news True-Crime Stories Are More Salacious Than Ever — Which Is What Writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns Wants to Subvert

Even “The Good Nurse” screenwriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns felt a little tapped out on true-crime stories when she was first approached about adapting Charles Graeber’s book “The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder” into a big screen version.

Almost 10 years ago, the future “1917” and “Last Night in Soho” screenwriter was fresh off earning her MA from the National Film and Television School and snagging a spot on the 2014 Black List with her sci-fi script “Aether,” which tracked a serial killer in the near future. When the fledging screenwriter’s new agency sent her stack of books to potentially adapt, at the top of the heap was Graeber’s, which followed the incredible (and horrifying) true story of Charles Cullen, now believed to be America’s most prolific serial killer.

“I remember kind of being like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do another serial killer thing,’ because the script I’d [previously] written was that, and I was like, ‘I’ll just read it to be polite. I’ll do my due diligence. I sat down to read it, and then I read through the night,'” she told IndieWire during a recent interview. Graeber’s book was “so compelling and brilliantly written,” with an “insane” story at its heart. Wilson-Cairns suddenly couldn’t go on without it. “I was like, ‘OK, I want this more than anything else in life,’ and started pitching for it,” she recalled.

Wilson-Cairns was hired to write the adaptation in 2014, with the project eventually heading to Netflix with director Tobias Lindholm attached, plus a starry cast that includes Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne as the killer nurse Cullen and Jessica Chastain as fellow nurse (and his eventual foil) Amy Loughren. But even then, the screenwriter was cautious about how she wanted to tell this story.

“The genre of true crime is so vast now,” Wilson-Cairns said. “I think the podcast medium has affected the screen medium very much. I think it’s about bite-sized chunks, it’s about hooking people, it’s about holding people, and I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think anyone should watch what they want to watch. But me personally, I think there’s an impulse to make true crime, and to make these heinous crimes, sexy.”

The Good Nurse (2022). L to R: Eddie Redmayne as Charlie Cullen and Jessica Chastain as Amy Loughren. Cr. JoJo Whilden / Netflix

“The Good Nurse”

JoJo Whilden / Courtesy of Netflix

That’s something the Glasgow native grew up seeing a lot of, and it’s exactly the approach she doesn’t want to take with stories like “The Good Nurse.” “A lot of times, you would watch these police dramas, and it was a young, hot, dead prostitute naked on the floor,” she said. “I always thought to myself, ‘I never want to write about a rape or a murder or something like that where someone can get off to it.’ I think that only happens when you write it from the perspective of the murderer or the perspective of the rapist, or who is the perpetrator. When you write it from the perspective of the victim and you understand what it feels like to move through that, then it’s the more truthful version and it’s the more important version.”

That means no “sexy” violence or anything salacious, but that doesn’t mean skimping on details. It just means approaching them from a different angle, one that does seem to be missing from other true-crime projects that are so hot these days.

“So to me, that sexy violence, the sort of sexy degradation, just doesn’t do it,” the writer said. “I don’t think it’s fair, and I think it’s misogynistic. Listen, I know a lot of people that love true crime, and I get it, because it’s something terrifying because it’s real, it’s worse than your nightmares, it’s worse than you can come up with always. But to me, keeping it true allows it to be scarier.”

Like many people, Wilson-Cairns had never heard of Charles Cullen before she read Graeber’s book. “I did not know that America’s most prolific serial killer happened in my lifetime,” she said. “You hear about a lot of other prolific American serial killers, but … his victims potentially are more than 300 people. It’s unfathomable. He was killing for 16 years. I remember putting the book down and checking the back cover and being like, ‘Oh, it’s fact.’ I really struggled with it because I felt like the story had somehow been buried.”

Much of Graeber’s meticulously researched book focuses on Cullen’s childhood and upbringing, but that’s not what Wilson-Cairns wanted to dramatize in her script. She didn’t want to tell the story of Cullen from his point of view; she didn’t want to try to “understand him” because she feared that would turn him into some sort of hero, or at least an anti-hero.

The Good Nurse (2022). L to R: Noah Emmerich as Tim Braun, Nnamdi Asomugha as Danny Baldwin, and Jessica Chastain as Amy Loughren. Cr. JoJo Whilden / Netflix

“The Good Nurse”

JoJo Whilden / Netflix

“We never wanted to make anything salacious, and we didn’t want to invent,” she said. “These people that do these terrible things, you’re always tempted to make them different from you. So that you can sleep at night, you say that they’re possessed by the devil, they’re demons, they’re monsters, they had a horrible childhood, they had this and that. And actually, I think the really scary thing about these people is they are just like us. They may have chemical imbalances in their brain and stuff like that, but they can move through society the way we do. They can hide it. And that’s way more frightening and way more real.”

She needed another way in, and she found it in the last third of the book. “That’s when you hit nurse Amy Loughren, and that to me was where the book really became something that I wanted to write, because it’s the story of a working-class single mom who essentially is a superhero,” she said. “She saves countless lives, she stops this killer when she’s risking everything. She’s risking her health, her livelihood, her children’s lives. She does it to protect the people in her care and to protect people going forward. To me, that’s the absolute pinnacle of human achievement.”

Graeber gave Wilson-Cairns access to all his research, introduced her to detectives Danny Baldwin (played in the film by Nnamdi Asomugha) and Tim Braun (Noah Emmerich), and even helped set the writer up at a Connecticut hospital, where she worked two weeks’ worth of night shifts alongside real nurses. He also introduced her to the real Amy Loughren. The pair spent a weekend together that proved pivotal.

“She very gracefully opened her life story up to me,” Wilson-Cairns said. “Bear in mind, I was a 20something with no credits whatsoever and not a clue what I was doing. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can capture you with all your complexities and all the amazing thing you did, but I’m going to try really hard. Will you help me?’ And she did. She helped me every stage of the way.”

Even now, Wilson-Cairns remains in awe of Loughren. The two have become “life-long friends,” she said. Recently, they took a helicopter ride to a Hamptons Film Festival event together, because why not indulge in something crazy and fun like that?

“A lot of superheroes are billionaires in a bat suit, billionaires in an iron suit. You can’t be them. I’m never going to be Batman, and I’m not being bit by radioactive spiders. So they’re amazing to watch, but I can’t ever attain that status,” Wilson-Cairns said. “But when you look at people like Amy Loughren, you can think, ‘I can actually be a better human being, I can live better, I can make the world a better place.’ And that to me was where the real interest in this lay.”

Still, Wilson-Cairns is well-aware that her cinematic output tends to skew darker. From the war-time horrors of “1917” to the skeezy underbelly present in “Last Night in Soho,” the screenwriter isn’t afraid of embracing the tougher stuff. But even in those horrific stories, she can’t help but find the good in all of them. That’s what she wants to bring to the world.

“As my mom would say, I’m a very twisted bitch, and I wear that with pride,” she said with a laugh. “Yes, World War I and how women were treated in the ’60s and America’s most prolific serial killers, they’re all really awful things, and they’re all true. But in all these awful things, there’s humans doing something absolutely extraordinary [to help]. The world isn’t always a lovely place. It’s not terrible, it’s not awful, but bad things happen. When you watch the people that change it, when you watch the people that save us and they’re human, and they have flaws, and they aren’t billionaires in a bat suit, then I think, ‘Oh fuck, isn’t humanity grand?’ So I suppose, although they’re all very dark, I actually think they’re hugely full of light.”

“The Good Nurse” is now in select theaters and will be available on Netflix’s streaming platform on Wednesday, October 26.