I Am the Night creator/writer details how he transformed Fauna Hodel’s story into one of the best thrillers of the season.
The fact that I Am the Night is Sam Sheridan’s first television show is pretty damn impressive. The story of Fauna Hodel discovering her true racial identity is one of the most bonkers stories never told, and he handles it with both sensitivity and intrigue as he ties Fauna’s story with George Hodel’s possible involvement with the infamous Black Dahlia murder. It’s one of the most underrated limited series of the season.
Sheridan was pulled into the Hodel story when he heard it from wife (and I Am the Night director) Patty Jenkins, and he was fascinated on how to bring the show to television. He wanted to make sure he did it the right way. Chris Pine’s character, Jay Singletary, is a completely new character, and Sheridan was able to fashion a true story of a girl finding herself amid a legendary unsolved true crime saga. That’s not a very easy thing to pull off, and Sheridan’s writing is nimble and agile. By the time the first episode ends, you find yourself doing more research on Fauna Hodel, The Black Dahlia, and 1960’s Hollywood. You want to find out more.
When did you stumble onto Fauna’s story and why do you think it took so long for an adaptation of her memoir to happen?
Patty met Fauna probably 12 years ago. It was one of those friend of a friends who said, ‘You gotta hear this woman’s story!’ And that happens to Patty a lot. She went and had coffee with Fauna and came back wide-eyed. We got into it and bought a bunch of books and read all about it. Patty actually tried doing it as a show like 12 years ago. It was before the return of the limited series. Before True Detective. I had the feeling that it felt more like a feature and not an open-ended 100 episodes. It couldn’t go on forever. It was really a question of timing and the medium. As the limited series came back around, it was Chris Pine’s interest that got me going.
Yeah. Patty had told me about it, and I was really cautious. There had to be a better writer for it who could get into it. I was just daunted by the scope of it and the complexity of the reveals. She and Chris became friends on the set of Wonder Woman and they would have dinner and pitch ideas to each other. She told him this story and he was blown away—everyone goes down the rabbit hole. I always joke that the crazy shit is all true, right? The stuff that’s not crazy is made up. But we didn’t know who Chris would be. He’s not Hodel—not the bad guy. I thought what if there was a noir hero in this to sort of channel it to narratively construct it? There were reporters that were ruined by Hodel and there were certainly guys like Jay. It opened the door for me to see it as a noir mystery thriller. We wanted to subvert a lot of these tropes and play with the genre. It just gave me a way to break through on how to structure it and it all took off.
Speaking of Jay and how he is a fictional character, how did his character evolve in the writing process? It has to be a tricky thing because of how you balance the real life story with a fictional guide.
Yes, certainly, it evolved, and Chris was intimately involved in creating that character. He wanted to explore the PTSD angle and a war like man who came back and struggling to return to his life. We came up if he had the same problem that Hodel had in terms of understanding the savage joy of killing.
Kind of a twisted foil for each other.
Totally. I think the interesting thing was that there were these huge elements like incest and The Black Dahlia and that meant we could be smaller in Fauna’s story. Fauna’s personal quest for identity was always something we loved. Some people thought that it was going to be a Black Dahlia thriller with car chases and guns blazing, but it was always always about this girl who survived this horrible situation. Fauna was one of the most loving, kind, and gentle people and her journey to get to where she was was the story we wanted to tell.
What noir films did you want to emulate with I Am the Night?
Certainly Hitchcock and Chinatown. This is sort of the true story behind Chinatown. Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson. The lead singer, John Philips, was Tamar’s protégé. If you read Michelle Philips autobiography, she reveals that she was also molested by her father. The first 30 pages are about her and Tamar hanging around San Francisco and chasing bands and stuff. Tamar’s story was really the genesis of that side of Chinatown. Who knows, but there’s certainly a correlation there. We wanted to honor Chinatown and quote it when we could. We were certainly influenced by it. Hitchcock as well.
Corinna could be a Hitchcock blonde. The first time we see her—with that blonde hair and that dramatic robe—I thought she’d look very at home in one of his movies.
Connie was so great because she just dove into it. That character is bananas. She was so into it and got really into the mid-Atlantic accent which isn’t a real accent. It’s like a fake, 1950’s accent.
That affected tone.
“I nivir answer the door, Bill!” Some of my favorite lines in the whole show come from Connie.
You know every time she opens her mouth, it’s going to be good.
Out of all the episodes, you didn’t write episode five, “Aloha.” Is there a particular reason why you passed the reins to Monica Beletsky?
