HBO’s ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ is a testament to Michelle McNamara and ‘survivors’ strength’

June 25, 2020, 3:30 PM UTC

The Golden State Killer, believed to be responsible for at least 50 home-invasion rapes and a dozen murders, terrorized California during the 1970s and 1980s. But his story eventually fell off the radar even as his identity went undiscovered for decades.

In 2013, Los Angeles magazine published true-crime writer Michelle McNamara’s article detailing her attempts to track him down, which in turn led to a book. McNamara died in her sleep at 46 from an undiagnosed heart condition and accidental overdose of prescription drugs in 2016, but her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, was published posthumously in 2018—just two months before Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested and charged with the crimes.

Now the book is the subject of a six-part docuseries of the same name, which premieres on HBO this Sunday. Directed by Liz Garbus (Lost Girls, What Happened, Miss Simone?), the series—like the book—delves into McNamara’s quest to identify the killer. It also offers viewers more information about DeAngelo’s background, while spending a good amount of time on the victims’ stories—many of whom hadn’t previously spoken much about their ordeals on camera.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark
Michelle McNamara’s posthumously released book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” takes center stage in HBO’s six-part docuseries.
Robyn Von Swank/HBO

For Garbus and her team, it was important to be respectful of what the Golden State Killer’s victims had experienced. The series spends time addressing the prevailing attitude toward rape in the ’70s, why survivors and their families often kept quiet, and the “ongoing trauma and recovery” of being a victim. Getting people to open up on camera was also probably aided by the fact that they were working on “Team Michelle,” Garbus says.

“There was a sense that we were going to be taking a very serious and respectful look at the entire ordeal, and they were not going to be reduced to an exploitative sound bite,” Garbus tells Fortune.

“Everyone’s singular shared objective was to tell the story of Michelle McNamara and get to the heart of who she was, and the story of this case from the victims’ perspectives, because I think that’s a story that hasn’t quite been told,” says Paul Haynes, McNamara’s researcher, who helped complete the book as part of a collaborative effort with investigative journalist Billy Jensen and McNamara’s widower, comedian Patton Oswalt.

Haynes, who is also featured in the docuseries, found Garbus’s approach compassionate and empathetic—similar to McNamara’s work. “The flavor and the emotional resonance of the series is very consistent with that of Michelle’s book,” he says.

Actress Amy Ryan narrates excerpts of McNamara’s book in the series, but those words are also supplemented by old video footage of McNamara, as well as some email and text exchanges she had with colleagues and family. Oswalt, who is also interviewed throughout the series, played a key role in providing that access to the filmmaking team.

“He handed over her phone and her iPad and her hard drive, and we had access to all of the boxes of research that she called ‘the mother lode,’” says Garbus, who found herself relating to McNamara more than she expected, as she learned details about the author’s life. “He was really very generous and forthcoming, and he basically just wanted us to dig in there and bring as true a story of Michelle and her life and her obsessions as we could find.”

Liz Garbus (right) directs Patton Oswalt in HBO’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.” Oswalt was “generous” in sharing McNamara’s research and additional information for the docuseries, the director says.
Courtesy of HBO

Garbus and her team also had to adapt as the story evolved, which wasn’t entirely unexpected. “On a documentary, unlike in a scripted situation, you know you’re going for a ride,” Garbus says. “You don’t have a hard and fast mantra of, ‘This is where the film begins, and this is the end.’”

But DeAngelo’s arrest took place “literally day one of shooting,” she says. “The idea that that happened so quickly? That was very surprising to us.”

The crew used that development as an opportunity to see if anyone could “shed a light” on who the alleged killer was. As a result, some of DeAngelo’s relatives and his ex-fiancée also make appearances in the series.

“It was really hard to get those folks to open up,” Garbus says. “You just see that there’s a whole other layer of damage and trauma in the wake of a crime like this…His family members are going through their own kind of secondary trauma.”

Haynes, who spent years helping research the case, maintains that McNamara’s work played a role in the arrest.

“Even though some have argued that Michelle didn’t solve the case and the book had no influence on the case’s resolution, I’ve continuously argued otherwise, because Michelle’s involvement with this case put a spotlight on it that previously didn’t exist,” says Haynes, who admits that recent progress in the investigation has felt bittersweet in McNamara’s absence.

“Oftentimes with cold cases, municipalities have no motivation to shower resources on what they consider to be stale cases—unless of course there’s a renewed public interest,” he says. “Michelle’s persistence and the caliber of work that she was doing helped spark a level of public interest that, again, this case had never seen.”

Garbus has her own anecdote about how McNamara worked to help investigators connect the dots. The series addresses the subject of various police jurisdictions that were siloed and barely communicating with each other at the height of the Golden State Killer’s activity, which, Garbus says, was “counterproductive” to solving the case.

“Michelle was actually a factor in bringing them all together,” she says. “We didn’t have time to include this in the film, but she actually held a buffet—a beautiful dinner for all these different law enforcement agencies to come together and share information, and promised Patton Oswalt as entertainment to lure them to come in. And they did. And they all talked to each other, and we have the recording of it.”

In recent weeks, reports have suggested that DeAngelo will plead guilty on June 29, avoiding the death penalty while taking responsibility for the crimes. If true, it could offer closure to the survivors Garbus has spoken to—especially those who are not counted as part of the case owing to statutes of limitations or a lack of DNA evidence, she says, though she “can’t speak for everyone.”

While Garbus continues to track what happens next, even as episodes of the docuseries begin to air, she ultimately hopes her project can serve as a “testament to the survivors’ strength” and “a testament to Michelle and her work.”

“I really think that at the end of the day, it’s about trauma and healing and talking about it—not pushing your demons down and just hoping that they go away,” Garbus says. “But I think that what’s very clear, whether it be Michelle and her own demons, the survivors and their trauma recovery, that you can’t push them away, and that at some point they’re going to come to light, and you need people around you and time to heal.”

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark premieres on HBO Sunday, June 28, at 10 p.m. ET.

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