A few days before “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” was set to premiere on HBO, the six-part docuseries based on Michelle McNamara’s book of the same name about the hunt for, survivors of and eventual arrest of the Golden State Killer still wasn’t finished.
“If there is some finality in terms of his journey through the criminal justice system, then we want to be able to share that with our audience,” executive producer and co-director Liz Garbus tells Variety.
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Garbus and her directing team that also includes Elizabeth Wolff, Josh Koury and Myles Kane weaved a detailed tale half set in the world of Joseph James DeAngelo, the former police officer who was arrested in 2018 for crimes committed decades earlier, and half set in the world of McNamara’s investigation into who the perpetrator could be. McNamara’s part of the story has a definitive end: The author unfortunately passed away in 2016 and her book was finished posthumously with help from her sources and her husband, actor, comedian, writer and producer Patton Oswalt. But DeAngelo’s fate was still hanging in the balance. Perhaps serendipitously he is expected to enter a plea around the premiere of the docuseries, so Garbus and her team wanted to leave room at the end of their series to include cards with the most up-to-date information possible.
“Whatever happens with DeAngelo, it’s just really more of a procedural element for those curious. I don’t think it shifts the focus of six-plus hours of following their stories,” Garbus says of the survivors. “I don’t know if there’s any such thing as closure in these stories, but it definitely closes one chapter.”
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” will release episodes weekly beginning June 28, so the production team has time to add more end cards if needed, depending on if DeAngelo actually pleads guilty and what sentence he receives. The feeling of not quite being done with a story is one that is certainly not foreign to Garbus, who cites her 2003 documentary feature “Girlhood” as one that made her feel like she “couldn’t stop shooting,” simply because it followed young women who went through the juvenile system and then came out of it, and “their lives were changing so rapidly,” she recalls.
More recently, her 2019 two-part documentary “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” was also a tale which had no definitive end, not because there was so much life being lived beyond when her cameras stopped rolling, but because a young life had been cut short and there was still no answer as to who did it. “Is there more to explore there if we got new material? Yes, I would love to go do a follow-up,” Garbus says.
But with “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” Garbus says she does have an “emotionally complete” sentence for the question she wanted to ask at the start of the project, which was an exploration into breaking down artifices.
“A lot of the storytelling here was about trying to know people and things that you can’t quite grasp. And Patton talked about why he wanted to make the documentary and he says, ‘Who wouldn’t want to know all of this about the person you love so much? There’s so much that you can’t capture, even when you’re married to them.’ And obviously Joe DeAngelo was somebody that people around him didn’t know, and I think for the survivors, they were asked to keep secrets their whole life,” she says.
The production team dove deep into interviews with Oswalt, as well as other members of McNamara’s family and some of her sources in order to take a journey through her reporting and get an understanding of the woman who would be so driven to investigate cold cases as a citizen. They also went equally deep with survivors of DeAngelo’s crimes, and a couple of his family members.
“The folks who decided to come forward, I have enormous respect for their bravery,” Garbus says, adding that she considers DeAngelo’s family members “survivors of another story.”
“Every documentary wants its own shape. When you approach a project, you’ve got this wet clay of a story that doesn’t really have a shape, and it’s by examining that clay and what’s special about it that the shape becomes known,” she continues. “For us, having all of these voice recordings of interviews that Michelle did, that was really a guiding beacon for us on how to tell the story: What kind of visuals do we need to shoot to support that audio? And I think that that, as opposed to coming in and saying, ‘Well we’re going to includes these 10 people and these 10 things.’ It was about looking at the material and realizing what was special about it.”
And in some moments, the team pulled back the lens and included footage of themselves interacting with their interview subjects, much the way McNamara included bits of her personality and interest in the case in her own writing. This, Garbus says, further aided the endeavor to show the boundaries that people often have in front of them, and break them down.
“It was revealing the truth of the artifice of the documentary as well,” she says.
But in a world experiencing the self-quarantining and social distancing of a pandemic, it also adds an extra layer of emotion to an already heavy story.
Documentary filmmakers have to coax intimate details out of those they are featuring, which more often that not requires hours of sitting in a shared, even if not that small, space with them, talking and sharing. In the cases of the survivors in “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” the production team came into their homes, something which may take some convincing for someone on the best day but feels impossible now.
“We’ve been finishing this show and I’ve been editing on another film, so I haven’t gone back into the field since COVID, but interviewing somebody with a mask on or gloves or whatever we’re going to have to do is going to feel very different,” Garbus admits. “But I do think there is a way to do it safely because with docs there are smaller crews, so I do have optimism that documentaries can operate in a very safe way.”
The pandemic isn’t the only real-world news that might have an affect on how audiences view “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.” There is also the fact that the story shines a light on the failings of the police force — namely how they were unable to find the responsible party for three different crime sprees, including rapes, murders and burglaries, across California in the 1970s and 1980s — at a time when police reform is being widely-called for.
Garbus notes that investigating violent crime is such a small percent of what police do on a daily basis. “Serial killers are so rare,” she says. “And it’s the kinds of things that police do that are not rare — the discrimination against people of color is so rampant — [that are] the larger issues we’re facing as a country.”
With DeAngelo’s case back in the news again, because of this docuseries as well as his potential plea, Garbus shares her team will also be doing a podcast that includes hearing even more from the survivors. The goal was always to center them in the story, to give them power over their own narratives and experiences. And doing so created equally important connections between them that Garbus says was one of the most rewarding pieces of the project.
There was a “garden party where they got together and they were so open and able to lean on one another,” she says of footage from one of the later “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” episodes. “That was a really beautiful thing, and they’ve been keeping that going through the hearings.”
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