‘Fatal Attraction’ Boss Explains Whodunit Reveal, Twist Ending and Major Changes From the Movie

[This story contains major spoilers to the finale of Fatal Attraction.]

The ending to Fatal Attraction has been the topic of much debate in the decades since the classic film first released in 1987. Glenn Close, who starred as villain Alex Forrest, has spoken out about the ways she feels the movie failed her character; and it was revealed in recent years that the studio retooled the film’s ending, despite Close advocating for the original treatment.

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All of that when looking back at the film in modern-day was precisely why showrunner Alexandra Cunningham initially had hesitations about reimagining the story for TV. But, when speaking freely about the entire series, Cunningham revealed that she ultimately seized the opportunity because she wanted to not only expand Alex’s perspective as the role is taken on by Lizzy Caplan, but also explore the effects on Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels), the daughter of Dan and Beth Gallagher, who are played by Joshua Jackson and Amanda Peet in the series.

As is revealed in the finale, which was released May 28, the show ends much differently than the movie. After setting up a whodunit as Dan, 15 years after Alex’s murder, gets paroled and tries to clear his name, the series eventually reveals that Arthur (Brian Goodman) is the one who murdered Alex on that fateful night. Arthur, who was a Gallagher family friend, is now Beth’s partner after Dan’s arrest and a father figure to Ellen. The show then reveals in the final moment that Ellen has been secretly harboring an obsession with her professor, whom she confronts in his home.

The cliffhanger ending, says Cunningham, is meant to kick off a potential second season. “The arc I pitched was for a limited series that was going to go out on an ‘Oh, shit!’ moment that was rooted in somebody with a neurological pathway for a personality disorder going through that much emotional and psychological trauma as a child caused by her father, who is a narcissist, that she’s the dissident of Alex. Like a present echo, in a way.”

Below, in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter that took place ahead of the May 2 writers strike, the showrunner explains the series’ major changes from the movie — including letting the bunny live, and instead having Alex murder Beth’s mother — as she braces for the reception to the series, including a response from Close herself: “It’s a razor’s edge to walk and I totally get if people think on my part it wasn’t successful. No one can say on Lizzy’s part it’s not successful. Lizzy’s there living it every moment. You got to give it to her, even if you don’t want to give it to me, which, total respect.”


We spoke about your initial hesitations when you were approached about adapting Fatal Attraction for TV, and how you were attracted to the idea of expanding Alex Forrest’s story. Can you elaborate?

One of the things that really got to me is the daughter. I’ve always watched Ellen going through all of this emotional trauma and wondered, “How is she processing all of this?” The movie ends on the cold shot of the family, like it’s all going to be okay. Like they’ve escaped the clutches of this harpy, and now they can move forward. I was thinking to myself, “It’s 1987, there’s a distinct possibility they might have decided to deal with it by just never talking about it again and hoping Ellen forgot.” But, we don’t forget anything so, how is she processing all of this emotional violence that she’s just gone through the last few weeks? And how does she take that forward into adulthood? Especially given that her father, who is supposed to be her protector, is the instigator of all of it? What does it mean for love and trust and relationships?

That was something I could actually explore if I was going to do a series. I could explore the effect of that on Ellen and how the body keeps the score. And also, write about fathers and daughters, which is something that fascinates me. Also, having done a show where Hugh Laurie played a neuropsychiatrist [in Hulu’s Chance] who was based on a real person who was our mental health consultant, who read all the scripts and then talked to the actors whenever they had questions, and learning about personality disorders and the genetic pathways that are necessary for them to take root, and also learning about people who are trauma advocates, and what a difficult job that is as a human being who has bad days to not take your emotions out on someone who is less powerful than you who is going through chaos [Alex works in victim services in the L.A. court system where Dan is a prosecutor].

And also, reading all the interviews with Glenn Close where she would talk about all the psychological preparation and the work she did to give such a holistic portrayal of a real person, who is struggling in pain and isolation — which is what I see when I watch the movie — and to see how that was turned into, “We need to terminate the bitch with extreme prejudice” [as a studio executive said to the filmmakers, as revealed by head of Paramount Sherry Lansing in her biography about the retooled ending]. It felt like there were a lot of opportunities for me to say things that I’m interested in, and see whether anyone wanted to ask these questions with me.

