The team behind Netflix’s upcoming miniseries Unbelievable was already developing the TV adaption of the Pulitzer Prize-winning article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape” and a This American Life episode, when the #MeToo movement started to gain traction. Women in Hollywood and other industries came forward about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.
During a panel discussion following the world premiere of the series’ pilot episode at the female-centered 51Fest in New York, showrunner and executive producer Susannah Grant spoke about developing the series in the midst of #MeToo. Grant said that the movement “erupted in our business and other business as well” between the writing of the series and the beginning of filming. According to Grant, she and Katie Couric brought the ProPublica article to executive producer Sarah Timberman. Together, Grant, Couric, Timberman, and executive producers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon decided to work on a version of the story for television.
The limited series, which will be streaming on Netflix on September 13, centers on Marie (Kaityln Dever), a teenager who reports being raped. When she is charged with making a false report, two female detectives seek to uncover the truth. The subsequent episodes will explore separate but interwined rape investigations, which will be led by detectives played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever.
In order to play Marie, Dever said that she tried to delve into Marie’s mindset by listening to Marie’s voice on This American Life. “I mean hearing her voice in that was kind of enough for me. I wanted to get to know her backstory as much as I could. I also wanted to know the story like the back of my hand, and I talked to [director and executive producer] Lisa [Cholodenko] and Susannah about it in early prep and we kind of came to the conclusion that — we had a conversation about maybe talking to her, but I only wanted to do what she wanted to do. We wanted to respect her privacy, and I was lucky enough to have all of this information about her, and I feel like you aren’t trying to make a carbon copy of Marie or I wasn’t trying to memorize her mannerisms or her accent. For me it was really all about figuring out her emotion and her state of mind during the whole thing and coming about it with as much respect as possible.”
Danielle Macdonald, who plays the victim of an alleged rape in later episodes, said that she listened to people’s stories of sexual assault in order to better understand her character. “I read the article and listened to the podcast and had the material available to me, but a lot of it was me researching stories of people that had spoken out about their situations and really finding how many different ways that people view what happened to them and how they reacted and how it stayed with them and how they moved on,” Macdonald said during the 51Fest panel. “A lot of the information I knew was that she was seemingly fine at first and, in my brain, I didn’t know how to compute that and really understanding just how differently everyone reacts was so important for me to just understand what’s going on in someone’s mind. It’s not just one reaction. The show really really presses upon that.”
Grant, who received an Oscar nomination for writing Erin Brokovich, said that she hopes that audiences will be “inspired and galvanized” by the series as well as “moved by it.” In the era of #MeToo, Dever expressed hope that the show “starts a conversation and it moves people and it allows people who have dealt with this on their own and I hope they feel heard and like they can speak about it.”