Alumnus Brad Ingelsby Talks Series “Mare of Easttown”


Courtesy of Margo Moritz / Philadelphia Magazine

Brad Ingelsby’s show premieres on Apr. 18.

A.J. Fezza, Co-Culture Editor

HBO is known for its recent small-town crime dramas like “True Detective,” “Sharp Objects” and “Big Little Lies.” Now, a new drama called “Mare of Easttown” starring Kate Winslet has entered the fray. Best of all, “Mare of Easttown” takes place just a stone’s throw away from Villanova, and was created and written by Villanova graduate Brad Ingelsby. 

Ingelsby has made a name for himself over the past few years writing films starring the most famous actors in Hollywood, like Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Ben Affleck and more. Now, Ingelsby is sharing his first ever television series with the world. The Villanovan was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Ingelsby about his life and the upcoming series.

A.J. Fezza: How did you go from business major at Villanova to Hollywood screenwriter?

Brad Ingelsby: When I went to college, I guess like a lot of people, I wasn’t entirely sure what my path would be. When I was a junior at Nova I took a screenwriting class because I always had an interest in movies as a kid. So I felt like since I had to take an elective, screenwriting was an obvious choice because I love movies. I had a teacher that worked at Villanova at the time named Sloan Seale. I remember her after class one day saying, ‘Hey is this something that you’re interested in?’ I think she saw that I had a passion for movies and so given that bit of encouragement, I began to pursue it on my own and really got into it and liked writing. I then applied to graduate school at AFI [American Film Institute] and spent a couple years in Los Angeles doing a writing program there. Like all kids who don’t know what they want to do, it took me a while to figure it out.

AF: Have your experiences at Villanova affected your role as a storyteller?

BI: In terms of education, yes. I had that screenwriting teacher that encouraged me to pursue this at a time when I really didn’t know if I was any good at it and I didn’t know if it was something that I would want to pursue, but she pushed me. Also, just in terms of even my marketing degree, you have to look at stories in a lot of different ways. Obviously, just making sure the story is good itself and that the narrative works, but also: how is an audience going to perceive this when the trailer comes out? How is an audience going to either want to watch this or want to avoid it? From a business standpoint, it helps to have some background in advertising and marketing just so that when you have a story, you can think: how do I sell this script? How do I market it? How can I get my head around the business side? Because it’s a business, ultimately. We love to say that we’re artists, but it’s also a business, and there are people who are having to put up money to get these shows and movies made, and they don’t want to just lose money on every project. I think that even the business side of my degree at ‘Nova was incredibly helpful in understanding how things need to be marketed and sold to buyers, networks, et cetera.

AF: This Sunday is the premiere of “Mare of Easttown.” Can you tell us a bit about the story, how the project first came about, and what inspired you to first start writing it?

BI: “Mare of Easttown” is a story about a detective named Mare Sheehan. She is the only detective in this sort of small Pennsylvania town called Easttown, which is really an amalgam of a number of communities in the area. It was shot in a few towns like Aston, and it’s modelled after Drexel Hill and Springfield and a lot of places around where I grew up. My father grew up in Springfield and my mother grew up in Drexel Hill. So, Mare is a detective in a working class community, and at one time in her life as a teenager, she was a hero. She made a shot in a basketball game that brought a moment of glory to a town that really hasn’t had a lot of moments of glory. But when we drop into the story, her life is starting to crumble. She’s had a personal loss. She’s unable to solve the disappearance of a girl, and now a second girl has turned up dead. And so it’s really an examination of this character and this community, and it’s an examination of Mare and of grief. It’s a woman who has to confront loss in her life and has been unwilling to do so. It’s also a story of how a tight-knit community responds to death and how the shared histories of these people intersect, why they intersect, and how the shared history makes those intersections emotional or crushing or devastating, and how a community rebounds after the shocking reveals that come at the end of the series. That’s really what I was interested in pursuing as a narrative.  

AF: Since you grew up around the area where this story takes place, I’d imagine that friends and family are so excited to see the region represented on an HBO show.

BI: [laughing] You know, it’s funny, though, because the real Easttown is a little different than the Easttown in the show … I think anyone that lives in Easttown will probably be like, ‘That doesn’t exactly look like Easttown.’ But I think that anyone familiar with the region will appreciate the flavor and texture of the show: the Wawa references, the Yuengling, the pizza. What I wanted to capture was the rhythms and rituals of life and how I grew up, and I think the show does that and I’m proud of that.

