Q+A WITH DIRECTOR LIZ GARBUS
Can you tell us about the origin of this series?
HBO had acquired the book in galleys and approached me to direct the series. As soon as I started reading the book, I was completely hooked by Michelle McNamara’s voice and her intelligence and compassion. I saw an opportunity not only to explore a fascinating case, but also a woman’s life… a portrait of an artist as a young and then middle-aged woman!
The series has so many themes. Ultimately, it’s a lot more than a true crime exposé. Is that what clinched it for you?
Yes, I think through Michelle’s voice we not only learn about this case, which is of course by definition “true crime,” but we learn about a woman’s life, one that so many of us can relate to. We learn about a young woman’s dreams, rejection and triumph, and the cost of obsession. We learn about a woman’s struggle to balance work, family, and her own personal demons. We learn about the whole community of citizen sleuths advocating for justice. We learn about trauma. There’s so much more to it than a straightforward telling of these terrible crimes. And at the end of the day the Golden State Killer himself plays a small role in the series. It’s really a story of Michelle McNamara, the survivors, and all their struggles.
Michelle’s voice is very prevalent throughout the series. How did you manage to create that?
Well thanks to the archives that Patton Oswalt shared with us we had a wealth of materials, including all the podcasts and interviews she had done during her lifetime, her personal research and family videotapes, and her iPhone, which had notes and recordings of her conversations with law enforcement. We were able to make Michelle feel very present by piecing together all that she left behind. And that balance between Michelle, her story and the investigation were the keys to the storytelling.
At what point did Amy Ryan come on board to read Michelle’s words?
I approached her about it probably four or five months before finishing. Amy is a tremendous talent, and her ability to communicate strength and empathy was perfect for this. She’s a terrifically precise actress, she studied Michelle’s recordings and was really able to convey her varied speech patterns — from the thrill of discovery to the overwhelming stress of the work.
You tackle difficult subjects in your work. How does this compare?
In all of my films, I am interested in people’s humanity, in what connects us to those you didn’t even know you had things in common with. Having access to all the materials I discussed earlier — that for me was unprecedented. When I’ve made films about people who are no longer with us, like Nina Simone or Bobby Fischer, you’re kind of scouring the globe for what they have left behind: Can you find a photo of Bobby when he was sleeping on someone’s couch in Vienna? Did Nina ever talk about writing that song? But many people living today will leave behind hourly records of what they are thinking, feeling, and doing! This was the extraordinary gift — and the challenge — with this project. Being able to convey on film a mind like Michelle’s, we really were able to tell the story through her point-of-view.
You were in the weeds with this, looking at crime scene material, etc. How did you keep your sanity and distance from it all?
Well, I’ve been doing this for a long time. The extremes of human behavior are not unfamiliar to me. I’ve made films where I have documented human beings being executed. I guess I have become successful at compartmentalizing. But the trick is doing this not so deeply that I don’t feel. And there are definitely photos in this case that were just horrifying and made me feel really sick. But, what’s worse is that it truly happened to someone, and in telling their story, you’re making them come alive again, making them more than that horrible photo.
Do you see yourself as a like mind to Michelle?
I identify so much with Michelle. We were the same age. I empathized with her, the joy of having a child and the complicated way at which it pulls at your work life. I'm sure all of us do, but it’s a constant thing… her desire to be the perfect mum and make sure everything for Alice was 100% buttoned up at the same time as trying to let go and do her work. I really identified with her.
As you got into the project, did you understand what it was about the Golden State Killer case that had consumed Michelle?
It’s a huge case with 50 rapes. I mean, imagine 50 rapes! Unsolved! Yes, we’re talking about 12 murders, but 50 rapes! And as someone in the film says, a rape is like a soul murder – your life is never the same after that. And I think the sheer massiveness of it, the fact that it wasn’t really on the public’s radar, and how could someone who infected so many homes and so many lives go free for so long? There were so many survivors left behind, who was going to find justice for them and tell their stories? That’s what consumed Michelle.
The lack of understanding about what rape was back then was astounding… the victim blaming?
Yes, it’s shocking. But look – women couldn’t have their own credit cards in the 1970s… it’s hard to imagine how little personhood women were afforded even in the wake of the feminist movement. So, it’s certainly something we know intellectually, but then to see it in black and white is quite something.
How was it to sit down with these women and husbands and broach this delicate subject?
I had three co-directors on this project and Elizabeth Wolff, one of the co-directors, did a lot of the victim interviews. We were clear that we were not going to reduce them to a sound bite of "he tied me up." We were going to have a full 360 degree understanding of their experiences. Many of those survivors in our film have not talked before. So, I think knowing the depth of the project really helped make them feel comfortable.
The Golden State Killer was caught after Michelle’s book was published. Where exactly were you in the process of making this film and did you have to pivot at all seeing as he was under arrest?
Crazy timing. Our first shoot was in Chicago. It was the first time I was meeting Michelle’s family, and we went to Chicago with Patton, Billy and Paul, who were there doing a book reading. We had just finished our first night of shooting and I had just met all of Michelle’s siblings and nieces and nephews. And when I got up for my flight at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, I saw all these texts on my phone that overnight there was a suspect taken into custody… and this whole journey came to an inflection point. It was very interesting being there with Patton. Emotionally, it was a very intense day. And then it did change… in episodes five and six we do spend a lot of time focusing on how they got the Golden State Killer. So, of course it changed the shape of the project.
How did you get DeAngelo’s family members and ex-fiancée to decide to talk?
That took a year, frankly! Hopefully, people look at the kind of work we’ve made over the years, and they trust their stories will be handled with care. And I had an incredible research team who handled everything with dogged sensitivity.
Can we talk about Patton? He’s known as a comedian, a funny actor and here you are hanging out with him in the wake of the most unimaginable grief.
Patton was an incredible ally. He trusted us implicitly, he shared so much with us, he was always available for questions. I think after DeAngelo was caught, it was hard for Patton because it was a moment that he felt Michelle should have been part of. Obviously, he wanted justice for the victims, so it was emotionally complicated. And I think that at some point he just said, I have to pull back and I think that was okay too. But, he gave us the space and freedom to explore and ask questions.
Some of the saddest moments were when Patton says he didn’t know the drugs she was using and you see this sorrow in him.
This is the pattern. It’s a huge problem with prescription drugs. If someone is using heroin, everyone goes “oh, they have a drug problem.” If someone is using prescription drugs, there is a sense that this is manageable. And, of course, in many cases it’s not. And I think that Michelle, being such a hyper competent woman, Patton trusted she was managing this responsibly. I think there’s this assumption that if you’re high functioning, everything must be okay. Her closest friends and family were equally shocked by how deep she had gotten.
How do you feel films like this can help survivors?
People carry pain, people carry their trauma. In the era in which these women were raped and tortured, they were told not to talk about it. That shame, those secrets, metastasize like cancers in your soul. I think only by letting it out into the light can you begin the healing. It’s so painful but in the end, it may be the only way to live. I think that in some ways the obsession with the Golden State Killer for Michelle was an avoidance tactic for her own personal demons. But, at the same time, that search and writing was what made her feel alive and successful.
The sheer wealth of texts, emails, case files, recordings, survivors, the police, citizen detectives, Michelle’s voice. What were the biggest challenges of corralling everything into a coherent episodic structure?
All of that! It was balancing all of that! And yes, when you’re essentially doing a six-hour film, a film that’s broken up into six episodes but that is one story, yes, where does this go, in what episode? It’s very complicated and it’s also a joy and that’s why we do what we do. You take the messy wet clay of life and try to shape it into something you can share and it’s what I love most about filmmaking.