I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the HBO docuseries about late crime writer Michelle McNamara’s obsessive quest to learn the identity of the Golden State Killer, is a high-water mark in the career of its director, Liz Garbus. A veteran documentary filmmaker, Garbus’s filmography covers a wide range of subjects, from incarceration (The Farm: Angola, USA), capital punishment (The Execution of Wanda Jean), and war crimes (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) to the lives of the Vanderbilt family (Nothing Left Unsaid), Marilyn Monroe (Love, Marilyn), and Nina Simone (What Happened, Miss Simone?). But in many ways, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark represents the culmination of Garbus’s filmmaking career to date, combining many of her areas of interest —particularly violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, the criminal-justice system, and celebrity — into a single story with multiple narrative threads and overlapping points of view.
Before I’ll Be Gone in the Dark concluded its six-episode run this past Sunday, Garbus spoke to Vulture at length about her filmmaking process, the ethics of re-creating real-life violence onscreen, and the relationship between a filmmaker and the survivors of a no-longer-living subject who have trusted her to tell their loved one’s story.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
How did you end up deciding to make this series?
HBO sent me the manuscript of the book. I didn’t know anything about the Golden State Killer or Michelle McNamara, [but] I’m very much a fan of the kind of literary, nonfiction take on true crime. Whenever I can find something at that level, I will devour it, and there’s not that much at that level of insight. Robert Kolker’s book Lost Girls was, for me, one of those books. Of course, In Cold Blood is one of those books. And then there’s other books around the genre that I’ve found fascinating, like Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. There are just certain books that bring something new. Michelle’s book was one of those. [The series] came to me entirely through reading the book and learning the story through her eyes. The fact that she as a protagonist or as a storyteller then went through her own journey of self-medication and ultimately, her own unexpected demise, was something that was, I felt, interesting, as a woman, as a writer — the various pressures in her life and the hidden cost to her psyche, which I could relate to.
One of the things that was striking to me about this project, perhaps more so than any of your other films, is that it’s like you’ve got three, possibly four stories here, each operating independently but also intersecting or commenting on each other, and they’re stacked on top of each other like layers of a cake. How did all that come about? And how would you describe the layers?
Obviously this was a collaborative effort. Early on, we had an incredible producer, Elizabeth Wolff, who was also a director on some of the episodes. I also brought in Josh [Koury] and Myles [Kane] after seeing Voyeur, because I realized that their aesthetic sensibility was something that could augment the project.
Then we got a sense from Patton [Oswalt]’s boxes of what was there in terms of Michelle’s voice, and we realized we had a chance to create a sense of archival vérité. When I made What Happened, Miss Simone?, my film about Nina Simone, which is set in a different era, there was so much less of a voice. Today we are all storytellers. Just about any human being now leaves behind this almost moment-by-moment record of their thoughts, especially if the subject is a writer who was recording her interviews. You can relive her process.
So once we had a sense that all that material having to do with Michelle’s voice was available to us, it was clear that this was going to be a thread: Michelle’s journey, her personal story. And then, of course, there’s the story of the survivors, which for Michelle was a primary focus. When we started meeting the survivors and knowing them, we also wanted to explore their experience and also present the aftermath — the journey of post-crime, post-trauma, which is its own sort of story, one that has its own tail. And then there are the kind of true-crime-y elements of this man’s MO, and the citizen sleuths who were trying to put it all together.
Let’s talk for a minute about those archives. What are some of the things, based on your own history as a documentary filmmaker, that you have found helpful when you’re digging through boxes and boxes of stuff to find things that you can use?
The technology keeps evolving and making this a lot easier for us. For instance, with the Nina Simone film, we had to travel, spend a year trying to find anything and everything she might have said. There was a guy who lived half his time in Australia and half his time in France who had all these tapes of Nina because he helped her write a book about her life, but he was in Australia and the tapes were in France. We had to wait for him to go home and get them out of his closet, and we didn’t have the right decks to play them anymore — it was a six-month process just trying to figure out how to solve that. And finally, when we got all these tapes of Nina, transcribing them and putting them into this transcript tool that then could link with an Avid, that was about as sophisticated as it all got, but it was super-exciting to be able to call up the performance of “I Put a Spell on You” and then be able to keyword search and link to that particular moment in the transcript when she talks about her approach to that song.
