Carrie Coon, the wildest part of the Boston Strangler case has nothing to do with a murderer and everything to do with the female reporters who juggled personal lives while pursuing a killer story.
“Taking care of their families meant that they had to get up in the middle of the night, go downstairs in their living rooms and type up their stories at 2 in the morning. They didn’t sleep,” Coon says.
In writer/director Matt Ruskin’s true-crime thriller “Boston Strangler” (now streaming on Hulu), Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) and Jean Cole (Coon) team up to investigate the murders of more than a dozen women in the early 1960s.
Ruskin and his stars break down what’s real and what’s not in the movie:
In 1962, Loretta is working on the Boston Record-American’s lifestyle desk when she finds out three women have been found strangled in the past two weeks. She wants to profile the victims but is turned down, leading her to investigate the murders in her free time, and gets the scoop.
“A lot of women have said watching it is cathartic,” Knightley says. “Most have experienced being belittled in their workplace (and) not being taken seriously.”
Loretta’s in the middle of typing a story when she changes the sentence “The Boston Phantom must be caught” to the “Boston Strangler.” And while it’s “obviously a dramatization,” Ruskin says, names like “the Phantom Strangler” and “the Silk Stalking Killer” popped up in headlines and stories before McLaughlin finally coined the infamous moniker in her reporting.
When Loretta starts making headway on the Strangler case, Jean is brought in to help out with her sources and both have their ways of dealing with the rampant sexism and misogyny of the time. McLaughlin “tried to punch everyone in the face and say, ‘Take me seriously!’ And Jean is much more wily about it and a bit flirty,” Knightley says.
Cole’s career path resonated with Coon, who says she also “had to make my own way” as an actress. Her real-life character was going to be a nurse until she met with the Boston Daily Record fresh out of high school and got a job with the newspaper in the 1940s as a “copy boy,” sorting files. “She really had to work her way through the system and learn on the job,” Coon says.
Loretta and Jean become close friends and have each other’s backs. Loretta is flummoxed by editors wanting to take their pictures and put them next to their byline. “I don’t do stunt reporting,” she says, refusing, until Jean puts it into perspective: “Let them sell their papers. You still got the biggest story in the city.”
At the end of the film, Ruskin shows real pictures of the reporters that ran in the Record-American. “It was a tabloid newspaper, and so they did what they could to sell papers,” the filmmaker says. “There were full photo spreads of them investigating the Boston Strangler. So there was an aspect of it that was a circulation stunt, even though they were incredibly skilled and respected reporters.”
In the film, the police department is sometimes an obstacle for the reporters, though a detective named Conley (Alessandro Nivola) trades valuable info with Loretta. Ruskin says Conley is a composite character of “impressive, forward-thinking detectives completely obsessed with the case.” Cole’s father was a fire chief on Massachusetts’ South Shore and a number of cops took the journalists seriously. “They would go visit different regional police stations and see some of their articles taped to the wall,” Ruskin says.
“Boston Strangler” also digs into how the police struggled in the “early stages” of criminology, Ruskin adds. “The Boston Police Department at that time was a blunt instrument, and this was a string of killings that the city really hadn’t seen anything like before.”
Ruskin’s film explores why much of the case remains a mystery to this day. “One of the really fascinating things is that no one was ever tried or convicted of any of the Boston Strangler murders,” he says.
But the director resisted showing too much of the crimes committed, because “these are real victims who left behind real families,” he says. “They were really deranged sexual assaults, bizarre posing of bodies. Some of the imagery and the way in which we depict the violence – hearing things instead of seeing things in many cases – is actually more horrifying than if we tried to depict it.”
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