Back in 2018 when I was on a true-crime podcast splurge, I came across the DR. DEATH podcast and became instantly hooked and increasingly terrified. Released by Wondery, the podcast focused on neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, who would go on to harm and injure 31 patients while two patients died during his operations. Due to the popularity of the podcast, a limited series was put into the works from Happy! producer Patrick Macmanus to give viewers insight into how this terrifying case of gross negligence and malpractice came to be.
For the release of the 8-part series, Nightmarish Conjurings had the chance to speak with Executive Producer Patrick Macmanus where they discussed everything from how he came to bring the story to life to finding Joshua Jackson to step in as the titular character, and wrapping with what he hopes people take away from the series.
Hi Patrick, thank you so much for speaking with me today. When I first listened to the DR. DEATH podcast on Wondery, it left me utterly terrified. What was it like to help bring this true story to life?
Patrick Macmanus: I agree with you about the podcast and it being absolutely terrifying. Three years ago next week is when I was given the first three episodes, which was like three or four months prior to it coming out in the public. Quick anecdote, I was working on a show called Happy! at the time, and I was sitting in my office in New York and I had my back to the door, and I was staring out the window looking at the Empire State Building. I didn’t hear my production designer come in, and I spun around and I guess I gave her this terrible look because she goes, “It’s great to fucking see you, too, Patrick.” And I was like, “I am so sorry! If you were listening to what I’m listening to right now, you would look at you the same way. It’s absolutely terrifying.” I was one of three writers that were up for the job with two other brilliant writers, and somehow I faked my way into getting the gig [Laughs].
The thing that made me want to do it was the complexities of the character. I’d said to the studio, and eventually, Peacock later that this is not a medical thriller. This is a character study. The character of Christopher Duntsch was something that was fundamentally compelling to me. He is extraordinarily complex. There’s a tragedy to him. Before I continue to say what I’m saying, I want to go on the record of saying that I believe he deserves to be in jail for the rest of his life, there’s no question to that, but, I also believe that if he had never operated, if he had stayed in the research field, we’d be talking about him in an entirely different way today. We would be lauding him quite frankly, and some of his patents are still being used today. So, that’s the tragic side of it.
Then there’s [doctors] Robert Henderson and Randall Kirby, who were two everyday men who were trying to understand how one of their own could possibly be the way he is, do what he did, and get away with what he did. They don’t have badges. They don’t have guns. They’re just trying to figure out the mystery of who this guy is. Then partnering those guys up with the young, driven, intelligent, capable assistant district attorney, Michelle Shughart. We, as writers in the writers’ room, knew that we had gold there to mind from. I don’t want to undermine what our writers did. I don’t want to undermine whatever I did, but I can say that it felt to me from the very start like an already baked story, you had to really mess it up to mess it up [Laughs].
One of the reasons I felt like the series worked so well was because of casting choices, most notably Joshua Jackson, Alex Baldwin, and Christian Slater. I had read that Jamie Dornan was cast as Dr. D but had to back out after a scheduling conflict, allowing Jackson to come in and just blow the socks off of everyone with his performance. Can you chat a bit about bringing him on board?
Patrick Macmanus: Josh stepped into a breach for us in a very real way. And I want to just really quickly say that Jamie was a phenomenal partner, and the reason he didn’t continue is because scheduling would not allow it. From the beginning, he was there for us until we got shut down, so he was wonderful. It was a gift that Josh agreed to come on and save us, quite frankly. We all know Josh’s work. We all know he is a highly accomplished actor. I think that his work is underrated, quite frankly. His performance in this, I think, trumps anything he’s done ever before in his career. The moment that it clicked, we were a week into production and we were doing the scene in Season 2 where he’s talking to his mom and dad at dinner in a steak house. We were filming his closeup on that and the director called cut and Maggie Kiley, Kat Westergaard, myself, and our script supervisor all looked at each other slightly slack-jawed and were like, “We’re good. Like we are good.” He had just played this 18-year-old, and he’s playing this 45-year-old and he just does it with complete grace. It seems easy, but you and I both know it wasn’t easy. I owe [Josh] a debt of gratitude that I can’t possibly repay.
DR. DEATH is a complex series that touches upon a slew of issues involving medical harm, hospital coverups, etc. I know we need to wrap up but what do you hope people will take away from this series?
Patrick Macmanus: Two things: one thing I’ll just comment on, which is that my production company, which I share with my sister and wife, we’re going to be rolling out a social action campaign that’ll premiere in tandem with the show. The purpose of that social action campaign is to raise awareness about medical harm and to empower viewers with the tools and the information they need to protect themselves and their loved ones. There is clearly work to be done in the medical field to be able to protect people. Second, I think it was very fortunate and fitting that we were shooting this during COVID because Henderson and Kirby, to me, ultimately represent all doctors, nurses, and healthcare practitioners that we suddenly looked at differently over the course of the pandemic, and I believe we took them for granted for all of our lives. But they were heroes before COVID and they will be heroes after COVID. And the vast majority of doctors, nurses, medical practitioners are good people who are just trying to protect the public. I don’t want people to suddenly think that their doctors are somehow evil or that they’re afraid to go and get medical treatment. I want them to have the tools and the information necessary to get it done safely and right. Which is done by the vast majority of these practitioners.
For more on DR. DEATH, check out our review here. The series is now streaming exclusively on Peacock
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