The Chilling True Story Behind The Girl In The Basement – Exclusive Interview

On an otherwise ordinary summer day in 1984, a teenage girl named Elisabeth Fritzl followed her father, Josef Fritzl, into the family’s byzantine and secretive basement. She would spend every moment of the next 24 years locked in this makeshift underground prison cell, per The Sun. The first four years she was utterly alone. Over the course of her nearly two and a half decades of underground imprisonment in her own family home, she bore three children by her monstrous captor, her own father. One died shortly after birth, three lived somewhat normally with her parents in the main home above; three resided with her, locked away from the world without so much as light of day.

Another famous Elisabeth, movie and TV actor Elisabeth Rohm, was chosen by Lifetime to direct Girl in The Basement, loosely inspired by this horrifying tale — maybe the worst saga of domestic torture to ever enter the public consciousness. The film stars former “Brat Pack” stud Judd Nelson of The Breakfast Club fame, now wizened and genuinely scary, as maniacal patriarch. Insidious 3‘s Stefanie Scott shines in the captive daughter role, and Joely Fisher shrinks reservedly as the matriarch — playing possibly the most oblivious, (or perhaps complicit?) mother of all time. 

Rohm sat down with Nicki Swift and talked about how she brought this odious yet remarkable story of abuse and unimaginable perseverance to the small screen, now available via Lifetime.

The American Hustle director that inspired Elisabeth Rohm

Obviously, American Hustle was a big deal for you and working with David O. Russell. Did you take anything from that experience as you stepped into the director’s chair?

Oh, without a doubt. You work with a master and you’d be numb if you hadn’t really absorbed a lot of what he does and did and his brilliance. He’s really a genius. And then to watch him advocate and have a beautiful collaborative relationship with Bradley Cooper, it was just very inspiring.

You’re in the captain’s seat watching those kinds of movies get made. So ironically, although David makes huge movies, he moves really fast. He started in independent film … And I think the way he communicated with me as an actor influences how I communicate with actors. But being able to move quickly, being decisive, having a deep respect for your cinematographer, are all things I learned from him. And just stylistically, I’m a huge fan of David O. Russell movies. So yeah, there’s no way that it didn’t impact me after doing two films with him.

So you weren’t doing the Stanley Kubrick thing where you make people do takes until they cry?

No. In fact, I think I was very quick and decisive maybe because I starred in so many Lifetime movies and I just understood the pressure of the day and the pages. And there’s no reason, once you know you have what you need to make everybody [suffer] — at least from my perspective, maybe not Stanley Kubrick’s. But to make everybody suffer? break them down? No, I didn’t need to break them down. Stephanie Scott, Judd Nelson, Joely Fisher, they were all so brave and awesome.

Elisabeth Rohm on how being a mother inspired a film about bad parents

You’re a mom. You wrote a parenting blog. Did your experience affect how you portrayed Judd Nelson and Joely Fisher as the worst parents imaginable?

Well, actually, I would say the parenting in my life influenced me more on how I was going to direct Stephanie Scott because much like the movie Room, there was a magic to that girl in that basement. And she brought life and beauty and creativity, inspiration, and love, and created normalcy in an environment where she was underground for 20 years with her children.

And there is that delight and that sort of creativity that she brought to their lives, I wanted it to be authentic and Stephanie is very young and doesn’t have children. I think she did an incredible job being a very convincing, loving mom under the worst of circumstances, even when she has to tell her children what’s really going on.

Judd’s character was more carving out generational abuse and how his character may have come from it himself, and then perhaps in that family with Joely, was not being held accountable for his behavior. So covering all of that up. The secrets we keep for those that we love can create generational and familial abuse to the point where a monster is built. And that’s really what it is.

Elisabeth Rohm on filmmaking during Covid-19

This is one of the darkest films you’ll see this year. Or maybe any year. There’s tough scenes between Judd Nelson and Stefanie Scoot. The film softens some of the real story for TV, but there’s no doubt what you’re watching is incredibly gut-wrenching stuff. Was there any fun to be had on set at all?

Yes. Outside of the fact that we were wearing masks and shields and standing six feet apart and getting COVID swabbed every three days, did we have fun? Yes. We laughed our a**es off. 

Manu Boyer, my creative executive producer, directed me in Sleeping with Danger, as well as Family Pictures with Justina Machado, both Lifetime movies. So, phenomenal guy. He really had my back. Gigi Malavasi, my cinematographer, also, this was my third movie with him. So I really protected myself, or I should say Tonya Lopez from Lifetime helped me through the Broader Focus Program. She flanked me with guys that were not going to let me fail.

How the true tale of Elisabeth Fritzl inspired Girl In The Basement

This is obviously based on Elisabeth Fritzl. What made you interested in her story?

