The story of Michelle McNamara and the Golden State Killer case feels tailor-made for a great docuseries. But telling that story takes special consideration and empathy given that it deals with brutal sexual assault and murder. Not all true crime docuseries and documentaries focus on the victims in the way that this case requires.
Two-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA; What Happened, Miss Simone?) has always taken that consideration for her subjects, and so her involvement in the six-part documentary adaptation of McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark signaled that its story would be in good hands. As the excellent HBO series comes to a close this weekend, we present our conversation with the director about the program and the case as a whole.
What made you want to work on this project?
HBO’s Lisa Heller sent me the manuscript for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark — or the galleys of it — before publication. I did not know anything about Michelle McNamara or the Golden State Killer. But after reading Michelle’s manuscript, talking to Patton [Oswalt], and having some sense of the archival possibilities [of the series], I was super excited to join the journey.
How did you deal with including such personal and vulnerable details of Michelle’s life in the show?
Michelle left behind a list of things she wanted to explore. That guided some of the work Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes did on finishing her book and it also guided us towards understanding her a little bit more.
Look, the show is personal. There are survivors on there telling us the most horrible thing that ever happened to them in their entire lives, in details that are incredibly difficult for them to relive.
Documentaries are about understanding the human condition. I think by diving into Michelle’s personal life as we did in the show, we understand something more about what she was juggling — the anxiety, depression, and insomnia that she was feeling.
Hopefully, it’s helpful to other folks out there who feel like they have it together, but they’re just having trouble sleeping and are self-medicating in a way that’s rampant in our society. Documentaries are about confronting those issues, not pretending they don’t exist.
How did you approach the interviews with survivors on the show?
Well, I had a great team. I am one of four directors who are on the show. The associate producers also built relationships with the survivors — not just the directors.
I think many of them were people who hadn’t spoken before about their assaults. It was about understanding that this was going to be a six-hour film and that there would be time. It wouldn’t be reduced to a soundbite of the most awful thing that ever happened to them.
Oftentimes with serial killer documentaries, it’s based on law enforcement, what the perpetrator was doing to get away from law enforcement, the bloody knife, and his attack, that kind of the thing. This was actually going to be much more survivor-focused.
We also weren’t just interested in what happened in that most awful four hours of their lives. We were also interested in what happened after, their journey, and what it says about policing and the way rape was regarded in those eras and still is regarded. Knowing the larger point of view of the film was important. Also, it was a female-led production in many ways.
There is a motif of clips from The Creature from the Black Lagoon throughout the series. What made you want to include that in multiple episodes?
That imagery is so evocative. Of course, we came to it because Patton told the story of meeting Michelle and them both loving that movie. So, our editors [Erin Barnett, Jawad Metni, and Alyse Ardell Spiegel] pulled some of the clips in order to help tell that story and then soon realized that those images operated on many levels.
That swimming woman is like one of the survivors of the Golden State Killer or like Michelle trying to stay afloat above the darkness of the story. It represented so much. I thank our editor for pulling that clip and making it possible for us to weave that through the various episodes.
How did this project differ from the other true crime projects that you’ve done in the past?
I guess I don’t really know what of my stuff is considered “true crime.” I’ve made films in prisons. Those were never called true crime.
I made a film called Who Killed Garrett Phillips?, which was really about the process of justice or mishandling of justice. I made There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, which is about not really a crime but a tragedy of huge proportions that was a mystery.
I don’t know what the moniker true crime includes and doesn’t include. Nobody called The Farm true crime, although all those guys were convicted criminals.
I think what’s different about this case is how immensely broad his destruction was and the number of folks who were affected by this is just massive. It wasn’t just the victims and the rape survivors. It’s their families.
Then there are the people who became completely obsessed, for some in unhealthy ways, about the case. It’s such a massive story. It’s very complicated and dealing with it sensitively when it had that kind of reach, scope, and damage done was a new challenge for me.
What was it like to have Joe DeAngelo’s guilty plea the day after the show premiered?
It was crazy, but the timing on this has always been crazy. Our first day of shooting was in Chicago. We went with Patton, Billy, and Paul to the reading they had. It was our first night meeting Michelle’s family. Then, in the middle of the night, he’s arrested! That was our first day of shooting.
Then HBO sets our premiere date of June 28th, and then we find out a few weeks before then that he’s going to plead guilty on June 29th. The timing was just uncanny. I don’t know, maybe Michelle is pulling the strings up there. It’s wonderful that these survivors have closure and they don’t have to sit through a horrible trial where they’re retraumatized with this yet again.