Cable network Bravo is bringing the chilling events that led to the murder of John Meehan to life in the crime anthology series “Dirty John.” Meehan, a surgeon who in actuality was a con man, became romantically involved with Irvine/Newport Beach interior designer, Debra Newell.
The beautiful Newell had what looked to many like a perfect Orange County life, living in California’s most desirable area. But like many people, what was really missing in her life was love.
When she met the handsome doctor John Meehan, she found herself drawn into an all encompassing relationship. The two met via an internet dating site, where the charismatic Meehan charmed his way into Newell’s heart, resulting in a whirlwind courtship and marriage.
Her daughters Terra (played by Julia Garner in the series) and Veronica (played by Juno Temple) had concerns; Debra and John’s rapidly moving romance caused tension between the mother and her daughters, who were forced to investigate the new man in their lives.
Newell was drawn into John’s web of lies and manipulation, ultimately resulting in terrifying consequences for the family.
The show is based on real life events that occurred in Orange County from 2014 to 2016.
Evolving From the Podcast
Los Angeles Times reporter Christopher Goffard found out about the murder and became so intrigued he created the “Dirty John” podcast, which began airing in 2017.
During the six episode series, the successful, attractive, yet gullible, Newell slowly discovers Meehan wasn’t who he said he was. The podcast follows her family as they make several attempts to rid Meehan from their lives once they discover his secret.
The podcast’s popularity caught the eye of writer and executive producer Alexandra Cunningham.
“I actually had read the articles before I even knew there was a podcast,” said Cunningham at a panel during the Television Critics Press Tour. “I was captivated by the story and people kept saying, ‘Have you listened to this great podcast?’”
To adapt the script from the podcast, Goffard was in the writers room with Cunningham: “I had access to the hundreds and thousands of pages of research that was done and vetted by the L.A. Times., so that actually gave me a very complete picture of everything, and it was fantastic.”
Goffard is now a producer on the series.
With the #metoo movement, Cunningham feels the timing of the Bravo series is perfect.
“To tell a story about why women don’t listen to their intuition and why they can’t throw off their conditioning is very relevant,” she commented. “A story about people meeting people on the internet and being conned, when we’re obviously living in a moment where even internet trolling is showing us that everybody wants to matter.”
Cunningham acknowledged that online predatory behavior will continue.
One of the things that pains Cunningham the most is when people ask “How could Debra be so stupid?” to not recognize that Meehan had a dark, bullying, manipulative side.
“I actually think that it’s a defense mechanism by people when they say that about Debra. They like to believe that this wouldn’t happen to them, and I know for a fact that it would.”
“If somebody wants to do this to you and they’re focused on you, taking everything that you believe is good about yourself and using it against you, they’re going to get you the way John got Debra. Debra was a hopeful and generous and kind person looking for somebody to recognize that in her, and John took advantage of that.”
Executive producer Richard Suckle pointed out that people have a “preconceived notion” of Southern California and Irvine, Newport Beach, etc.
“It almost feels like things like this don’t happen in places like that. But there’s a real darkness. That’s also something that really plays well in terms of the juxtaposition of the beauty of Southern California and the way (director) Jeffrey Reiner is shooting it. … The story gets darker and darker as the narrative moves on.”
Britton and Bana
Eric Bana stars as John Meehan and has enjoyed the challenge of sinking his teeth into an evil character.
“I enjoy being in the skin of someone else, and it doesn’t bother me if they inhabit me more than they should or stick around for a bit longer than they should,” he acknowledged. “I think that’s a bit of a privilege. I really like that feeling at the end of a production, when you find yourself still feeling something about who you’re playing.”
“So he’s welcome to take over part of my brain for as long as I’m contracted, and hopefully, I can shake him off at the end,” Bana quipped.
Bana regards Meehan as a bit of an enigma.
“Whilst there’s a lot of factual information about John, I actually find him really mysterious. There’s a lot of stuff about him that I don’t want to know,” he admitted.
“Ultimately, when you’re dealing with something that’s based in reality, you can choose to do something that’s 100 percent traceable to the exact facts of how they were, which can potentially be a little bit boring to watch, or, you can try and come up with something that has a sense of that person, that might be more interesting.”
Meehan’s behavior and the mysterious type of character was fascinating for Bana to portray.
“I think that’s why people find the podcast so interesting, because he’s such an unusual person … studying how sociopaths behave and think was more important than just focusing on specific events that occurred in his life, putting them in some sort of memory bank,” he asserted.
“It’s important to come up with a character for the show that’s a little bit further developed than what we know to be factual.”
Bana believes that John Meehan really did fall for Debra Newell, though.
“From everything I’ve heard, the attraction in the early parts of their relationship is a hundred percent real. And I don’t feel like it’s someone who’s arriving on a potential crime scene to do a swindle; I think John genuinely fell for Debra.”
The fact that the early stage of the relationship was genuinely passionate and real, made it easier for Bana to play.
“I also do like the idea that at what point did the acting begin and at what stage does the more dangerous elements of his character take over and poison that part of the relationship?” said Bana. “And I spoke to the director about this early on, before we started shooting … I also really like the idea that John may not even know himself, you know. So there’s a lot of scope to explore in terms of that sociopath behavior.”
