'Unbelievable' Team on How Netflix Rape Series Shows "There's No Right Way to Respond to a Trauma"

The upcoming TV show, based on a ProPublica story and a 'This American Life' episode, explores multiple sexual assault investigations that ultimately intersect.
Lou Aguilar/51Fest
The 'Unbelievable' team at 51Fest on Friday night.

The team behind Netflix's upcoming rape series Unbelievable was already hard at work on the TV adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Marshall Project and ProPublica story and This American Life episode, when the #MeToo movement inspired women in Hollywood and other industries to come forward about their experiences with sexual harassment and assault.

"We actually sat down together and said, 'Does this change anything?' And we didn't really think that it did," showrunner and executive producer Susannah Grant said during a panel discussion following the world premiere of the series' first episode at the inaugural female-focused 51Fest in New York on Friday night. "This is incredibly relevant now. I also think it's always been incredibly relevant. Yes, it's timely, but it's always been."

Grant explained that the #MeToo movement "erupted in our business and other businesses as well" between the majority of the writing of the series and the beginning of filming. The Oscar-nominated writer was just one of several executive producers on the series who brought the ProPublica article to executive producer Sarah Timberman. Katie Couric, who's also credited as an executive producer on the series, was pursuing an adaptation of the article, Timberman said, before she, Grant, Couric and fellow executive producers Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon "formed a circle," as Timberman put it during the 51Fest panel, and decided to work together on a screen version of the story.

The first episode of the limited series, which will be streaming on Netflix on Sept. 13, focuses on Kaitlyn Dever's Marie, a young women who initially reports being raped. After people begin to doubt her story, she claims she made it up. The subsequent episodes explore separate but connected rape investigations, led by detectives played by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever.

To play Marie, Dever said she tried to fully understand her mindset and be respectful, and that she was particularly helped by listening to her voice on This American Life.

"I mean hearing her voice in that was kind of enough for me," Dever said. "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 that Collette and Wever's characters are investigating, who isn't in the first episode — said she also tried to understand the "many different ways" people respond to experiences with sexual assault.

"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 in 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."

Indeed, Timberman said, "That's such a huge part of the story is exploring the ways that people respond to trauma and just underscoring the fact that there's no right way to respond to a trauma. And yet there are so many preconceptions about the way people are expected to behave in the wake of something like a violent assault."

Grant also pointed out the importance of experience and training in investigating sexual assault cases, noting the different backgrounds that Collette and Wever's characters have compared to the detectives who worked on Marie's case.

"It's worth noting that the detectives on which Merritt and Toni's characters are based had had, the Toni character had had more than a decade of sexual assault investigation experience, Merritt's less but still a considerable amount, and the man you saw in this [first episode] who led the investigation had recently come over from narcotics and I think it was his second or third sexual assault, so he was untrained," Grant said after the 51Fest screening. "We talked to those detectives and to hear them talk about what that experience has taught them about what happens to the brain in trauma and how that changes and how you talk to them and question them and advise is — no wonder it gets messed up. People need to be trained."

Grant, whose writing credits include Erin Brockovich and HBO's Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas movie Confirmation, says she hopes people are "inspired and galvanized" by the series as well as "moved by it."

Meanwhile, Dever expressed hope that Unbelievable "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."

Wever, while reluctant to prescribe what she hoped viewers would take away from the show, offered, "I think these are horrific experiences that are also horrifically common and that if there is as a side effect of this a broader or a greater understanding of how to — as we've been talking about the effect this has on people, again the breadth of that experience and how to support and understand and deal with people who are surviving that experience as family members, friends, community members and, in particular, law enforcement — that is only a good thing."