SXSW First Look: Erin Lee Carr's HBO Doc 'Mommy Dead and Dearest' (Exclusive)
The doc explores a strange true crime story, involving both Munchausen by proxy syndrome and matricide.
The new documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest recounts the stranger-than-fiction story of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy Rose, who was implicated in her mother’s 2015 murder. The HBO Documentary film, which will debut Saturday at the South by Southwest Film Festival and then begin airing May 15 on HBO, is not only the latest example in the growing genre of true-crime docs, but is also a particularly gothic entry, sort of a low-down Ozarks version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Exploring Munchausen by proxy syndrome, Mommy documents how Dee Dee Blanchard convinced her daughter that she couldn’t walk, keeping Gypsy Rose wheelchair-bound in their home in Springfield, Missouri. But finding her way onto the internet, Gypsy Rose began reaching out to the outside world, striking up an online relationship with an older boyfriend, Nicholas P. Godejohn. When Dee Dee was found stabbed to death, Godejohn and Gypsy Rose were charged with the murder.
Mommie is directed by Erin Lee Carr, who made her name as a provocative documentary filmmaker with the 2015 film Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, which explored the case of a New York police officer who was convicted of conspiring to kidnap a young woman, largely on the basis of his social media postings. In the wake of that film, which also played on HBO, Shelia Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, and senior vp of programming Sara Bernstein encouraged Carr to search out other stories about the intersection of the internet and crime, particularly stories where people confessed online.
In the case of the Blanchard murder, it was a Facebook posting announcing “That Bitch is dead!,” which appeared on a page shared by the mother and daughter, that led authorities to search for Gypsy Rose, who was arrested a few days later in Waukesha, Wisconsin. When Carr’s co-producer Alison Byrne turned up a news story about the bizarre case, Carr says, “I was totally shocked. How had I never heard about this? It was such a tabloid, Southern Ozarks murder case, and nobody had really covered it. There had been one piece on Gawker, but for the most part it was a local Missouri story. I was totally mesmerized by what had happened.”
While Gypsy Rose was in custody awaiting trial and although her lawyer was nervous about any media attention, Carr began the slow process of winning their confidence, eventually visiting the young woman twice in prison and later arranging for a courtroom, on-camera interview.
While Gypsy Rose’s mother had convinced her daughter and the rest of the family that the girl was mentally incapacitated, Carr says, ““That’s what was shocking about this. She is not mentally incapacitated. That was a ruse that was perpetuated by her mother. Gypsy is smart, she’s articulate. Yes, she grew up in a different reality. She is taking education classes in jail. She taught herself how to read and write.”
However, that is not how Gypsy Rose appeared in the initial interrogation footage that was captured following her arrest. In the above clip, which appears early in the documentary, Gypsy Rose is being interviewed by the police a couple of days after the murder. “She doesn’t really know how to react,” Carr says. “She is saying she doesn’t know her mother’s dead. It’s a very confusing and startling picture. The woman I met is a different person.”
Eventually, the prosecution offered Gypsy a plea deal for second-degree murder and she is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence. Says Carr, “The prosecution, who is also interviewed for the film, took a very long, hard look at what had happened. What is just? Murder is not okay whatsoever, but they took a look at why this happened.”
Having found her niche, Carr is now following a half-dozen different crime stories and has a third HBO doc in the works. Additionally, she’s working on a memoir, All That You Leave Behind, for which she’s currently combing through about 1,900 emails sent to her by her late father, the journalist David Carr.
In addition to directing Mommy Dead and Dearest, Carr produced the doc with Andrew Rossi. Byrne and Andrew Coffman served as co-producers.