Catching up with MARE OF EASTTOWN creator, writer and AFI alum Brad Ingelsby
Originally on track to pursue a Business career, Brad Ingelsby (AFI Class of 2005) landed at AFI after taking a screenwriting class and hasn’t looked back since. He broke onto the scene in 2013 with the film OUT OF THE FURNACE, directed by Scott Cooper and starring Christian Bale, which he first started writing at AFI from a script called “The Low Dweller.” He followed it up with projects including RUN ALL NIGHT, OUR FRIEND and, most recently, the redemptive tale THE WAY BACK.
In April, Brad made his foray into television, creating and writing the murder mystery drama MARE OF EASTTOWN – which was also designed by fellow AFI alum Keith Cunningham (AFI Class of 1990). Drawing from his upbringing in small town Pennsylvania, he set the gritty show in Delaware County, PA and assembled a stellar cast including Kate Winslet, Evan Peters, Guy Pearce, Julianne Nicholson and Jean Smart. Winslet stars as the title character Mare Sheehan, a troubled detective who is investigating a murder while wrestling with struggles in her close-knit community and trauma within her own family.
AFI spoke with Brad about crafting the tone for his new series, filming during a pandemic and his unconventional route to becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.
AFI: What was the inception behind MARE OF EASTTOWN, and what was it like venturing into television for the first time in your career?
Brad: I have been always been interested in the types of stories that are character pieces, so the idea really started with this character of Mare who was born and raised in Easttown – a woman who’s the only detective in this little town where she grew up – and how this image of herself that she’s been struggling to maintain all these years is starting to crumble.
When I started to fill out the world around her and the characters in the town, it became clear that I would need more time to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it. I wanted it to be a story about a community, rather than about one case or one character. I wanted to tell an ensemble piece about this way of life really. And so, as I began to unravel the other characters and get the connective tissue in place, it became clear that it had to be a TV series.
AFI: You grew up close to where you set the series in Pennsylvania. How did you capture the specificity of Delaware County, and how did your own experiences end up shaping the series?
Brad: Yes, I grew up in Easttown township myself. The Easttown in the show is really a composite of a number of communities near where I grew up and where my wife and family grew up, including Easttown, Aston, Drexel Hill and Springfield. I wanted to capture the rhythms and rituals of life there and the kind of working-class dynamics and connections of people who were born in a place and stayed in that place. Staying in a place creates a shared history, and because of that, when you have a murder case, it just makes the conflict and layers so much richer.
AFI: What was your experience like filming MARE OF EASTTOWN during the pandemic?
Brad: We shot 60% of the show and then COVID hit. We were right in the throes of filming. We had to pause, and we didn’t know how or when we’d be able to get back up and running.
Then we shot from the end of September to early December to complete the rest of the series. It was tricky, but a lot of credit goes to HBO and our crew for keeping everyone safe and coming up with a game plan.
AFI: You wrote all of the episodes, while Craig Zobel directed the entire series. Can you talk about developing a rapport with him and making sure your vision was translated onscreen as the creator?
Brad: Craig and I had many conversations about what I was trying to achieve with the show, and I think it was a tonal conversation. That was the trickiest thing – how do we nail the tone of the show. It was quite tricky to pin down. Is it a mystery show? Kind of. It has that backbone, and it has the procedural elements. I hope it hits some of the genre expectations and, by that, I mean there are cliffhangers and red herrings. And yet I didn’t want the show to be completely about that. I hope that after the last episode audiences are satisfied and the reveals are surprising, but I also want people to have really enjoyed just spending time with the characters and getting to know them.
Working with Craig, we talked through how to craft a show that hits those genre expectations so that anyone who comes to the show in hopes of watching a crime drama will get their fill, but it also has to be an emotional drama too about a woman who refuses to confront the thing that haunts her. It’s about deferred grief. That is why I was interested in Mare and her way of avoiding trauma by throwing herself into her cases. We had to ask ourselves, how do we balance the tone of a human drama, a crime drama and also a huge part of the show – which I had long conversations with Craig and Kate about – is how do we have laughs? Because it can’t be like a death march. You have to let people laugh; you have to let people breath. And that’s real life – that in the midst of this trauma and crisis there are a lot of laughs. So it was a constant negotiation of how do we balance these three tones effectively.
AFI: What was it like assembling and working with the incredible ensemble cast on the show?
Brad: That was such a crucial part of the series. It was so critical to get the casting right because it’s a show about a community. And part of that was making the decision to shoot where the show’s set, which I was really adamant about. I wanted the actors to come and stay in Pennsylvania and get a sense of the place and go to the eateries and drive around and know where I was coming from when I wrote this.
