In “Unbelievable,” a Lynnwood teenager, played by Kaitlyn Dever, is charged with lying about being raped. (Beth Dubber / Netflix)

In “Unbelievable,” a Lynnwood teenager, played by Kaitlyn Dever, is charged with lying about being raped. (Beth Dubber / Netflix)

Netflix series kept rape survivor in mind, creator says

Susannah Grant was inspired by ProPublica reporting on a Lynnwood case to make “Unbelievable.”

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.

Susannah Grant is the showrunner of Netflix’s new true crime series “Unbelievable.” (Beth Dubber / Netflix)

Susannah Grant is the showrunner of Netflix’s new true crime series “Unbelievable.” (Beth Dubber / Netflix)

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.

Like what?

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.

Merritt Wever (left) and Toni Collette star in the drama “Unbelievable.” (Beth Dubber / Netflix)

Merritt Wever (left) and Toni Collette star in the drama “Unbelievable.” (Beth Dubber / Netflix)

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, ethompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.

Talk to us

More in Life

Washington’s most beloved state park turns 100

Deception Pass State Park, which draws as many visitors as the best-known national parks in the U.S., celebrates a century of recreation and conservation

Hydrangea and rose
July checklist for Snohomish County gardeners

After a slow start to summer, things should take off this month. So keep planting and nurturing.

Caption: The 12 week Edmonds Community Police Academy was a free opportunity for private citizens to learn about law enforcement.
An inside look at how law enforcement works

A pregnant mother. A man who rescues abused horses and donkeys. A… Continue reading

Kid 'n Play members Christopher "Kid" Reid, left, and Christopher "Play" Martin perform on NBC's "Today" show during the "I Love The 90's" morning concert at Rockefeller Plaza on Friday, April 29, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Relive the music of the 1990s with Kid N Play and other stars of the era at the Tulalip Casino Amphitheater.

So-called relaxing summer vacations can wear you out

To truly enjoy a family getaway, tone down your expectations. Everything won’t be picture-perfect.

Gimmelwald, built in an avalanche zone, yet specializing in alpine tranquility.
Roaming the Alps brings cultural insights along with the views

The Swiss have great respect for Alpine traditions and culture — and contempt for tourists who disrespect both.

Will TripMate cover costs for trip canceled for medical reasons?

After Stanley Wales cancels his diving trip to Bonaire, he files a travel insurance claim with TripMate. What’s taking them so long to respond?

Contestant chef Brian Madayag (left) of Edmonds and West Coast team captain Brooke Williamson on “Beachside Brawl.” (Food Network) 20220616
Edmonds chef reps Pacific Northwest on new Food Network show

Barkada owner Brian Madayaga will compete on a new Food Network series that premiers Sunday.

Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kosteri’ (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Kosteri’

This Hinoki cypress is graceful and beautiful, and is very drought-tolerant once established.

Photo Caption: Butter prints like this one pressed a design into freshly made butter as a decoration or for marketing. Today, collectors search for antique butter prints and consider them folk art.
19th century farm families’ butter prints are coveted folk art

One example with a flower-and-heart design recently sold at auction for more than $5,000.

After two years of wellness, Covid finally hit this family, but thanks to vaccinations, the symptoms were mild. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Jennifer Bardsley’s fighting COVID-19 with vaccines and TLC

But even with vaccinations, the disease is scary for people like her with less than robust immune systems.

Turkey vultures’ pervious nostrils are among the features that help them feed on carrion. (The Columbian files)
In praise of turkey vultures, nature’s cleaning service

These raptors should be revered, not reviled, for their disposal of stinky, disease-laden animal matter.