Well, ironically, it’s not completely based on the Elisabeth Fritzl story.

A little bit of everything, but the 24 years in the basement, certainly that was her right?

Yeah. You are very familiar obviously with the Fritzl case as was I. And because of that, I think I was very motivated to use that as an inspiration, not necessarily in the script, because of course, it is an amalgam of several incidents where imprisonment, sexual abuse, incest, physical abuse in the family dynamic were expressed.

And also, I just want to throw in here really quickly, after Girl in the Basement airs, there is going to be a short doc called Beyond the Headlines that’s going to highlight two true stories of women who’ve been through very similar situations, such as this, and also this film and Lifetime as a network is really highlighting and wanting to draw attention to the organization RAIN, which stands for rape, abuse, incest, it’s on the national level. It’s the largest anti-sexual violence organization we have in the country.

So again, telling this movie is not just for sensationalism, but I was really moved by Elisabeth Fritzl’s story. I knew a lot about it. And I just felt that, ironically, what the world needs now is stories of hope and Elisabeth Fritzl or any woman who survived something like this — that makes it out alive and then can continue her life and rise like a phoenix out of the ashes of that abuse — is a story of hope and positivity, Like you said, it’s very dark, but she’s a survivor. And so I think it’s a beautiful story. It’s a testament to the triumph of the will, really.

How Elisabeth Rohm found a movie star in Stefanie Scott

Stephanie Scott is really good in this.

She’s awesome. She’s like a little movie star we found.

She really stands out and she’s very stoic. In the early stages when she’s just a captive, there’s not like a big scene where she’s exploding with anger. There’s no real escape attempt. She kind of just accepts that she’s really stuck and weirdly makes the best of the worst situation imaginable. Can you talk a little bit about her?

Yeah. She was my first choice. We then did go through the casting process, but it was always Stephanie Scott for me. I had seen a few reels in the beginning and I chose her out of the bunch, but then I did go through the typical casting session, but she had this.

I don’t know how to say it, but she was so contained, so self-contained and yet so raw, so unrehearsed, so pure. And I thought, how do you tell a story about a girl in a basement and stay with her and live there with her for this length of time?

But she, I felt, could carry a movie and that she had the vulnerability and the fearlessness to do what she did. And she did. She is so brave from the pregnancies to all of those births, to aging there, to telling the story of incest to her children. I knew she had the chops. And Judd Nelson, he did his Bryan Cranston thing in this performance, he was bold, and he did not hold back from playing this villain.

Elisabeth Rohm says her film is about accountability for abuse

The mother in this film actually doesn’t inquire about a private investigator until her daughter is missing for years and there are already kids of incest in the basement. Stefanie Scott’s boyfriend in the film takes even longer to really get his hackles up. Usually, the family is more curious about where their kids have disappeared to. Is neglect also a part of this story? The father is the abuser, but is the mother complicit for pure neglect?

Yeah. I think that was a tremendous part of the story that I wanted to highlight, which is, if we do not create accountability when we experience abuse, abuse can grow and grow to the point where if it’s not faced and it’s not challenged and it’s not stopped. It can become our worst nightmare and a monster truly could be formed, which is what happened here.

And so, is she complicit? Is she not complicit? The point is, is that as the audience, what we want to impart with them is, if you are experiencing abuse, if you are privy to someone experiencing abuse, say something about it now, because if you don’t, if you ignore it, it can grow into your worst nightmare. Because if it’s not held accountable, it can continue to mushroom.

And that’s really what generational abuse and familial abuse can be, which is we turn the other cheek because we love somebody and we don’t want to lose them. So it becomes a bigger problem than we could ever even imagine.

Elisabeth Rohm's Sandy Hook story about 'love' could be next

As if this wasn’t dark enough, you also have a project about Sandy Hook coming out?

No. That’s in development. And I’m very much hoping to do that with Lifetime as well. It’s based on the Sandy Hook massacre, but it’s really about another testament to a woman’s survival and strength and triumph of her will, which is Scarlet Lewis’ son, who was murdered, Jesse, that day. But he was a hero that day also. He was able to get his schoolmates out of that classroom because he stood there and he took that bullet and encouraged them to run.

And she also is a hero because she ended up losing her child, but turning it into an opportunity and a movement of love. So she created something called The Choose Love Movement. It’s an org, you can go to chooselovemovement.org and learn about the work she’s doing for mental health in our schools, with our children in real-time.

And I think it’s dark, but it’s about advancing as human beings from a mental health perspective and choosing to survive and choosing love and compassion for each other. So I do tend to go toward dark things, but I think with the spirit in mind or the spine in it that is about the human spirit prevailing.

Girl In The Basement is available on Lifetime now.

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