The series tackles all of that — privilege, mental illness, the criminal justice system — and a complex legacy of an iconic movie. What trepidations did you have about tackling what people have since taken issue with in Fatal Attraction?

Well, the movie did its job more than effectively. To the point where I don’t remember actually seeing it. I know I must have. But it’s an inundation from culture of reactions to the movie. When I think about, “What do I remember?” — and Josh [Jackson] has said this too — I think I remember my memories of us all having experienced the movie in this very Jungian collective, where we’re all feeling the same feeling way.

It really was more about after watching this iconic thing — and Lizzy [Caplan] says this — that you can’t watch it with the headspace of the people who experienced it when it came out. We’ve all changed too much. Even people who saw it in the theater who were married and terrified of what would happen if they were caught cheating, the movie scared them so much — even they can’t watch the movie and experience those emotions the same way again. So it was more about wanting to take advantage of the opportunity to explore all those things about a movie that is an icon of its time.

The series flips back and forth from the future, where Dan Gallagher (Jackson) is paroled for Alex’s (Caplan) murder, to the past which revisits the events of the film. Why did you want to jump into the future with Dan and, why do you think a jury found him guilty in the first place?

Jumping forward with Dan came from jumping forward with Ellen. To watch the child in the movie and think about how she processed all those things and see them coming to light in an adult Ellen was one of my first ways in. And everything Glenn Close has said about how if anyone was going to take on Fatal Attraction again, to make sure that Alex’s point of view is more represented. It was about all of that, in addition to wanting to honor the work that she did that wasn’t in the script and expand on it in our own way. How can we see the effect this had on Ellen and the kind of young adult she’s become, and how she regards relationships? The only way to do that was to have a dual timeline. So that naturally became, what story are we telling that we’re encountering Ellen in this future? Who is the Dan she’s encountering? What has he learned or not learned, as a person who has his own issues going on — he’s clearly a narcissist, maybe not diagnosable — and so that was where all that scaffolding started to go up with the two timelines.

I obsessively listen to Dateline podcasts and there was a true-crime case about an ex-husband killing a wife in a very calculated way who went to prison for second-degree murder for 15 years to life in California, and then was out in 15 years. I asked my fellow EP Kevin J. Hynes, who I’ve worked with on several shows and who comes from a background of criminal prosecution and defense in New York, “What the hell, 15 years?” We talked about that and the power dynamics of the movie and wanting to really play this forward and try to show cause and effect, but also illustrate a few things about the justice system being broken and how it regards people with mental illness and demonizes them even when they’re the victims. At one point, Dan’s talking about his defense in the show and he says, “I mean, what couldn’t happen to a person like that?” His defense, essentially was that crazy means death.

And then there’s the Fatal Attraction of it all: There’s death, is there responsibility? And then, purely from the aspect of entertainment and fun, how can we insert a murder mystery? That’s the selfish part where I say, I’m just going to throw everything I love into this show since it can support it, frankly. The structure they gave us is strong enough in my opinion, people may disagree, to sustain a couple of different narratives like this that we really wanted to talk about.

The series launches into the murder mystery you mentioned, implying that Dan doesn’t know who killed Alex (the movie ended with Dan attempting to drown Alex in the bathtub and when she pops back up, his wife Beth shoots and kills her). Now that we’ve seen the finale, viewers can see that you rewrote the ending. Did you want the audience to go in wondering?

I was actually pleasantly surprised when I was out and about, and people would find out about this project. I didn’t want to talk about it so much. I already feel like I have a spotlight on me, in a good way, because you should do what scares you. But, really scary [to take it on]! And I was surprised at the age of the people who had no recognition of Fatal Attraction, and then I’d have to explain, “You know, the movie with Michael Douglas…” and they would go, “Oh, the one with Sharon Stone?” In terms of people going on that journey, we would like people to think the homage is complete. But, is it?

