In the midst of the ever enduring #METOO movement and as the horrors of the Jeffery Epstein case come to light, Netflix’s Unbelievable cuts through that reality with a true story of its own. One of hope, survival and determination, it intertwine two tales, the first of Marie (Kaitlyn Dever), a survivor of rape whose story is dismantled and ultimately dismissed by police and those around her. The second of two detectives (Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver) determine to catch and prosecute one of the most evasive and brutal rapists in American history. The eight episode miniseries, out this Friday, is helmed by three dedicated creatives, producer and showrunner Sarah Timberman, writer, showrunner, and director Susannah Grant, and director and producer Lisa Cholodenko. Cortland Jacoby had the opportunity to sit down with the team and talk about the intricacies of making a project like this and the impact they hope it leaves behind.
I know that it was based on a Pulitzer Prize winning article, which I read. How did this project come about? How did you guys get involved and, and who came on first?
Susannah Grant: A bunch of us dove in and once the article is published, I read it pretty immediately and sent it as soon as I’d read it to Sarah, we’d collaborated many times, I knew She would be a great collaborator for it. At the same time, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman sent it to Sarah, so she was getting it from multiple directions.
Sarah Timberman: I didn’t need to be talked into it from either side because this piece is extraordinary. Then we discovered that Katie Couric was also interested in it. So she joined our group and we all shared a passion for it, brought it to CBS studios and Netflix, both of which jumped out at immediately having no hesitation at all.
SG: And you know, I called about it at 10 o’clock one morning and by after lunch Netflix said we want this, what do we need to do? This was all in 2016, before #Metoo.
Had Trump’s “pussy tape” come out yet?
SG: Yes. Pussy grabbing had happened and it was before the Women’s March. Okay. So there was a mood in the air. To the credit of a lot of people, there was immediate support for it and interest in it, which we found heartening especially in that moment.
Speaking of interest, this cast is amazing. You have not only Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver who like are pros in the industry, but you’ve got Danielle McDonald and Kaitlyn Dever-
SG: Bridget Everett, Elizabeth Marvel, Eric Lange-
Exactly! Casting for something like this, I feel like it’s really important because you need to have a face that’s familiar enough but also comforting, but still fresh enough that can lead the story on. How important was finding the right person?
SG: Lisa has an extraordinary taste in actors and brought a fantastic casting director into the mix who worked with her a lot named Laura Rosenthal.
Lisa Cholodenko: Yeah, I mean Laura is amazing. We’ve done three things together and so you guys knew of her and we started with her and that was a great beginning. And you know, it’s always like a funny process. Like you’ve said, you want somebody who maybe has some recognition but you want the best people for the right job. We talked a lot, put up pictures, we did a little mixing matching and just went through it in a really in a methodical way. We came up with these amazing two leads and then Kaitlyn came in and kind of blew us away.
The show obviously has some super heavy subject matter that it’s not sugarcoated at all. It’s got be hard to kind of live in that world for months at a time while shooting something like this. What kind of environment was created on set to kind of relieve this tension?
SG: I thought going into it that it was going to be more difficult writing it and living with it than it was. I don’t know if it has to do with just sort of the cathartic nature of really looking at something that’s real and the relief of looking something strictly straight in the eyes. But I wasn’t tortured by it and it was a very professional environment. You know, there were a few days when we were doing really sensitive scenes. Lisa shot most of the sexual assault scenes, but most days were regular professional days. With people working hard and then relaxing when they need to relax.
LC: Yeah. I mean, I think those days were kind of exceptional. You clear set and Blake Ellis, who played the rapist was actually a lovely guy and a team player and really cared about being sensitive with Kaitlyn. And you know, I didn’t have to give anybody a pep talk. We all knew and the set was closed and the essential people were there.
Was there an intimacy coordinator? I know that some shows are doing that now.
SG: No, there wasn’t.
LC: No, I mean I think we spent time talking about it quite literally and kind of going through logistically. “This is what we’re going to do. This is how we’re going to shoot it. This is what we’re going to get to this.” So everybody knew what was coming down the pike when we’d get there during the day, and how we would do it.
SG: But you know, we thought a lot. Do you need to show the sexual assault, was a question early in the script and I thought, “yes we do.” And then, “What do we need to see and why do we need to see it? And from whose point of view? Why is this important to see and let’s only see what we need to see.” So you know, Lisa’s shot list was probably not that long for those scenes, right? You were so specific about what you show.
LC: You know, it was a really interesting layered story. I think we were kind of balancing two things, which was information that could be used in narrative to sort of demonstrate or show the incredibility of her memory. So we would sometimes shoot things from different perspectives or two different ways or something different than what she had said before. So there was a little bit of minutia but I think we ended up stripping it way down and realizing less is more in a sense and the power of the performance was communicating alongside with these visual elements and that they were working in concert. So it became really clear as we went along like how much we actually needed and how we should do it and where it would come up as she reveals what happened to her.
