'Under the Bridge' Creator Explains Real-Life Rebecca Godfrey: What's True?

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When Quinn Shephard (indie hit “Blame” and internet satire “Not Okay”) set out to adapt Rebecca Godfrey’s bestselling narrative non-fiction book “Under the Bridge,” about the 1997 murder of teenager Reena Virk, one key aspect of the book stood out to her beyond the crime.

“I was so struck by how gentle [the book] was,” Shephard told IndieWire during a recent interview. “And there was a real sensitivity to the way that it approached the holistic story, as well as all of the characters. It was a very beautiful book; it was very poetic. I was really shocked that a story that was so dark and so brutal could have so much tenderness. [It’s] really a story of childhood and coming of age.”

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Viewers of the eight-episode miniseries, which premiered on Hulu April 17, will quickly note the horror of a group of young teens in small town British Columbia murdering their classmate in a night of rage, but this crime program is interested in themes beyond just a whodunnit about a dead girl. (Thank goodness.)

The show, starring Oscar nominee Lily Gladstone as a frustrated cop, aspires to look at teen girlhood itself. With all the feelings and anger and changes going on, what happens when young women are going through that without any support systems or guidance?

In addition to expanding Virk’s story — the team optioned a memoir by Reena’s father for added insight about her life — Shephard quickly realized one way into a complicated tale was to make book author Rebecca Godfrey (portrayed by Riley Keough) a character on the show itself.

“[Reading the book] made me immediately curious what the author’s background was,” she said, noting she then read a bunch of interviews with Godfrey. “I thought it was so fascinating she had grown up in the same town as the kids, and that she had had such an interest in writing fiction about the criminal justice system, juvie centers for kids, and young teens growing up in Victoria. Then she kind of stumbled into this story that was like a real-life version of the fiction she was writing. I just thought it was very cinematic. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a way to comment on on the perspective of true crime.'”

Under The Bridge -- “Looking Glass” - Episode 101 -- In 1997, on a quiet island in BC, fourteen-year-old Reena Virk attends a party and never returns home. Her disappearance intrigues a novelist returning to her hometown, who finds herself drawn into the hidden world of the teen suspects… Reena (Vritika Gupta), shown. (Photo by: Bettina Strauss/Hulu)
‘Under The Bridge’HULU
The real Godfrey, who is an executive producer on the Hulu show, passed away in 2022 shortly before filming began. But prior to that, Shephard and Godfrey spent three years together working on the pilot and development of the show. “She gave me her diaries from the ’90s. And she let me read like the most personal entries she had done, every kind of nuance of her heart,” Shephard said, noting Godfrey kept all the old interview transcripts and other notes from that era.

While explaining the timeline on the show is fictionalized a bit, “it was really interesting hearing about the techniques she had employed because she was a woman in her twenties,” Shephard said. “She had grown up there [and] was a cool New York writer, party girl. There was this vibe where the kids didn’t see her as a journalist or a cop or or somebody to be scared of.”

“I remember she told me there was a reporter who had rented a really nice car and was driving around in this car, and none of the kids would talk to him because they thought it was so suspicious he had this nice car. But she had this old beater car, and the kids would jump in and be like, ‘Take me to the mall.’ And that’s where she would do her interviews.[Rebecca would be] by their house, and [one of the kids] would have an iguana and a pregnant girlfriend and she just hung out with them. And that was how she got these crazy details,” Shephard said.

Yup, the iguana makes the show.

Under The Bridge -- “The John Gotti of Seven Oaks” - Episode 102 -- Cam is thrown by a shocking discovery, and the police rush to unravel what really happened under the bridge. Josephine makes a deal with Rebecca, while a look into the past reveals Reena’s first rebellion. Rebecca (Riley Keough), shown. (Photo by: Darko Sikman/Hulu)
‘Under the Bridge’Courtesy of Darko Sikman / Hulu
Listening to Shephard talk about Rebecca Godfrey, it’s easy to see how both of them came to empathize with these compelling troubled kids. It’s an interesting challenge for the program, then, because while viewers don’t know all the details yet, a murder took place. That’s why Gladstone’s character, a new cop investigating what happened to Reena who also is one of the only people of color on the show outside the Virk family, is so crucial.

“It was very important there was somebody else who really did not feel seduced by, I think, the allure of the accused teens in the way that Rebecca was,” Shephard said about the creation of Gladstone’s composite character. “I think it’s very interesting how fascinated [Rebecca] was by the kids who did this. I also think it’s a really valid perspective to be sort of put off by that and to not want to engage with that, because you’re so disturbed by the crime.”

As the series unfolds until the May 29 finale, viewers will learn more about what happened on the night Reena Virk was murdered. But that central “who?” question is not drawn out over the course of the series, a la a “Mare of Easttown” investigation.

“When you tell a true story, it’s oftentimes not a mystery in real life,” Shephard noted, explaining she usually isn’t a true-crime fan. “We knew that for Hulu, and for audiences, it was really important we have a mystery element to the show. But we were also really intrigued by the idea of not making the entire season a whodunnit. … [When reading the book] there’s a sense you know deep in your gut the truth of what happened, and we really wanted to explore that feeling in television: [the] feeling of being given some of the information and actually going through the emotional experience of not wanting to know it, of wanting to believe otherwise, and buying into how much you might sympathize with a character and then [being] surprised by what they had done almost because you yourself don’t want to believe it.”

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