But when you’re talking about someone like Michelle, who’s living in the age of the internet and is communicating with her husband from one side of the house to another with text messages, you have a more immediate, moment-by-moment chronicle of a life, which is really quite extraordinary. It was a massive amount of material. Patton turned it all over to us in a leap of faith, and then I had the most dedicated team transcribing and organizing all that: the text messages, the personal videotapes, the mini-cassettes of her interviews.
What was it like getting to know Michelle through her writing and personal material?
I made this documentary for HBO called There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane. We could not get into Diane’s head. That was the big mystery. Her mind was impenetrable, and there was really no record that could give us access. Everybody speculated on what was happening in there: “Well, she had this toothache and maybe she was drinking that day to numb the pain from that toothache.” But it was really all guesswork about what brought that woman to that crisis on that day, which then resulted in the deaths of her most loved nieces and her own daughter and herself.
With Michelle, we had access to her head. We could see those text messages. We could see her talk to Patton about the nightmares she was having and her inability to sleep, and the anxiety level and the paranoia and the locking of the doors and the decision to buy a gun.
What didn’t you have access to, in the end, when it came to Michelle?
When you lose someone, like Diane or Michelle, there are still these huge question marks about how, and why, and “What did I miss?” So even though we had a moment-by-moment record, that mystery still enshrouds us.
The series speculates that prolonged exposure to real-life images of murder and rape worsened the depression that she was already struggling with. This is something that I’ve heard people in different fields talk about, including actors who play murderers or bad people. Some are able to compartmentalize and some people are not. For example, on The Sopranos, Edie Falco has said she would do her job and just go home, whereas James Gandolfini was so psychologically scarred by playing Tony that he almost didn’t sign up after season three to continue with the show.
Right. And we lost him. That’s really interesting.
Michelle knew this about herself. You can see in the progression of the first four episodes that she knew she really didn’t like to look at the photos. She did not want that to be part of her process. And then she got this motherlode of case files, which has itself become the subject of some controversy, and in that bunch of files was every gruesome crime scene photo, stuff that even family members hadn’t seen. They were only available to law enforcement. She knew that this was unhealthy for her. She knew these were things she needed to stay away from. But her desire to solve the mystery, the pressure of finishing a book, and I’m sure the innate human curiosity we all have about imagining or seeing the unimaginable is triggered, and it really did contribute to that insomnia, sleeplessness, that was already latent in her.
There were many people on my team who had to go through that same process once I got those files … and we had that range of reactions you just described, from Gandolfini to Edie. We had meetings with the producers asking, “Should we bring in a therapist to talk to everybody?” People sort of felt like that solution wasn’t so comfortable for them. There were discussions about who was going to use the therapy, who wasn’t going to use it. We also decided to talk about people giving paid time off during the week to clear their heads. We talked about the ramifications of ingesting all that material that Michelle was alone in the middle of the night ingesting. But the thing that was different for us is that we were in the daylight, and we had people around us who we could talk to. Michelle was alone in a converted playroom at 2 in the morning. Our sense of community is what saved us.
What was your own reaction to the material?
I’m more like Edie Falco. I can look at that kind of material and still go home. And I think with my children, somehow, I’m able to switch off and be their mom again, and not have my head back in the scanner.
Nevertheless, even with building a kind of emotional insurance policy into the filmmaking process, were there ever moments where you found your mind invaded by those images?
I definitely had waking moments of having my mind invaded by those images. There’d be time when I was sitting in bed with my husband, thinking about our positions in the bed versus what I was seeing in the crime scene photos. One of the reasons why [the Golden State Killer] was such a devastating perpetrator was that that he deliberately disrupted scenes of safety: being in bed and reading a book; having sex with your loved one, which is something he liked to peep on and attack after; having your food in your kitchen sullied by him putting his hands on them. So yes, as a filmmaker, you can be in the kitchen making your own turkey, or putting a book on the bedside table, and have those flashes come into your mind.
What was the hardest part of making this documentary, in terms of the logistics or aesthetics of it?
Structuring the story over the six episodes. The first four episodes were the toughest nut to crack. Visually, we were really excited about some of the ideas that me and the other directors and our cinematographer, Thorsten Thielow, developed. And I had an amazing team of editors as well.
But the big question was how to balance the Michelle of it all against the survivors and the true-crime elements. The timeline was huge and sprawling. While the series has been well-received, there are people who say, “I didn’t come here to watch a story about Michelle McNamara!” But for us, her voice was integral.
Can you talk about the discussions you had about the crimes themselves? To show or not to show?
