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Michelle Carter sent text messages to her boyfriend Conrad Roy, encouraging him to go through with his suicide. COURTESY HBO

I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter
Saturday, May 11, 4 p.m.
Montclair Kimberley Academy Upper School, 6 Lloyd Road
Q&A with director Erin Lee Carr

All That You Leave Behind: A Conversation with Erin Lee Carr
Saturday, May 11, 1 p.m.
Cinema505, 505 Bloomfield Ave.
Presented in partnership with Watchung Booksellers

By GWEN OREL
orel@montclairlocal.news

When Erin Lee Carr saw a Washington Post headline about the Michelle Carter case, she knew she had to make a film about it.

“I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter” will screen at Montclair Film Festival on Saturday, and on HBO this summer (a specific date has not been announced).

It debuted at SXSW (South by Southwest) in March.

Carter was implicated in the suicide of her boyfriend, Conrad Roy, in 2014. She was 17, he was 18. What made the case particularly shocking was that while Carter was charged for manslaughter — she was not there.

The couple had met in 2012, but lived an hour away, and spent little time in each other’s physical presence. Instead, they sent thousands of text messages.

When Conrad was in the process of poisoning himself with carbon monoxide, he lost his nerve. He contacted Carter.

She told him to get back in his truck. Her arrest and charge of manslaughter fascinated and horrified the world, raising questions about free speech and culpability.

Their texts pop up on the screen, with the sound of a text “bloop,” over other visuals.

“It’s okay to be scared and it’s normal,” she texts. “I mean, you’re about to die.”

“Michelle Carter is so a part of who I am, and what I’m interested in as a person,” said Carr, daughter of the celebrated New York Times journalist and Montclair resident, David Carr, who died in 2015.

Carter’s story, Carr said, connects to “concepts of girlhood, mental health. I thought, ‘What were the series of things that happened that led to this moment of a young girl saying this to a young man?’ It confused me and it didn’t make sense.”

Carr approached the Massachusetts court system and asked to be the pool camera, since she was making a film for HBO.

It was a long shot, but Carr, though young (she’s now 31) has made well-received documentaries: “Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop” (2015) premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

It and “Mommy Dead and Dearest” (2017) aired on HBO.

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The pool camera is the one camera inside that gets footage given to all of the other stations. It’s usually given to a local affiliate who’s done it many times before, Carr said.

Yet somehow she was given permission.

And she had to learn on the job. On the very first day, a relay to get footage to other affiliates wasn’t working.

“I felt like a nerve severed in my brain, it was so panic inducing,” Carr said. Her cinematographer wasn’t sure why the footage kept cutting in and out. Someone suggested the converter box was an issue. She checked and saw it was the extension cord for the converter box.

She brought apology doughnuts the next day, and laughs that she is lucky she wasn’t fired.  Covering the trial, she said, was the most challenging week and a half she ever had.

But not only because of the technical challenges.

“I really felt a bit like a vulture,” she said. Everyone was angling to talk to Carter, to her parents, to the Roy family. “You don’t want to forget it’s not about a case, or film, or news story, but about people who lost children to mental health issues, or suicide.

“It’s very painful.”

Carter, who was found guilty but is appealing, did not participate in the film. But Carr had access to 10,000 text messages.

“At every single point, I have her state of mind while it was happening,” Carr said. “The film would not have been possible 10 years ago. It’s a unique and real portrait of two teenagers destined for dark things. It shows you who they were in real time.”

Carr’s own attitude to Carter is complicated, and changed over time. “It’s not as simple as is she guilty or innocent. Do I understand her more I think so.”

One of Carr’s big takeaways? “Don’t put so much in your phones! Have conversations! People on the other ends of phones are real.” It’s easy to lose perspective, whether in a text or even a Goodread book review the author might see, that there’s a real person on the other end of a computer or phone screen.

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A text message sent by Michelle Carter. COURTESY HBO

GIANT SHOES, LEFT BEHIND

After her father, David Carr, collapsed and died in the newsroom of the New York Times in 2015, Erin Lee Carr, then 27, began looking through their correspondence —1,936 items —for comfort. Eventually this became an investigation of her father’s writings and her own coming of age, and attempt to cope with the loss of a beloved father and mentor. The book, which came out in April 2019, includes some of that correspondence, and pictures, as well as Carr’s own writing.

The book is enthusiastically blurbed by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Judd Apatow, Lena Dunham, Bob Odenkirk, and Sheila Nevins.

It tells the story of her finding her way and becoming a documentary filmmaker. And of course, Montclair is in the book.

CarrCarr, who now lives in Brooklyn, moved to Montclair at 13. “I spent many weekends on the Turnpike in the car drinking monster energy drinks, listening to Bruce, as a proud New Jerseyan,” she said.

Carr said she always wanted to be a storyteller, but could not follow directly into her father’s footsteps. His shoes were giant, he said, and he was a genius.

“I saw documentary filmmaking as often a place where women were empowered to make things,” she said. “Now, I’ve fallen so deeply in love it’s impossible to see my life going in a different direction.”