Beyond Belief: The Making of ‘Above Suspicion’

                                                               By Joe Sharkey

Ever since it was announced in Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and the other international trade publications in early May that production was beginning on a movie adaptation of my 1993 book “Above Suspicion,” I’ve been asked about the progress of the production.

Here’s the first of what will be regular updates, from my perspective watching a book I wrote become a major motion picture. And I should add that to me, the act of actually making a movie out of a book is a deep mystery that’s almost beyond belief.

The process starts with a few Hollywood people ginning up excitement about a book’s story. In my world, this would be basically called kitchen-table b.s.  But the process, soon becoming known as the “project,” amazingly gathers steam and adds people over time (in this case, 23 years from the publication of my book!) — and one day, you look. and there are actors and crew and trucks and lights and cameras and a place where the meals are served — in this case, a tiny old coal-mine town in Kentucky.

Exclusive... Emilia Clarke Looking Bruised And Battered On Set Of 'Above Suspicion'
Emilia Clarke, on location

Filming started May 24 in Lexington, Ky., but has been concentrated for most of this month in Harlan, a small town in a county famed in coal mine union lore. “Above Suspicion” is a true story about a rookie FBI agent who was assigned in 1987 to a secondary bureau without close supervision in isolated Pikeville, Ky., where he was under intense pressure to produce arrest results. He did just that. The intense,  hard-working agent, Mark Putnam, performed spectacular crime-fighting work, in part with the aid of his determined, beautiful wife Kathy, and also with the aid of a pretty, sassy, drug-using coal-miner’s daughter, Susan Smith, who knew a lot about criminal activities in the area and became his paid informant.

Alas, in time, Susan also became his lover, and that all ended pitifully on a dark mountaintop siding where they argued and fought when the pregnant Susan threatened to ruin his career if he wouldn’t abandon his wife and marry her. He strangled her and dumped her body in a ravine — and got away with it for almost a year, till his conscience forced him to confess, at a time when Kentucky state police were asking questions about what he knew about what they regarded at this point only as a missing person’s case.

When Mark confessed and told them where the body was, his life — and the lives of his wife and young children — were scarred forever.

jack huston pr shot
Jack Huston

Susan Smith, a chatty, likable and sadly screwed-up coal-miner’s daughter who had never before met a man who treated her with respect, died pitifully on that sad mountaintop not far from the place where she grew up in the very locale where the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud occurred — in an impoverished mountain hollow that one local referred to as “Lonesome Holler,” which, incidentally, I subsequently wished I had used as a mournful title for my book.

Frankly, I was never confident that I fully or adequately captured the profound human tragedy that was Susan Smith in my book, as she was the only one of the principal characters that I could not, obviously, talk with when I spent time in eastern Kentucky researching it 1992.

But from what I hear about the movie now being shot, Emilia Clarke is giving life to that poor girl in a way I could not in a book. I am so enormously gratified that Susan is now in the hands of a wonderful actor such as Emilia, who stars in the movie along with Jack Huston.

What a sad story it was for everyone, including the real-life Kathy Putnam, who didn’t know that Susan, who Kathy had befriended, was having a secret affair with her husband. And Kathy didn’t know that Susan was dead at his own hands, till Mark was driven to confess a year later.

The movie is being directed by Phillip Noyce (most recently “Salt”) and it stars Clarke (of TV’s “Game of Thrones,” and the recent movie “Me Before You”) and Jack Huston (“American Hustle” and of TV’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and starring in the new remake of “Ben-Hur,” which is coming to theaters in August).

From what I hear, Emilia and Jack have been working an exhaustive schedule on location every day in little Harlan, population just under 2,000, which doesn’t quite know what to make of the invasion of several.hundred movie people suddenly resident in town, including the world-famous “Mother of Dragons,” which is the moniker for the role of Daenerys Targaryen that Emilia plays as in “Game of Thrones.”

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I still have never seen “Game of Thrones” (I will Netflix it, I assure my adult daughter, who loves it and adores Emilia) — but I certainly have been paying attention in recent months to news about Ms. Clarke, including the news in the Hollywood Reporter this week that she and other key players in “Thrones” will be paid about $500,000 per episode for the show’s upcoming eighth season.

Whew, Emilia chose to spend all this time in hot, muggy, isolated Harlan getting beat up by movie hillbillies and ultimately killed by her on-screen lover, while at the same time in eal life managing to travel to New York and L.A. frequently to do talk shows and promotions for “Me Before You.”

Incidentally, I’m also a columnist for a luxury trade magazine called “Business Jet Traveler,” and I’d love to know how she pulls off all of that travel, especially to and from a remote location two hours from even a secondary airport — unless a private jet is involved at least in some parts of her travel, as would make eminent sense. And a very good cover story timed to coincide with the release of the movie in 2017.

Anyway, that’s evidently workaday entertainment, but as I see it, that’s also pure acting professionalism on the part of this remarkable 29-year-old actress, who has been quoted as saying that she’s been “living out of a suitcase” all year. How in the world she pulls that off with such aplomb and manifest good cheer is beyond belief to me.

