Awards Daily TV talks to screenwriter Abdi Nazemian about Lifetime’s new take on the Menendez brothers controversial story.
Their crime gripped a nation. Two brothers from Beverly Hills murdered their parents in cold blood. Or did they? The Menendez brothers trial found America glued to the television. Did they kill their parents? Was it self-defense? What really happened? The Menendez brothers testified to their sexually abuse at the hands of their father. Yet, a jury of their peers ultimately found their claims ludicrous. This weekend, Lifetime TV delivers a different perspective on the murders.
Screenwriter Abdi Nazemian spent hours sifting through court transcripts and documents, working alongside producers Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey to bring this story to television. Read what he had to say about Menendez: Blood Brothers airing on Lifetime this Sunday.
This is the first time you’ve tackled crime, what made you want to explore this genre?
I was in high school when the Menendez trials happened, and we were all really fascinated by it. So much so that I remember having a party when Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills aired. Everyone came in tennis clothes. That was a long time ago. Now, as a writer, I think what true crime gives us is a lens through which we can to look at social issues.
When I got the chance to write this movie, what I was so taken by is how much of the story I missed back then because it was so easy to get lost in the narrative of spoiled rich kids who murdered their parents. Looking at it now as an adult and through the lens of 2017, it was so clear to me that the real story is one of abuse, and of how we have so much to learn still when it comes to accepting abuse, believing victims, and exploring that subject matter. I felt it was a real opportunity to use this crime that we were all so fascinated by, myself included, and to really reveal what it says about us as people when it comes to this subject.
True crime lets us do that in so many different ways. I think the People v. O.J. Simpson really helped us look at our relationship with race. That’s what excited me about writing true crime. You get people to watch because they’re fascinated by the crime, but hopefully what they’re left with is thinking about something deeper.
There’s a great line in the movie where they say, “You’re not going to play that battered wife card.” Back then, it seemed insane.
In the first trial, they were allowed to present their abuse case, and what was so amazing to me in the research was that anybody researching this case would not think these boys were at the very least physically abused. Most of their family members testified on their behalf about the abuse, which is amazing. Even Jose Menedez’s mother, whose son was killed, was loyal to them. It was very clear to me that the abuse testimony had a lot behind it.
In the second trial, they didn’t allow them to present any evidence about the abuse. One of the reasons that was used was that the precedence was the battered woman syndrome. We’re pretty awful as a culture when it comes to believing female victims, but the idea that two strong athletic men were victims of abuse was just absurd to people. It shows a lack of insight into the psychology of abuse.
I thought that was sad and fascinating. Also in Erik’s first trial, all the male jury members thought the brothers were gay. There was so little understanding of what it means to be abused that their takeaway was that they were gay men having a gay relationship with their father.
I found that scene so interesting in the movie… That clear divide of men voting them guilty and the women not.
That’s exactly what happened. In Erik’s first trial, there was this clear divide between the men and the women. The men all thought they were guilty, and they believed they were just gay, whereas the women believed the story. It wasn’t just the jurors. The prosecutors really played up this narrative that they were gay, and that’s how and why there were telling these stories. In the 90’s culture was different.
How much research did you have to do to get to the heart of the story?
So much. One of the things that is so incredible about a lot of true crime is that you have trial documents. I sifted through all of that and really got to what I felt the heart of the story was.
From the moment I met with Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, that’s the story they wanted to tell too. They were so passionate about telling a story about kids who were abused, and about what happens to Erik as he deals with that trauma and what that trauma made him do.
I don’t think we went into it saying we wanted to do a story that pardons them for murdering their parents. We wanted people to understand the psychology of why things like this happen, and also how common they are. In some ways, after the murder, the psychology of the abuse continues, and he’s never free and that’s what so sad about it.
Talk about working with Randy and Fenton on this?
Randy and Fenton were on board when I came on to the film. From the very first meeting, they were there and they had this vision of what they wanted to do. I would say it was as wonderful of a development process as I could imagine. They are so smart and so involved, and they’re so creative. They’re open to new ideas, so we really explored things together. We never veered away from the theme of the story we wanted to tell. It’s a beast of a story. There are two trials. It covers many years, and we really had to dig in together and make decisions about what needed to be included as we had 90 minutes to tell our version.
