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‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’s Liz Garbus Explains How Michelle McNamara’s Philosophy Shaped Her Docuseries

Just as Michelle McNamara’s book rewrote the true crime genre, Liz Garbus’ I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is rewriting the true crime documentary. Half an investigation into the horrifying trail of rape and murder the Golden State Killer left behind, half a deep dive into the extraordinary citizen who devoted her life to discovering his identity, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the rare true crime docuseries that isn’t about the criminal. Instead it takes away this monster’s power to focus on his victims.

According to director Liz Garbus that narrative shift was inspired directly from McNamara’s work. Decider spoke with Garbus about the challenges of making this rule-breaking docuseries, what it was like talking to Patton Oswalt about his late wife, and what this team has in store for Joseph James DeAngelo’s ongoing case.

Decider: What drew you to this story, originally?

Liz Garbus: Well, HBO sent me the manuscripts before the book was published. I didn’t know about Michelle McNamara, I didn’t know about the Golden State Killer. What drew me in was reading her manuscript, which was a combination of incredibly fascinating sleuthery — if that’s a word — and investigations. Portraits of survivors. And of course, an inquiry to her own life. I was totally hooked.

I guess she wasn’t alive by the time they sent the manuscript to you, because they had to complete it.

Exactly.

In a lot of true crime documentaries the killer or criminal becomes the protagonist, for lack of a better word. It becomes about weirdly, perversely highlighting that person. This documentary completely sidesteps that. Michelle’s the hero. Was that always the intention?

Yeah, Michelle said it herself. It’s the powerful absence [of knowing these criminals’ identities] that draws you in. Once you know their name, it’s just like Bill or Bob. Whatever. Or Joe. You’re like, “Oh, that’s just this awful loser.” In many ways, they’re just not interested.

It’s interesting, because you want to understand how somebody could be responsible for all this. But at the same time there’s no understanding that. Because plenty of people have had trauma, or plenty of people have had rotten childhoods. They don’t go on to become serial rapists and murderers. For us, what was more interesting was Michelle’s journey, and the journey of the survivors and their resilience. Those were stories that we really wanted to get to.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark
Photo: HBO

What’s incredible is, by taking the Golden State Killer out of the limelight, the whole documentary is so much more humanizing and more powerful. Especially when it comes to hearing the survivors talk about the stories in their own words.

Thank you. We took the lead from Michelle, in foregrounding the story of the survivors. Their stories are obviously filled with a lot of darkness, but also are uplifting and teach you so much about resilience and getting through trauma. Michelle had a saying: “It’s chaos, be kind.” It makes you think about their struggles. We really don’t understand them. What we can offer is kindness. Patience. Listening. It was an honor to listen to all of their stories.

The final episode when all of the survivors are together at a garden party is so powerful. That’s one of the parts where I was crying the most. It’s uplifting. They’re so resilient. 

For us, that was truly the finale of the show. Seeing them come together, Kris Pedretti and the 15-year-old girl being told not to talk about it by her father. They come to a place where you’re welcoming survivors and cameras into your home, talking about it and not taking on the shame that was like a cancer. For us, that was like the true finale.

It feels like that. Was it hard to find a balance between talking about these horrific crimes and telling Michelle McNamara’s story? Because there’s sort of two documentaries happening at once.

Yeah. It was challenging, but the great challenge of the show was how to intertwine these stories. That was a challenge we were all really excited to rise to. There is a reason Michelle herself was so interested in these stories. There’s a way that she related to the survivors. Intertwining those stories, that balance was something we drove to keep throughout. The stories are richer for their juxtaposition with one another.

Which interviews, for you, were the most difficult to tackle?

I had a team of folks doing interviews, there are three other directors on this film. For my team members, talking to survivors is emotional and hard. We want to support them in their process, and also get the stories on film. Be compassionate throughout. Also, working with Patton [Oswalt] — Patton had suffered a tremendous loss himself we were really sensitive to. He can be funny, but there’s a gaping hole there for him. It was about being sensitive to people’s loss and supporting them. Knowing that we would tell those stories in a thorough, respectful manner of how you kind of get through that.

Michelle McNamara and Patton Oswalt
Photo: HBO

The eventual loss of Michelle, you see it happening throughout the docuseries. It sort of mirrors the amount of pain this criminal caused so many people. Was that always the intention, structurally?

That going through what she called the “motherlode” of materials [about the Golden State Killer case] — while she had co-sleuths working with her like Paul Haynes, it was still very solitary. Something she was doing at night, after her daughter went to sleep. That was a really dark place to go. She was having terrible nightmares. It really did get under her skin. We saw her texts from her last night alive with Patton. Talking about how consumed she was and how discouraged. So certainly, it chronicles the toll it took on her.

It’s a testament to her humanity, and how great she was at what she did.

If you protect yourself from feeling it, then you’re not really going to fully be able to write about it and describe it. That also obviously came with a price to pay, for her.

Now I understand that there’s going to be a companion podcast to I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Can you tease a little bit about what you will be talking about?

We’re going to be doing a podcast along with Nancy Miller, who was Michelle’s editor and brought the first Golden State Killer piece to the world with Michelle. It will be a deeper dive into some of the filmmaking process and maybe some segments with Patton. Conversations with survivors. Of course, updates on the case. A deep dive into the DNA technology that was used to find [Joseph] DeAngelo. We could have made 10 episodes. There was a lot more to talk about, and for those who want more, there’s going to be a lot more there. And then also, updates and tons of things will be happening with DeAngelo on trial.

That’s very exciting, since the case is continuing this month.

Exactly.

What were you hoping that this documentary would bring to the Golden State Killer case? The way I see it, Michelle McNamara’s book brought notoriety to this case. I want to know what you wanted to bring.

I guess it’s an extension of her work and her legacy. When she started writing about the case, other than the survivors and the investigators, it was not very well-known. He was called the EARONS, East Area Rapist Original Night Stalker. It was not a case that had a lot of public attention. Given how many lives this man affected, that was something that needed to be written. When we started this project, we didn’t know there would be an arrest. That was made during this time. At first, it was like, well maybe we can help keep the pressure on and help find him. That, of course, was not the priority anymore once DeAngelo was caught. But it was still the priority to tell the stories of the survivors and the story of Michelle.

Do you think this documentary will help encourage more citizen detectives and armchair detective work?

I hope so. You can see from this film, how much that collaboration mattered. So much of the citizens detectives were super savvy about technology and the geo mapping data I barely understand. They really brought a lot to law enforcement. Paul Holes, who was credited largely with being one of the key guys to crack this case, worked with Michelle as his partner. There really can be strong alliances when you open up and don’t silo the work and collaborate. Yes, I hope that there’s a great potential for those who want to take their skills and apply them to other unsolved cases.

I hope so. There’s so many of these monsters in the world that need to be brought to justice.

Yeah, I mean, look: it’s the kind of crime that is so very, very rare. But at the same time, it’s so devastating. Like you said, there are a lot of unsolved cases out there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

New episodes of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark premiere on HBO Sundays at 10/9c p.m.

Watch I’ll Be Gone in the Dark on HBO



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Written by Angle News

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