BIG COTTONWOOD CANYON — On Wednesday, as the parents of Gabby Petito were in a Florida courtroom suing the parents of the man who killed their daughter, a film crew was in Big Cottonwood Canyon re-enacting her final hours.
The Spruces Campground was standing in for Wyoming, with Skyler Samuels playing Gabby and Evan Hall portraying Brian Laundrie in the still-untitled Lifetime TV movie. In a way, it was very much a typical day of production — take after take, with director Thora Birch scurrying back and forth to talk to the actors as about 30 crew members surrounded them.
But it was also undeniably eerie. Not just because of what was happening in a courtroom in Florida, but because it’s only been about 10 months since Laundrie killed Petito. And about nine months since Laundrie took his own life.
“We are very cognizant that everyone is still reeling from the repercussions of the outcome,” Birch said. “Everybody’s still living in the fallout of all of this. … We’re trying to be as respectful as possible to all of the people involved.”
Petito and Laundrie were traveling cross-country last year in a small van, while Petito documented their trip on social media. Laundrie, her boyfriend and, at one point, fiancé, returned home to Florida without her. Her body was later found in Wyoming — according to an autopsy, she had been strangled — and Laundrie later killed himself in Florida. Petito’s happy social media posts hid an abusive relationship.
The search for Petito became a big story nationally, and coverage intensified after her body was found.
Is it too soon to be making a movie about what happened?
“It is recent, and it is hard,” Samuels said. “And I think about Gabby’s parents every single day. I just can’t imagine the nightmare that they have to live through. All I can hope is that our representation of this story gives the world a view of their daughter that the headlines didn’t.”
She doesn’t see Petito as a “damsel in distress,” but as a young woman who was “incredibly intelligent and ambitious, and she wanted a lot out of life. She had big plans.”
But, she said, it is strange to playing a woman who was murdered less than a year ago.
“I mean, it would be ignorant of me to sidestep the fact that Gabby and Brian were alive this time last year. And they were in Salt Lake City about this time last year,” Samuels said. “And it is haunting to be here sometimes, and especially when we’re in the van, which is a perfect replica of their van. And we are in [replicas of] their clothes and their tattoos. I think it humbles us every day.”
Famously — infamously — Petito and Laundrie were pulled over by Moab police after a witness reported a “domestic incident” between the two. And police body camera footage showed the aftermath of a fight between them that became physical.
Samuels said she had “reservations” about accepting the role. “I wasn’t sure at first. I had great pause when this came across my desk.” She struggled to “make sense of it” and decided to take the role because of Lifetime’s Stop Violence Against Women initiative, “which I think is the right thing to do.”
The common refrain among those involved in the movie is that telling Petito’s story is a way to warn others about the dangers of staying in an abusive relationship.
“Gabby Petito’s story is a cautionary tale. So, therefore, the movie is a cautionary tale,” said Birch, who both directs and co-stars as Petito’s mother, Nichole Schmidt. “This also happens every day. We just don’t hear about it.”
Hall echoed that thought. “There’s a reason why this story needs to be told,” he said. “We keep talking about this idea of it being a cautionary tale for domestic abuse. We’re using this relationship that occurred to shine a light on these relationships. This is not an isolated event. This happens all the time and there’s not enough conversation about it.”
And executive producer Jeff Schenck argued that the message could be less effective if they waited to produce the Petito movie.
“In a year, two years, unfortunately, there’s going to be another incident like this,” he said. “You want to tell this story while it’s fresh in people’s memories. … If one person gets out of this kind of relationship because of this movie, it’s worth it.”
Off camera, that’s where the focus is. Birch and many other crew members wear purple ribbons to signify their support of victims of domestic violence. Samuels and Evans put the ribbons on before doing interviews. And, when they’re working on indoor sets, there are pictures of Petito on prominent display.
The TV movie has not yet been scheduled, but it could air early this fall. The actors, director, producers and everyone else involved are aware of the criticism they’re already getting for the timing.
“It might feel too soon for people, and I completely understand and respect that,” Samuels said. “I also think that there are people who are trapped and who need to maybe see something that helps them understand or process something in their own life.”
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