Welcome to West Cork.
Audible’s upcoming true-crime podcast, from creators Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey, plunges listeners into a remote, idyllic Irish town in 1996, in the aftermath of the infamous murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier, a 39-year-old French film producer. Du Plantier was found dead at her vacation home near the village of Schull in West Cork just a few days before Christmas, laid out in front of her driveway in the most gruesome, mysterious fashion imaginable.
Forde, a TV producer, and Bungey, a print journalist, have spent years interviewing locals in the community — including, most extensively, the main suspect at the center of it all, a perplexing fellow who only makes the case that much richer. (They’re keeping the suspect’s identity under wraps for now.) What unfolds in this addictive 13-episode series is not just an investigation of a crime that has remained in the Irish headlines for decades, but a portrait of a strange little town seemingly permanently scarred by it.
EW had the chance to speak with Forde and Bungey about West Cork, which is set to launch on Audible on Feb. 8. In the interview, they tease what listeners can expect, explain what drew them to the town, and relive their hours of conversations with the case’s prime suspect. Read on for more, and check an exclusive look at the cover art above. Pre-order West Cork here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you come to work on this project together, and what drew you to this story as a potential series?
JENNIFER FORDE: We come from slightly different backgrounds, because Sam is a print journalist and I am a television documentary producer. We read about this story in a newspaper in London, and there was an article that was written at the time that the main suspect in the murder investigation was taking on the [authorities], suing them for wrongful arrest and a lifetime of harassment. The story painted a picture of police corruption, and this was one example of many. We thought it sounded interesting and went to Dublin, where we realized that actually the story was much more complicated and layered than that. We realized that the fact that there’s this hugely well-known character in Ireland, and everybody has an opinion about him — it’s generally not good. It just felt like one of those stories where everywhere you look there’s this whole other aspect to it that is completely interesting and fascinating in itself. We talked about maybe doing something like a podcast. It would be us meeting in the middle — documentary and print journalism meeting in the middle — and bringing our own skills to do a podcast to do the story.
SAM BUNGEY: We approached the suspect while at this court case that was going on in Dublin, more than three years ago now. He said he couldn’t really talk as part of the conditions of being on trial. Separately, I had been down in West Cork working on a different written story and one day ran into this guy — just ran into the suspect by chance — coming out of the grocery store in this tiny town. He was selling a bag of lettuce that he’d grown, which was so strange. Last time we’d seen him he was wearing this three-piece suit, very dapper, coming out of the court. We ended up spending this totally bizarre day trip with the guy. He suggested we go and browse the local market and take his car. I found myself in his car going down the narrow laneways of West Cork. At one point, he turned to me and said, “Sorry about the smell of petrol, I have a chainsaw in the boot of the car.” It turned out to be so typical of him: You don’t know how aware he is of how he’s coming off as this crime suspect in a murder case. You don’t know whether that’s just him or whether he’s playing with you, but we were fascinated by it. It was the first hook for us: It became so much more than just this suspect, but spending time with him is where it went from.
So how much time did you spend with the suspect, exactly?
JF: Many, many, many, many hours.
How did that relationship with him evolve?
SB: Again, in surprising ways. He’s a surprising guy. He’s a very compelling character. The surprising thing about him is how generous he was with his time. Our first impressions of him were kind of standoffish, but he quickly dispelled that by being totally welcoming. It wasn’t just us pursuing him; we’d get calls from him ourselves. We became quite regular attendees at his kitchen table. We got to know his partner, who has stayed with him through the whole ordeal, and it was just this organic thing. It was 20 years of case history to go over with him, so there was a lot to talk about.
JF: Early on in the investigation, he had done lots of media and was criticized for it. So in more recent years he’s been more selective about what media inquiries he takes up. He’s incredibly savvy. He was very careful with the media and knows journalists and all the rest of it. So we had to get our approach right. But I think he was curious about us, and then over time, I suppose, we took the same approach with him as everybody else in West Cork, because obviously it was important for us to make sure it wasn’t just about him. It’s about the people there and the victim’s family. We had to put a lot of time in with everybody to give them the sense that we were going to do something that was thoughtful. As with many murders, there’s been a lot of salacious press over the years that isn’t doing the story justice — picking at one side or just picking the juiciest parts and ignoring the nuance — so it was important to us not to fall into that trap.
So how did you approach that, narratively?
SB: It was a combination of knowing when we had the story — like, can we tell this story and do it justice — and then every time we got to a new stage of saying, “Yes, we’re inside this story, we have access,” it opened up a new dimension where it seemed like there was so much more to understand. Jennifer was talking about getting the voices of West Cork on tape, because one of the things to realize is that’s the story we wanted to tell: We wanted to tell it through the voices of the people who live there. It’s the people and how they reacted to those murders that we found so fascinating. We had this list of people that we wanted to speak to and we felt like had key roles in the story as witnesses. We felt if we got to them we’d unravel this story and we’d understand it — because they all seemed to contradict each other. Some people’s stories have changed. One by one, we did get to them — even though in one case, one has been run into hiding as a result — and each time it kind of threw out more questions, which is what was so more maddening and compelling about the story for us.
