It was the early 1960s and Boston was on edge. A terrifying pattern was taking shape: Women were being killed — strangled almost-ritualistically — and law enforcement wasn’t doing enough to connect the dots.
So two female reporters did.
A new feature film based on the hunt for one of the city’s most notorious serial killers premieres on Hulu this Friday. “Boston Strangler” stars Keira Knightley as reporter Loretta McLaughlin of the American Record (McLaughlin eventually became the editorial pages editor at The Boston Globe) and Carrie Coon as Jean Cole, McLaughlin’s colleague and confidante. The movie follows the two reporters as they defy gender stereotypes of the day and doggedly pursue the case.
“I felt their story was a story worth telling,” director and writer Matt Ruskin told the Globe in a recent interview.
Ruskin, 44, grew up in Watertown, and was always faintly aware of the infamous Boston murders. About four years ago, he decided to dig in.
“I started reading everything I could get my hands on, and discovered this really fascinating and horrifying murder mystery that I knew nothing about,” he said. “I talked to people, and felt there were a lot of others in my shoes, who’d heard about it, but didn’t know the details of the story and what’s emerged over the years.”
Ruskin wasn’t initially inspired to tell a “hard-boiled detective story,” he said, but when he heard an interview that featured McLaughlin, Ruskin found his hook.
“I’m always looking to tell character-driven stories,” Ruskin said. “I love journalism stories and admire good journalists … I tried to find all I could about Loretta and Jean.”
Which didn’t prove easy — there wasn’t much information out there. But then Ruskin discovered a key personal connection: One of his friends is Cole’s granddaughter. Through her, Ruskin contacted Cole and McLaughlin’s children, who had “very vivid memories” of their late parents. (Cole died in 2015 ; McLaughlin died in 2018 ).
“They took an enormous amount of pride in the work their mothers did,” Ruskin said. “They were an invaluable resource as I tried to get a sense of who Loretta and Jean were and get their story right.”
And it’s impossible to tell their stories without addressing the sexism and misogyny they faced while pursuing their careers, Ruskin said.
“Newsrooms were male-dominated environments, and there were few women doing serious investigative journalism. They came up against challenges in the workplace and at home when women were not expected to have careers when they had families.”
And motherhood is a big part of both McLaughlin and Cole’s stories.
“Keira was the dream actor to play Loretta,” Ruskin said, noting her “ability to be vulnerable and convey a really vast interior life.“ The actress “really identified with Loretta’s demanding career while balancing a family,” he said.
Of Coon, Ruskin observed that “like the character she portrays, she’s razor-sharp and scrappy. She can really do anything.”
“Oftentimes, movies will shoot in other cities and not the city it’s supposed to be depicting, so we felt lucky to come home to Boston,” he said.
And the transformation from modern-day Boston into 1960s-Boston only took a few tweaks.
“It was amazing to go to old neighborhoods: the South End , Back Bay. Once we cleared the cars, it was amazing to see these neighborhoods transform,” Ruskin said.
“How great is it to have the raw bones there?” said production designer John Goldsmith, who also hails from Boston. “So much of it was simply tearing back the excretions of modern life, especially the street-level stores, signage, bus stops, trash cans.”
Goldsmith’s eye lent another layer of authenticity to the visual elements of the project.
“I studied art history in college and I love the MFA,” Goldsmith said. “There are all these colonial paintings, [John Singleton] Copley, Benjamin West, and I thought: What if you drew some of the patterns and some of the color chords from those paintings and assign those to whatever it is you’re building into the sets or locations that you’re affecting? It’s not something that would necessarily be overt to people watching, but for me, it’s conceptual groundwork that made the film especially-Boston.”
Ruskin also leaned into the local talent: “Boston has an incredible theater community. We were able to cast a huge number of local actors.”
The legendary South End pub J.J. Foley’s makes several appearances, as does Doyle’s in Jamaica Plain (before it shut down for renovations), and Medfield State Hospital. The production filmed from December 2021 through March 2022, and also shot in Belmont, Braintree, Cambridge, Devens, Lancaster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, and Wellesley.
Ruskin comes from the documentary film-making world, and has worked as a director and producer on other projects including “Crown Heights” and “The Infiltrator.” “Boston Strangler” is his first time directing a large feature film.
“I really hope that people respond to what I was so taken with,” Ruskin said. “That it’s both this really layered murder mystery, but also a really inspiring story about a couple of journalists hellbent on doing the work they’re passionate about.”