If you’re wondering how Lifetime’s Jodi Arias biopic Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret can premiere mere weeks after the sensational months-long trial came to a close, the answer is surprisingly simple. The filmmakers say they always intended for the movie to focus on the doomed lovers at the trial’s bloodstained heart — Arias and her victim Travis Alexander — before their final, fatal encounter.
“We didn’t set out to make a courtroom drama, because that’s not what fascinated us about this story,” says director Jace Alexander (Law & Order, Rescue Me), who is no relation to Travis Alexander. “The courtroom element was captured and disseminated to a very large public — and very well. What we were most interested in was the relationship between Jodi and Travis from the very beginning until the very end. To try to come to some understanding of what led to this horrible tragedy. The bulk of the movie is private moments between these two people.”
Working from a script by screenwriters Richard Blaney and Gregory Small, Alexander instructed his onscreen Jodi and Travis, actors Tania Raymonde (a ringer for Arias) and Jesse Lee Soffer, to ignore the media circus that reduced Jodi to a loopy courtroom crackpot and Travis to gruesome autopsy photos and salacious testimony and anchor their performances on the fact these were very real people with very real emotions and foibles.
“My personal feeling is there aren’t any monsters in this world,” Alexander says. “There are human beings who do monstrous things — but they’re still human beings. Yes, Jodi did the unspeakable; she took this man’s life in the most horrible way. We wanted to know why. What happened? Why would a woman who has never exhibited any tendency toward violence until then and no real form of madness until then seem to go completely mad and do something as horrific as that?”
Given that most of us have experienced moments of vulnerability in romantic relationships, it might prove surprising — and even unnerving — to realize how close to home many scenes can hit, whether we choose to admit it or not. Wondering if your bond is about love or merely sex. Navigating conflicting careers and lifestyles. Trying to win over unsupportive friends and family members. Sneaking furtive glances at our partners’ computers screen or cell phone in moments of self-doubt. Letting ego overtake sound judgment.
“That’s the only reason that I do what I do and do it for a living — because for me that’s the whole kit and caboodle” Alexander says. “Are we putting on the screen or on the stage or on the television stories about people where I as an audience member can relate in some way to their experience? …When I read this script and discovered this story for the first time — because I was not a follower of the trial prior to that — I thought for me, as an audience member, what I can relate to is heartbreak, jealousy, rage and love. And the need for love, the desperate need for love that can sometimes change love into obsession. At the end of the day emotions are more powerful than reason for some.”
Given that, Alexander says that he realized the murder scene would be the film’s most pivotal in terms of telegraphing the horror of Travis’ final moments, the degree of Jodi’s unspooling and his desire for his audience to be a fly on the wall for the murder that was reduced to facts and figures in the trial — something made especially challenging by the constraints of working with a basic cable network.
“I had naked people and violence on one very tough day of shooting — and naked people and violence on a network that is not Showtime or HBO,” Alexander explains of the graphic and disturbing montage. “In hindsight, it’s certainly the most violent thing I’ve ever directed. And that’s not because I haven’t directed people getting shot and killed or stabbed, because I have, unfortunately, and I don’t relish it. But I really wanted us to understand that the brutality of it has as much to do with the length of the actual murder as anything else. Because it was not a fast crime.
“Most people are killed with a single gunshot and that takes less than a second,” he continues. “Steven Sondheim has this great line in his musical Assassins [for which Alexander originated the role of Lee Harvey Oswald on Broadway in 1990], which is, ‘All you have to do is squeeze your little finger.’ This is not that. This is not her squeezing her little finger. She did at the end. But before that, she had to violently thrust a knife 27 times and then make the decision to slice open his throat. I couldn’t shortchange that. We don’t even come close to showing 27 thrusts, but I had to show enough thrusts so that everybody understood that she stabbed him over and over and over.”
Then there was the matter of what to do about the verdict — something that wasn’t included in the original script, but became a fact of life for the filmmakers when one was reached while Dirty Little Secret was still filming.
“The verdict was read during our next-to-last week of shooting — about three days before we knew we were going to shoot our courtroom scene,” Alexander says. “We actually set up televisions on-set as the verdict was announced and we all watched it together.”
Alexander came up with a solution that would address the trial’s end in a way that remained true to the emotion-based tale they had told to that point. “I said to everybody that my preference would be to do this as one shot — where we see the courtroom, we see the players involved, but mostly we see Jodi’s face. Because what I remember most distinctly about it was watching her expression as the verdict was read, the single tear that falls down,” he says, “I think that she was almost stripped of the ability to feel completely by that point, but it got the better of her to know that it was over.”
Alexander says he understands that Dirty Little Secret might face backlash from both the Mormon community and Jodi Arias supporters that have been aggressively vocal on social media outlets — but he believes that most viewers fall somewhere in between and hopes the film supports that.
“At the end of the day, I’m not trying to draw conclusions,” Alexander says, adding his own opinion is that Jodi is not so much a calculating killer but a despairing young woman who suffered an epic psychotic break. “If we’re successful, for every hundred people who see this movie, there might be a hundred different opinions on what was going on and what drove her to do what she did and how justified in her disturbed mind she thought that was. All I hope is that they connect to these two human beings in some way — good or bad — but see them as the real people that they are — and were.”
Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret premieres Saturday, June 22 at 8/7CT on Lifetime.