Susannah Grant is a screenwriter and director known for her Oscar-nominated work in the film “Erin Brockovich,” as well as screen adaptations of “In Her Shoes” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
She also is the creator of Netflix’s new true crime series, “Unbelievable,” about a Lynnwood teenager, played by Kaitlyn Dever, who was pressured into retracting a rape allegation. Police later find out she was telling the truth after a pair of female detectives, played by Emmy winners Toni Collette and Merritt Wever, track down her rapist in Colorado.
The show is based on reporting by The Marshall Project and ProPublica and a follow-up radio episode on “This American Life” that won a Pulitzer Prize. The series also draws upon the book “A False Report,” written by the two reporters who researched the 2008 case.
Here, Grant, 56, of Santa Monica, California, talks about what inspired the eight-episode series and how all involved strove for authenticity and sensitivity in making the show.
What was it that led you to create “Unbelievable”?
I read the ProPublica and The Marshall Project article and brought it to my production partner, Sarah Timberman, who had also received it from a pair of writers. All of us were interested in turning it into a limited series. We brought it to Netflix, who saw the huge potential of it.
What did you think of the article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape”?
I thought it was just a brilliant piece of journalism. It took an issue I was vaguely aware of and made it so personal and so emotionally affecting, and connected that issue to one person who endured that. I was moved by the character at the heart of the story — known as Marie in our story and in the article — and her ability to withstand just the worst injustices and still continue fighting for the quality of life she felt she deserved. And of course, within that story, there are some really unpleasant truths to look at.
A very small percentage of rapes are reported and a minute amount of them are prosecuted. The number of new cases that were similar to Marie’s — just over the course of making this show the past two years — was really surprising. You come across one every three to six weeks. It’s very resonate of the tact in our story and how it’s very clearly not an isolated incident. I knew the statistics. I saw the opportunity to do what the article did and “This American Life” did as well, and tell it in a different medium and connect with audiences in a different way and magnify it.
Did you feel any societal pressures?
Yes. You’re telling the story of real people, and not just real people, but real people and possibly the worst things they’ll ever have to endure in their lives. We knew at the get-go we had to treat this story with respect and really tell the truth of it without turning it into sensationalism at all. It was a good pressure — it was something to be very mindful of, from the tonal decisions and visual decisions we were making. We talked about it as we were shooting: Keep the real people in mind and bring the respect to your work every day as if you were looking them in the eye.
What was your approach from a filmmaking perspective?
We all agreed we wanted to tell the story with a lot of authenticity. We didn’t want it to live in the fantasy land that a lot of entertainment can live in, but in a way that is successful for those. It had to feel very real. We talked to our hair and makeup people and said we don’t want perfect hair — we wanted their hair to look like someone’s been living in the world. Our wardrobes people encouraged our actors to get in their clothes very early in the day to make it look like they were lived in.
Tell me more about Marie’s character.
When you meet her, she’s gone through this horrible, dreadful traumatic experience. The rest of the show is her trying to get herself back to the place she was in before — she had just aged out of a foster care system and really optimistically starting her very young adult life — and she never loses that desire to make her life what she wanted it to be. I found that so inspiring, how hard she fought for her quality of life, even as the odds got stacked higher and higher against her.
Why shine a light on those two Colorado detectives?
I found their work so inspiring. They’ve taken on a difficult job of looking at the worst things human beings can do to each other and doing something about it. That’s a big, admirable undertaking, and it comes at a personal cost. I have so much respect for them and their dogged determination they brought to the case. Writing and portraying that was really an honor.
Tell me more about the cast.
I just love them. Those actors are just tremendous. Kaitlyn is so young and so hugely talented. Toni and Merritt are just as good as actors can get. Then we had this amazing supporting cast. We had actors who came in for just one day and did such beautiful work. I’m thrilled with our lead cast and the attention they’re getting, but I want to acknowledge the acting quality in our show goes all the way across the board.
What do you hope audiences will take away from watching the show?
I hope the ideas that sort of carried us through the making of it lands with viewers. It’s hard to miss the bigger points we’re making there. The reason the crime of rape is so underreported and underprosecuted in our culture isn’t a problem with a couple of bad apples — it’s a huge systemic and societal problem. It’s so widespread that most people I know have some personal connection to it. I hope this show will open the audiences’ heart to it a little more.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.