Likewise Mr.Huston, who had to have reported to the “Above Suspicion” set in at least some degree of exhaustion following the rigors of rough-and-tumble chariot racing and slave-ship captivity in “Ben-Hur,” is running hard down in Harlan. He and Emilia seem to be in nearly every scene being shot each day.

004_2
Susan Smith

That’s good news to me, especially about the Susan character as Emilia is playing her. Back in March, as production for the movie geared up, I was frankly concerned that the script focused too much on the “shoot-em-up” male escapades of crime-fighting in lawless eastern Kentucky, and not enough on the two women who were in deeply tragic orbit around our handsome young FBI man: his wife and his doomed lover. But screenwriter Chris Gerolmo brought it in skilfully, with nuanced characters buttressing the action.

Ms. Clarke, a Brit who deftly nailed the eastern Kentucky “hillbilly” accent for the part,  is obviously breathing sassy vitality into the real Susan Smith, while Mr. Huston is said to have quickly developed an uncanny ability to bring depth and contours to the role of the FBI agent — who readers always told me they found to be riveting and even sympathetic, or at least understandable, as a true-life character.

Kathy Putnam
Kathy Putnam

Also starring in “Above Suspicion” are Sophie Lowe (“After the Dark”) as Kathy Putnam, a woman I knew well and admired greatly, who died sadly at age 38 in 1998, steadfastly supporting her imprisoned husband to the last. Thora Birch (“American Beauty”) is playing Susan’s sister, the only person in the true story who was suspicious of the FBI agent almost from the day her sister went missing. Thora Birch and Emilia Clark acting together as sisters is an inspired casting choice, and will be something we’ll all want to see.

Johnny Knoxville (“Jackass: The Movie”) plays an inept, likable hillbilly bank robber in the movie. That character, whose nickname was “Cat Eyes” in real life, figured prominently in one of the humorous set-pieces in my book (which, of course, doesn’t have a lot of humor in it) — an antic bank robbery that Susan informed Mark about. As a result, Susan got beat up by the robber’s girlfriend. Up there is a fan-posted location shot of Emilia Clarke and her movie-set bruises after tangling with the enraged girlfriend of Cat Eyes, looking not at all like a mother of dragons but rather like a bedraggled poor girl in Kentucky who just got her ass whooped.

By the way, the bank heist scene was filmed just the other day. A Harlan resident took to Twitter to report: “Johnny Knoxville just robbed my bank…”

Here’s the cast list for the movie.

Harlan was chosen as the location to shoot the bulk of the movie (besides a few in Lexington, other scenes were shot earlier in Paris — tiny Paris, Kentucky, that is) because Pikeville, an hour’s drive away from Harlan, is a bit too modern-looking now to resemble itself in the late 1980s. Harlan, the producers said, gets the visual job done. (And once they all settled in, the cast and crew are said to have actually become somewhat fond of the little town)

Harlan, Ky., ready for its closeup,
Harlan, Ky., ready for its closeup,

I’ll post regular updates as the movie heads toward a wrap in July. And yes, I’m headed to Kentucky soon, partly also to do update research on the new edition of “Above Suspicion” that will be published to coincide with the movie’s release in 2017.

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2 comments

  1. Poor Mark Putnam. Poor thing! He deserves all the sympathy he’s received over the years–the sympathy in your book and the reviews of your book, and in the recounting of his tragic tale.

    Through no fault of his own, his and his loved one’s lives were ruined. Poor Mark! I haven’t seen an ounce of sympathy for who some may call the REAL victim in this tragedy –you know, the dead woman, Susan, whose kids were left motherless and who never had a chance to change her life. But hey, that’s as it should be, since she ruined poor Mark.

    I mean, having his, his wife’s, and his children’s lives ruined simply because he willingly and with choice had an affair and strangled a woman to death. Imagine! I mean, she was just a trashy girl who FORCED him to sleep with her then FORCED him to wrap his hands around her neck for minute after excruciating minute while he unwillingly strangled the life out of her. Even after she died, she continued to victimize him by forcing him to hide her body and hide her murder.

    How dare this woman–this poor, uneducated, trapped in generations of poverty and need like most can’t even imagine, resourceless, and mentally and physically battered woman –how dare she manipulate, force, and take advantage of this married, educated, well-trained FBI agent who was in a position of power of her and who took and oath to enforce the law.

    Wow. She had some nerve. :/

    1. I knew readers would be able to understand Mark Putnam and Kathy Putnam through my reporting, as well understanding as the other characters in the book who were living when I spent time with them in 1992. My main concern, then and now, was that Susan Smith be presented with understanding and dignity, and I do think your quite reasonable negative reaction indicates that you gleaned at least some truthful depiction of that poor young woman and her setting. I deliberately worked to keep my own opinions out of the narrative, which I wanted to speak for itself.

      Fact-based journalism, which this was, imposes restrictions that fiction, which this could have been, does not. I would add that Emilia Clarke did fully understand the Susan Smith she told me she found in my book. I think you will see the brilliance, honesty and passion Ms. Clarke brings to the role of Susan Smith in the upcoming movie adaptation, in which screenwriter, director and especially actor had a lot more creative freedom to interpret characters freely. I watched Ms. Clarke bring that poor girl to life, and I hope you will too. JS

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