When author Michelle McNamara was investigating the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker (soon to be know as the Golden State Killer) cases, she needed to rely on a network of other individuals including members of law enforcement and the survivors themselves to piece together enough of the story to write her 2018 book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.” Sadly, McNamara unexpectedly passed away before the book could be published, leaving others to rally to make sure the work got done. Now, just over two years later, a team of documentary filmmakers turned McNamara’s book into a six-part docuseries for HBO. And the poetic nature of collaborating on this project is not lost on them.
“Writing is solitary and documentaries are such a collaboration. We got to go to work every day and work with 20-plus people,” said producer and co-director Elizabeth Wolff during ATX Television Festival’s virtual panel for the show, which Variety moderated, on Friday. “These were dark stories, and it is incredible how much you can accomplish when when you’re interacting with people and doing it together. And I think that there was a great tragedy in getting to know Michelle’s story for me, because I kept on thinking, ‘Oh my god, I wish she had what I had on this project when she was writing that book. Would it have helped her and would it have turned out differently?'”
McNamara passed away in her sleep in April 2016, with her cause of death later revealed to be an accidental overdose, with a combination of drugs in her system that included Adderall and Fentanyl. With the help of her husband, actor-writer Patton Oswalt, her work on the case was turned over to trusted individuals so the book could still be published. It was, in February 2018, and just two months after that the Golden State Killer ended up captured.
HBO had their eye on adapting McNamara’s story when the book was still only in galley format, executive producer and director Garbus recalled. When the premium cabler approached her, she sat down with Oswalt to understand what the intentions behind the project were and what material McNamara had left behind. “As it turned out, there was a treasure trove,” she said, citing everything from the personal voicemails to investigative documents that make up much of the series.
Garbus then assembled a team that included Wolff, as well as co-producers and co-directors Myles Kane and Josh Koury. Together, they not only spanned the timeline of the original crimes in the 1970s and 1980s through archival footage and reporting, but they also told a not-so-distantly past story of McNamara’s interest in true crime in general, let alone this case. Just as her book dives into her personal story, so too does the docuseries, featuring home videos of her with Oswalt and their daughter Alice and interviews with her family members and sources.
“At the beginning it’s all about her excitement and how being on this hunt for this absent, terrible ghost over California excites her and motivates her. And in fact he kind of lands her the success that had been eluding her for her career,” Garbus noted.
“The balancing act for us was always about on the one hand, Michelle and her narrative and her journey balancing family, work, mental stressors, and [then] the story of the Golden State Killer and the reality of the victims. And all of those threads needed to be constantly interacting with each other. Even when the show has revealed that Michelle has passed on, she is still very present in telling us the story. And that balance was important to all of us to make sure was woven throughout every episode.”
Former police officer Joseph DeAngelo was arrested for the crimes when a DNA match through a genetic testing website found markers in his DNA that matched the DNA left at some of the crime scenes. The docuseries goes beyond the pages of McNamara’s book to follow how this unfolded, how the survivors feel now that he has been caught, and also films some survivors at moments where they are coming forward to interact with others who have gone through what they have for the first time.
“We knew we wanted their stories as part of the series of course, but I think the more we met with them and connected with them, it was a surprise about how there’s this new chapter of their story [unfolding] in the present day,” said Kane. “There was this new undefined, uncharted territory of both new trauma and catharsis all mixed together with this guy suddenly having a face and being behind bars.”
“We developed relationships with so many of the survivors and members of law enforcement and some of those people had direct relationships with Michelle, so in many ways, we were inheriting this relationship,” Wolff added. “Melanie is a citizen sleuth that you get to know in the in the series and she would say, ‘It feels like this is just a continuation of my relationship with Michelle, I wish she were here for this. It felt like an incredible responsibility to have so many people actually feel like we were somehow carrying on this relationship that they had with her.”
In speaking further to the responsibility the filmmakers said they felt they had to McNamara, who is no longer here to be involved in the project or respond to it when it premieres, Garbus said one big thing they wanted to accomplish with the series was to make people “understand was how seminal her work was” in what has become an “explosive industry.”
“She really was a pioneer,” Garbus said. “Now it’s almost like ‘armchair internet sleuth’ is a common term, but she was doing this in such creative ways before it became a fad.”
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” premieres June 28 on HBO.