Lizzy Caplan in Fatal Attraction TV series
Alex Forrest (Lizzy Caplan)

You spoke about how you were offered the chance to speak to Glenn Close about the series but that you ultimately opted not to so she could be an unbiased viewer. What was her response to you telling her that in your correspondence?

Basically, “That’s a good idea.”

She has spoken about the character work she did for Alex around mental illness that never made it into the movie. You have said you landed on Alex having a Cluster B illness, but the show doesn’t outright say that. How did your research inform what you did in the show?

Undiagnosed, yes. If you were coming at it from a knowledge of diagnostic criteria, I think you would pick up on most of them. And clearly she seeks out therapy a couple of times. The first time with someone who is not acquainted with anyone who might have no self-image and want to seduce you emotionally, so I don’t think the therapy she goes through early on is effective at all. But then she does luck into someone who does understand her. It unfortunately gives her the strength to make really big moves that then lead to her doom. It gives her the strength to try to pull away from toxic energies that without which, she isn’t going to survive unless she separates, but then the separation is what destroys her. I did become fascinated with all that when I first started working on [Chance]. The DSM of Cluster Bs was sort of our guiding influence here, although if you meet one person who’s struggling, you’ve met one person who’s struggling.

So you can’t diagnose her in the series, because she’s not asking to be diagnosed?

Right. And it’s about when you think you’re maintaining the façade really well, which we also try to touch on [with the scene between Caplan and Michael Cassidy]. That even the person who is willing to go through the fire to help you, the most terrifying aspect of that is that they’ve taken off your mask. The person who wants to offer help has to be driven away, because they’ve seen that you’re not the person you’re trying to present. That was important. We have a conception of when we’re going to help people that the way they should receive that help is always with tearful gratitude. And most of the time, when you offer someone help who is really struggling, it’s going to take a while if it’s even successful, and it’s not going to be greeted with: “What a wonderful person you are for extending this to me, thank you so much!” It’s really hard. And most of us are just like, “This is too much. Helping people is too hard.”

As the series goes on, more is revealed in each episode about who and what failed Alex.

Yes. If Cluster B personality disorders have a genetic component, a neurological pathway that’s present in you, that can be affected by the way you’re treated and what you’re told about yourself and who that makes you think you are. We showed that’s present in Alex’s life, that her parents, for better or worse, are also struggling. One of them [her father] would never even acknowledge anything is going on, because he is extremely grandiose and preoccupied with his own vision of himself as a King, and no one’s worthy. His daughter was his golden child enabler, and then became something that needs to be destroyed. And then Alex was abandoned by her mother by actions he was complicit in, and is telling Alex, “Well, you don’t want to hurt your mother by telling her what you know, you’ll destroy her. And she left you. What kind of child gets left by a mother? You’ve managed to destroy the most elemental relationship in human nature, the mother and child, there must be something wrong with you.” All of these things are there, and then Alex is going forward trying to become an adult woman who knows how to function in a relationship with a stacked deck. We wanted to show a version of someone struggling with that kind of psychological warfare from someone who is supposed to protect you.

Brian Goodman as Arthur Tomlinson and Joshua Jackson as Dan Gallagher in Fatal Attraction
Arthur Tomlinson (Brian Goodman) with Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson).

The ending of the series comes in two parts. For the first part, the whodunit that answers the question of who killed Alex — was everyone an option for the killer and why did you land on Beth’s current partner Arthur (Brian Goodman)?

I always tend to pitch an entire season up front so that the studio and then the network are reacting to everything we’re thinking, so there are no unpleasant surprises to anyone in the process. When Kevin and I did that, we were structuring everything towards Beth. Beth is the “original killer,” right? Alex is drowned and then she pops up and is shot. And stemming from Anne Archer on the phone in her iconic performance: “This is Beth Gallagher. If you don’t stay away from my family I’m going to fucking kill you.”

