff that we do as human beings all the time, and it’s not that farfetched to think that Michelle was really playing out a fantasy in her head from time to time.
Would I be lying if I said that we didn’t also see [within the musical number] an ability to infuse a little bit of lightness into a series that was particularly dark? I’d be lying. But at the end of the day, it was all about trying to tell the story in as honest a way as possible.
Then the added bonus that—thank God Colton came into our lives. Colton, I’m so jealous of that man, of all of his talents. Not the least of which is that, if you ever went to karaoke with me, your ears would be offended. He has got the most gorgeous voice. He is rooted in an encyclopedic knowledge of Broadway shows, and that’s one of his first loves, musicals. The fact that we had this gorgeous talent coming in was just an amazing blessing.
What were you trying to accomplish with that particular musical number in episode four? And why frame it the way you did?
Hannah: I think this goes [a long way toward getting] into Michelle’s head space and finding a way to have empathy for her and feel connected to her…Something that was very influential to us were the images of her in court. She was really discussed in the media as being cold and unfazed by what was being said in court. And when we watched the videos—and Erin Lee Carr’s documentary, I Love You, Now Die, really goes into this—we watched it, and we found somebody who seemed deeply disassociated with what was happening, deeply detached from what was happening.
That was our entry space into talking about how you would deal with something like this if you are somebody who lived in a fantastical world, and you are somebody who really did not understand the connection to reality. That was our interpretation of Michelle over the course of, once her phone is taken away to her eventual conviction and imprisonment. Once that idea happened, we backed it up to: Where would you start? To end up in that place of really feeling disconnected in court and not being able to necessarily process what’s happening? And Glee was something we talked about a lot.
We had something in our [writers’ room] called Crazy Idea Hour, where the whole staff was encouraged to bring in wacky ideas that maybe didn’t get the show or didn’t get the tone. We were dealing with a very heavy show. We were dealing with unrest in the world. It was a very dark place to live, for everybody, for a long time. So we wanted to find levity in the room for our staff. And one of our writers pitched the idea for a musical number very early in, and it didn’t make it into the show. But the idea of a musical number was something that felt very organic to Michelle, felt like something she would dream about. She wanted to be Lea Michele. Even more than that, she wanted to be Rachel.
So we started consuming Glee musical members and consuming moments for the characters [Rachel and Finn] specifically—finding their duets and moments where they would connect. Eventually we landed on “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Lyrically, it really felt like it accompanied what our characters were saying at that point.
How did the two of you whittle down the admittedly massive Glee catalog? Especially because you were searching for such specific emotional beats? I’m thinking particularly of Elle’s rendition of “Make You Feel My Love” from episode 1.
Hannah: The end of the pilot was something we talked about for a long time. How are we going to justify this character and her journey and what you will see will come from this moment? It culminated in “Make You Feel My Love” for a number of reasons. One of them was the organic, emotional connection to Cory Monteith’s death and the meta reality of Lea Michele, in-character, performing that.
And I saw somebody recently tweet, like, “Elle Fanning playing Michelle Carter, mimicking Lea Michele playing Rachel Berry.” We didn’t talk about it to that degree, but having a meta commentary on that was something we felt an interesting connection to.
We would go to the catalog—well, “catalog” assumes we thought that we could do any of this. I think that’s an important thing: We didn’t have any idea we’d be able to do any of it when we were writing this show. We were like, “Maybe somebody will let us potentially have a photo of Rachel on the wall.”
Maybe they’ll give you the rights to that, at least.
Hannah: It was two days before we shot [“Make You Feel My Love”] that we got the rights to do that. And “Can’t Fight This Feeling, we actually went through great pains to make sure it’s standalone; there’s no identifiable choreography specific to Glee or anything like that. We had no idea we were going to be able to do it. We hoped we would be able to do it, and then it wasn’t until … I mean truthfully, until the show almost came out. So we’re very thankful to Hulu and Disney for letting us do it.
I want to ask about the choreography you mentioned. What was the intention behind the look and feel of both of those numbers, “Make You Feel My Love” and “Can’t Fight This Feeling”?
Macmanus: On episode four we wanted it to absolutely feel like a fantastical Glee number. Every moment between our choreographer and our design, the music, everything was to sort of impart that.
Hannah: I’ll start with “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” The song itself, the way that it was produced is obviously very different from the original [Glee] recording. [The original] is more somber, more romantic. For us, it helped the lyrics connect to the characters a little bit more [to have them] singing them to each other. That was a very specific choice.
I think something that was really important was making it feel like the world of Glee. As Patrick said, we wanted it to feel like, “Oh my God, am I watching a Glee number?” There’s this amazing moment in it where Colton pulls in Elle. He pulls in, and they run and laugh at each other. It feels so like a romantic teenager moment that I’ve seen in a movie, and that I’ve seen in television, that I’ve seen in pop culture. It’s so, sort of, out of the realm of what our show is. That moment in particular, every time I’ve watched it—and I’ve watched it like four gazillion times—that part makes me smile and then makes my heart hurt. Because it’s not real. And that’s something I think we wanted.
And then with “Make You Feel My Love,” we owe all of the choreography of that to Elle Fanning and her obsessiveness of getting it right. She said—and I’m not speaking for her; she said this—that it’s the hardest thing she’s ever done, and I think we all agree with that. But we felt very bad at times while she was doing it, that we were asking her to, because it was incredibly difficult.
Macmanus: We were on set that day; that was pretty much a full day. It was six and a half hours of her doing that again and again and again and again and every… Look, you do this for a while and sometimes sets just become another job, right? Sometimes you’re just like, “Okay, here we go. We’re going again.” [But] I can vouch for the fact that everyone that was on set that day—it was like a masterclass in acting. You couldn’t watch it enough. It never got old, and it’s just such a testament to Elle as an actor. She, I know, was exhausted at the end of that day. Me personally, I was invigorated. I thought it was absolutely the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen captured on camera in my career.
Obviously, neither of you are vocal coaching Elle or Colton through these scenes. But I found it interesting how Colton sang “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” Because the Conrad we know, as a character, is generally subdued. He’s quiet. He’s depressed. Then you have him in this number, and he’s like a completely different person. Was that an intentional decision, to have Colton shed Conrad’s identity in favor of embodying a Broadway actor?
Hannah: Yeah, absolutely. He’s not really Conrad in that scene. He’s a manifestation of [Michelle’s] dream boy. So I think, when talking to Colton about it, we gave him free rein to be the YA boyfriend in the scene. That’s who you’re playing in this scene, because that’s who she is fantasizing about in this moment. And the things that happen that bring her back to reality are the things that break it. So he actually should play against anything that he’s doing in his performance as Coco, because [that would] pull her out [of the fantasy].
With “Make You Feel My Love,” there were a lot of conversations of how Elle would perform that. Was she belting it? Was she not? We did versions early on of her belting it, and it just felt very inauthentic. I think the version of her whisper-singing it was something that came very naturally, over time, through Elle herself—knowing the character, that awareness of who her character is and where she is in the moment.
We ended up shooting that scene almost two and a half months into shooting. So she knew her character so, so well at that point. You really don’t want to touch it [then]. Just put the camera on her and let her do her job. Because she is the best.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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