Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr's quarantine routine
"I’m on 8–12 phone calls a day, always whittling down a to-do list, and definitely still prioritizing coffee."
Erin Lee Carr
Carr is a New York–based director and writer known for exploring criminal justice, femininity, and virality in her work. Her recent films include the four-part docuseries How to Fix a Drug Scandal, released on Netflix last April, and the documentaries At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal and I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter, both of which are streaming on HBO. In addition, she wrote the brilliant and moving 2019 memoir All That You Leave Behind, about (among other things) her relationship with her late father, the beloved New York Times journalist David Carr, her path from addiction to sobriety, and how she found her way into filmmaking. Last week, Carr was kind enough to answer some questions about how she’s approaching her work during this weird time.
Erin Lee Carr portrait by Steven Levine
Where and with whom are you riding out the pandemic?
I’m with Bonnie Jean, rescue pup and queen of quarantine walks, and my quarantine torture buddy, also known as my boyfriend Jeremy. We’re in an undisclosed location in Pennsylvania, surrounded by whiteboards and tape and binders. It’s part investigator’s lair and part writer’s cabin.
What are you working on these days?
As a documentarian I gravitate toward criminal cases and also societal renderings of issues—right now, I’m developing one project for HBO and working on another for Netflix. Mostly just trying not to sweat on any of the research materials, though. I’m currently building out a team (virtually), which I’m really excited about. Finally hired a bunch of people (shout out to CJ, Julia, and Kaley, who are keeping the train moving.) Until recently, it was just me in various apartments trying to do this stuff alone, which was fine for then but not at all possible for the scale I am trying to get to, work-wise.
“It’s part investigator’s lair and part writer’s cabin.” Above and below photos by Erin Lee Carr.
What does your typical day look like right now? Is this a big departure from your pre-COVID routine?
The routines are actually very similar. I’m on 8–12 phone calls a day, always whittling down a to-do list, and definitely still prioritizing coffee. God, I am that goon who talks about coffee all the time. I try to use the extra time to get a daily walk in, to call a sober friend, or go to a virtual meeting. The main difference has been just my capacity for work, though. I’m not as tired at the end of the day now, so I’m doing less of the collapse-into-the-couch and watch TV thing. Instead I’ve been indexing into work more or reading at night, which is definitely new. I will at some point need to film something . . .
Have you figured out any strategies for getting your creative work done—or just generally keeping your spirits up—that might be useful for the rest of us?
I go by the principle of threes: Every morning, I try to set the top three to-do items for the day. It keeps my spirits up when I actually accomplish all three. Also I have a series of people who I discuss strategy and work output with, which helps me keep the right pace.
Also highly recommend kissing your dog or your friend’s dog on the snout.
What have you been doing to relax and recharge?
No work on Sundays is energizing. I’m also a fan of long drives, where you can make time to listen. I’ve been listening to Blinkist, Audible. Driving or being a passenger is one of the most relaxing things for my brain. At my last COVID safe house I was driving 30 minutes each way for a latte. I didn’t even mind, which would be unthinkable in my New York life.
Finally, have you read, watched, or listened to anything amazing lately that you can recommend?
My favorite quarantine reads so far have been Writers and Lovers, by Lily King, or if you like a good mystery, A Good Marriage, by Kimberly McCreight. Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age was excellent, and I was able to connect with the author—can’t wait to see what she does next.
In terms of watching: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Please watch with a (socially distanced) buddy if you can. It is beautiful, empathic storytelling about a dark case, but it’s also about a dynamic and layered woman. Also Indian Matchmaking on Netflix, the perfect mixture of fun and cringe to see so many bad dates.
WRIGGLING THROUGH 🐛
I’ve really enjoyed hearing from readers about your creative dilemmas for my occasional advice column! Going forward, I’m going to start devoting the last newsletter of each month to advice. In the past, doing a normal issue plus providing advice was making for some very long emails, so I’m hoping this will let the advice breathe a little more. Look for the next installment on August 31, and in the meantime keep the questions coming by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or just replying to this email).
YOUR ASSIGNMENT FOR AUGUST
On those days when you feel that everything is garbage, please do your best to comport yourself in the manner and spirit of a 66-year-old Cordell Jackson performing with the A-Bones on MTV in 1989.