But we wanted to tell a story where we’re also coming at things from Beth’s point of view, because when I watch the scene in the movie of Dan coming home to find Alex in his apartment pretending she wants to buy it and he reacts, and then Alex toying with him in front of Beth, the whole atmosphere is so charged. This is not about Anne Archer, it’s what’s written, but she is like, “Great, I’d love to sell the apartment to you! Here’s our new unlisted phone number!” Watching that scene, I was thinking I would notice something was going on. Especially the premise of: Good man, perfect marriage, one mistake. How’s he going to handle himself in this moment? You would be like, “Why are you sweating?” I wanted to be able to write another version of that scene where Beth is actually picking up on the vibe; and Amanda is not an actor who is not going to notice something is going on.

So, why wasn’t Beth the killer in your version?

Knowing that people knew the ending of the original movie, we said, “OK, we’re going to do that, but we’re going to take a totally different path to get there.” And we’re going to make it hopefully emotionally satisfying in that “I’m Beth Gallagher, I’m going to fucking kill you” kind of way, as opposed to Beth just reacting to a jump scare in the moment. It’s great, but it’s not psychologically motivated beyond that.

So, I pitched it that way and I don’t remember how many days we were into the writers room and I came in and said, “Guys, I don’t think it’s going to be satisfying enough.” From a murder mystery perspective. We definitely could have done a great version of that, and Amanda would have crushed. And I did try to have my cake and eat it too by the way we end episode seven [with Beth leaving a sleeping Dan the night of Alex’s murder]. And then go into the finale, and we do try to make you think that [it could be Beth] as long as possible. Dan’s asleep on the bed, Beth is going down the stairs — where’d she go?

I was thinking it’s not going to be Beth and then after that scene, I went, “Oh, it’s gonna be Beth!

Yes! That’s all it takes. But then I was just really thinking about it and about how dissatisfied I am when it’s the person I thought it was. And there are people who haven’t seen the movie and they’re not going to know that Beth killed Alex in the original. So I wanted it to be satisfying on that level, but I also wanted it to be satisfying for people who have seen the original movie and give them something new that feels psychologically motivated by what everyone is going through. And I wanted to have the killer be someone from Dan’s world, ultimately, as an extension of the consequences and how you can’t control the narrative.

Dan has no idea what Arthur is thinking through any of the show, other than obviously they all know he is going through something very difficult with his wife [dying] who everyone loves. They do have the perfect marriage in the show. And Arthur is losing her and he’s a very capable person who is a problem-solver and he can’t do anything, so he’s already in the most helpless of places and has been for years in our story. Then when this starts to happen to his best friend [Beth] and her family and Dan, who he has always thought of as particularly capable and he’s not doing anything — and just the level of stress on caregivers who aren’t in a heightened narrative is terrifying to contemplate — he does something. How many millions of people are taking care of people on the thinnest of threads? He’s going to strike a blow against the universe. It’s the only thing he feels like he can do in our story to help anyone.

Emotionally, he’s not a killer. He probably has to have a little bit of sociopath in there to problem solve this way, And yet again, Dan made this happen in an indirect way, and that makes it a double tragedy. Because Arthur has destroyed himself as a person by doing this. He’s compartmentalized. Dan’s a narcissist, Beth is the adult child of alcoholics who has always been very capable, and now is helpless. And Arthur is dealing with everything I was just describing. Dan’s destroyed everyone. Mike (Toby Huss). Everybody. Because of not being able to feel feelings and being upset that he was told no.

'Fatal Attraction'
Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels) in the finale.

And then the series gets to the second part of the ending, the final twist that Ellen has turned into a stalker herself with her professor.

Exactly. And 15 years later, Dan is still more concerned with Ellen believing in his innocence than asking if she’s ok. He’s learned some things, but clearly not a lot of things.

But Beth misses it, too. In her final look when she is watching Dan and Ellen reconcile, what is she thinking?

I feel like that’s a season two question.

Are you going to do a second season?

(Laughing.) I have no season two. I mean, I may not get a season two! But I do feel like, “what does that look mean?” is a season two question. Because there’s a lot there, right? What do we know for sure that Beth knows? I didn’t have time to tell you. (Laughs.)

Between Beth’s final look, this Ellen ending and the question around if Dan finds redemption, you left a lot on the table in the last few minutes. Did you go into this planning for a limited series, but then found more story to tell?