There was a lot of time pressure with Patty and Chris’s availability windows. They had a tight schedule and had to do it between movies. I was writing while we were shooting and on set. I think I started writing as soon as we sold it. I always wanted help in terms of overall structure, and Monica is a much more experienced writer than I was. She was a great teammate and she brought a lot of different insights. I think her great uncle had been a electrician in LA and he couldn’t work in the union because he was black. Some of the complexities of those issues, it was great to talk with her about.
We live in a time where knowing who you are and being proud of that is celebrated. Do you think that’s why so many people can connect with Fauna’s story?
The satisfaction in identify is very recent. There’s a lot of things people see in Fauna. Another fun thing about it was playing around with our own internal misogyny. I’d have these conversations where I’d say, ‘Well how would Fauna know this?’ You wouldn’t ask that of a young, white man. You never ask a man how he got home one night. I was very interested in turning her into a noir hero and subverting the paradigm of her needing to be rescued. The most important thing to me was—and this might be overly ambitious on my part—for her to defeat the philosophy of George Hodel. I wanted her to destroy him as an art critic and then whatever else comes with that. That would be the most satisfying way to finish. The truth was that Fauna did that. She turned her back on the nonsense that she could’ve been caught up in. She made a decision to love who she was and love her children and be a complete person. She told him that she didn’t care about his wealth and his delusions of grandeur.
I wasn’t expecting that in the final episode, I’ll be totally honest. Sometimes you forget that it’s based on fact and you’re expecting a big chase scene. A “Hollywood ending,” if you will. And it doesn’t end that way. It’s better for that.
Thank you. And George did get away. Some people said, ‘Well, shouldn’t she just shoot him?’ And we said no for a lot of reasons. One of them is that sometimes you don’t get the bad guy. That’s a lot more noir anyway.
How was it watching Patty direct something that you adapted?
Oh, it was fantastic. Just talking about societal misogyny, women don’t get called ‘genius’ very often. You never call a female artist that. Any guy who does a cool Toyota commercial is automatically dubbed a genius. In this case, I think Patty is a genius and one of the three great directors working right now in terms of understanding emotional storytelling. Understanding what emotions need to do and how to pull them off.
When I was doing some research, I saw a piece asking why a foreign female director hadn’t done a movie in so many years. You’d never see that about a man.
Men fail upward all the time and women never do. Mimi Leder was famously put in “directors jail” when something failed and it took her like 12 years to make another feature film. Men consistently fail and it’s either about the timing being wrong or the script being bad. It’s something that I find very interesting about our internal, societal misogyny.
How do you field the pressure when getting Fauna’s story right? Everything that I’ve read tells me that she was a lovely human being, so how do you create something that’s very personal to someone else?
It’s tricky. I had a lot of conversations with Fauna in interviews and she read scripts. It was a real tragedy when she passed about a month before we started shooting. I thought I was going to have her with me on set. That was a big shock but we went forward and we did our best. Her daughters were around a lot. It’s all you can do is that every piece out there gets the most love you can give it. You don’t cut corners and you try to get every detail right. You make every scene have a cool turn and have multiple levels working. That’s something else I learned by watching Patty. She’s relentless in her quest for perfection.
You put in the work.
And you don’t let anyone get away with anything. We just tried to live up to that. I wasn’t filled with terror or pressure to perform. Fauna knew we were going mythologize her. She was our inspiration—we weren’t basing the story on her. I have a theory. I used to write nonfiction books, and in nonfiction people will only tell you they only read nonfiction. It’s all fiction, dude. You’re just reading what I‘m telling you. I can’t tell you who is cheating on their wife, because I don’t want to fuck my friends over. Who is doing drugs or who is a criminal. I can’t tell you things that would make a story so much more interesting. When you want to tell the essential truth of a situation, it’a actually a lot more honest to fictionalize it. With this, we are trying to get to the truth of who Fauna was and what she was about. It comes down to questions of the price you pay for wanting to be great—that’s a theme for a lot of the characters. What happens to you when you set out to find out who you are and you find out the worst things are true and what allowed Fauna to come through that. The real Fauna had kids when she was really young and found out stuff in her 30’s. So it was a much slower burn, so you need to fictionalize to kind of find the truth in a broader, more dynamic sense. That’s my rant.
No, I love it! This was your first huge foray into television, and I think you guys knock it out of the park.
Would you have an idea of what story you’d want to tell to return to the medium of the limited series?
Nothing specific right now, but I’m interested in the certain kind of guy that knows everything. A cop or a fireman. There’s always a guy that “knows” everything. I love picking on those guys and picking the wires loose in their brains. I have a couple ideas where there is a traditional setup but then odd things happen. Which is something that I tried to sell 10 years ago, but TV wasn’t there. Maybe we’re getting there now?
I Am the Night is streaming now.