I'll Be Gone in the Dark director on exploring Michelle McNamara's hunt for the Golden State Killer
Writer Michelle McNamara spent years trying to find the man she called the Golden State Killer, an obsession she hoped would lead to unmasking a rapist and murderer who stalked California in the late 1970s and early ’80s. That quest became the basis for the 2018 bestseller I’ll Be Gone in the Dark — which was completed posthumously after McNamara’s sudden death two years earlier — and is now the basis for a six-part docuseries of the same name (premiering Sunday on HBO) that explores not only the facts of the case but also McNamara’s drive to find justice for the victims.
“I was not interested in making a documentary series about the Golden State Killer,” says Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), who directed the project. “What I was interested in was this woman’s journey. I related so much to Michelle and her obsession, her drive, and also to her as a working mom, somebody trying to balance this incredibly dark pursuit with keeping up a seemingly normal life.”
EW spoke to the Oscar-nominated filmmaker in May about telling McNamara's story (and that of the Golden State Killer's victims), insight she received from McNamara's husband, Patton Oswalt, and how the docuseries goes beyond the scope of the book — especially now that a suspect has finally been identified and accused of the killer's crimes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I'd love to hear how you became aware of Michelle and her story, if it was through the book or prior to that.
LIZ GARBUS: It was through the book. Lisa Halloran and Nancy Abraham at HBO sent me the galleys of the book and I've always been interested in — "true crime" is a phrase that almost has become without meaning, but I started off as a filmmaker working in the criminal justice system and I've always been interested in strong female characters and I related so much to Michelle and her obsession, her drive, and also to her as a working mom, somebody trying to balance the incredibly dark pursuit with keeping up a seemingly normal life.
The series integrates Michelle's story — and her obsession with delving into these unsolved cases — with following the investigation into the Golden State Killer. Did you always want to weave the two together in that way?
I knew I was not interested in making a documentary series about the Golden State Killer. I knew those would be done. What I was interested in was this woman's obsession and search and journey. And when I first met with Patton, and I understood his willingness to share and that he said, we have her tapes of her interviews and everything she recorded and video she took, it just felt like there was really going to be a way creatively to make her feel present in the storytelling. We were really excited about revisiting the people that Michelle was with and almost making you feel like you were alongside with her.
So we had the materials to weave her and center the story around her. And her priority in the storytelling was the trauma of the victims and justice for them — so weaving that together was possible because of the terrific archival that Patton gave us.
Was Patton involved from the start? What was it like working with him?
I think that Patton's feeling, and I think it was the way he went about getting having the book finished, was, let me find people who I trust, and then give them what they need to do their work. I think that's what happened with Billy Jensen and Paul Haynes with finishing Michelle's book, and that's what happened here. Patton said, here is this stuff, please tell me how I can help. But he was not going to be a person — he's an executive producer, but he was not going to be a guy in the edit room. He was not going to be a guy involved in the day to day. That was just not the role he wanted, or felt he should have. So he was really just terrific to work with. And he gave us what we needed, but didn't get too involved in the creative process because I think that was not what his goal was.
What insight about Michelle was he able to give you?
He's interviewed throughout the entire series about Michelle on her life, on her obsession, and on her death. And I think that he speaks really frankly about her struggles and self-medication, which was one of the factors that led to her death, and I think it's something that's very relatable. We have a massive problem with this in our country with prescription drug use. And I think that Patton understood that speaking about it was important, because the shame of being quiet about these things can kill — pretending like the problems don't exist or feeling like you shouldn't be able to talk about it, you know, that's a deadly approach to a problem.
People interviewed in the series made a point of saying that Michelle wrote compassionately, that she treated victims humanely. There's a lot of very well-written and respectful true crime out there, and there's a lot of very salacious and terrible true crime. I know that in telling Michelle's story, you also wanted to do this in a very compassionate way. But how much were you thinking about that through all of this?
When I make films, since the beginning, I come from a place of empathy. And I think that was Michelle's instinct as well. For Michelle, it was never about glamorizing this guy, it was about finding closure or doing whatever she could to help find closure for the victims. And you can see in the series, the victims' stories and their trauma and also the changing ways in which our culture dealt with rape victims, that sort of changing norms and the shame that they were made to feel in the '70s when there really wasn't a good discourse towards helping survivors of rape. That was front and center in our mind.
I think one of the things that's also really interesting, and we talked to Karen Kilgariff — who is friends with Patton and Michelle, and the host of the podcast My Favorite Murder — about, is why are we all drawn to these stories? What is it fulfilling in us? I think that's an important question to explore as well, which we take on as the series goes on.
How does the series expand on the story that Michelle put forth? Obviously, having a suspect is a big development.
We didn't know when we started the documentary that we would know who he was. The first day of actual production, the night we went back to our hotel, was the day that Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was arrested. So that was an incredible coincidence of timing for us, and also changed the course of how we would tell the story.
We still really wanted to give viewers that feeling of obsession, of searching in the dark, to take them down that those rabbit holes that Michelle would go down. But in episodes 5 and 6, we do get into the capture and what we know about the Golden State Killer himself and then in the last episode, we present some never before seen or heard voices from people who knew him that I think will give some insight into who this man was and how he could get away with this for so long.
We already talked about telling Michelle's story, and the changing developments in the case, but what were the biggest challenges for you in making this series?
Because of all the work that Paul and Billy and Patton had done, and sharing it with us, we did not have the same challenges that Michelle had. Paul Holes, who was the lead detective on the case was so fond of Michelle, was willing to help us, and so we really had terrific access. I think it was really in finding the balance of keeping Michelle feeling present, using and foregrounding her incredible voice, her incredible way with words, her compassion, and making that feel as present as possible. You read Michelle's writing, and you get goosebumps, and we wanted to bring that feeling across in the documentary as well.
And, also, the survivors and victims — talking to them and having them relive the worst moments of their life, some of them talking for the first time. It was a deeply emotional project for everybody who worked on it.