There are few parts of the world that are home to as many bizarre on-screen tales of murder and intrigue as America’s southern states, and they’ve provided inspiration for filmmakers for decades. From the cannibalistic Sawyer family of 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its many sequels to Thelma and Louise’s ill-fated and bloody journey across the region in Ridley Scott’s 1991 road-trip classic, the southern states frequently feature as a nightmarish contrasting backdrop to the traditional American Dream.
While these films are fictional (or at best loosely based on reality in Chainsaw’s case), it’s a real-life — and equally strange — tale of horror that looks set to capture audiences’ imaginations from Wednesday, when the limited NBC docudrama The Thing About Pam is released globally, including on OSN Streaming in the region.
The film tells the story of convicted murderer Pam Hupp, a former life insurance assessor who, in 2016, entered a conditional guilty plea for the murder of disabled man Louis Gumpenberger in St Louis, Missouri. Hupp claimed the crime was committed in self-defense, but would go on to plead guilty, allegedly to spare her family an “ugly trial”.
This set off a chain of events that led to another local man, Russ Faria, being retried and acquitted for the 2011 murder of his own wife — a murder in which Hupp featured as the sole beneficiary of Betsy Faria’s $150,000 life insurance policy and had provided the key evidence that convicted her husband.
Hupp was also investigated for this murder following Faria’s acquittal, who was charged last year, and is currently awaiting trial. Prosecutors claim that the Gumpenberger murder was an attempt to distract attention from the Faria case.
The snowballing chain of events also led to Hupp being investigated over the death of her own mother, who mysteriously fell from her balcony in 2013 and, once again, held a life insurance policy in her daughter’s name. So far, this case has not been officially reopened, although the St Louis medical examiner changed the cause of death from “accidental” to “undetermined” in 2017.
Hupp may not have achieved the same level of recognition as serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy, but she has been the subject of five episodes of long-form news show NBC Dateline, at least two books, and the very first NBC Dateline podcast in 2019.
Hupp is played in the new real-life drama by double-Oscar-winner Renee Zellweger, while the show’s supporting cast includes the Transformers franchise’s Josh Duhamel and Judy Greer (Planet of the Apes) as competing attorneys in the Faria murder case. Although the killer herself may not be a household name, there’s certainly a stellar cast lining up to tell her story in the new show.
Zellweger is making something of a habit of playing real-life characters — her most recent big-screen appearance was her Oscar-winning turn as legendary actress Judy Garland in the 2019 biopic Judy. The star insists that, despite the obvious differences between the two characters, playing them required a more similar approach than we might expect.
“The legacy from Judy’s work, and interviews that she’s done, all the materials are on public record. It’s much more limited in the case of Pam Hupp, but there is actually quite a bit of information out there,” she says. “She's done several interviews and there’s been the court appearances and other things to reference.
"So, although it's different in many ways, [Hupp is] still the kind of person who seems familiar to most people, they feel like they recognise her, and it seemed important that we were accurate in that way, even though we maybe had more creative freedom in the telling of this story. It's pretty well established, her look, for example, so we did what we could to come as close as we could.”
For Zellweger, coming as close as she could included several hours in make-up having prosthetics applied each day to achieve that essential "Huppness". This experience was one the actress has largely avoided in her career to date, but she seems to have unexpectedly enjoyed it.
“It's funny because it was so new to me. I’ve used tiny bits and pieces in performances before, but this one was the most comprehensive by far,” she recalls. “It's so interesting, because every day I learnt something new, not just about how the pieces are built, but they have minds of their own and what they become during the day isn't quite what they begin as in the morning.
"It’s part of your toolkit though, that makes it easier to achieve what it is that you're trying to in terms of telling someone else's story. I think the further you are away from yourself, the safer you feel to be able to explore, and I think that's half the fun. It's a different kind of skill to work with your whole body, covered in prosthetics. I didn't know that. That was a skill that I didn't have.”
One skill that Zellweger did already have, from her portrayal of Garland, as well as her three decades as a successful actress, was that of researching her role. She clearly threw herself into this mission for The Thing About Pam.
“This is one of those stories that you couldn't make up,” she concedes. “I binged the podcast, the dateline episodes and all of that drilling down into the story. It was just this experience of escalating absurdities and trying to figure it out, reading books on human behaviour and trying to work out what might motivate certain choices.
"It opens the door to discuss some really important, current, relevant social issues, and I thought it would be a really interesting way to do that.”
The Thing About Pam is available on OSN Streaming from Wednesday, March 9, with new episodes weekly