When women talk, men interrupt. Sometimes women give up their agency when the should be authoritative; that’s something I noticed in undergraduate classes during individual presentations. It’s something I discussed at breakfast with a lively group of women before the AFI FEST panel on “Framing Female Stores: The Impact of ‘Unbelievable.'”
After the panel, I watched the Netflix miniseries again. An interesting note from the panel provided a structural decision: People on the verge of binge-watching, will watch the first two episodes. That means, the cliffhanger or emotional hook can wait until the end of the second hour. “Unbelievable” is about series of rapes that occurred in Washington and Colorado between 2008 until 2011 when the perpetrator was finally arrested. The script by Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon alternates between two timelines: In Lynnwood, Washington when the first victim reports and later recants her story in 2008 and in Colorado when Detective Karen Duvall begins her investigation in 2011.
The first episode deals with a young woman who one character later describes as looking like a 12-year-old: Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever). Adler is petite, just over five-foot. In the beginning, an emotionless Marie is being given water by her former foster mom Judith (Elizabeth Marvel). Officer Curran (John Beavers) arrives, saying, “I’m here to help you.” His voice is soft and gentle. Marie movies into another apartment in the complex, helped by another foster mother, Colleen (Bridget Everett). A comment from Judith leads the detective to doubt Marie’s story.
Marie is pale and slender and her voice soft and small. She is questioned over and over again by male detectives and once by a female medical staff member. She has no immediate family; she has been in the foster care system since she was about three. And, she has been “messed” with by others.
Marie is the kind of person who will eventually determine, “I don’t need help; I just need bad things to stop happening to me, and explains that one should, “Take what you get and just be happy that it’s not worst.”
Protesting and even fighting back hasn’t worked for her. Under pressure, she retracts her statement. The viewers know the rape occurred; we see the rape in fragmented flashbacks. There’s nothing sexy or salacious here; just a suggestion of the horrors of that night.
By Episode 2, Marie’s name has been leaked to the press and the attention causes changes in her work, including a bit of intimidation from a new male co-workers. Journalists stake out her apartment complex. As a former foster kid who is gaining out, the apartment complex is part of a program that has certain stipulations and attempts to provide the kind of support a family might have. In Golden, Colorado, Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) interviews another victim, Amber Stevenson (Danielle Macdonald), her husband, Max (Austin Hébert), mentions a colleague of his, Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette), is working a similar case.
In Episode 3, the abrasive Rasmussen meets with Duvall and the begin looking for similar rape cases, finding a similar case in Aurora. Rasmussen is tall and cagey. She’s not in touch with her emotions and had met and unwittingly inspired Duvall in the past when she was an undercover narcotics agent, but doesn’t recognize Duvall at all. What’s lovely here is that this casting is more like CBS TV series “Cagney and Lacey” (1982-1988), a partnering of equals. Neither is glammed up like you might find in other series, even “Law & Order: SVU.” Perhaps more importantly, both are in supportive marriages, with husbands both in law enforcement.
By Episode 4, Marie’s foster parents, Colleen and Al continue to be concerned about her and Colleen sees a report about a similar rape case. She gets Marie to admit that her report was not false, but she now fears dealing with the police. Duvall and Rasmussen wonder if the rapist might be a current or former police officer and the rapist strikes again.
In Episode 5, Rasmussen interviews another victim, Lily, who leaped off a balcony to escape her rapist, receiving traumatic injuries, but still, her case was treated dismissively by the lead detective. Marie like a Colorado victim have problems coping. Marie’ foster mother Colleen contacts a Colorado police department, reporting Marie’s rape, but when the officer follows up, he’s told Marie’s case was a false report.
Marie’s case is decided in Episode 6: She gets probation and a fine. Unhappy, Marie acts out and gets kicked out of the program which provides her apartment. In Colorado, Duvall and Rasmussen close in on a suspect, only to be surprised that they have brothers under surveillance and must eliminate one.
When Duvall and Rasmussen finally make an arrest, they discover photographs which leads them to other victims, including Marie (Episode 7). The two timelines converge.
In the final episode (Episode 8), Rasmussen emails a copy of the photo of Marie to the lead detective in Washington. Marie gets reimbursed for her case and then Marie sues the city. The rapist, Chris McCarthy, is sentenced.
What the script makes clear, is that people did care, but sometimes they didn’t know how to show it. Sometimes, honest mistakes are made; Judith was also raped long ago, but compares her reactions to Marie’s. In the script, we see how different women reacted. One woman seems almost too cheerful. There are no bad guys except for the rapist. The male detectives in Lynnwood aren’t evil, but rather, misguided.
At AFI Fest, during “Framing Female Stories/Impact of ‘Unbelievable’ ” writer Susannah Grant and executive producer Sarah Timberman discussed their decisions and the craft of writing this miniseries. AFI alumna Tessa Black, the first director of the Nancy Malone Women’s Initiatives, moderated the talk, introducing Grant as someone who “has a history of telling stories of women” facing tremendous opposition such as Anita Hill (“Confirmation” in 2016) and “Erin Brockovich” (2000).
While “Unbelievable” is bound to spark conversations about women and rape, this conversation was about craft.
