Nichelle Tramble Spellman is the showrunner behind the Apple TV+ crime drama “Truth Be Told.” The series stars Octavia Spencer as a true crime podcaster who returns to a case from her past with new eyes.
Spellman recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about working with Spencer, what made “Truth Be Told” special enough to adapt and where she is in the writing process for Season 2. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Nichelle, one of the biggest decisions you ever made and one of the best decisions you ever made was to hook up with Octavia Spencer, who is as good as it gets not only as an actress but as a producer. Tell us about working with her.
Nichelle Tramble Spellman: She’s the gold standard. I think that I’m spoiled from this point on. There was one moment when we were on set and it was Octavia, Aaron Paul and Lizzy Caplan and my husband, who was an EP on the show, turned to me and said, “You’ll never get this again,” and I was like, “Don’t say that!” (Laughs.) But it was really true. She’s an EP on the show, Octavia, so she was there from the beginning. I wrote the pilot knowing that I had her, so she was in my mind from the very first word and she lived up to it as a producer, as a person, as an actress. She’s fantastic.
GD: We know a lot about her as an actress but she’s had a lot of great producing projects, got a huge award from the Producers Guild within the last year. What do we not know about her as a producer? What does she bring to that game?
NTS: The biggest thing that she brings to the game is that she trusts everyone to do their job. She’s not a micromanager. She wants to be free to create within the acting arena and once she steps on the stage, so she leaves the writers free to write, the directors free to direct. There’s a conversation. We all collaborate and then she trusts that you’re a professional and that you’re an adult and everyone is going to do the best job that they can. So she set a really wonderful tone on set. She was always prepared. There was never any moment where she was not on book and it completely trained the entire set. She insists on a happy, upbeat set and the one thing you won’t know about her as a producer is she actually doesn’t leave set. So when she’s between scenes, she doesn’t go to her trailer. She started out as a PA, and her point of view is that if the crew doesn’t have some place to go and lie down, then neither do I. So she gets her chair, she’s there for support, to keep everybody upbeat. So it was a really, really great experience on that set.
GD: I love a good murder mystery. I always have, whether they’re films or television or books or whatever they might be. Why was it important for you to adapt this one for television?
NTS: We set out to do this as a limited series and it was such an interesting idea to me to build a show that was in a pre-“Serial” world where podcasts hadn’t really taken over. What was interesting to me was to explore what podcasting is in relationship to journalism. So there are journalists that have podcasts and use the same standards, but there are a lot of people who say that they’re journalists just because they have a blog or just because they post a news story once in a while on Instagram. So that Wild Wild West of journalism combined with the podcast and the stakes of a murder, those were all interesting elements to me and that’s what me and the writing team, we drove into.
GD: Murder mysteries and mysteries in general can be so tricky, though. You have to develop the right tone. You’ve got to lead your audience down a path, but a believable path. What were your secrets in making all of that a success?
NTS: The big secret for Season 1 was that the central mystery beyond what we saw with Aaron Paul and Lizzy Caplan’s characters was, “Who was Poppy Parnell?” So the mystery of the series is who is she as a character, what makes her tick, and what secrets is she hiding from the past and how are the affecting the present? So as we broke the season mystery, we kept that in mind and trying to figure out what she was going through, what she was hiding and how it was affecting the decisions that she made. So you see over the course of the season, she just throws it all away, gets way more involved than she should be and then she becomes a part of the story which then has this ripple effect of drama, crime and falling out with her family and even her husband. So it was just this messy dive into this story when someone is invested past the point of professionalism.
GD: Yeah, I think that’s the key to the whole story here is you’ve got somebody who, their actions really caused a wrong to happen and now they gotta figure out how to make it right and will people go along for that ride and in their life? What kind of problems are they gonna have with a person coming forward like that? Tell us about Aaron Paul. We’ve loved him at Gold Derby since the very first season of, really, even back “Big Love” but, of course, “Breaking Bad” and all those Emmy wins. What’s he like to work with?
NTS: Like I said at the top of this, so lucky. He was the second person to sign on and then we got Lizzy and the three of them set such an amazing tone, always prepared, always upbeat, gave it their all, and Aaron was just a gentleman on set. Everyone loved him. The crew loved days when he showed up. We had a moment during the finale where he had to come in and shoot all day long and he was doing “Westworld” and there was no complaint. He never pulled a face. He was just a pro and in there. They made the experience much better than it could have been.
GD: One of your secret weapons in the cast, not so secret ’cause he’s an Emmy winner too, I think is Ron Cephas Jones. Tell us about working with him and what he brought to this project.
NTS: He really anchored the family on the show. The actors really loved each other and they treated each other in a very protective way. I loved seeing him as this old, grizzled gangster, which is so different from what we see on “This Is Us,” but he has such a wide body of work. He has a great story coming up in Season 2 where we explore a little bit more about his illness. It sounds like I’m working from a script but I got really lucky with this cast. Everybody brought something new and everybody brought a different color and a different texture. He was so interested in the life of these Black biker gangs that he read the book “Soul on Bikes” that I used as a reference point. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area and I grew up knowing about the East Bay Dragons and going to the Black family picnics that they threw in Nolan Park every year. I always wanted to see that onscreen. I always wanted to see that community onscreen. So I spoke to Ron when he was first interested in the part and we just talked for a couple of hours about that and he read the book and we talked about it and what that meant to me growing up. He brought all that texture to the part.
GD: You mentioned Season 2. What is the development timeline? You certainly are offtrack like everybody is after three months but how much is written? When would you start production, do you think?
NTS: We’re on the writers’ room on Zoom like everyone else and we’ve been up and running for about two and a half months now. So the loose plan is for us to go into production in October but I think that we’re all pretty much waiting to see what that means. Is October too soon? Are there shows that go out this summer that will be guinea pigs, for lack of a better word, and we’ll find out if this is a smart plan? I hope that we’re able to go up soon and we’ll be ready and this year, we’ll have all the scripts written by the time we start production.
GD: So if you get to start in the fall, we’re maybe looking at 2021 actually seeing it?
GD: Somewhere maybe in the middle or latter part of 2021 after you get it all edited and everything.
NTS: Yeah, exactly.
GD: One thing, you won the dramatic writing award with the NAACP. Tell us about getting that award and what it meant to you.
NTS: (Laughs.) I was shocked. That was quite the category and I was sitting behind [Damon] Lindelof and it was the first time I had ever met him. So I got to talk to him and his writer, Cord [Jefferson], and we were just chatting and I was eating my dinner because I didn’t expect to be called onstage, and they said my name and my husband jumped up and screamed, “Baby girl! You won!” The whole table started laughing and I stumbled through a speech but it was a very nice acknowledgment. This was my first time out as a showrunner so there was a lot to learn this first year, even though I’ve been in TV for over 10 years. There’s so much that you don’t know and you don’t find that out until you’re in the driver’s seat.
GD: As I’ve talked to so many people over the years, you will never, ever forget your first big award and first big award show. That’s gonna be something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
NTS: (Laughs.) Yes.