How a Pulitzer Prize-Winning Investigation Became Netflix's 'Unbelievable'

After a group of producers optioned a story on a rape investigation that went horribly wrong, they grappled with how to adapt a sensitive tale about a sexual-assault survivor pre- and post-#MeToo.
Courtesy of Netflix
Toni Collette in Netflix's 'Unbelievable.'

Before they collaborated on a viral story that would later become the Netflix limited series Unbelievable, reporters Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller were competing for the same scoop.

In 2015, Seattle-based Marshall Project reporter Armstrong began looking into a police investigation that had gone horribly wrong in a suburb of his hometown: A 19-year-old woman who was prosecuted for allegedly falsely reporting a brutal rape was, years later, vindicated following an investigation in Colorado that uncovered her rapist. More than six months later and nearly 800 miles away, in Berkeley, California, the ProPublica reporter T. Christian Miller began pursuing the same tale, initially unbeknownst to either reporter, in Colorado. When Miller learned that Armstrong had been reporting the same case in a different state for months, he got in touch and suggested the two team up. "We essentially each had half of the story, and once we agreed to partner, we dumped all of our notes and documents into a shared file and two halves of the story became a whole," Armstrong says now.

Today, the first screen adaptation of their story, "An Unbelievable Story of Rape" (released online via The Marshall Project and ProPublica in late 2015 and in audio form through This American Life in early 2016) releases on Netflix after a production process that saw its creators grapple with dramatizing the sensitive investigation. Though the production process on the eight-part limited series Unbelievable began before the #MeToo movement, the resulting limited series, like many of the investigative stories that kicked off and prolonged the movement, centers on a resilient survivor and exposes inequities that she faced.

In December 2015, reported stories about sexual violence were less common than they would become less than two years later and, like many avid readers of feature stories on the internet, writer Susannah Grant dug into Miller and Armstrong's story as soon as it came out. "It was fantastic reporting," she remembers thinking, "but it was [also] a story that could really live well in the narrative form." Grant, the writer of Erin Brockovich and HBO's Confirmation, had a track record for dramatizing real-life stories and brought the narrative to the attention of frequent producing partner Sarah Timberman (Justified) within weeks. Grant initially thought the story could be a film, an idea that soon evolved: "[I] pretty quickly figured out that there is enough there to really warrant eight full hours and there is a propulsive enough story that people will continue watching," she says.

She didn't know that, at the same time, writer-producers Michael Chabon (Star Trek: Picard) and Ayelet Waldman (The Other Woman) were scrutinizing the story for adaptation potential and also had reached out to Timberman, who they had worked with before. It was pretty clear that "we all shared an enormous passion for telling this story," Timberman says (later, Katie Couric, who also shared that passion, joined the high-powered producing squad). As a result, with Timberman as their uniting force, the group partnered up: They won a bidding war over the option to Armstrong's and Miller's story via ProPublica, The Marshall Project and This American Life and the life rights to the victim in the Washington case, who went by the her middle name, Marie, in the print and audio stories. Armstrong, Miller and Marie all agreed to consult on the movie.

"[Marie] knew that if people were familiar with her story, it was less likely that the same thing would happen to someone else," Armstrong, the reporter who ended up communicating with Marie for the original story, explains of what he heard from Marie about her decision to sell her life rights.

Though the real-life nature of the story was a draw, the creators decided early on not to, in Grant's words, "pile on" to the publicity for its real-life sources that the ProPublica/Marshall Project and This American Life stories had already created. To protect their privacy, Grant decided early on to fictionalize the characters and their traits: "We didn't think there was any value in the actual names being broadcast as widely as Netflix has the capacity to do," she said; the real sources "hadn't signed up for" the TV treatment. Colorado Det. Stacy Galbraith became Karen Duvall, a compassionate, thoughtful investigator who is vocal about her faith; Sgt. Edna Hendershot turned into Grace Rasmussen, a brash, rock star-esque officer with a neurotic streak. Sgt. Mason, the primary Colorado investigator who worked on Marie's case and later expressed regret for how it was conducted, became the overwhelmed Detective Parker.

Though the decision to fictionalize the story came naturally, Grant struggled with how to portray Marie's brutal assault at knifepoint, which is depicted both in the first episode of Unbelievable and in flashbacks. First, she tried writing the scene "objectively" — as a straightforward event — and then quickly discarded the idea: "I had a really difficult reaction that just said, 'Absolutely not.' I think it came from this awareness that there's a lot of rape porn in our culture," she says. Even if the portrayal wasn't exploitative, she feared it would run the risk of keeping viewers desensitized to sexual violence. As a result, Grant decided to write the sequence as a subjective experience — in the finished series, all scenes of the rape are shown from Marie's viewpoint, with her breathing on the audio track. Later, the team made another decision to avoid any risk of glorifying the series' attacker, by removing one scripted scene shown from the rapist's perspective and never shooting it: "It wasn't the story we were telling," Grant says.

By the time CBS Studios and Netflix ordered the series to production, the #MeToo movement had rocked Hollywood, prompting the creators to call a meeting. "We actually sat down together and said, 'Does this change anything?' And we didn't really think that it did," Grant said in a panel discussion in July. "Yes, it's timely, but it's always been." But while the script wasn't significantly changed to reflect the cultural moment, the set over six months of production was charged with the heightened emotions of new revelations. As the cast — led by Toni Collette, Merritt Weaver and Kaitlyn Dever — and crew shot around the L.A. area, disguising it to appear like Washington and Colorado, crewmembers shared their own experiences with assault and harassment with the creators, Grant said. "The number of people who shared that with me during our production was really affecting and it was a constant reminder of how the story [matters]," Grant says.

Also during production, Christine Blasey Ford testified in front of Congress that she had been sexually assaulted by then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Her televised testimony stood out to Timberman, who says that it was "consistent" with what she learned about the mindset of assault victims during the making of Unbelievable: "I think there are a lot of misconceptions that continue to float around about trauma and how it manifests itself. We learned a lot about trauma and memory in the course of making this show, about the fact that in the wake of trauma, memories can be incredibly fragmented and jumbled," she adds.

Ultimately, both journalists — who, in 2016 won a Pulitzer Prize for "An Unbelievable Story of Rape" and, one year later, published a book-length treatment called A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America — and Timberman and Armstrong say that they hoped the series would complicate viewers' notions of how sexual-violence victims should and do behave following a trauma. For his part, Armstrong particularly liked that Unbelievable retained the structure of his and Miller's story, which compared Colorado and Washington investigations to specify techniques that were effective and weren't. "You get a real appreciation for this is how you should do it and this is how you should not do it," Armstrong says.

Though Unbelievable has been compared to another Netflix investigative procedural involving serial criminals, Mindhunter, Miller says that, after receiving his screener of the series, he noted the lack of focus on the serial rapist, Mark O'Leary, who committed the crimes undergirding the series. "Mark O'Leary can be easily turned into a Hannibal Lecter-type character and they could have shown scenes of him planning and plotting and doing the things he did. They really withheld that voice, and that's very notable," he says.

All of the journalists and creators who spoke for this story were ultimately anxious to make sure the series did Marie justice, though few, in the interest of guarding her privacy, would speak about their communications with her for the series. Will she watch it? "I spoke with Marie a couple weeks ago and she had seen the trailer and the word she used was that the trailer was 'phenomenal' and hard to watch," Armstrong said. "But she decided that she did want to watch the whole series."