Directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason were never short on angles through which to investigate the crimes, casualties and collusions of the powerful Murdaugh family of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.
The most obvious one would have been to tell the story through Alex Murdaugh, a former solicitor who’s currently on trial for the 2021 murders of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul. Thanks to dozens of live feeds on YouTube, the ongoing courtroom drama has emerged as the trial of the year.
But once they were on the ground in the Lowcountry, the directors behind Netflix’s new docuseries “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal” were told there was only one place to start –– the 2019 boat crash that had killed Mallory Beach.
“I think what people don’t understand is that had there not been a boat crash years prior, and had Mallory Beach not died the way she did in this tragic accident at the hands of Paul Murdaugh, there wouldn’t have been a double homicide,” Furst tells Variety.
The Emmy-nominated directing duo have a history of covering high-profile subjects at the centers of their documentaries, including recent projects “LuLaRich” (Prime Video), “The Pharmacist” (Netflix), “Fyre Fraud” (Hulu) and “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” (Paramount Network).
But the Murdaughs were tough to get a handle on. The family held the solicitor position in Hampton County, S.C. for nearly a century, allowing them to allegedly strong-arm police, officials and locals to cover up all manner of wrongdoing. Understanding the scope of this story required a year of interviews with people who had never spoken out before, including Paul’s longtime girlfriend, Morgan Doughty, and the other people on the boat that night.
It also meant understanding how Beach’s death exposed the Murdaughs’ connection to other deaths, including the murder of Stephen Smith, who was rumored to be romantically involved with Alex’s older son, Buster, as well as Gloria Satterfield, the family’s housekeeper who died after a fall at their estate known as Moselle.
The three-episode series, now streaming on Netflix, debuts amid the firestorm of attention cast upon Alex’s trial. But Furst and Willoughby Nason designed it to offer viewers the backstory on how the Murdaughs arrived on the national stage.
Furst and Willoughby Nason spoke to Variety about the fateful boat crash, the trial and why –– no matter the verdict –– they are ready to do future installments of the series.
What was your awareness of the Murdaugh family and the murders before getting involved with the project?
Julia Willoughby Nason: My knowledge of the Murdaugh family was none. It was brought to our attention through our showrunner, Michael Gasparro, who was following it closely when it was breaking and brought it to us as this very complex story down South, with a lot of layers. We started looking into it ourselves, and were fascinated by it for many reasons, as so many people are.
Jenner Furst: This was a case that was playing out in the news, but when we finally hit the ground, Mike had already done this incredible work to meet members of the community and gain access. When we started having our initial conversations with folks like Morgan Doughty and attorney Mark Tinsley, even though we had a more comprehensive view of this case than really anyone else in America had, it took months of us sitting there and talking to these people to even piece together all the information we were getting, because it was so dynamic.
The docuseries is releasing in the midst of Alex Murdaugh’s trial, but this story has been unfolding for years. When did you start filming?
Furst: We have been following the case from the outset of the double homicide, since the summer of 2021. By September that year, it became clear in talking with Netflix that they wanted to understand our take, and if we could work to tell a story for their viewers. We were fully in production by October. We are able to turn these things around relatively quickly for the scope, but it was about one year of filming. We were locking picture and handing off to Netflix last fall and through the winter.
Did you know your series would air during the trial?
Furst: The timing couldn’t be any crazier, honestly. We knew that we had to construct a series that would need to exist and be relevant regardless of a trial or a verdict. But the idea that this trial, which we knew was coming, would fall right at the same time that our series would premiere was a level of serendipity that no one could have ever fathomed.
Is it intimidating to release something like this alongside the trial, knowing that each day potential viewers are learning new things that you didn’t know when you were filming?
Willoughby Nason: The double homicide was always a backdrop in our series and the young adults on the boat were our main focus, so we weren’t too heavy into [what is being discussed in the trial]. But now there are all of these discoveries coming out, the videos and the audio of Alex, and it is exciting as filmmakers to see another trap door open.
Furst: We tell stories in a very different way. We don’t chase the news cycle, we also didn’t look at this as a whodunit with the murder scene at Moselle. I think what people don’t understand is that had there not been a boat crash years prior, and had Mallory Beach not died the way she did in this tragic accident at the hands of Paul Murdaugh, there wouldn’t have been a double homicide. The way we approached this story was about real people. Specifically, these young people, who had one night of their life not only determine their histories, but also the histories of their families and their community, and led to a house of cards coming down.
