Unbelievable boss explains why Netflix's adaptation stays true to the real-life case
WARNING: The following story contains major spoilers from the season 1 finale of Unbelievable. Read on at your own risk!
In the end, Unbelievable stayed true to the real-life case that inspired it.
The new Netflix drama, which debuted last weekend, tells the story of a young girl named Marie (Booksmart breakout Kaitlyn Dever), who files a police report hours after she’s been raped at knifepoint by an intruder in her own Lynwood, Wash. home, only for the investigating detectives Parker (Eric Lange) and Pruitt (Bill Fagerbakke) — even the adults who were her foster parents — to doubt her story. She ends up recanting her report, and the detectives turn around and charge her with making a false report as a result. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Colorado years later, detectives Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) and Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) meet while investigating an eerily similar pair of intruder rapes and partner to catch a potential serial rapist.
The harrowing eight-episode series is based on The Marshall Project and Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica article, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” written by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, and showrunner Susannah Grant chose to follow the story laid out in that article from beginning to end on the Netflix drama. By the end of episode 8, Rasmussen and Duvall have successfully identified and apprehended Chris McCarthy (Blake Ellis) as the serial rapist, who was then found guilty of 28 counts of rape and associated felonies in Colorado and sentenced to 327 1/2 years in prison — the maximum allowed by law.
But while going through evidence after McCarthy’s arrest, including photos of all his rape victims, Rasmussen and Duvall discover a photo of a female they had never seen before, along with her ID listing her name and address: Marie. Rasmussen calls up Lynwood PD and speaks with Detective Parker, the man who was responsible for Marie recanting her report. When he tells Rasmussen that Marie’s case was thrown out and they actually charged her with making a false report, she forwards him the photo found on McCarthy’s hard drive of Marie. Parker goes silent. Horror and shame come over his face. Eventually, he goes and finds Marie, years after she attempted to report her sexual assault, to apologize and let her know that her rapist had been caught.
And just like in the real-life case, Marie was given $500 as a result, the same amount she paid in a fine when she was charged with making a false report. She ends up suing the city for $150,000 and finally begins to put her trauma behind her. Unbelievable ends with Marie calling Duvall, the first contact they had despite their lives being so intertwined by the same case, and she thanks Duvall for giving her hope for the first time in years. It’s a powerful scene, bookending an extremely moving and important series, so EW spoke with showrunner Grant about why the Netflix adaptation stuck with the facts of the real-life case all the way through to the finale, bringing this story to life, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Unbelievable is so heartbreaking and gripping to see as a viewer, so I can’t even imagine what it was like for you as a showrunner to live and breathe this story throughout production.
SUSANNAH GRANT: It is a heartbreaking and gripping story, but what you digested in eight hours, we processed in eight months, so the intensity can’t possibly last that amount of time, you know? But it was a really gratifying project.
What was your first reaction to learning all the facts of what happened to Marie?
I tend to be a character-oriented writer and that makes me a character-oriented reader too. There was one quote of hers that Ken [Armstrong] and T. [Christian Miller], who were the authors of the article, put in the piece that I just couldn’t shake. It was when she said, “I just want to be as happy as I can be.” There was something about this young woman who was really enduring among the worst things that we as a society have to hand out, and somehow her desire and her spirit to hold on to her hope and optimism just never lagged. I was so moved by that. That lodged in my gut in a meaningful way. Similarly the dogged determination of the original detectives who figured this out to do whatever it took to solve the case, when you read the article you realized what it took was going above and beyond the job description. That was moving to me as well. Also all of the society – I want to say “f—ked up-ness” [laughs], not the most articulate way to put it, but this underlines societal problems that are affecting. When you take on a project that’s going to be two years of your life, I always like it to feel like it’s worthwhile of my time beyond enjoyment and this really was. Magnifying this story and being able to tell it in a way that would move people, I feel good about waking up in the morning and working on that.
All throughout the season, from the premiere to the finale, I was surprised to see just how closely you stayed true to the facts of the case and the article. Was there anything you felt you had to change from the real-life case for it to work for TV?
I wouldn’t put it that way – we were very conscious from the get-go about respecting the privacy of everybody involved as much as possible. Ken and T. had changed the names of all the women who were survivors of this rapist, so we went further and changed a lot of identifying features about them because there’s no reason to let this enter their world in a way they don’t want it to. We also decided to change the names of everybody – I didn’t think it compromised our storytelling at all to say this is inspired by true events rather than shine a light on private individuals who made what they think now are very bad mistakes. I just didn’t see the point in rubbing salt in that wound, so we kept privacy across the board. In terms of plot, life is not lived in a narrative structure and the way Netflix drops the show, it’s possible for someone to watch all at once. You think about the viewer having a different experience so you have to keep propulsive storytelling in mind. But we were very true to the facts of the case and to the work those detectives did and the journey Marie went through. It didn’t feel like we had to change much, it was more shaping and pacing and figuring out how to tell the story in a way that made sense in our narrative structure. Creative license wasn’t taken at all. It was such an incredible story that it didn’t need any enhancing.
So what was the most important aspect that you felt you had to get right in bringing this story to life as a series?
I thought the credibility of the story was so important that in order for it to be taken seriously, it needed to be credible. To me, that meant being truthful to the experience of everyone involved. And then also right alongside that was how we depicted sexual violence was really important. There are so many examples of it that end up being exploitative and that feels like nothing I want to do in my work at all, but especially not when you’re talking about the real experiences of real people. In thinking about the subjective way things were written and subsequently shot, that was really important, so your experience of the act is 100 percent with the woman, the victim in the case.
What kinds of conversations do you hope this show inspires?
I just hope that it inspires a conversation at all. If you look at the statistics around sexual assault, somewhere between five and 20 percent of sexual assaults are reported and of those, the number that gets prosecuted is somewhere around five percent, so you’re talking about a crime that is absolutely devastating and massively under-addressed. So bringing that issue out of the dark shadows of our culture and pulling it into the light is really important.
What has surprised you about the response to the show so far?
I’m not surprised the story strikes a chord — it was something I couldn’t shake when I first read it in that ProPublica article. But I’m really pleased; it’s not an easy conversation. It’s a conversation we’ve been avoiding having for a really long time. I’m really impressed that people are embracing it and being willing to engage with difficult subjects. I’m impressed with where our culture is going on that level.
We’re in such a pivotal time of change when it comes to the idea of believing women (and we still have so far to go), but do you think this show would have been different had it been made five years ago?
I don’t think we would have made a different show — we started this before #MeToo. We were well into fully committed to telling this before this cultural moment hit. I do think the audience and the conversation is different. I don’t think we would have told the story differently, I think we are fitting into conversation now that’s maybe a little broader and more mainstream than it would have been five years ago.
Unbelievable is now streaming on Netflix.