One-hundred percent. Starting with Steven Spielberg, who said to Paramount Studios, “You guys should do a limited series anthology of Fatal Attraction,” which is where this all started. And then I think in having my background with Desperate Housewives, Dirty John, I was ready to do a limited anthology again. So the arc I pitched was for a limited series that was going to go out on an “Oh, shit!” moment that was rooted in somebody with a neurological pathway for a personality disorder going through that much emotional and psychological trauma as a child caused by her father, who is a narcissist, that she’s the dissident of Alex. Like a present echo, in a way. And also the fact that Alex took her [when she was younger]. I was always fascinated by the fact that when Alex kidnaps her that day, they don’t speak at all in the movie except at the end when she goes, “Ellen” and Ellen has to kiss her goodbye. No conversation. So I was watching the movie again and thinking, if I was going to do that and have them talk, what would I have them say?

How much of an impact do you feel that day where she was abducted by Alex had on Ellen?

A bit. And that was by a kind and beautiful woman who seemed to know her parents, could answer all the questions and is clearly not a stranger, and gave her life advice that seemed very well-intentioned. It speaks to a lot of the things that Ellen worried about, but she’s a child and can’t articulate, and here is Alex giving Ellen answers. They’re terrifying answers, but they seem true. And to the person who is telling them to you, they are true.

Alex doesn’t think this is the last conversation she’s going to have with Ellen, because she doesn’t know that she won’t survive the night. Alex tells Ellen: Your father loves you, but he’s a liar. And then Alex is murdered and her father is saying he didn’t do it. Her lying father who loves her is saying he’s innocent, and then he goes to prison and doesn’t speak to Ellen for many formative years because he’s trying to unselfishly let her live her life. And she was already a very quiet person with an interior monologue building fairytales and exotic narratives, so this is who Ellen becomes. She’s a person who plays her cards so close to the vest, that she’s the only one who will ever read them, and that’s the legacy of all this.

So really, season one is an origin story to Ellen, whose story would continue in season two with maybe her parents as the supporting characters?

Maybe! That’s definitely an option, yes.

Do you think Ellen has done this sort of stalking before, or was this professor her first?

Yes, I think she’s done this before. I think she’s had trouble having relationships before, and I think that could take different forms. A season two conversation — the cloud talk that we’re having here — she’s never had a lot of friends. And when she did have friends, things were complicated and difficult and needed to be burned down each time and started afresh. I’ve thought about that a lot. It’s not in the episodes, but it is in my head, and it’s in Alyssa’s head also.

Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels) and Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson) in the finale.
Ellen (Alyssa Jirrels) and Dan Gallagher (Joshua Jackson) in the finale.

The “bunny boiler” of it all was such a huge moment with the movie. Why did you decide to keep the bunny alive and instead have Beth’s mother (Jessica Harper) be the life Alex takes instead?

You can’t not have the bunny, let’s just start there. You know going in when you agree to do this, you’re not getting out of that. [The bunny appears in the series alive.] But if our mission statement was to try our best to create a portrayal and a characterization of a person struggling in pain and isolation with mental health, we cannot have Alex kill a child’s pet with intent. Because we’re going to check out of any opportunity to give that person sympathy; it’s a bridge too far.

I know that makes it sound like I’m saying killing people is alright relatively, but — and again, this is not a criticism of the original — it’s opposed to having Alex break into their house and set up this operatic animal murder designed to have the greatest shock and horror impact possible. The way it goes down between Alex and Beth’s mother is almost accidental. Alex isn’t expecting anyone to be in the house, let alone to be confronted by Beth’s mom Sophie [Harper], who doesn’t live there. She knows where Dan is, she saw Beth leave. She knows Ellen goes to school. This isn’t the first time she’s been outside the house, as far as I’m concerned. So when she goes to the back of the house and she knows the gate is open because she’s been watching, she thinks, “Let’s just go see. What can I make happen?”

