Mare of Easttown Screenwriter and Chester County Native Brad Ingelsby on Writing for Kate Winslet
The creative mind behind HBO’s new detective show — premiering on April 18th — describes his journey to Hollywood and back again, plus how he got his leading lady hooked on Wawa.
Buzz is building for Mare of Easttown, a locally shot crime drama starring Kate Winslet. It’s the latest big project from screenwriter, executive producer and Berwyn native Brad Ingelsby. The Villanova grad and father of three talked to us about his process and whether the British actress was able to nail the Delco accent.
Villanova marketing major to Hollywood screenwriter: Help me see the connection.
After I graduated high school at Archbishop Carroll in Radnor, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. My dad said that was okay, that I could take my time figuring that out, but I had to do something. So I went to Villanova. I had always had a deep interest in movies, but I had no idea I wanted to write them until I took a screenwriting class in my junior year at Villanova, and that’s when I discovered this passion.
Were you the kid who was always bingeing on movies before that was a thing?
Yes. There was this VHS rental store in Berwyn called Movies Etc. or something like that. And they would run this special where you could get 10 movies for 10 days for $10, as long as they weren’t new releases. And I just went through this massive movie book that ranked the best movies of all time, and I rented all of them I could get my hands on.
Are there any that stand out today?
I was really drawn to the character studies, like Mean Streets, Breaking Away and Stand By Me. When Boogie Nights came out, I think I saw that six times in the theater. I just thought it was the best thing ever.
What was the first script you sold, and how much did you get for it?
It was called The Low Dweller and eventually became Out of the Furnace, which came out in 2013. After Villanova, I went to the American Film Institute in L.A., and I had to submit two scripts as my thesis, and this was one of them. After AFI, I moved back East and was selling insurance with my dad when I got an email from a friend who went to AFI and became an executive at a film company. I sent him the script, got an agent, and within weeks, it sold for $600,000, which was astronomical. It was originally supposed to be with Leonardo DiCaprio, but the final casting was Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson.
And after that, you moved out to L.A. full-time. But I hear you’re headed back this way soon. Why?
I’ve felt that I wanted to move home for a couple years now, and COVID really sealed the deal. Almost all of my family is still in the area, and my wife is from Aston, and her family is still there. I want my three kids to grow up around their cousins, and I want to spend time with all of my family to make up for lost time. I’m having a house built in Berwyn, just a few minutes from the house I grew up in, and we should be there in September for good.
I always thought that to be in the movie business, you’ve gotta be in L.A.
That’s definitely what my agent told me after I sold that first script, so I moved. But as a writer, your currency is a good piece of material, and if you can write it on the East Coast or the West Coast or in China, nobody cares.
So do the beaches in California just put the Jersey Shore to shame?
I grew up going to Bethany Beach in Delaware, but then my parents started having friends buying houses in Avalon, which is where they have a house now. The scenery in California is better, with the cliffs and the coastline. But the waves break more gently in Avalon, so my kids can actually go in the water.
When did the idea for Mare of Easttown first pop into your head?
It feels like a million years ago, but it was actually just 2018. I knew I wanted to write a story about a woman named Mare who’s the only detective in a small town. She was once a hero, but now the town is starting to turn on her because she can’t solve the case of this missing girl. There’s a lot of personal crisis and loss.
I have this image of a Hollywood screenwriter holed up in some remote cabin in the woods or a thatch-roofed hut in the South Pacific, working on their next great script. Am I far off?
Oh, goodness. It’s definitely not glamorous or romantic. At all. It’s just an office in my house. That’s where I do all of my writing.
Do you at least do it on a vintage typewriter?
[Laughs] Alas, a MacBook. Just me and a blank screen.
Have you had lots of fights with directors and producers and stars who want to change your scripts?
I’ve actually been very lucky, strangely enough. I’ve had good success maintaining the vision of my scripts. Oh, there are always minor adjustments and cuts that you have to make, but I haven’t had anything changed on me in an appreciable way. I’ve heard all those horror stories, but I’ve managed okay.
Is Mare based on somebody you know?
Not really. I didn’t grow up with any police around me. But I did grow up in a sports clan — my dad was a basketball player, my brother played for Notre Dame, and I know a lot of people who played minor-league baseball. So I am very interested in what happens after the “glory days,” and Mare is very much after those days in her life. What does it look like when you arrive at a dead end?