The idea of the visions came from research that told us about Erik having psychological hallucinations afterward, so, it gave us this idea, “What if he saw his parents?”
Also, I was little obsessed with Randy and Fenton before because I’m the biggest RuPaul’s Drag Race fan in the world.
Who isn’t? The casting is amazing. Courtney Love playing Kitty Menendez is a revelation. What was that like for you going to the set and seeing her and these actors deliver your words?
It was amazing. Writing is a very solitary life because you’re in a room by yourself. To suddenly have things come to life is so powerful and incredible. When it’s with actors who are so good, it’s even better.
Kitty is a character we had so much love and empathy for. When you study this family and families who have this secret of abuse in their homes, often there is the abuser and often you have the enabler. There’s a lot of guilt there, but they also feel trapped. The real Kitty Menendez had attempted suicide, and we felt there was this woman who was trapped in there but who wanted to be better and wanted more connection with her sons. We felt she wanted to be the protector of her sons, but couldn’t and wasn’t ultimately. We decided we would explore that character after her death through Erik’s hallucinations.
Courtney was so incredible at understanding her. This all happened when I was in high school. So I’m a child of the 90’s, and I don’t know many children from that time who weren’t incredibly impacted by her and her music, and of course, I told her that when I met her. She’s a force to me, and to watch her disappear into this role was really magical.
We forget what a great actress she is though. She starred in The People vs. Larry Flynt.
I loved that film.
Empire last season.
She did Man on the Moon. She did Empire. I think she’s an absolutely incredible actress. What makes her such a powerful musician is how raw she is, and how much emotion comes through her performance. She’s a great writer. It’s interesting when you write for actors. I think actors are the most magical people with what they do. When I found out that Courtney Love was going to be in it, and I was on set, I was also thinking about the fact that she has written lyrics that I can recite and had such a big impact. I was also thinking she’s a great writer, and here she is interpreting my words.
What is your process and how long did it take to write?
That’s a hard one to answer because the process accelerates and then slows down depending on the cycle. I wrote some drafts quickly, but it was probably seven or eight months total, which is fast for a development process. I was getting notes quickly, and the engagement process of working with Fenton and Randy and Lifetime was so high. We were hunkered down working really hard.
What would you say was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
This goes back to being a kid in the 90’s and things that didn’t impact me. The biggest surprise was that I believed the abuse. Back then, I accepted the narrative that the media wanted me to accept, which is that they were these awful, spoiled rich kids. How deeply I believed the abuse, and how deeply I felt about how painful living in that home must have been, was very surprising to me.
Other things are small, like learning that Jose was instrumental in discovering the Eurythmics or Duran Duran. The fact that they had O.J. Simpson to dinner because Jose worked on a Hertz campaign with O.J. The way that the family interacted with the L.A. pop culture world of the 80’s and 90’s was surprising and interesting.
I think and I have to say my greatest takeaway was the same, that what if these kids were telling the truth?
I’m sure many people are going to think and wonder why we are exploring it again. We can’t change the outcome of the story, but we can change the way we tell it, and in changing the way we tell it, we can maybe shine a light on something that people can see more clearly. I certainly believe passionately that we need to be having a franker and more human discussion about abuse, and how common it is, and how often it’s disbelieved and how often it’s covered up.
You can look at what’s happened within schools, churches, and institutions to see how common it is to cover up abuse when a powerful figure abuses and Jose Menendez was really powerful. That’s what we’ve seen happen in all of these institutions of power, and that’s something we feel very uncomfortable talking about. I think hopefully these movies will entertain people, but also make people think about what we’re doing wrong when it comes to abuse.
What’s next for you?
I have a book coming out in August called The Authentics. It’s a young adult novel about an Iranian girl who is very proud of her heritage, and she discovers she’s adopted and is not biologically Iranian. It sends her on this existential tailspin of an identity crisis. It’s very different from the Menendez brothers.
That’s very different, going from crime to Young Adult.
Very different. I’m really excited. I’m writing some new material. I also head development for a production company called Water’s End Productions, and we have some really incredible films that we were involved in coming out, including Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, so I’m looking forward to that.
Menendez: Blood Brothers airs this Sunday on Lifetime.