Sophie is a day drinker. Her family is tired of hearing her anecdotes, and she assumes that Alex is a neighbor. This lovely young woman in the backyard who did her the service of catching the dog so she doesn’t get “murdered” by Beth, she invites in and Alex goes with it. What can Alex learn? Maybe she can take a couple tchotchkes. Maybe she’s going to go through the medicine cabinet. It’s a great opportunity for information-gathering. And ultimately, Sophie just manages to trigger so many things in Alex that she didn’t cause, unwittingly with the friendly commiseration of trying to just have a talk with this young woman. She manages to touch on so many things that gives Alex severe intrusive thoughts.

Lizzy and I talked about that scene a lot. “You’re not going there to do this, but to then hear this woman prattling on about how much she loves her daughter, how she would pretend to leave but if she actually left, that would just make everyone’s lives easier, you can’t do that, right? Ha ha ha.” About Beth and her father being best friends and even though this woman is drinking in the middle of the afternoon, the love is there, right? Her saying, “I wasn’t even going to have kids and then I had this kid and she’s the most important thing in the world to me. I probably love her more than my granddaughter, frankly. And I’m just talking to you like you agree with everything I’m saying.” Meanwhile, it’s just sending Alex into an internal spiral of mothers who leave and fathers who pretend to be your friend.

At that point, she still thinks she might be pregnant, which is a trick she’s playing on herself, but, she’s thinking, “Would I be a terrible mother? Do I even deserve anyone to love me at all let alone a kid?” It’s the perfect storm from Sophie, so unwittingly. And then when Sophie topples into the pool, it’s just a terrible muscle spasm of horror and destruction that comes out of Alex, who has power over someone. She never has that. And, I don’t want to let Alex off the hook; she’s not in a fugue state. She’s just in a heightened story, she’s taking power for a moment and it’s death and destruction. It is psychologically motivated.

So, that’s where we went. If people think that’s yet another demonization, I totally respect that opinion but again, there is a certain degree of storytelling expected from this property. And we want to deliver on that. It’s a razor’s edge to walk and I totally get if people think on my part it wasn’t successful. No one can say on Lizzy’s part it’s not successful. Lizzy’s there living it every moment. You got to give it to her, even if you don’t want to give it to me, which, total respect.

Was that the biggest conversation you had in the room about changes from the film?

Yes. It has to be. You don’t want to go into it being like, “Oh, so we won’t kill an animal, we’ll just kill a person!” I hope that comes across. If it doesn’t, I gotta live with it. I had watched a movie years ago that I’ve watched many times since then with Charlotte Rampling called Swimming Pool. It’s a psychological thriller and there is a swimming pool cover. When I saw it originally I was like, “I’m tucking that away.” Because it’s so horrific on so many levels. And clearly, this was the day. With the heightened aspect of Fatal Attraction and this property, if anyone is going to die under a swimming pool cover, it’s gonna be this. But it’s also about the responsibility to the character and what she’s going through, which again, I totally get if people are going to be like: Just made it worse. Respect for that opinion, completely.

What about the question around if Dan earns his redemption by the end — or is that also a season two conversation?

I would say no, because he still doesn’t understand what he did. He understands part of it. He doesn’t understand what he’s done to his family and everyone he made complicit and he doesn’t understand how he tried to use his position. He’s the voice of the victim. It was important to us as part of what we’re trying to say about the justice system that he knows how to talk to juries. It’s very important for him to be liked by juries and everyone.

I’ve always wondered in the original movie when Alex goes to him after the weekend is over and she says, “I have tickets for Madama Butterfly could we be friends.” And he says, “Yeah that’s not going to work.” And she goes, “OK.” And goes to shake his head. He could have walked way, just shook her hand. But instead, he hugged her. She’s being as appropriate as anyone could wish for her to be in this moment, basically saying, “See you around.” Who hugs that woman?! What are you doing? You are so in your own head about the wonder of you and the magic of you, that you can’t let this woman, after what you went through with her, walk out of your office without liking you. Everything that happens after that happens because of that moment. The look on her face over his shoulder is the rest of everything. How can someone be redeemed when they still don’t understand how they contributed to all of it? We put it in Mike’s mouth: You’re writing a story, how can you not understand that?

This interview was conducted before the May 2 writers strike and has been edited for length and clarity.

Fatal Attraction is now streaming on Paramount+.

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