Grant said of Timberman that she has a way of “parting the waters for projects.” This project was hard to resist because the original investigative writers dug deep. The Netflix series, “Unbelievable,” is based on a 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning article (for explanatory reporting) by two journalists: T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” in ProPublica and The Marshall Project. The story is now a book just out in paperback this September: “Unbelievable: The Story of Two Detectives’ Relentless Search for the Truth,” but also “A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America” in 2018.
Timberman said, “It’s rare that you read something that makes you think so deeply about the criminal justice system” and that not only was it “a close examination of trauma,” but also “a deep and personal story about the three women.”
Black noted the series was “completely unburdened by previous tropes” and “never had my expectations constantly” been teased and challenged with such a “fresh structure, very fresh tone, very unburdened” by other references. She asked on “a very simple level how did you start?”
Grant said the “basic information you get from Netflix itself is that most of their viewers are watching two episode bites” and “that gave me the liberty as thinking of the first two episodes as the way in.” In the first episode, we meet Marie and see her being processed. In the second, we’re still in Washington state in 2008 and Marie has her case closed, but when her name is leaked to the media, she comes under scrutiny. Yet we also jump to Golden, Colorado where Karen Duvall is investigating a rape. We don’t really get to know Grace Rasmussen, the more experienced detective, until the very end.
The hook doesn’t come “until the last three minutes of our second episode.” Knowing the reaction of viewers allows a writer to know “what shape will it take” and “that’s helpful for me in terms of storytelling.” Grant also said, “in terms of tropes: your process is your process. I’m a very gut writer. That means I write way too much.” She often doesn’t know what she needs and considers it “a really inefficient way of writing.” She then explained, “I start with each character: What drives them?” For example, “Marie has a line during questioning: ‘I just try being as happy as I can be.’ That is the essence of this woman. That was a system that served for her the best. Once you have something as elemental as that, all the decisions become easier.” Writing a good script is “about basic character and understanding.” For the detectives, they put their jobs first, even if it put them in uncomfortable situations.
The person who inspired Duvall had “a visible quote on her dashboard from Isaiah.” (Isaiah 6:8; “Here I am. Send me”). She is the type of person who would “put the bigger picture forward.” The whole script is “really character-bound” with “clear and strong character decisions.”
Timberman also noted that Grant “writes with compassion for characters.” There were “easy targets in this story” who would have been “easy to vilify” such as “the cops who got it wrong.” Timber said, “It would have bene really easy to make them the bad guys. The lead detective got it really wrong” and yet he is portrayed as a “fundamentally decent human being who was poorly trained” and “who made terrible mistakes with devastating repercussions.”
Grant explained that “from the source material this detective,” the one that the character is based on said, that “the day he discovered Marie had not been lying was the worst day of his life.” In the end, “that’s so much more interesting than someone who just doesn’t care about the person” and it’s “so much more interesting to watch.”
Timberman said that goes for Marie’s foster mothers as well. The real Marie “encouraged them to watch the show” because “the show approached them with compassion.”
Black noted that despite the subject matter, while the script is “unflinching” it also yields “moments of whimsy” such as when Merritt Wever’s character, Duvall, figuratively draws the short straw and has to drive to get some records. Against a very western landscape, we see Duvall driving, but she’s singing a children’s song.
Grant called that one of the best examples of having lively writers room. The Duvall character is a parent and Jennifer Schuur came up with the idea of her landing on a kids station and deciding to listen to kids music. “That was a great choice on her part.” Then Michael Chabon, who they would later lose to “Star Trek,” “picked a song that had interaction in it.” The camera “swings back around” and you “feel the weight of everything land on her like a ton of bricks.”
There are some ideas that came out of the writers room that they didn’t use. Grant noted, they had the idea of slowly revealing the rapist to increase “the sense of danger.” To do so, every time the script revealed more information about the rapist, the camera would show it. For instance, once it was determined what kind of vehicle they were looking for, the camera would show “we’re looking from inside a white truck.” With each piece of added information the audience would “start to see pieces of him.” When the kind of gloves and shoes he was wearing was discovered, we’d see the rapist in those gloves and shoes. In this manner, the rapist would be “slowly coming into view for the viewer as they come into mind to the detective.”
Grant said, “Our folks at Netflix said, “I don’t think you need it.”
Timberman added, “They really said, ‘Trust your story.'”
This device was like “an insurance policy for us” Grant further explained.
Timberman noted that from the beginning, Netflix said “they were not interested in the rapist and we were really happy with that.”
Casting was also a key part of the process. Timberman credited the casting director, Laura Rosenthal,” who “doesn’t think of people in types” but does have “interesting ways of approaching things.” According to Timberman, Rosenthal divides people into categories: “All people are either horses, birds or muffins.” That certainly left me wondering.
Still, even when one gets the casting right, actors are only doing what they’re told. Grant noted that “the interrogation that plays on the VCR” that “our two guys watch” was originally done “really badly” and the performance was “a little psycho” and didn’t fit the right tone. It was something that “seemed to make sense at the moment” but in the end, they re-shot it, asking the actor to do it differently.