Does 'Cleveland Abduction' Get The True Story Right? Exec Producer On Star Taryn Manning & Her Dedication To The Truth Of The Castro Kidnappings
It's always a challenge to adapt a true story into a film. In exec producer Judith Verno's case, it was a challenge having to cram an 11-year saga of Ariel Castro's imprisonment of three young women — and their eventual rescue in 2013 — into a two-hour Lifetime TV movie. But Verno and the folks behind Lifetime's Cleveland Abduction , premiering Saturday night, were up for the task to bring the very real story to the TV screen. "When you're doing something that's 87 minutes and the real story takes place in 11 years, you have to have to make a lot of creative decisions and we always wanted to make sure the story remained authentic," Verno told Bustle and reporters on a conference call. "It was a brutal reality what happened to these three girls and to be able to be honest to their experience and not do something that feels exploitative or too violent for who might want to watch it."
Orange Is The New Black's Taryn Manning stars as Michelle Knight, Castro's first victim who endured Castro's captivity and abuse in his Cleveland home along with teenagers Amanda Berry (who gave birth to Castro's child) and Gina DeJesus for more than a decade. The movie is based on Knight's experiences, as well as her memoir Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, a Life Reclaimed, and Verno says there's more than one reason the movie centers on Knight.
"One of the most significant was that she was the first girl abducted, so from a storytelling perspective, her point of view was invaluable and gave us a complete arc. Another factor was her age — Michelle is significantly older than the other girls, so we felt there was a maturity to her," said Verno.
In case you're not totally familiar with the harrowing tale, Knight, Berry, and DeJesus were rescued in 2013. Castro was convicted of four counts of kidnapping and three counts of rape and was sentenced to life plus 1,000 years, but he committed suicide one month into it.
But beyond the difficult subject matter, there are many pieces that go into telling this story right. And luckily, Verno had a great performer in Manning and was able to work with Knight herself.
Taryn Manning As Michelle Knight
Verno and Manning worked very closely with Knight in order to get the story right. According to an interview in US Weekly, Manning said she soaked in as much knowledge and perspective as she could from Knight as she could. “She’s very smart, very wise,” Manning said. People come up to her and they drop to their knees — I’ve seen two women do it — and cry, and express how her strength gives them strength to get out of abusive situations. She has the most beautiful words for everybody — all unique to the individual person.”
And Verno said that preparation with Knight definitely showed on-screen between Manning and co-star Raymond Cruz, who plays Castro. "I think most importantly, what Taryn adds to the role is a real sense of authenticity," Verno said. "I think the goal here was to be true to Michelle and make sure it felt real. To that end, there's flexibility between Raymond and Taryn, there's give and take, and there's evolution."
On Working With Michelle Knight
Verno said that Knight was very accessible — she let them see her private journals and was available via text for any questions that came up. Knight and DeJesus' family members came by set a few times.
"We met with [Knight] many times before she agreed to work with us," Verno said. "It's complicated, because you're shooting something every day that brings up a lot of difficult memories for a real person. She would choose what she could look at and what she couldn't. But she was very involved and her voice is present throughout the entire movie."
On Getting All The Details Right
Cleveland Abduction was shot on location in Cleveland, Ohio, and even shot courtroom scenes in the same real courtroom in which Castro was sentenced. The real judge, as well as police officers, from the case were consulted regarding the film as well.
The producers, director Alex Kalymnios, and cinematographer Richard Wong wanted to feel the same claustrophobia as Castro's victims felt, in order to recreate it. So, imagine two cameras, a whole crew, and four actors in a tiny house — it was quite a challenge. "The space was a very small space," Verno said. "Getting two cameras in there on top of each other for day after day was also very hard for the actors."
On The Lessons From The Film
Verno's biggest takeaway from Cleveland Abduction was having perspective on what you're currently going through in life. "The biggest lesson for all of us is that regardless of how difficult your situation is there's always people out there struggling with bigger issues and there are special people who figure out how to get up each morning, overcome it, put a smile on their face and keep going," she said. "Here's a girl for 11 years was brutally victimized and she found a way to see the silver lining. It almost sounds impossible, but she really does it."
Manning realized the same thing after spending time with Knight. "She’s just really happy to be free," the actress told US Weekly. "That’s what changed my life, just seeing someone go through something so horrifying and to see her now. It’s really incredible."
And hopefully, the movie can leave audiences with that same sentiment.
Images: Jeffery Mustache/Lifetime; Bob Mahoney/Lifetime (4)