Hot Docs ’22: Nathalie Bibeau discusses debuting Amazon true-crime series

After announcing its intention to put an added focus on original Canadian productions, Amazon highlighted its north-of-the-border slate with its newest docuseries, The Unsolved Murder of Beverly Lynn Smith, which premiered at this year’s ...
May 9, 2022

After announcing its intention to put an added focus on original Canadian productions, Amazon highlighted its north-of-the-border slate with its newest docuseries, The Unsolved Murder of Beverly Lynn Smith, which premiered at this year’s Hot Docs festival prior to its debut on Prime Video last Friday (May 6).

Produced by Amazon Studios and Muse Entertainment, the series tells the story of a 22-year-old Ontario woman who was shot dead in her kitchen in 1974. Despite the police investigation and widespread media coverage, the culprit was not identified and the case went cold. More than 30 years later, police received a tip that launched a new investigation into Alan Dale Smith (no relation to the victim), who had lived across the street from Smith at the time, and who became the target of a sting operation.

Speaking to Realscreen, director, showrunner and co-executive producer Nathalie Bibeau says that she sought to ensure that Beverly Lynn Smith and her family remained at the center of the story.

“The story begins on December 9, 1974 with the murder of a woman, and then her family goes through 50 years of uncertainty, information that they don’t know is true, someone is charged, released. It’s just extremely complicated for them and there’s so much grief, and there’s so much disappointment,” says Bibeau.

“But this story, ultimately in its heart, is about this woman and about what happened to her. That’s where it began. So I wanted to make sure that the research team, editorial, cinematography, all of the departments knew that that was the driving emotional force, and that we had to constantly come back to Beverly as the heart of it. I think that helped with everyone’s intentions to do the story justice.”

The docuseries was in development for a couple of years before it was greenlit by Amazon and Bibeau came aboard. She says the series was the biggest project she’s worked on, with a team of about 250 people to oversee. The 50-year journey behind this story, which is still ongoing today, required exhaustive research from her team, Bibeau says, adding that this needed to be done while simultaneously developing the series’ vision and ensuring that its subjects felt heard.

Bibeau says that one of her goals for the series was “to treat [its story] with a certain kind of elegance that is not always seen in the true-crime genre. We didn’t want to go into the cold forensic plot development, we didn’t want to do a whodunnit: we really wanted to explore more profound human values and emotions. Obviously, there are true-crime shows that are doing that, but it hasn’t been the most common.”

Bibeau sat down with Realscreen to discuss The Unsolved Murder of Beverly Lynn Smith ahead of its premiere at Hot Docs 2022.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What kind of challenges do you face coming onto a project already in development, as opposed to overseeing something from start to finish?

Nathalie Bibeau: Because it hadn’t been greenlit by Amazon until December, it was up to me once I got hired to shape the vision for the series. So I felt like I was in on the ground [floor] in terms of working with this really great team to figure out how we were going to tell this complicated 50-year search for justice, an unrelenting enigma [that's] really about the flaws of our justice system… There was a high responsibility for us to get it right, so I basically took a deep dive and had to learn everything there was to know about the last 50 years [of this case], and then also pull up and take a high view and figure out how to do it in a different and elegant way. We wanted to do a true-crime that had a premium treatment, that wasn’t for the lowest common denominator and challenged conceptions about the story and about the genre.

What really interested you in this story?

NB: I had just come off my first feature film, The Walrus and the Whistleblower (which was at Hot Docs 2020), and some of the themes that I had explored there — the messy human fables, human hubris, imbalance of power, grief, anger — it was a similar tapestry, an emotional tapestry. So that hooked me into this story. Also, I happen to have a relative who is in prison because of this kind of sting operation, so I had known about this tactic before.

I knew that this was a story I needed to tell, because of its high stakes and the implications for our justice system, but also the right of victims to get justice. For them, there is no such thing as going too far. So exploring that world of what is right, what is just, how far should we be able to go in the name of justice, but how far would you want the police to go if it was your loved one who was murdered? All of those questions were inherent in the story, and so I knew it was a story that was right for me.

What does giving this series a premium treatment look like, to set it apart from other true-crime stories?

NB: The first thing for me was to start thinking metaphorically, because I think once you think too literally, you can fall into a cold forensic plot development. We wanted to live in the nuance and the richness of the gripping human stories that we had, and the five decades of events. Once I started to think about it metaphorically, it helps with the structure, it helps with knowing what to shoot, it also helps with how we wanted to deal with characters — more of a verité treatment, character-driven, combining that with journalistic rigor. We had a very strong research team who took a deep dive into all the material. So taking this journalistic story and applying a cinematic treatment to it was what the vision was from the beginning, and I had wonderful support from Amazon to do that. They were on board from the beginning.

What did Amazon bring to this project?

NB: They were enthusiastic and meticulous in their partnership, always available. We had an executive, Catherine Casey, who was available anytime I needed her. Their greatest strength was helping us with tough decisions that needed to be made, so it was a true partnership. And they trusted my vision. I have to acknowledge the fact that this was a very difficult show to make, and they believed in the filmmaker that they hired in order to make this happen. And they wanted to say something different in the space. Because it’s their first Canadian true-crime commission, they wanted to do it differently and show the premium content that they are able to put out to the world.

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