Like any seasoned documentarian, Liz Garbus started with a plan, and the certainty she’d end up changing it.
She had gone to Chicago to officially commence production on her adaptation of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the writer Michelle McNamara’s non-fiction account of her efforts to ascertain the identity of the serial killer known as the East Area Rapist (AKA the Golden State Killer, AKA the Original Night Stalker). It was going to be a relatively simple trip: get some footage of the late McNamara’s husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, doing some readings and signings at a book event, establish friendly contact with Oswalt and some other key figures from her world, call it a night. Things went according to schedule, Garbus and her crew headed back to their hotel, and everyone turned in.
“At six the next morning, we were all woken up by the words ‘There’s been an arrest,’” Garbus recalls. “That was how the project started, with all the synchronicity of that moment. It was extraordinary, having the entire paradigm shift on that first day of shooting, just a crazy instance of kismet.” In her first 24 hours on the project, Garbus had to fully rethink her role in this process, from relaying a maddeningly unfinished story to assisting in the completion of its final chapter.
McNamara’s book balances two plotlines, those of the perpetrator’s Zodiac Killer-style exploits and her own campaign to expose him. Garbus would have to juggle three, adding the surrounding narrative that covers McNamara’s premature death and the resolution of her life’s work. As a result, the new six-episode miniseries premiering this week feels more expansive than the standard-issue “true crime” doc – at once rigorous reportage, empathetic biography, and sociological inquest into the culture that’s sprung up around high-profile murders.
“Michelle was the central figure, our storyteller, our avatar, our guide leading us on this journey,” Garbus says. “Every episode is a really a look at her and her life, and her progressing obsession with the survivors and their stories, as well as the investigation into who this killer was. That’s what was intriguing to me, that it wasn’t just a recounting of crime, but an exploration of our own interest in them.”
Over several years in the early 2010s, McNamara obsessively pursued every last clue pertaining to the Golden State Killer case, first for a Los Angeles Magazine article and then for her hotly anticipated book. The documentary tracks the dogged movements of a woman seized by the drive for justice, her crusade of one related by the survivors, law enforcement officials, and many others affected by the trail of rapes and homicides. “Her voice as a writer, the approach she took to this case,” Garbus says, “it all speaks to the nature of her professional self and what it means to be a working woman, a mother, and a wife.”
As she grew more consumed by her work, McNamara developed reliances on medications that would eventually lead to her tragic and untimely passing. When Oswalt enlisted the writers Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen to prepare a manuscript fit for publication, their task wasn’t just organizing the untold terabytes of documents and files. (“I don’t have an exact figure, but in terms of sheer volume of material, it was more than I’d ever worked with before,” Garbus says.) They wanted to pay tribute to a woman who exemplified compassion in a field that can so easily descend into a ghoulish morbid fascination, an objective Garbus would also come to adopt.
“I think what Michelle did, and what we tried to emulate in our storytelling, is finding the complexity of these traumas,” Garbus says. “A lot of survivors themselves in our film hadn’t spoken publicly before. Some have agents. The ones who did speak with us, they had to understand that we weren’t going to use them as a soundbite of awfulness. Their lives mean more than the worst three hours of their entire existence.”
One of the miniseries’ more eyebrow-raising sequences takes a detour to CrimeCon, an eccentric convention for “true crime” enthusiasts that contributes to what Garbus refers to as the “Disneyworlding” of real pain. “There’s a commercialization of people’s tragedy,” she says. “It did make me uncomfortable. Paul Haynes, one of the s of the book, has talked about this discomfort. ‘What’s brought me here? What makes me want to be part of this world?’ And I think we grapple with some of these questions in the documentary, just as Michelle did.” There’s a constant self-interrogation at play in both works, as every self-appointed detective weighs their sincere desire to do good against the lurid curiosity to which such subjects can lend themselves.
The politics of true crime can be knotty and exploitative, though Garbus hardly considers her work in those terms. Her first film focused on Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, a meditation on criminality and truth that was never placed under the genre’s umbrella to begin with. “I don’t know what ‘true crime’ means or doesn’t mean,” Garbus shrugs. “I’ve done films on the criminal justice system for my entire career. I don’t know why some things get called ‘true crime’ and other things are just ‘films about the criminal justice system’. I don’t understand that as a category any more. I’ve been working with crime and punishment and social issues for years.
That experience prepared her for the trial by fire that came when the police apprehended Joseph DeAngelo, the man linked by DNA evidence to the Golden State Killer’s heinous deeds. She was navigating territory uncharted by the book she was supposed to be working from, and even as she puts the finishing touches on the series, the case still awaits closure. “When this man suddenly appeared to us, we did not know what the course of events would be,” Garbus says. “We did not know we’d learn more about him, or get his family members to speak with us. With every documentary, there’s a path of discovery. We now know that Joe DeAngelo is meant to take a plea on June 29, the day after our first episode airs. The whole film-making process has been bookended by his arrest and court appearances.”
His day in court has brought the many survivors of his violence together to take solace in their shared resilience. While this late-phase revelation enabled Garbus to take a closer look at what sort of person could be capable of such inhumanity, her series places its emphasis on the women themselves rather than what they’ve endured. The most poignant scene captures a get-together between women identifying themselves by case number, who speak about their difficulty maintaining romance in adulthood while carrying this burden. “You’d think the capture of DeAngelo would be the perfect end to the story, a great finale,” Garbus says. “But the real finale was the reunion between survivors, everyone joining together and choosing to go on and refusing to give this one man power over their lives.”
Garbus chose to foreground courage and recovery over horror and shock, including the quotient coming from Oswalt as he closely collaborated with Garbus and her crew. She thinks of his insistence on getting the documentary finished and done right as “his final act of love for Michelle”. She goes on: “He wanted everyone to see how passionate she was about getting justice. So he just told us, ‘Here’s everything. Here’s her phone. Here’s her iPad, with all her video research. Here are the hard drives. Here are all the boxes of documents.’ He gave us everything, which qualifies as an extraordinary act of trust. I see husbandly devotion in that.”
For Garbus, a magnitude of emotion unfathomable to ordinary people is just part of the job. This sort of high-stakes on-the-fly film-making suits her, as long as there’s a something urgent and deeply felt at the center. Facing the question of whether she’d be interested in a slightly less gutting topic for her next film, she brushes it off. “Eh,” comes the response. She almost laughs at her own nonchalance about her bone-deep dedication to her craft. “I’m only drawn to stories that are intense.”
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark premieres on HBO in the US on 28 June and will be available on Now TV/Sky Crime from 30 August