As you talked to more people and immersed yourself more in West Cork, how did your impression of West Cork change? What did you come away with?
SB: It’s certainly true that the way the murder and this investigation played out, it couldn’t have happened exactly the way it happened anywhere else. The isolation of this place and the lack of any other violent crime: People talk about rural places where there’s no violent crime, people leave their doors unlocked, it’s true here. But it’s so true. We looked into it because we’d talk about how there’s been no murder in anyone’s living memory, and the previous murder we could find was over 100 years ago. It’s this place, a rural community that’s been close-knit for generations, that was quite suddenly flooded with strangers. That’s what makes it so unusual. A big part of what West Cork has become is this community of people who come there to make a fresh start and leave their past behind. It became this haven on the edge of Europe for people who just wanted to start again, essentially. Which you kind of get sometimes, these communities on the edge.
JF: So many of the key reasons the story played out in the way it played out come back to the place. The title, our sense that we really wanted West Cork to be a character in itself. It’s trying to move on from this terrible crime, but because of the unresolvedness, they can’t. That was one of the things, in fact, that we felt to some extent not justified us, but — we definitely questioned at the start, felt like we needed some justification for poking around in this tragic story of a woman losing her life. What gave us license to pick over the details in a way that wasn’t just a bit titillating and gory?
SB: Or gratuitous.
JF: Or gratuitous, yeah. Speaking to the people in West Cork, it was clear that this story is still very much alive. Not just because of the suspect actually being against the state, keeping it alive, and various other things that unfolded as we were making the series, but also the people in West Cork who still very much feel wronged by it and upset about the fact that they have to live with it — and felt like talking about it in the right space would be a cathartic act. People who approached us after the interviews they gave us said they found it quite cathartic. One woman we spoke to who was a witness in the investigation was a close neighbor of the suspect. She said that a lot of people knew what they knew and they knew the information that they had given to the guards — which is the Irish word for police, the word that they use — but they didn’t know what other people knew, and this sort of putting everything together in one place could be a cathartic process for the people involved.
More broadly, this is landing in the midst of a true-crime boom. People remain attracted to this genre. Speaking as storytellers, what do you think is so appealing about it?
SB: We’ve been thinking about this quite a bit too. Reading that true crime is having a moment, it’s true that podcasting is a great fit — it’s less that true crime is having a moment, because it’s always been fascinating to people, but there’s this new way of looking at true crime that’s a great fit. It allows you and the listener to pick over the details. We were kind of aware of that, but at the same time, we came across this story, which is a big, rich story full of interesting and curious characters. At the center of it is this curious guy who finds himself in an extreme situation. How would you act? How does an innocent person act, anyway? That was the immediately fascinating question for us. But I guess we were able to cast a light on this true-crime podcasting fad and marry that with what we were interested in, particularly, which was telling a story that isn’t totally new — it’s not like we’re unearthing a forgotten cold case, which is often what true-crime series are doing. In Ireland, this case has never left the headlines in 20 years. It’s 20 years of absurdly dramatic history. I’m still stupefied by how the thing played out in the way it did. To do it justice, we wanted to do podcasting because it felt like the perfect fit for it.
How did you approach the story from an episodic perspective?
SB: Doing 13 episodes allowed us to look at the story chronologically, which we thought was kind of important — to tell the story as it happened for people in West Cork. Because the suspect is this huge, overbearing character. Flower sellers and pub owners that we talked to know exactly what they think of him. Since there’s this accusation, he’s kind of crowded out the story; guilt or innocence aside, some people say he’s put himself in the picture because he loves the attention. It’s become the suspect’s story rather than Sophie’s story and West Cork’s story. We wanted to take it back to the beginning, to try and take a straight look at it without any of those preconceptions. We went back and forth all the time; we hope listeners do the same.
What do you hope listeners take away, beyond the surface details?
JF: It goes back to the idea of West Cork: It’s got a really rich history. We wanted to create a world and to really transport people to West Cork. When they’re driving along on their commute or whatever people do when they’re listening to podcasting — even doing the laundry at home — that this would kind of pick you up from wherever you are and drop you in West Cork, and that we would fill it with the voices of the people there, and that through their accents and the whole melting pot and cast of characters there, it would feel like we had created this world where this story was playing out, and that you as a listener are caught up in it in a way that the local community were caught up in it. It’s why we’re withholding the identity of the suspect: to just get to know him as one of the locals and try to recreate that experience where you’re lost in this confusion as to how this could have happened, and this immediate fear when it did happen.