“We Wanted To Tell A Great Story With A Powerful Theme” Susannah Grant On Adapting ‘Unbelievable’
Few TV shows have shocked and awed viewers like Netflix’s Unbelievable this year. Told from the perspective of Marie Adler, who was often not believed after reporting her rape by both law enforcement and her close associates, the time is ripe to remind audiences to believe rape victims when they finally summon the courage to come forth. Susannah Grant, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and showrunner, also known for penning 28 Days, In Her Shoes, Erin Brockovich, and The Soloist, decided to tell Adler’s story.
Grant has continually proven her remarkable ability to tell female-driven stories exploring the structures and dynamics of power in compelling and often unexpected ways. Unbelievable is no exception. The 8-episode mini-series stars Kaitlyn Dever (Marie Adler), Merritt Wever (Karen Duvall), and Toni Collette (Grace Rasmussen) is based on the true story involving a teenager charged with lying about her rape – and then lying about lying about it. Until the rapist was caught years late in another state – almost by fluke – due to an uncannily similar rape case.
Inspired by the real events in the Marshall Project and ProPublica Pulitzer-winning 2015 article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” and the This American Life episode “Anatomy of Doubt,” Grant set out to reveal the truth behind the story.
“Rape is a topic that always resonates with audiences regardless of gender,” remarked screenwriter Susannah Grant. “Gender-based power balance. Gender-based violence. This is not a new struggle, but I do think we’re in a time when people are willing to look at the things we’ve been ignoring more seriously. There are a lot of ugly aspects of our culture we’ve been willing to ignore.” Unbelievable is not an issue-based TV series. It is not a show inspired by current affairs or current causes. It is a story both of its time and timeless.
“We started this before the #MeToo movement, before the Harvey Weinstein revelations and everything that followed. It felt relevant,” added the screenwriter. “We stuck together with our friends at Netflix when they asked if what was exploding culturally changed our storytelling. We agreed it did not.”
The true story behind Unbelievable is a hard-hitting look at the story of Marie Adler. The TV pilot is somewhat brutal to watch, even in today’s era of desensitized audiences. Marie is raped by an intruder in a dream-like state of events and then forced to tell her story to the police, over and over again. She’s stripped-down, examined, and probed both mentally and physically. The bigger aim was to find discrepancies in her statement more than finding her rapist.
Contrasting Detective Styles
There are some potential spoilers for the series below…
We asked Susannah Grant what attracted her to this particular story.
“I was drawn to Marie’s story, but also the simultaneous story of these two detectives who are doing it right. They’re actually bringing the proper commitment and investigative techniques to something that goes wrong so often. Being able to tell those stories in tandem makes it a unique story.”
If it wasn’t for Duvall and Rasmussen’s grit and determination, the rapist might still be free.
Specifically, Grant is referring to the detective styles of Detective Robert Parker (Eric Lange) and Detectives Karen Duvall and Grace Rasmussen. Parker is blunt and to the point, as if he’s investigating a missing automobile or a simple break-in. Duvall and Rasmussen, who are coming in from a woman’s point-of-view, are more nurturing and gentle when talking to victims. They care about the victim as much as solving the case.
As such, some have labeled the TV series as a feminist drama. Although Grant does label herself a feminist, she avoids putting this label on the story. “I think there are complex, interesting women in this story. There’s a female point-of-view about these issues that are unfamiliar to many audiences used to primetime cop crime dramas, but it’s not a show by and for feminists. It’s just a really compelling story,” Grant asserts.
“I did not want to make Unbelievable with a feminist agenda, a public service agenda, or an activist agenda. We just wanted to make a great story with a powerful theme.” Along with the contrast of the male and female detectives, there are also major differences between the modus operandi of the two lead female detectives and their conflicting styles.
Generally speaking, Merritt Wever’s character is nurturing and by the book, while Toni Collette’s character is abrasive and more willing to do whatever it takes to bring down the bad guy. “I didn’t have the traditional mismatched buddy cop movie tropes in mind. I was really interested in looking at two women who have worked in predominantly male workplaces and how they carved out their place in them,” said Grant. Having female detectives investigating rape cases has far-reaching effects in terms of prosecution rate.
