In Apple TV+’s “Truth Be Told,” Octavia Spencer plays Poppy Parnell, a true-crime podcaster who is compelled to reopen the murder case that made her a national sensation and comes face to face with the man she may have mistakenly helped to put behind bars. Relitigating the murder case via her podcast, Parnell contends with nearly 20 years of family secrets, deceit, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s powerful in order to get to the truth.
The series, which is created by Nichelle Tramble Spellman (“The Good Wife”) and premieres today, came about after general conversations on the value of true crime between executive producers Jenno Topping, Reese Witherspoon and Lauren Neustadter. Witherspoon recommended that Topping and Neustadter consider Kathleen Barber’s 2017 novel, “Are You Sleeping.”
“We read it and loved it, and especially loved its potential in terms of an adaptation,” Topping said. “Lauren then got involved as well. We had just done ‘Hidden Figures’ with Octavia, and together we found Nichelle and it just became a happy party.”
Besides the novel, Bay Area native Spellman’s attraction to the project started with the opportunity to explore the phenomena of podcasting and revisiting criminal cases. She also relished the idea of setting a series in the city where she was born and raised. The original story was set in Illinois, a state unfamiliar to Spellman.
“I’m a Bay Area girl, and I really wanted to show the diversity that I remembered,” she said. “Much of what I was fond of has kind of disappeared, or been altered after all the money that came in from Silicon Valley spread through San Francisco and then into the East Bay. So the series is a little bit of a love letter to how things used to be.”
The setting was just one of several key changes that were made in adapting the novel. Another was a shift in the main point-of-view; unlike the novel, in which Poppy Parnell is a peripheral character, Spellman envisioned her as the heartbeat of the story.
“Nichelle unlocked the world of the show for us in a tremendous way,” said Neustadter. “I remember when she first presented her ideas to us. She always really felt a strong connection to Poppy, and to the complexity, originality and authenticity of this character. She had such a clear vision of who she was. And all of us immediately pictured Octavia as Poppy.”
Their first meeting with Spencer was a lovefest. The actress, an avid reader of mystery novels and a true crime fanatic, immediately connected with the character and the material, and would soon join the project as both star and executive producer.
It was then that most of the changes from novel to script began, most significantly, building Poppy’s nonexistence backstory from scratch, giving her a family comprised of a father, a stepmother and two sisters, each with their own individual stories.
And as an executive producer, Spencer was very involved in the process from the start. “Executive producing is is not a vanity credit for me,” Spencer said. “If my name is on it, then I’m going to be doing the work because I don’t put my name on just anything.”
Some of that work included engaging in tough yet respectful debates with the production team about how to map out the narrative and draw out each of the characters and their individual stories. These invigorating conversations were necessary, given the profound and topical themes of privacy, media and race that the series tackles.
Coincidentally, these are all issues that Apple as a technology and media company has had to contend with in recent years — although that didn’t necessarily influence their enthusiasm for the show.
“We took it out on the typical pitch parade beginning in the summer of 2017, and there were a number of really passionate bidders for the project, but ultimately it was Apple’s passion for it that won the day,” Neustadter said. “It seemed like they really connected with it creatively, in a way that we were looking for.”
From there, the process from script to screen happened relatively quickly. In less than a year, the main cast was set. In June 2018, it was announced that Lizzy Caplan, Aaron Paul, Elizabeth Perkins, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Beach, Tracie Thoms, Haneefah Wood, and Ron Cephas Jones had signed up to join Spencer.
Filming took six months during the latter half of 2018, and now, a year after it wrapped, Apple is set to unveil the series to audiences in over 100 countries and regions. And the producers are exhilarated. “We had a really amazing writer’s room, because Nichelle did such a great job of putting together a group of people who all came from different points-of-view,” Neustadter said. “So I think everything was incredibly, thoughtfully rendered.”
The directing team was led by Mikkel Nørgaard who Neustadter called “our North Star.” Also an executive producer on the series, Nørgaard directed the pilot episode, which was shot by Emmy-nominated cinematographer of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Colin Watkinson, who helped give the show its visual signature.
But the vision was all Spellman’s.
“It was definitely in Nichelle’s mind’s eye, and then she collaborated with these tremendously talented people who brought her vision to life on screen, and I do think it’s really beautiful visually,” Neustadter said.
Above all, Spencer is credited with setting the overall tone of the project from the start, never relenting. “Octavia came with us to every single pitch meeting, God bless her heart,” Neustadter said. “She was so amazing and really set a tremendous tone. She was this amazing leader, and an amazing constant on set. Her passion for the show really drove everything forward.”
For the producers, there’s hope that the series will have an impact beyond its entertainment value. “I don’t know whether it’s going to gin up old stories as in the series, but I do hope it foments conversation about the way in which media covers true crime,” Topping said. “We should ask ourselves whether we should take a moment to really consider before rushing to judgment, when we’re dealing with situations that are really complex and layered.”
“We get a chance to view ourselves, society as a whole, and how we consume so much true crime, and how we forget that at the center of those crimes are real people,” Spencer said.
The series is entering a very competitive marketplace that’s awash with content, and even with a stellar cast, attracting eyeballs isn’t guaranteed. But the team is optimistic.
“We are so very passionate about the stories that we tell, that we hope others will feel similarly passionate about watching and then having conversations about those stories, and I think this is a great example of a show that should start conversation,” Neustadter said. “We have to hope that these stories that we’re so passionate about telling will inspire word of mouth.”
Apple TV+ will premiere the first three episodes of “Truth Be Told” today, with new episodes then appearing each Friday.