The challenge was how to parse that out in the storytelling, how to understand the escalation, and how not to fetishize him. That was a challenge with the visual approach, and the solution is something we feel very proud of. I’m gonna use the word “re-creation” here because I don’t know the better word, even though they’re not truly re-creations. Nothing physically violent is happening in them.
You never see killing or rape in those scenes. It’s like a black hole that the story is orbiting around, and you never go into it.
Right — until episode four, when Michelle has to confront the motherlode of real images. We do show, by episode four, what she’s seeing, which gives some sense of the devastation. But in terms of the visuals we create, absolutely not. The crimes are not told from his point of view: “Here’s a woman in a bed and I’m gonna go get her.” It’s always from a neutral or survivor-oriented point of view, or as if law enforcement has come into the scene after the fact: There’s that turkey carcass out on the counter, there’s that book on the bedside table, a book like How to Be More Assertive. What you see there was very much like the “before” of the safe spaces that he disrupted, and the aftermath created by this kind of cockroach who had infected your home.
Is there a moral or aesthetic rationale for not doing that Unsolved Mysteries approach, where the camera is prowling through the house and you see the knife come up?
First of all, as you know, it’s been done. When Errol Morris created that look in The Thin Blue Line, it was new and fresh and exciting, and certainly it is not now. But Errol Morris didn’t have a guy with a knife in his hand. What he did in that film was much more intellectually framed.
Right — the milkshake hitting the pavement in slow-motion, things like that. It’s more abstract. He’s giving you the idea of the thing, not the thing.
Yes, it’s the idea of the thing, which in many ways is spookier. The imagination of what could have been there is inevitably going to be more interesting than us putting fake blood on the floor, or a knife in an actor’s hand.
The other important thing is to not endow the perpetrator with a point of view. Point of view is everything in filmmaking. When you give it, you’re giving power. It was a conscious choice to remove the power from the criminal’s perspective, which in this kind of story generally fetishizes women — although in this case his victims were men, too — and fetishizes violence generally.
Specifically violence against people who can’t fight back.
Exactly. You know, essentially that kind of filmmaking is sadism, and sadism was something we did not want to do. And I also agreed with Michelle’s perspective on this, which was guided by where she said, “It’s the powerful absence of the killer. Not knowing them is what gives them power. Once you know them, they’re just ‘Bob’ or ‘Joe’ or some damaged loser.” We didn’t want to give a previously unknown killer that power back through our cinematography.
Where did the visual image of the darkness creeping over the houses like one of the plagues of Egypt in The Ten Commandments come about?
I’d love to take credit for that, but that came from our cinematographer, Thorsten, this idea of having lights on drones and the camera on a drone, so that as you move the light the shadows appear to be moving. For us, that became the closest thing you got to that image of a knife or a bad guy opening a door, were the movements of these shadows.
Right, they’re unnatural. It’s an answer to the question of how to show a perversion of normal life without actually showing the crimes. What was so troubling about this particular perpetrator was his seemingly flawless ability to disrupt all that was supposed to be safe and normal in the American suburbs. The Sacramento suburbs in the 1970s were supposed to embody this perfect control of nature, or a perfect balance between people and nature. The goal of the shadow imagery was to subvert that.
Michelle’s manager, her husband, the detectives, the other researchers — were they consulted throughout postproduction, or did they come in for interviews and then sit things out until you were all done?
The latter. I’ve been through this process before with Anderson Cooper and his mom Gloria Vanderbilt on Nothing Left Unsaid, where I’ve taken on films in some kind of partnership with a family. I’ve learned to look for the warning signs of when a person is just going to be all up in your business and not let you find your own way as a filmmaker. And I pretty early on could tell from Patton that he almost wanted nothing to do with the process. Not in an unkind way, but in an emotionally protective way, I think, for himself. Patton and Billy [Jensen] and Paul [Haynes], who are credited as executive producers, saw fine cuts of episodes. I think maybe the only note Patton may have given me, after watching episode one, was, “Feels like there’s too much of me in it, but it’s up to you, Liz.” And in fact, when we cut down episode one, we did lose a lot of Patton stuff. But they were really hands-off, and it was a healthy relationship.
What, if anything, do you feel that you learned about yourself as a filmmaker or just as a person from working on this?
That I am more the Edie Falco than the James Gandolfini in this particular dance. Somehow I have the ability to protect myself and my own psychic space, but at the same time feel the empathy that I naturally feel toward the people in the story.