But you also had to believe that each of the characters had lived in this place their whole life, so it was so important that the actors were believable as residents of Easttown. It was not only about the acting prowess of each of these people – which was incredible, but it was also just the look of them. Avy Kaufman was our casting director, and she gave us such a wonderful, eclectic group of actors that we all loved as people, as actors and could at the same time go “yes, I believe they would live in Easttown.”
AFI: How did Kate Winslet first become involved and how did she go about capturing the specificity of Easttown?
Brad: Kate signed on after she read two episodes. I was writing the third episode, and she was shooting AMMONITE. She came to Philadelphia about a month before filming. I have a little bit of the Delco accent, but my wife has a much stronger one. So, I first started by recording my wife and her mom in conversations, and then I sent them to Kate to get an idea. When Kate got to town, she and her dialect coach recorded a number of different accents. They created a spectrum from really harsh versions of the Delco accent to really subtle versions, and we chose a spot in the middle. Kate was just so committed to the character and especially the accent. She wanted to get the details right.
AFI: What first drew you to AFI and what are some memories of your time in the Screenwriting program?
Brad: I went to business school at Villanova, and I was a marketing major. I didn’t have a ton of experience with writing but when I was a junior, I took a screenwriting class as an elective. I had a really great teacher who pulled me aside one day and said to me, “You’re very invested in this. Do you think you might want to give this a go?” It planted the seed in my head that maybe I could pursue screenwriting and I began writing a lot more on my own.
After I graduated, I worked for a year as a schoolteacher and then I applied to a bunch of film schools and writing programs. I decided to move to LA because it’s such a production hub. I was really lucky to get into AFI. My first-year workshop teacher was Daryl Nickens who was an incredibly kind, thoughtful man. I was way behind other Fellows because I had really been on a business track. When I came to AFI, I was still writing in Microsoft Word. But I loved it. I think he recognized that I probably needed a little more help than some of the students who had gone to NYU and studied writing before. In terms of getting the basics of screenwriting, he was just an incredible teacher.
And my second-year teacher was Len Schrader who was a lovely person. I owe a lot of what I know about writing to both him and Daryl. Since I hadn’t had that experience before and was coming in with a Business background, I was so hungry to learn, and they were some of the teachers who were kind enough to see that in me and offer their time and instruction. I just had a wonderful experience at AFI.
AFI: What did you learn at the Conservatory that you still use to this day as a writer in Hollywood?
Brad: AFI was my real introduction to structure. I had watched movies, but from a craft standpoint I was still catching up. I learned how to perfect dialogue and how to get in and out of a scene quickly. I’ve had lessons in the business since, but all of the early foundational knowledge I got at AFI.
AFI: How have you kept motivated as a writer during this unconventional year with the pandemic?
Brad: I think the motivation comes from inside. I know it’s been a tough time, but for me, it always starts with a character. And my experience has been that I don’t know how characters come to me. It’s not like I sit down and try to conjure them. One day you have an idea about a character, and then the next day, you have another layer of their personality in your head, and then the next day there’s two layers. And then, all of a sudden, I can hear their voice and they’re talking and then the only way to get rid of them is to write them.
I also always have a fear in me of am I going to get the next job? Am I ever going to get hired again? Is there going to be another project on the horizon? Well, I better create one on my own then. I grew up in a sports family, so I think there’s a competitive spirit in me as a writer as well. And I think there’s a drive in me that keeps me going and wanting to get the next project up in running.
AFI: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?
Brad: I would offer two pieces of advice. The first is a bit of a cheesy Chicken Soup for the Soul line, which is – you can do it. I was a business student, I was selling insurance with my father, I sold a script and I’ve been writing for 11 years now. When I was at AFI, we would always have these guest writers speak and it was great hearing them, but they would always say “this is so hard.” And, yes, it is hard, but it is possible. If you have a work ethic, if you care about it, if you love what you’re writing, it is not impossible. And I think that’s something I took away. You have to work hard, and you have to get up every day and put in a good shift, but it can absolutely happen.
And the other thing I’d say is to try to write what you love. I think sometimes we see a film or a fad and we say to ourselves, “that horror movie just made $100 million. I have to go write the next horror movie.” But by the time your script is out, that trend could be over. Don’t chase what’s trendy in the market. Just write something you care about because it will show on the page. That’s been an important lesson in my life – I’ve always tried to stay true and write what I’m passionate about, and my hope is that passion will come through in the writing and that it will attract a producer, an actor, a director and a studio.