Is that why the focus of your series is the boat crash? You see it as the inciting incident of this story?
Furst: Anyone who knows anything about this community would tell you that this is the moment everything changed. This is the moment when a hundred years of power began to crumble, because of the way this crime was handled and because of the way Paul Murdaugh was being covered up by his family. You have the death of this incredibly charismatic, unique human, Mallory Beach, who was beloved by her friends and family, and the worst person who could have died on that boat. But in many ways, she is an angel of sorts — who becomes a martyr for a cause that has unfolded in the years to come — and reveals crimes that came before and after her death.
It’s not just that we took a unique perspective for the sake of being storytellers. This is the story the locals will tell you. And I don’t think that anyone else could tell that story, because these sources didn’t trust anyone else to tell the story. They chose us because they looked at our work, they understood our perspective and they understand the reach Netflix can have to get their story out there. And they wanted to partner with us to make sure the story is told the right way.
With all the revelations this trial has unearthed, are there any plans in place to explore them with more episodes?
Furst: We knew this could go nine hours, 12 hours or four seasons. It is a remarkable opportunity now that the trial is unfolding, because we already have the backstory on all this stuff. If the viewers and Netflix want another season, we have the goods to deliver. Remember, this trial is going to conclude, and there still won’t be any answers in Stephen Smith’s murder and there still won’t be any justice for Mallory Beach’s family. There is a lot still to uncover here. It’s fascinating and enthralling, and we think it all works together in a truly unique way, so we are super excited about the possibilities here.
Are you watching this trial day to day? Is anything sticking out to you as potentially important for a second installment?
Willoughby Nason: I am watching the trial, and it is fascinating to us because there are so many people we have known about or interviewed or know personally who are in the audience or being cross examined. What we go back and take from this trial will depend on what we are focusing on in a second season. But when we talk about the boat crash, and how we highlighted that for the majority of the series, it is interesting to see and hear in this trial how much Alex was interested in this crash. The first responder’s body camera shows him saying, “I think it is because of the boat crash that this happened.” He says it on the 911 tape. We recently found out on the stand from Maggie Murdaugh’s sister that he told her, “I want to clear Paul’s name in the boat crash,” when he first called her about her sister being murdered. There is an obsession there that organically ties into our focus in our series.
The very meta closing moment of this series features audio from a prison call where Alex asks his son Buster if Netflix is making a series about his case. When you heard that, did you know that was going to be your ending?
Willoughby Nason: I feel like Netflix has become this ubiquitous term referring to whether something is huge or not. It’s like instead of saying tissue, you say Kleenex. There was definitely an ironic quality to the fact that Alex would be talking about a Netflix series on that prison call. It has been used before. But we wanted to include it to kind of take down the fourth wall, and it shows a cavalier aspect to him. “Is this about me? Are they making a show about me?” I find it humorous in a very satirical way.
Do you have to resist the impulse to look at all the new evidence coming out and start crafting your narrative for a second season? Or are you waiting for the trial to reach a conclusion before making any decisions?
Willoughby Nason: I don’t think that we necessarily need a conclusion to tell any story.
Furst: We found ourselves in this position before, and we have the honor of working on behalf of the court of public opinion. It is very different from the court of law. Beyond the court of public opinion, we are trying to work in the canon of history. These stories have to be timeless. What we have learned in all of our work –– whether it be Kalief Browder, Fyre Festival, LulaRoe, Dan Schneider –– is that the story always continues. We see that these films can be even more effective when there is still a lot of meat left on the bone, because the public becomes fascinated, falls down the rabbit hole and makes a commitment to want to know more and see change. That is what is most exciting, instead of sitting on something and waiting to report on it in a conclusive way. We have an incredibly rich canvas and once the verdict happens, barring Netflix and the viewers wanting more, we are ready to provide it and would be excited to do it.
For those who watch the series, what is the big takeaway considering this story is still unfolding?
Furst: We always try to find the silver lining, but nothing can bring Mallory back. Nothing can bring Stephen back. Nothing can bring Paul and Maggie back. There’s other cases that predate all this that we have files on that weren’t even included. Nothing is going to bring those people back. But what I can tell you is that there are things happening in that community, symbolic ways to honor these people. There’s been a foundation formed in Stephen’s name. Mallory loved animals and was passionate about rescuing them, and she has a new animal shelter in her name called Mal’s Pals. People can look into those and know there are ways to honor Mallory and Stephen beyond just watching the film. It is a small silver lining, but a very special one we care a lot about.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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