True Crime: Phil Spector’s Real Defense Attorney Weighs in on HBO Movie

A Q&A with Linda Kenney Baden. How close does David Mamet’s film get?

The tagline for David Mamet’s film Phil Spector, which premieres this Sunday (March 24) on HBO, starts off by warning viewers who expect journalistic accuracy: “The truth is somewhere in the mix.”

A fictionalized blending of events, the movie imagines what might have happened on the night when actress Lana Clarkson was shot dead inside Spector’s Alhambra mansion then follows Spector’s subsequent murder trials and the media circus surrounding them. How true to life is this account? Criminal defense attorney Linda Kenney Baden, whose work on Spector’s behalf in the 2007 trial forced the jury into deadlock, is cagey about the details.

“I can’t confirm anything, because to confirm would be breaching the attorney-client privilege,” she says when asked about her impressions of the film, which stars Helen Mirren in a role based on Baden. “I think what David [Mamet] is doing, and what juries do, is they try to see what could have happened behind the scenes.”

Could the defense team have gathered a focus group to gauge the sympathy factor in Spector’s case? Could they set up elaborate reenactments of what happens when you startle a woman with a gun in her mouth? Could they conduct blood splatter analysis to determine whether Spector’s white jacket could have been left nearly immaculate standing arm’s length from an explosive, fatal gunshot? “Sure,” Baden says. “It could have happened, and maybe none of it happened.”

Though her former client is serving a sentence of 19 years to life in a California prison, Baden thinks Spector is innocent. Mamet’s film raises doubts about the producer’s guilt as well as questions about how much merit there is to fictionalizing cases of true crime for the sake of entertainment. We talked with Baden about her reactions to the movie and how she’ll look back on the career milestone of defending a music industry legend now considered a monster.

What was your reaction when David Mamet first reached out to you?
I got a call on my phone and someone said, “Hello, Linda? This is Dave Mamet.” Your first reaction is, I’m being punked. Then he says, “I’ve written a screenplay using a character based on you with your name. Would you like to read it?” At that point, you don’t care if you’re being punked. If anyone’s writing a screenplay, sure you’d like to read it! David then emailed me what he had written and within like an hour, I sent him back notes on technical aspects, on some of the jargon. This went on a couple times and finally he said, “Would you consult on the technical aspects?” I told him, “I can’t tell you what happened behind the scenes, but I’d love to work with you on the technical aspects so that’s all correct.”

You hit the jackpot with Helen Mirren playing you.
Yeah, you try to be cool about it, but even as a jaded lawyer, when the producers call you up and say, “Do you wanna know who’s playing you? Helen Mirren,” you get off the phone and you’re like, “Oh my God!” It’s surreal. It’s almost unnerving, sitting there watching somebody portray you.

Let me just say that in terms of her portrayal of me, I thought that she really nailed the passion and the commitment that I have to both that case and pretty much any case that I try. As an attorney, you tend to leave a piece of yourself with every case. If you’re doing a good job for your clients, you are involved basically on a 24-hour basis mentally and it takes a toll on any attorney. As a matter of fact, I hope what I do as a lawyer could do her justice as an actor.

How did you go about helping her get ready for the role once Bette Midler was out (due to back problems)?
I didn’t have as much time (with Mirren). We did speak on the phone, we did email several times, and she had all the notes that I had given Bette in terms of how I approach cases. HBO also had obtained the video of the trial so everyone was able to see how I worked and what my mannerisms are. It was a pleasure meeting with her and it’s obviously exciting to have someone like Helen play you. I hope the gravitas is conveyed in the role. It was for me.

What did you think of Al Pacino as Phil Spector?
Al obviously had watched a lot of tape of Phil. I thought that he had a lot of his mannerisms down correctly, how he spoke. I did think that Al’s performance showed a side of Phillip that the Helen Mirren character could talk to. I thought that was very good. Anyone who watched that, I think, came out thinking there is another side to Phil Spector that maybe no one realized before Al’s performance.

Is it at all problematic to fictionalize cases like these?
I think it depends on who the writer is. With someone like David Mamet, whose dad had been a lawyer and who really respects the law, it’s fine. You know it’s going to have an importance, and he did explore a number of themes in this movie — our age of Twitter and social media, and media attaching to trials like they were at the Coliseum with the Romans and lions. Do juries and the public pay more attention to the look of the character and maybe the freakishness of defendants as opposed to the facts? I think those are themes that have to be explored. I think with a lesser writer it may not be a good thing, but with someone like Mamet, it is a very good thing.

You mentioned public perception of Spector as a freakish character. Do you feel protective of him?
I do feel that there are a number of stories out there which do not reflect the client that I grew to know. I’m not sure you can call it protective. It’s like anything else. We talk about Spector’s hair and the question becomes: Why did that become something we judge him on? Like David, I am concerned about those types of things infiltrating a trial.

Ten, 20 years from now, how do you think you’ll look back on trial? Do you think fondly of Phil as a person?
Yes, I do. I was perturbed to find that the second trial didn’t go as well as the first trial. [Baden was unable to participate in the 2009 trial due to reactive arthritis as a result of her pneumonia during the 2007 trial.] With any client, you work hard for them and you hope that the outcome will be in their favor. So I do think fondly of him. I hope that whatever happens to him, he has some type of peace in his life.    

Interview has been edited and condensed.