“There’s so much information about how a slight increase in the number of women in the police workforce dramatically changes how rape cases are handled. I was interested in the idea of how one plus one equals more than two, and how getting these two detectives together could have an exponential effect on their impact on prosecuting rape cases. Then you want to tell a human story underneath that penetrates.” Duvall and Rasmussen weren’t influenced by other TV shows.
Grant joked that she never watched the TV show Cagney & Lacey, nor did she refer to old tropes when developing the two characters of Duvall and Rasmussen. “These characters were inspired by real women, so I was taking my cues from their world, rather than from television.”
On top of everything else, the duo discussed their relationship with religion in the workplace – faith versus non-faith.
“The concept of having Karen in a faith-oriented root was based on real-life. That was the piece of reality that came from the detective, because it seemed important. It gave her the drive, stamina, and vision to do her job as well as she did. I didn’t think making Karen religious had to make Grace an atheist, but that was something that developed over time from writer Becky Mode. I think [Grace] would have lashed out as a realist, but the scene where Duvall meditated about patiently following God’s path and Rasmussen blaspheming that they were as far from that #*#$%@% path as possible added to their philosophical differences.” Despite their beliefs, they held a deep respect for their differences.
The Mystery of Marie Adler
As for Marie, the A-storyline follows a girl who has been in and out of the foster system, getting into trouble on occasion and being tossed from foster house to house. When the officers examine the various stories she tells, the alleged rape does start to sound like a lie. She’s confused. She’s upset. Her retelling of events isn’t always the same. Why would Adler lie about something so profound?
“She’s developed some coping mechanisms that have saved her in other traumatic situations in life. The ability to disconnect. The ability to separate from a situation when it’s not going to go away. The ability to find space in yourself when something is not going away. But this time, those coping mechanisms were used against her,” opined Grant.
As Marie moved from victim to suspect, she realized she was in a room she did not want to be in. She tried to reason her way out of the various situations based on her past experiences, but this time that got her into all kinds of trouble. She wanted the event to end, so she admitted to the lie, with another lie, and it cost her everything – even the truth.
“Some detectives use something called the Reid Technique, which was designed for interrogating suspects and getting a confession out of them. It’s a well-established technique. It’s brutal and very effective, and it was used on Marie,” Susannah Grant added.
Avoid Being Over-Determined
Marie Adler’s story has been in development for some time. We asked Susannah Grant how it came to her.
“It’s important to point out we weren’t the first incarnation of this story. It started as an article, then a This American Life podcast, and the authors of the article –Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller – expanded it into a book, and this is the fourth retelling, which is a testament to how compelling the story is.”
Everyone who came across the story essentially saw the potential within it, making it somewhat of an ‘easy sell’.” The showrunner said, “that was the journey and you take a while to figure out your angle, shoot the pilot, and then Netflix said it was going to be a limited series.”
To make the story their own, the TV writers made sure they made each character full and complex. Using guidance learned while writing the Kerry Washington-driven, HBO film about Judge Clarence Thomas, Grant confirmed, “if you don’t have the credibility of truth, then all the work you’ve done gets compromised.” There was little room or need for fictionalization because the facts were so dramatic themselves.
“We didn’t feel the need to change much. There are points of dramatization, but to me, that made it more real, more compelling, and more emotional. We didn’t introduce things [the detectives] weren’t thinking, but we wanted to make some of the conundrums more real to viewers. There were minor adjustments, but not many. I don’t think we took out anything substantive, nor did we add anything untruthful.”
The journalists who wrote the original article also said they felt the TV series was faithful to the actual events. “It’s not my creative instinct to sensationalize them. We wanted TV writers and crew who were interested in telling an emotional and grounded story. I was also cognizant that the characters were real people who have endured something they would carry forever,” Grant stated.
“I tried to keep in mind that someday I might have to look the real character of Marie in the eye. I wanted to be able to say, ‘I did not exploit your pain for entertainment value.’ If you’re aware of that going in, that’s going to dictate your choices.” Some of this consideration also caused restraint for the tone of the series.
We asked Susannah Grant for her final musings on what made Unbelievable so successful.
“One word that came up often from Director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) was that we didn’t want it to feel ‘over-determined.’ That word became useful to us. No one wants to be lectured to, so if you take it too far, it can be pedantic, message heavy, and you lose everyone.”
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