AF: I don’t know if this was intentional or not, since these are common Irish names, but when I was watching your film “The Way Back” I saw a school named “Dougherty,” and now in “Mare of Easttown” the main character has the last name “Sheehan.” So I’m seeing many Villanova building names.

BI: [laughing] That’s so funny. You know, I think that was a subconscious thing. But definitely having grown up in an Irish Catholic clan, those were names that were tossed around a lot. So I was pulling from a lot of experience there.

AF: How did COVID-19 affect the filming of the show? I read that filming was halted in March 2020 and then resumed later on.

BI: Yeah, COVID hit so we paused in early March. And then over the summer we just had a lot of conversations with HBO about: how are we going to go back to work? What’s the set going to look like? What are the protocols we have to have in place to keep the crew safe. And I have to give HBO a ton of credit. They set up an incredible system to keep the crew safe, and by early September they were confident enough in their system to go back to work. We went back to work in early September and we finished the show in early December. And again, a lot of script changes had to be made. We had a wedding scene. How are you going to shoot a wedding scene with a hundred extras? That’s a recipe for disaster. So it took some innovation in terms of the writing and how we could get scenes achieved, you know, without having a ton of extras. It took some scaling back in terms of the scope of the show, but I think we did pretty well to maintain the emotion of the scenes that we kinda scaled back. And I’m really proud of the crew and obviously the actors and just the creative team and HBO for just having to find a way to go back and get the show across the finish line. And I think they did a great job of keeping everyone safe.

AF: Do you find it more challenging to write a seven-part series or a film?

BI: A seven-part series, for sure. [laughing] I had never done a mystery show, so I was totally new to the genre and having to understand how to keep viewers coming back at the end, how to get them invested in the story, and how to end each episode with a moment like ‘Oh my God, I have to see what happens next.’ I had never done that. And also just having to plot out the reveals along the way was very, very tricky. But I had a lot of help. HBO had a long history of doing these shows really well. I had some wonderful executives at HBO creatively, who were able to steer me in the right direction. And I would say this: the great joy of writing a show that’s longer is that you get to spend time with characters in a way that you wouldn’t be able to spend time with them in a two hour movie. There are so many secondary characters in a show that over seven hours you can explore, whereas if I had two hours, it would really have to be a show just about Mare, just about the case, and I just wouldn’t have time to branch off and explore those secondary characters the way I did in this one.

AF: With the emergence of streaming, there has obviously been a huge shift in the way people watch movies and shows. Your show is coming out during the rise of the miniseries. Do you view all these changes in entertainment as good or bad, or does it matter at all?

BI: Well, I think it depends where you’re at. I think that for the kinds of stories I like to tell, which are character-driven stories, I think it’s a wonderful time, because there are so many streamers that need content, and I’m okay with a story like “Mare of Easttown” being told on TV. I don’t think, you know, that is a story that has to be a movie or has to be on the big screen. That experience of going to the movies, I think, is enhanced when that movie is one that has some level of scope, like “Star Wars” or a Marvel movie. The experience of seeing that kind of movie in the theater is much different than watching that movie at home. Now, I love going to the movies, and I love seeing these kinds of stories in the movies, but I’m happy that these stories get told at all. If this increase in streaming is happening in a way now, which we’re seeing where there’s just a need and demand for material, and it’s a way where I can get a story like “Mare of Easttown” told, then I’m just thrilled. As a storyteller, my goal is get my stories told and seen. I think now is a really good time for creators. I’m excited about it.

AF: Do you have any life advice to give to Villanova students or college students in general as they enter the next phase of their lives?

BI: I suppose my journey is one of a kind of discovery. I suppose that one piece of advice I could give is to not put too much pressure on yourselves now. I was a person that discovered my passion later in life. I think that sometimes we graduate and we’re expected to know exactly what we’re doing and jump into a job that’s gonna be our job for the next ‘X’ amount of years, and I think sometimes you need to bounce around a little bit and see what you don’t like or to find out what you do like. So I would say to not put too much pressure on yourself. Give yourself time to figure out what it is that you love to do. Sometimes that takes longer than you want it to, but it’s that process that everyone has to go through, and one you’re able to locate the thing you that you love to do, do everything you can to make a job out of it. 

“Mare of Easttown” premieres on HBO on Sunday, Apr. 18. Make sure to watch this series to see the Philadelphia suburbs get representation on the small screen, show support for a fellow Wildcat, and most importantly, to see a riveting crime drama.