FSM Media

by Dianna Ranere

Interview with Judith Verno Executive Producer of Lifetime’s Cleveland Abduction

Interview with Judith Verno Executive Producer of Lifetime's Cleveland Abduction 10

Cleveland Abductionc



SAG Award winner Taryn Manning (Orange Is the New Black, Hustle & Flow, 8 Mile) stars as Michelle Knight and SAG nominee Raymond Cruz (Breaking Bad, Major Crimes) portrays Ariel Castro in the Lifetime Original Movie Cleveland Abduction (#ClevelandAbduction) produced by Sony Pictures Television. Premiering Saturday, May 2, at 8pm ET/PT, the film explores the true story of Michelle Knight, a 21-year-old single mom whose life was irrevocably changed by a chance encounter with an unsuspected criminal.


On August 22, 2002, Knight was abducted by Castro (Cruz) in Cleveland and held captive in his home for more than 11 years. Finding strength through her belief in God and determined to be reunited with her son, Knight refused to be broken by the twisted Castro. Soon thereafter, he abducted two teenagers, Amanda Berry (Samantha Droke, Eastwick) and Gina DeJesus (Katie Sarife, Supernatural), and imprisoned them alongside Michelle, who then became a friend and sister figure to her fellow victims.


When Berry became pregnant with Castro’s child, it was Knight who delivered her baby, even performing CPR on the infant girl under the threat of Castro while he told her, “If the baby dies, you die.” Despite enduring more than a decade of brutality, Michelle’s spirit would not be broken, and her unshakable faith in the face of a seemingly hopeless situation was a testament to the human spirit. On May 6, 2013, Michelle was rescued from the home that was her prison for nearly 11 years, and finally given the chance to reclaim her life.



Judith Verno is an Executive Producer for network and cable television. She has just completed Cleveland Abduction based on the shocking true story of the Ariel Castro kidnappings, starring SAG Award winner Taryn Manning and SAG nominee Raymond Cruz, and the limited series The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, starring Christina Ricci and based on her highly successful movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax that aired on Lifetime. Judith is also an Executive Producer of Showtime’s acclaimed series Masters of Sex. She recently served as the Executive Producer of Beautiful and Twisted starring Rob Lowe and Paz Vega and Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs starring Tony Goldwyn, as well as of the highly rated movies Anna Nicole, Drew Peterson: Untouchable, Justice for Natalee Holloway, and Who is Clark Rockefeller? Among other production and development projects, Judith is currently working on a series at WGN based on Avenue of Spies by bestselling author Alex Kershaw, a limited series based on the critically acclaimed Newhouse by Thomas Maier, a limited series at NBC based on Robert Harris’s bestselling novel Pompeii, and Finding Chandra by Pulitzer-Prize winning journalists Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz at FX.



What is it that drew you to Michelle’s story in particular of the three girls? And why was it important to focus this movie on her?

Judith Verno: There were several factors that led us to focus the story on Michelle Knight. One of the most significant was that she was the first girl abducted. So from the story-telling perspective, her point of view was invaluable and gave us the complete arc.

Another factor was her age. Michelle is significantly older than the other girls and so we felt there was a maturity to her. And the third factor was that she was really the most ready. Because of her age and where she was in her life and her past experiences, she wanted her story out there. She does a lot of community service work and she helps find other missing people. And she wanted her story to reach a larger audience.


Cleveland Abduction Interview

Was there anything that Taryn added to this role that wasn’t originally scripted for her?

Judith Verno: Well, I think most importantly what Taryn adds to the role is a real sense of authenticity. There’s always give and take. We had a wonderful director who worked and rehearsed a lot with the actors, really more than sometimes schedule like this allows.

So I think the goal here was to be true to Michelle and to make sure that it felt real. And to that end, yes there’s flexibility between Raymond and Taryn and there’s give and take and there’s evolution.

Cleveland Abduction Interview

What challenges did you face while making this film?

Judith Verno: There’s always a lot of challenges I think with any project — finding locations, getting cast, getting the script, the timing. With this particular project, I think the biggest challenge was to find the appeal and – to an audience and find a way that there was always Michelle’s voice of hope.

It’s a brutal reality, what happened to these three girls and to be able to be honest to their experience, but not do something that feels exploitive or too violent for who might want to watch it, that was a real challenge. And honestly, on a more superficial level, the weather became very difficult. We broke every record for cold and snow.

And also production-wise, the space was very, very small. That’s true to the story. And so the director and the producers and the DP all wanted to feel the claustrophobia of the girls’ experience. But getting two cameras in there and shooting on top of each other for day after day was also very, very hard for the actors.

Cleveland Abduction Interview

How much involvement or how closely did you work with Michelle and the (other) ladies when making this film? 

Judith Verno: Well our story, while true to the three girls’ experiences, it was very important for us to represent it accurately. We really did rely on Michelle’s book and on Michelle. We did work extremely closely with her. We met her many times before she would agree to work with us. The writer met with her. We had access to all of her journals. We could text her with questions.

Of course, when you’re doing something that’s 87 minutes and the real story takes place in 11 years, you have to make a lot of creative decisions and we always wanted to make sure the story remained authentic. Michelle did come to set more than once. Some of Gina’s family members came to set. We shot in the real courtroom where Ariel Castro was. We spoke to the real judge, real policemen.

So she was very involved. It’s complicated because you’re shooting something every day that brings up a lot of difficult memories for the real person. And she would choose what she could look at and what she couldn’t. But she was very involved. Her voice is present through the entire show.

Taryn is very close with Michelle, and socialized with her and worked hard with her. So we hope we’ve done a good job. And she’s done a lot of press with Taryn on behalf of the movie. She hasn’t watched the whole movie yet, just parts of it, but she knew going into it that that would, you know, might be challenging.

Cleveland Abduction Interview

What is something you learned while making this film?

Judith Verno: I think that the biggest lesson for all of us is that regardless of how difficult your situation is, there’s always people out there struggling with bigger issues. And there are special people in the world to figure out how to get up each morning, overcome it, put a smile on their face, and keep going.

I think for all of us, we had to take stock in our own lives and say you know what? Really, this is what’s bringing you down today? Here’s a girl who for 11 years was brutally victimized and she figured out honestly how to find the silver lining. It sounds almost impossible, but she really does do it.

She was never on an airplane until this happened. She’d never left her town. And she’s figured out how she can reconcile the pain and find a way to put a smile on, give hope to others, and go about day to day.

So I think the biggest thing I learned honestly was to shut up about the small things that might be complicating my life and my day and see the challenges that other people face and remember that.