Awards Daily talks to Academy Award-nominated director Liz Garbus about the HBO documentary I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, based on the late Michelle McNamara’s investigation of the Golden State Killer.
Director Liz Garbus’s filmography runs the gamut when it comes to subjects, from iconic musician Nina Simone to the tragic unsolved death of Garrett Phillips to the Season 4 finale of Handmaid’s Tale. And yet her projects have some themes in common.
“A lot of them have really strong, interesting women at the center of them,” laughed Garbus,. “But I’m attracted to story, and I think great stories come in a lot of different forms. Clearly crime stories provide the framework to look at the extremes of human behavior, both the bad and the good.”
In the summer of 2020, HBO’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark joined this canon of Garbus projects when it aired on HBO [she served as executive producer and directed the first and last episodes], chronicling the story of tenacious writer/citizen detective Michelle McNamara (the documentary series is based on her best-selling book) and the survivors of the Golden State Killer. And the timing was perfect, since it was also in June 2020 that the GSK was sentenced, giving both McNamara’s family and the survivors some justice.
The Spark in the Dark
Garbus’s first day of shooting for I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was a doozy: The footage would end up being in the last episode when McNamara’s husband comedian Patton Oswalt and the investigative team learn that the Golden State Killer, Joe DeAngelo, has been caught.
“We could have never expected, when myself and my crew were in a hotel in Chicago, that we would be awakened that morning to texts that a suspect had been arrested. In some ways, it changed the course of the filmmaking and storytelling, but in other ways, it did not. It was still really about Michelle’s journey to understand this crime and the survivors themselves. Who Joseph DeAngelo was was important for justice, but in terms of the story, it was almost the least interesting part of it. It never matches the kind of complexity of the emotion that has preceded it.”
How DeAngelo Evaded Police All These Years
Through her filmography, Garbus has looked at a lot of cases, and based on what she’s seen, she doesn’t think it was investigative mishap that prevented these crimes from being solved for more than 40 years.
“I think the case was quite siloed because the perpetrator went into so many districts and people were not making those connections and talking to each other, so that was a huge shame.”
Also, as the series documents, rape was not seen as a violent crime in the 1970s and 1980s, which means that it took murder for these crimes to be taken more seriously.
“In this particular case, it was more a question of lack of coordination and high thinking as well as a disregard of rape as a serious offense.”
Shame of the Male Survivors
Something the documentary astutely hones in on is not only the stories of the women who survived rape and torture from the Golden State Killer, but also how the men—husbands, boyfriends—who were victimized also experienced trauma and shame. It’s a view that doesn’t get showcased a lot in projects dramatizing sexual violence.
“Bob and Gay—that marriage is the only one that we know of that survived after the home invasion and rape. Linda O’Dell [another survivor] talked about her husband saying, ‘We’re not going to talk about this’ after she was brutally raped and he was tied up. Bob and Gay seemed to approach [the traumatic event] together. You could see on Bob’s face during the interviews, the pain and anger he felt. Being able to admit that feeling of powerlessness and face it was really important and enabled them to survive.”
The Rise of Next Michelle McNamara
Michelle McNamara wasn’t a trained detective: just a writer who had an interest in true crime. One of the interesting arguments the documentary incidentally raises is that there’s a power in being a citizen detective, that maybe you don’t need to be a professional to help solve a crime.
“If detectives are concerned about having a citizen detective on their case, then perhaps their concerns are in the wrong place, because why should that affect them? Great people understand when help is useful.”
After all, detective Paul Holes, who was one of the leads on this case, welcomed McNamara’s input, recognizing that she had access to certain kinds of skills that he did not.
“I think that’s a very beautiful example of a great investigator appreciating the interest and energy.”
And because of McNamara’s help in bringing media attention to the Golden State Killer, the series hopes to bring a call-to-action to another cold case in the form of a bonus episode of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.
“There’s an unsolved case that haunted Michelle from her childhood [the murder of a woman in her neighborhood] that was kind of her white whale and we have gone back not just to update the DeAngelo case, but also to talk about this case and invite the next Michelle McNamara to look into this case and keep the pressure on.”
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer that lives in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Cosmopolitan, The Cut, Paste, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Thrillist, and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @heydudemeg.