Madeleine L’Engle once wrote: “Truth is what is true, and it’s not necessarily factual. Truth and fact are not the same thing.” It’s a quote I return to often while thinking about Netflix’s stellar limited series “Unbelievable” for a variety of reasons, but never so much as when mulling over how the series managed to take inspiration from real events to create something even greater than the sum of its parts. It takes something factual and makes it true.
For Susannah Grant, who served as co-creator, writer, and director on “Unbelievable,” the process of adapting “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” originally published by ProPublica and The Marshall Project, was all about being more faithful to the truth than the facts. “You’re going for the authenticity of someone’s experience,” Grant said in a phone interview with IndieWire, “And you obviously can’t incorporate every life moment that added up to that, but you can digest what they ended up meaning cumulatively.”
At the center of the story is Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever), a woman who survives a brutal rape only to be re-victimized by the criminal justice system. While Adler is a real person, Detectives Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) are merely inspired by the real police offers who end up coming to Adler’s aid several years later. “One was Stacy Galbraith who became the character of Karen Duvall,” Grant said. “The fact that her Christian faith is a core element of her life and her day, and how she moves through the world, it seemed really telling about how she does her work. And so, [we] held onto that.”
“Similarly, Edna Hendershot, the detective who inspired Toni’s character, actually does work on cars with her husband. And when I spoke to her, she’s obviously has a huge anima and heart. But she has a toughness to her,” Grant continued. “And I thought, okay, well, the car tells us something about how she does her work well, too. And so, I took some essential ingredients and then fictionalized the stuff, the rest of them, primarily out of respect for their privacy and their families’ privacy.”
Published in 2015, the original article earned a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts and became a meaningful touchstone years before the #MeToo movement became an undeniable force in 2017. For Grant, the appeal of the project came from the way it made no qualms about its long overdue subject matter. “The issue that it addresses most overtly is this epidemic of sexual assault and the travesty of how we as a culture ignore it and deny it and end up really brutalizing so many victims just by our indifference,” Grant said. “That was a really compelling issue for me to talk about, and one I don’t think we talk about enough.
“Sexual assault, is displayed in our culture — either directly or indirectly — in a sort of a voyeuristic, almost slightly porny way,” she said. “And I find it so deeply upsetting and offensive that the idea of being able to say in this story, no, this isn’t something to treat lightly, this is not a side dish, this is the main course of what we need to be talking about. That was appealing.”
But it wasn’t just the sexual assault narrative that the Oscar-nominated screenwriter was interested in exploring. There was also the central collaboration between the detectives, offering up a rich dynamic that is also too rarely seen in pop culture. “I don’t often see professional female collaborations and I feel like those are the best collaborations I’ve had in my life,” she said. “And I was really excited at the possibility of showing how additive and how life-enhancing it can be.”
It’s that spirit of collaboration that shines through “Unbelievable” at every level. At the beginning, Grant was tipped off to the story by her agent and turned to her producing partner Sarah Timberman, who had in turn already been approached about the same story by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman; they all decided to proceed together.
The collaboration only expanded when casting much of the series, with Grant working closely with Lisa Cholodenko, who directed the first three episodes, as well as casting director Laura Rosenthal, with Chabon and Waldman weighing in as well.
From the outset, Grant knew she wanted to direct on the project, and took the helm for the final two episodes of the eight episode series, but she was grateful to not be the only directorial voice weighing in, particularly at the beginning. “Welcoming in another voice at the outset seemed just great, especially given that it was Lisa. I’m just a huge fan of hers. There isn’t a false moment in any of her work. It’s all so authentic,” Grant said. “And it was really important to me that the airspace between human beings and the understandings and misunderstandings that happen between human beings were so essential to get right in this. And nobody does it better than Lisa.”
“It was definitely good to have a team and to be one of three directors (Michael Dinner oversaw Episodes 4, 5, and 6), as opposed to doing the whole thing myself,” she said. “That would have been too much, and we would have deprived ourselves of another couple of voices that added a lot to it.”
Even Netflix served as a valuable collaborator, according to Grant, as the information the streamer provided about audience viewing habits allowed the team to think about how they presented their story. “One thing Netflix was able to share with us was that most of their viewers watch in two episode chunks, so we didn’t feel that pressure you feel when you’re doing a weekly series to do all the storytelling in the first episode. We had the luxury of two full hours, to set the scene for our story. And I think it made a big difference,” Grant said. “It allowed us the freedom to spend that entire first episode on Marie’s story, and wait until the second one to introduce the whole notion of people approaching sexual assault in a different way. That was really liberating to know that in terms of just the writing of it.”
“It allowed for bold storytelling choices,” she continued. “It also allowed us to hold off on introducing a main character until two hours in. They just have room for abandoning a lot of the familiar truisms of storytelling.” Whatever their methods, the storytelling strategy for “Unbelievable” paid off in a number of ways. Grant said that the viewership numbers were in the uppermost projections of Netflix’s expectations for the series, plus the show has been a critical hit, one of the most praised offerings of 2019.
But for Grant, what really hits home is the response of viewers, particularly those who found solace and truth in the story Grant and her team were telling.
“I looked on Twitter to see what the conversation was. And it was this global conversation among people who had experienced sexual assault, who had felt completely alone, who no longer felt alone and had this instant global community of people who saw them and shared what they had been through,” Grant said. “And it just that I found to be the most moving thing. I hadn’t often felt the immediate impact of this medium in which I work. But wow, the profound power of it to build a community where there had not been one before, it was really moving to me.”