During the filming of “Unbelievable,” an eight-part true crime series on Netflix, showrunner Susannah Grant was often presented with options from the on-set consultant, a former crime scene investigator from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who’d been a technical advisor on enough films and TV shows to be familiar with the dramatizing tricks of the medium. Did Grant want to keep it real, the expert wanted to know, or was she fine with close-enough-for-TV standards? “We kept saying to her, ‘Forget about getting away with it on TV,’” Grant recalls telling her. “‘It has to be 100% authentic.’”
Grant’s burning need to get even the tiniest aspects right speaks to the very heart of the series’ source material, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 article from ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller (a former Times reporter) and the Marshall Project’s Ken Armstrong. At the center of their reporting on a string of rapes in the states of Washington and Colorado that occurred between 2008 and 2011 lay the tragic story of teenager Marie Adler, whose account of being held at knifepoint and bound by her own shoelaces by a masked man was viewed suspiciously by friends, former foster parents, and the assigned male detectives, who, after hours of skeptical questioning, drew a false confession of lying from their browbeaten victim.
When Grant (the screenwriter of “Erin Brockovich”) co-created “Unbelievable” with married novelists Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, they realized that to do right by their subject matter, accuracy was paramount. “This piece without credibility, it could be dismissed,” Grant says. “And believe me, victims of sexual assault, you don’t need much for this culture to dismiss them.”
Sitting in her Culver City office, dressed in black slacks, a black blouse and black Vibram-soled boots, Grant spoke of putting in calls to the real-life Adler, who has an executive producer credit. “The props people would say, ‘These are four phones used in that era,’” and I’d think, ‘OK, I could make one up or just ask her what feels right.’” And through those little details you are just going to find your way to something that’s as truthful as it can be.”
Grant initially toyed with the idea of being sole director on “Unbelievable,” but ultimately the episodes were split among her and two other top directors: Lisa Cholodenko (“Olive Kitteridge”) and Michael Dinner (“Justified”). Filming the rape scenes — shown in short, almost shadowy flashbacks, per the script’s narrative — required a lot of forethought, says Cholodenko, who wanted the depiction of sexual assault to be terrifying yet not voyeuristic.
That meant lots of conversations with Quyen Tran, her director of photography, and lots of self-confessed apprehension. “My biggest challenge was, ‘How do I get underneath the skin of this woman and her trauma?’ We know how to [shoot rape scenes] in an objectifying way, which for me, doesn’t really work. It typically feels melodramatic or contrived or from the filmmaker’s point of view,” Cholodenko says. “So my biggest challenge was getting into her psyche as much as possible — without it being a freaky art film, you know? I wanted to keep it grounded in the story and in realism. I wanted the camera to have a point of view that wasn’t fussy or fancy, that was in sync with Marie’s.”
The reaction from critics when “Unbelievable” dropped in September confirmed the series’ fact-based complexities and genre professionalism. How do you categorize a show that is a searing human story, a gripping crime procedural and a social-issue eye-opener about how sexual assault is given short shrift within the justice system?
One thing that was never disputed: The cast was packed with talent. Emmy winners Merritt Wever and Toni Collette play detectives who by way of example show that a softer touch with the newly traumatized doesn’t get in the way of effective crime-solving. Kaitlyn Dever, as Marie, conveys Adler’s determination to lead a happy life despite the startling unkindness shown to her. Even the secondary actors included up-and-comer Danielle Macdonald and the reliable Dale Dickey.
When Dever first received the pilot script for “Unbelievable,” she was on her last week of playing a brainy do-gooder in Olivia Wilde’s coming-of-age comedy “Booksmart” and wondering what was next. “I was getting a little worried because I didn’t have work for the rest of the year and then this project came to my email in-box,” Dever says by phone. “I read [Marie’s] story and my heart immediately broke for her.”
When asked if she ever reached out to Adler, Dever said no, adding that she created her slump-shouldered, messy-haired character by studying Armstrong and Miller’s article, as well as their book, “A False Report: The Chilling True Story of the Woman Nobody Believed.” “I didn’t want to be a carbon copy of her,” Dever says. “I wasn’t trying to memorize her mannerisms or the way she speaks or talks. It was all about achieving her emotions and state of mind.”
Dever, perhaps best known as Loretta McCready, a wily backwoods drug dealer on FX’s “Justified,” has been acting for 10 years but has rarely found herself wondering about a real-life counterpart and how she might react to her performance.
“That was constantly running through my head,” Dever says. “This was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do in my career. I put so much pressure on myself because I knew it was an important story to tell. I just knew I had to do her justice.”