Actress Connie Britton plays the woefully unlucky-in-love Debra Newell, and has spent a good deal of time with her in real life.
“I really like her a lot. It’s been such a great experience for me to sit down and really get to ask the character that I’m playing questions. It’s a very unique, privileged experience. And also, it’s helping give me so much insight into the story in a way that maybe we weren’t able to experience in the podcast.”
For Britton, it was important to really have a better understanding of what Newell’s experience was and how she was lured in by this man.
“Because ultimately, we’re telling the story of how a con man can be so effective. It’s important to make Debra relatable so that we can all see ourselves in her and not just say, ‘Oh, well, that’s because she’s this or that.’ So that’s my goal. And she’s been really wonderful and helpful with that.”
Britton said it had been fun to talk to Newell and hear her speak about her life honestly, describing her as a self-made woman and an “exceptional” businesswoman.
“She was married four times prior to this, which is her cross to bear. It’s kind of her Achilles heel. But because of that she ended up as a single mom. So she started this (interior design) business on her own, which flourished and she actually started hiring single mom employees. She was really dedicated to helping/employing them. She knew what that struggle was.”
Britton has been shocked by how many women relate to Newell’s character.
“I’ve been amazed since I started working on this, there are people in my life who have come out of the woodwork, that I’ve known for years, who have been like, ‘Oh, my gosh. Yeah, I was in a relationship with a sociopath.’ And I’m like, ‘Really!?’”
She continued: “And the one thing that they say is, ‘They can say anything to get you to stay.’ That is amazing. And it’s also coercive control, which is a really viable thing that happens particularly to women. And so we’re being able to show what that looks like and that it’s really about John and what he’s capable of doing, because that’s how his brain works.”
Ties to Irvine
To prepare for the series, costume designer Ruth Ammon spent time in Irvine recreating the couple’s footsteps. Her first meeting there was a field trip with the creative team.
“We (Suckle, Cunningham, Reiner and director of photography Todd McMullen) started out at the Irvine restaurant, Houston’s, where Debra and John first met. It was extremely exciting, and honestly, a little sexy,” she said.
Ammon described the space as very atmospheric without much detail, but strong on ambience. “There are dark black glossy walls with glowing hidden lighting. It’s a fun atmosphere at lunch. It feels good to be there. There’s a huge bar to see and be seen.”
Unfortunately, Houston’s does not allow filming at the restaurant, so Ammon had to find another location that gave them the same feeling.
They took a walk around the Irvine Park Place area, which is mostly residential buildings around chain businesses, restaurants, gyms and banks. “Irvine appears very safe. It is super manicured and organized without a lot of history weighing it down. A world to leave the past behind.”
To get ready to build the home set, Ammon and the team looked at the building where Debra’s penthouse was located, but were not allowed past the security desk. “But it gave us the idea. We also looked at other apartment tower communities.”
Newell owned both a big Irvine warehouse and an Irvine penthouse. While Ammon did not visit Newell’s warehouse, she did extensive research online.
“I looked it up on Google Maps and tried to recreate the idea in Calabasas. Both were in upscale business parks. We rented a commercial space and built her offices and storage there. We also used a top-end prop house (Objects) for the wider shots of Debra walking up and down massive aisles of furnishings.”
When Debra and John first moved in together, they were living in an apartment near the Irvine Spectrum. “I also researched this online. We wanted the most up-to-date version of a penthouse in Irvine.”
She added: “Debra was a very successful designer, business owner and manager of people. She seemed ready to start a new life with a new man. The apartment (created on set for the series) should feel affluent and open to new life, not weighed down by furnishings and tchotchkes of her former life.”
If you haven’t heard the podcast, you may not know how much Newell’s daughters tried to persuade their mom that Dirty John was up to no good. Unfortunately, Debra Newell was perhaps too much in love to listen to reason, much to their chagrin.
In the trailer, Newell’s oldest daughter, Ronnie (played by Juno Temple) says to her mom: “There’s something wrong with him.” When Newell insists Ronnie just doesn’t know John Meehan well enough yet, Ronnie responds, “You don’t know him, at all.”
“They were reacting to what was happening, that the romance was a whirlwind,” explained Cunningham. “Everything was happening very quickly and getting serious. And they had opinions on that. One of the things that intrigued me about that was ‘Why are they not reliable? Why were they not listened to?’”
Cunningham added: “If my mother met someone on (the dating site) PlentyOfFish and I said, ‘I really don’t like that guy. He gives me the creeps. Don’t go out with him,’ my mother would go, ‘Oh, okay. Then, never mind. I’ll lose his number.’
“What is it about the history between this woman and her daughters that means that she’s going to stick to her opinion, that they have their opinions and why are they not listened to? Because they’re not necessarily reliable narrators. They’re great people and they have opinions that turned out to be correct.”
Newell’s youngest daughter, Terra, killed Meehan in self-defense, just as he attempted to kill her.
Dirty John premieres on Sunday, November 25, at 10/9c on Bravo.
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