Out of the Furnace was a crime drama. And now this. The genre seems so popular. I mean, I’ve seen literally every single Law & Order: SVU episode there is. Why are we so obsessed with these dark shows where bad things happen to people and there are rarely truly happy endings?
These stories set up a question that needs to be answered: Who did this? Why did they do it? As humans, we need to get answers. It’s just a classic whodunit. And then beyond that, if you have great characters, people connect emotionally. It deepens the connections.
Is Mare of Easttown set in the real Chester County town of Easttown, as the title would suggest?
No, actually. We did shoot some of the show in Easttown, as well as in Coatesville, Aston and Drexel Hill, but we really captured more of a blue-collar vibe than you get in the real Easttown. And I know I’m gonna get some real grief from actual Easttowners telling me I got it wrong. The Easttown in the show is really an amalgam of some of the towns in the area. Some other places we shot at that people might recognize are the VFW bar in Sellersville, Girard College, Wissahickon Valley Park, and Pastorius Park in Chestnut Hill. And we have plenty of Wawa and Eagles references and other Philly and Delco flavors in there.
I hear Kate Winslet is a big fan of Wawa. Do we have you to thank for turning her on to our favorite convenience store?
When she first got to town, I told her: You’ve gotta go to Wawa. You have to sit outside and observe and get a sense for this place. Mare stops at Wawa every morning on her way to the precinct, and she drinks Wawa coffee in the show quite a bit. Kate loved Wawa and really absorbed that experience into her character.
“Everything about Kate is exactly what you want. Her work ethic. The way she gets into the backstory of the character. Her commitment to getting the Delco accent right.”
How did COVID impact the production of this show?
We got completely interrupted. We had shot maybe 70 percent of the show. We were in the throes of production when COVID hit, and we stopped from early March until the end of September. And due to COVID protocols, we had to rewrite a bunch of things, because you can’t shoot a packed party at a sorority house and you can’t shoot a big, elaborate wedding reception these days. Four-person scenes became two-person scenes.
COVID has also had a huge effect on the cinema business. In fact, I just rented an entire AMC theater for $99, which shows you how much they’re hurting. Are cinemas a thing of the past, especially now that we’ve all gotten used to watching movies at home during the pandemic?
I think the experience of seeing a movie in a theater is something people will always desire if the movie involves spectacle and sound — the movies where you really need to see them in a theater to get the full effect. There will always be a hunger for that. But with indie movies, you can just as easily watch them at home.
So, all fluffy Hollywood bullshit aside, what’s it really like to work with Kate?
Everything about her is exactly what you want. Her work ethic. The way she gets into the backstory of the character. Her commitment to getting the Delco accent right. And when you add on top of that the fact that she’s the loveliest, kindest human being, it makes for a wonderful experience.
You mentioned the accent. Did she nail it or what? Because you know people around here are going to care about this in particular.
Oh yeah, they’ll have their own opinion, I’m sure. She worked really hard on it and listened to so many tapes of people talking. It’s a strange accent, and some people from the area have a really heavy one and some people have a really light one. We had to sit down and say: Okay, is she supposed to have a 10 or a two? We settled for somewhere in the middle.
How much of a story do you know when you sit down to write it?
I never know all the moves when I start a script. I only know where it starts emotionally and where it ends emotionally, and I take it from there. You have to listen to your character as you’re writing. They speak to you. A lot of writers believe in outlines. I’m the opposite. I don’t want to be handcuffed to an outline. I just need to know where I start and where I end.
Well, if you sat down to write this knowing where it starts and where it ends, that makes a second season unlikely should you have a smash hit on your hands.
We definitely approached this as a one-season show, and Kate signed on to do one season. And the story is very much one season, with a clear beginning, middle and end. But if people absolutely love the show and want to see more, that’s a high-class issue to have. And I guess we’d have to go back to the drawing board.
I have to tell you, when I pitched this interview, my editor said, “What if the show is a big flop?” How do you measure success with a show like this?
I can never predict how a movie or show will “do.” I can’t control how many people will watch it or what the critics will say about it. And I can’t really worry about it. All I can worry about is whether I’m proud of the product, and I am very proud of this and my part in it.
Published as “Writing for Winslet” in the April 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.