‘Unbelievable’ Bosses on Adapting an Unreliable Witness’ Assault Story

Two years before the #MeToo movement rocked Hollywood, many people’s reactions to then-18-year-old Marie Adler’s report of rape were disbelief. The young woman at the center of ProPublica’s “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” had experienced so much trauma in her young life, she became an unreliable witness in her own attack and was actually charged with a crime of her own before the truth came out. Now, two years after #MeToo, her story has been adapted into an eight-part limited series for Netflix entitled “Unbelievable,” starring Kaitlyn Dever as Marie.

“We started working on this two years ago, and it was obviously relevant and had been, unfortunately, for centuries, but then suddenly the material, and this story in particular, felt like it completely coincided with this wave of consciousness about this subject,” executive producer Sarah Timberman tells Variety.

Oscar nominee (for “Erin Brockovich”) Susannah Grant wrote, produced and directed the series, working on the scripts as the conversation around sexual harassment and sexual assault began to shift under its new spotlight. At the time, Timberman says, “a big question was whether to stay faithful to the original experience [of the article] and allow for doubt” around Marie’s claims in their version of the story. They saw the work movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up were doing to encourage believing women and believing survivors, and they were not out to offer a counterpoint or manipulate an audience into thinking the real-life Marie was deceptive. Soon enough, what became “really clear” was that they needed to be with Marie “for the experience of what it’s like not to be believed and to be prosecuted and her journey after that,” Timberman continues.

“She was a young woman who had been through traumatic experiences in life and had developed coping mechanisms. The show examines preconceptions about what trauma looks like and how it’s easy to misunderstand how one person’s coping mechanisms might be seen.”

“Unbelievable” starts with Marie, showing just glimpses of the assault that she reports and later recants. First and foremost for Grant, the decision to tell Marie’s story this way was made by the fact that she wanted her protagonist to be “the messenger of her own trauma.”

“The nature of memory in the wake of a trauma is so integral to the telling of the story,” she says. “The fact that those detectives in Washington did not understand that for a trauma victim — memories are unreliable and can be inconsistent, and reactions to trauma are as varied as people who experience trauma. There’s no one right way to respond.”

But from another storytelling perspective, Grant also did not want to write anything that could “tip at all into something that is rape porny.

“There’s so much in our culture that does evoke the vibe of rape porn that I immediately thought when I was writing it that if I did it from an objective view point it would be impossible not to feel like an observer of violence, and there’s so much casual observation of violence just in our advertising [and] our culture that I just didn’t want to be anywhere near that.”

Having the acts of violence be told through the perspectives of the women who experienced it was key for the story, but it also served to showcase why so many in the real-life Marie’s life experienced pause after initially hearing how her story changed as time went on.

Those in Marie’s life, including her foster parents and some of the police who interviewed her, doubted her story enough to not only stop investigating her report but also to seemingly want to teach her a lesson about filing what they thought was a false report. When crafting these characters for the screen, Timberman says it was imperative not to vilify them but instead to create characters the audience could relate to and therefore would not be inclined to judge.

“Part of what was really important was not portraying the people who doubted her with anything like a broad brush, but to make them as understandable as possible — because it’s really easy to look at a situation like this and think, ‘Oh God, that guy was a jerk, I wouldn’t do that,'” she says. “But if you see somebody who’s making a lot of the same calls you might make, my hope is it might make everybody feel a little bit of complicity in a culture that decides this is something you can doubt.”

After the first episode, the show jumps forward in time and place to watch Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) get called to a case of another victim (played by Danielle Macdonald), with eerie similarities to what Marie went through. Detective Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette) is brought in, too, as it becomes apparent there is a serial rapist operating in different jurisdictions. Then, the show begins telling two parallel stories and “time catches up over the course of the series,” Grant says.

“Marie’s story is tough. It’s heartbreaking to watch this young woman trying to keep her head above water as the sea is rising around her, and I wanted to tell that concurrent with the story of women she’s never met, who don’t even know about her, who, without knowing it, are doing their absolute damndest to find the guy, which will ultimately bring some balance back to her life,” she explains. “I thought it was interesting to play those two against each other.”

To capture both parts of the story accurately, Grant says they leaned heavily on the article, as well as the subsequent book and “This American Life” reporting on the case. But she also spoke to the real Marie, as well as one of the detectives who helped bring justice to Marie and the other women. The show had a researcher in the writers’ room, as well as a technical consultant to aid with further details about protocol. But overall, she admits she did want to leave some room to expand upon the story as needed for a multi-episode project.

“These characters are inspired by the real characters, and what they did and what they went through is very close to what the real people did and went through, but out of respect for their privacy and out of the desire to have the freedom to really tell these stories as fully as we wanted to, we changed all of the names and changed a lot of the identifying characteristics of them so their journey out of this could be their journey out of this without [the show] interfering,” Grant says.

“When you’re basing it on real people, I think you’ve done it right when the person can honestly look at it, even when it makes him or her uncomfortable, and say, ‘Yes, that’s true to what I went through.'”

“Unbelievable” is streaming now on Netflix.

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