SG: We had a great consultant on it, who was onset pretty much beginning to end every day who has done this work from the law enforcement side, worked in the sheriff’s Department for 15 years, Liz Devine and she was a real go-to source for how depict some of this.
You guys have a really hard job of balancing true events with heavy subject matter but also telling a cinematic story that is worth watching. Those elements could easily contradict each other. You’re dealing with something that actually happened, so you want the credibility and authenticity, but this isn’t like a robbery or crime story. This is rape, what I consider the worst crime that a person can commit, but you also have to create something that’s engaging and thought provoking. Talk to me about your method of juggling all those elements to tell one cohesive story.
SG: Well, I mean, you can have all the best intentions in the world and if you’re not telling a good story, you’re going to be telling it to no one. This story came with a really compelling narrative baked into it, so it really, we didn’t have to create that. We had to sculpt it for this format, which is a different format than a book and an article. It was so present we didn’t have to enhance it. We really just had to honor it and make it fit the architecture of our form. Because it was so propulsive, because you just really want these women to find this guy, I felt like it afforded us the room to take a breath and take a little more license in our storytelling and have moments of silence and have moments where we show an unexpected emotional aspect of this process. It was really kind of the luxury out of what the story gave us and gave us so much dramatic storytelling that it gave us a lot of room to explore.
ST: There’s inherent suspense, I think, in hoping that those two stories, the two sides of the narrative, will connect.
Speaking of the two sides of the narrative, can you talk about the differences between in portraying Marie’s story and the investigation and sort of what if you had like different goals there or different strategies and in creating, not only the story but also in the filmmaking aspect of it.
LC: You know, they’re separate at first. So it’s the setup of this woman that really hooks you, like this visceral gut wrenching thing had happened to her. I think that that’s like the jump ball to really get behind these two women that come on the beat and crack this case.
ST: There’s a very different energy and pallet that you established.
LC: The pallet was really important. It was about the place, Marie’s character was in Washington state and I felt like the environment was cold, it was gray. It was isolating, it was difficult. And we get to Colorado and it’s warmer. It’s hopeful. But yeah, I think that my approach to it was more in your face in a away with Caitlin and that first episode to kind of enhance the reality of it and the kind of terror of it. For as restrained as I wanted to be, that was an objective as well. I just wanted the experience of her terror to sync her face, not in the recreation of what actually happened.
SG: I think the thing that I found so moving when I first read the article was the idea that there is this one young woman who is like slowly drowning in her life and just trying to keep her head above water. Hundreds of miles away, there are these two people who are working so hard and they don’t even realize that what they’re doing is building a lifeboat for somebody else. That just moved me so much. So in terms of how you build the eight episodes, I think that was always in my mind that that’s the story that we’re telling is, is that movement toward each other. And I think that helped to sort of stitch it all together.
The article kind of closes Marie’s story a little bit more fully than the show. I would say you end on like a hopeful ellipsis, but there isn’t that closure of Marie confronting her foster family or talking to her friends or her program that like let her go. There is this moment of, “I want to just move on with my life and start over.” Talk about why you chose that kind of ending for Marie’s ending and what effect that would have on the story and the viewer?
SG: It felt like the most important thing for her to close out was the story with the guy who had caused all her struggle in the first place and rather than have her sort of resolve with various other people. What felt important for our story was to resolve the primary relationship that caused her so much pain. Um, and it wasn’t meant to feel like, “Well, she’s tied up all those other relationships.” You know, we didn’t really want to do that.
What you guys do really well is getting the audience’s heartbeat is on the same wavelength as Marie’s when you’re with her. I felt like that was such a realistic ending of like sometimes you just have to leave and move on with your life and not get the closure that you need or deserve. Finally, what is the one thing you hope audiences take away from the show?
SG: Well it’s something that isn’t talked about enough. You know, the fact that this is an absolutely devastating crime, which we hope we make clear, and it’s underreported to a staggering degrees. And of those underreported, only 5% of the rates that are reported are prosecuted. So, I mean a bigger conversation would be great.
ST: I would agree with that. And I would hope for other people to have the kind of reaction that my son had when he saw it and then subsequently heard of a rape on campus involving people that he knows. And I think he responded to, he heard very differently. I’d like to think that the show informed his response to what he had heard and what he did about it and how he thought about it, you know? So I hope it moves people.
LC: Well, I hope it stands alone. I’ll just talk from the entertainment side, as a depiction of something that’s been depicted in many different ways, for as long as those things have been depicted on screens, I feel like our efforts were to be original and look at it from a very different vantage point and one, hopefully that’ll be, remembered and affecting and lead to these conversations.
ST: I also hope the people involved in this story, the real people involved to feel that we honored their experience.
That’s the most important thing. Thank you guys so much for sitting down with me.