Tobias Lindholm’s The Good Nurse explores the true story of serial killer Charlie Cullen and the nurse who finally stopped him. We speak to the director about making the film.
Starring Eddie Redmayne and Jessica Chastain, The Good Nurse is the chilling true story of America’s most prolific serial killer, Charlie Cullen. Cullen, a nurse, moved from hospital to hospital and left behind a staggering number of victims by contaminating their IV bags with other medications. Although only 29 victims have been confirmed, it is estimated that Cullen might have killed up to 400 patients.
Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm directs a fictionalised account of Cullen and Amy Loughren, the nurse who helped police catch and convict Cullen, who is now serving eleven consecutive life sentences in prison. The Good Nurse recently played at the BFI London Film Festival, where we sat down with the director to talk about the film.
How did you first hear about Charles Cullen?
The first time I ever heard of Charles Cullen, who’s the most prolific serial killer in American history, was through Krysty’s (Wilson-Cairns, screenwriter) first draft. I’d never heard of him and that was very scary. And that, in itself, told a very clear story about a self-protected system that was able to keep this a secret, even though it happened in my lifetime.
Reading that draft, I realised this was not only just another serial killer movie, it was a story about a system that allowed him to do this. More than that, it was a story about the nurse who reminded him of his own humanity and stopped him.
How much was the real Amy involved?
She was very involved from the beginning. Before I decided to do this, I met with her because I needed to have some confirmation on this story. It seemed almost too good to be true that she was able to do what she did. But meeting her, I realised the story was even more fantastic, and that she was an even bigger hero. The fact she was denied medical help, while giving it to others was just a great symbol for the whole film.
When you read that first draft of the script, was the balance of all those elements there already? It’s not really a film about the US healthcare system, but it’s certainly a part of it.
When you read Charles Graeber’s book, The Good Nurse, there were like 16 chapters about Charlie Cullen. And then there’s like two or three chapters about Amy. Krysty had already found that those last chapters were the most interesting ones to make a film from. What we did together then was to go even further in that direction, and get rid of all the classical serial killer movie scenes where she’s followed by a car and all these scenes that are there only to thrill, but didn’t really have a truth to them. The fact he had worked in so many hospitals and killed that many people was, for us, thrilling enough that we didn’t need to overdo it.
I don’t think that it’s only a critique of the American healthcare system. I think it’s a reminder to all of us that we have an individual responsibility in the systems we live in, to make sure they do not turn against us.
Did you go back to the book during production a lot?
Not during production, but during the development of it all. And in the work with Jessica and Eddie, we did use Greg’s book as a Bible, looking into it and finding out the mechanisms and the scenes and how it all worked. But then also, I didn’t want to point fingers at any individuals that had worked in those systems, so we changed a lot of names.
It wasn’t the point to humiliate or point a finger at the person that Kim Dickens’ role is built on, it was about portraying her as an individual caught in the system as well. She’s not trying to get rid of him to protect her money. It’s just her playing, step-by-step, her part of a system until she’s at the bottom.
Therefore we changed a lot of factual stuff from the book into the film, so we don’t mention the real hospitals. We don’t mention any names of victims, we don’t mention the names of the people that worked at the hospitals, we only mention the names of Charlie and Amy, her daughters, and the two police officers, Baldwin and Braun.
Netflix’s new series on Jeffrey Dahmer has had a lot of backlash from the victims’ families. Did you feel any sense of responsibility when telling this story?
Definitely. I think as storytellers we have a huge responsibility. You’re dealing with stories from true life. It’s just like a big darkness, right? Where there’s basically nothing. And you need to have a really good reason to go in there and tell a story. That reason becomes the light. In this story, the light was Amy.
There’s a huge responsibility, not only to the victims, but also to relatives on Charlie Cullen’s side. We were not there to explain them. We were there to tell an honest story about a dysfunctional system, and humanity.
Why not do a documentary? What does dramatising certain elements of the story bring to it?
Fiction much more than anything in the world, and much more than documentary, allows the audience to be somebody else for a while. We didn’t allow ourselves to be too fascinated with Charlie Cullen. But we were fascinated with Amy and this movie offers the opportunity to be Amy and to understand and to see her goodness and to be that for a couple of hours. That’s what fiction basically offers to the world, to be somebody else for a while. And by being that person, learning about yourself because you reflect on that.
Good storytelling is, for me at least, 50% identification; find someone that you could be; be in that person’s shoes and see the world from their perspective. And by that, learn something about yourself and the world we live in.
Eddie is very much playing against type. So how did you prepare him for the role? Or what did he bring to it?
Eddie has a very specific process that I enjoy. He finds a physical way into the role. And he worked with this movement coach that I think he’s worked with before on The Theory of Everything. And by just finding small ways to stand and be, he was able to tell all of Charlie’s story.
I remember, on the first day of shooting, we would shoot the opening scene, where he is at the foot end of a bed where a patient is dying. The way that he would just squeeze himself up in the corner there, physically, was mind blowing. And I remember thinking, that’s how he’s gonna look for the whole film. This is where the truth is, just a guy standing there, being an observer of events happening, not participating.
I would challenge some of his decisions. Once in a while, we would talk about stuff but basically, working with Eddie Redmayne is like sitting down and watching a master at his work, and then once in a while, being a shoulder or rock if he needed to lean. He is an extremely talented actor, but also a very nice guy. And it’s the same with Jessica. She comes in, and she’s good at everything she does.
The Good Nurse is in cinemas October 21, before streaming on Netflix on October 28.