Is Mare of Easttown Based on a True Story?

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·5 min read
Is Mare of Easttown Based on a True Story?
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The HBO limited series Mare of Easttown, tells a story that could have been ripped from the headlines—but instead found its real-life inspiration in more subtle ways.

The drama stars Kate Winslet as Mare Sheehan, a Pennsylvania detective—the only one in her small police station—whose town is gripped by the unsolved murder of a young mother as well as an ongoing investigation into a growing number of missing women. Mare’s troubles don’t stay at work, though there are plenty there; she’s grappling with the loss of her son, dealing with her ex-husband’s impending next marriage, and trudging through the daily indignities of sharing a roof with three generations of family members. Other familiar faces appearing on the series include Jean Smart, Evan Peters, Julianne Nicholson, Guy Pearce, and Sosie Bacon.

The series has been nominated for 16 Emmy Awards, including a nod for Kate Winslet for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie, a nomination for Jean Smart for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie, and Outstanding Writing in the same category.

So, where did creator and producer Brad Ingelsby—who wrote The Way Back and Our Friend—find inspiration for the seven-part series? You’ll be surprised.

It’s not true crime.

Photo credit: Sarah Shatz/HBO
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz/HBO

“As a fan of true crime stories, I may have poached a few things over the years,” Ingelsby tells Town & Country, “but there wasn’t one particular case that was the inspiration for what you see on the series. It was really just about how we could have a crime that felt like it could generate the most conflict within a small community.”

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The incident that kicks off the series’ mystery is the murder of a young woman named Erin McMenamin (played by Cailee Spaeny), but the web of intrigue quickly spreads as we learn about other incidents, which may or may not be related, casting their own nefarious shadows over the town. “I think we did a good job with the plot and when you get to the end of the show, it’ll pay dividends,” Ingelsby says. “A big part of the show is the mystery—we’re constantly guessing who the killer is—but it’s also a real character piece about a woman who has to confront her grief.”

...but it is inspired by real life.

Photo credit: Sarah Shatz/HBO
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz/HBO

Ingelsby grew up in Easttown Township, Pennsylvania, just one county away from where his series is set. It’s also where the series was filmed, lending a kind of authenticity that a stand-in location never could. “A lot of it for me was wanting to tell a story about home,” Ingelsby says. “I didn’t grow up with any cops or around a murder investigation, but the rhythms and rituals of the lives of these characters are very much a part of how I grew up.”

The character of Mare also has her roots in Ingelsby’s upbringing. “I had a buddy from where I grew up who was an officer at a little police station in a small Pennsylvania town,” he says, “and through my conversations with him, I became interested in this idea of a small station with a small group of officers and one detective. Then I had the character of Mare, a woman who had been a hero as a teenager but whose community is now starting to turn against her. I was trying to figure out what the story around her could be.”

Even the smallest details needed to ring true. “You’re trying to make everything so specific and that was the key with Mare,” Ingelsby says. “The audience needed to feel like they were in good hands. We knew the world and made all the details as honest as we could—all the beers on screen were Rolling Rock and Yuengling—so the audience could just sit back and enjoy.”

Creating the series required new habits.

Photo credit: Sarah Shatz/HBO
Photo credit: Sarah Shatz/HBO

Clocking in at more than seven hours, Mare of Easttown is, Ingelsby says, longer than any other project he’s written. “And with murder mysteries,” he says, “you have to stick the landing—that’s what people remember about the show. Not only does it have to be surprising, but it has to be earned.” So, while he was never previously one to write an outline for his scripts, to do Mare justice he needed to change his ways—and the process had unexpected consequences.

“Suddenly, everything I encountered in my daily life became an opportunity,” he says. “I’d see an argument outside Starbucks and wonder, is that something I could add into a scene. Your mind is always trying to snatch opportunities. It’s true of any project; once you enter a world with a character, you get greedy and want to steal whatever you can.”

Any resemblances are purely coincidental.

Photo credit: Jim Spellman - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jim Spellman - Getty Images

“Hopefully no one can look at a particular character and ask, ‘is that me?” Ingelsby says, “but there are definitely pieces of a lot of characters that I’m drawing from real life.” The true test might just happen the next time he visits Pennsylvania. “I hope if people do see some of themselves in a character, in a good way,” he says. “I’ll absolutely go home, and people will ask me those questions—hopefully just not too many of them.”

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