Netflix's 'Unbelievable': A Powerful True Story

The newly released Netflix miniseries, “Unbelievable,” based on the Pulitzer Prize winning article “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” is a powerful and emotional visual representation of the trauma and gravity experienced by the women mentioned in the article, and so many more individuals. 

Unbelievable follows the true story of Marie, an 18-year-old girl who reports being held at knifepoint and being raped, then claims she is lying a week later outting her in the middle of a false report charge. It is only when two female detectives chasing down a serial rapist find that their case connects to Marie that her story is brought under examination and the possibility that she was in fact telling the truth is finally considered. 

In a round table interview with Director, Writer and Showrunner Susanna Grant; Executive Producer and Showrunner Lisa Cholodenko; and Executive Producer Sarah Timberman, Her Campus at American (HCAU) was given the chance to ask them a few questions about the series. 

The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

HCAU: What inspired you to create this series?

Grant: I read the article when it first came out and immediately shared it with Sarah and a couple other writers did as well, so we all joined together and started this project. It just seemed like it had huge potential to tell the story in a way that might land with the audience in a different emotional way than the article did, which was utterly brilliant and deserved the Pultizer. The article was enthralling and whats great is once our trailer went up they saw huge increase in readership of the article.

HCAU: What was the thought process when it came to staying as close to the true story as possible? 

Grant: The story was great and propulsive and revealed things in our culture that not a lot of people have looked at and did it in a way that is incredibly engaging so it didn’t feel like it needed a lot of enhancement. I also thought that the story needed credibility, I didn’t want it to come out and have someone immediately say “thats not how it happened,” it wasn’t necessary. The truth worked. Why mess with it?

Timberman: There was a kind of restraint in Susannah’s storytelling and the way Lisa directed it that made it all the more powerful. I think it would’ve been easy to sensationalize the story but the approach on both their parts to recognize of the subjective nature of the experience -- none of us wanted to make anything that exploited it. There are a lot of treatments of rape that make me uncomfortable and I didn’t want to be party to anything like that. 

HCAU: What was the manner of conversation that you had with the actors about the sensitive content in the series? 

Cholodenko: We became very schematic in explaining who’d be on set, how were were going to shoot it, in which order we were going to shoot it, it just made it very dry to just get through it and each moment was each moment and everyone got their space and respect. Sets were also closed and there weren’t a lot of people running around for makeup and lighting.

Grant: We have three scenes of sexual assault in the show but we only have one shot of nudity and its the rapist. For the victims, you see her shoulder, you see her hip but you don’t need to show peoples breasts or whatever to show what has happened. [The rapist] had so objectified the women in our story and photographed them and seen them as bodies and had dehumanized them so much, so I thought that the way to close the circle was for him to have landed in a place that was completely dehumanizing. Stripped down and naked he goes through a lot of the same things that he puts the women through. When I dug into it and researched what actually happens when you’re in jail and found out they actually take your hair off your body, I thought well then yes we have to show that, absolutely. The idea of him losing his humanity felt like not a full balance, but it had some symmetry. 

HCAU: What did your casting process look like? 

Cholodenko​: The article made it clear there were huge age ranges, I don’t know what the women looked like but the assumption was that the myth that every rapist has a type was just a myth and they point that out, his type was women that lived alone and how do you show that, with really good actors. It was a very open process so it didn’t feel like we were fed who we had to cast. It really felt like we had the range. 

Grant: I think Danielle (MacDonald) signed on for the project before her part was written. She read the script so she knew the tone of the piece but I think thats right. 

Timberman: It wasn’t an easy shoot for the actors but they really dug in. 

HCAU: What were some of the struggles you came across?

Timberman​: I think honestly it was more of a struggle for a lot of people who it turns out were on our crew and were involved on the executive side, we heard a lot of stories about people who had been assaulted and I admire those people enormously for pushing through that and working on this show. A couple people said they found something of value in making it and there was something healing in working on this project. 

HCAU: What conversation do you hope the show incites in young people? 

Timberman​: I feel like this conversation is kind of happening at college campuses and maybe it will amplify it to the generations above you, I feel like the young people I talk to -- this is alive in their world. I have an 18-year-old son and he says all the right things but I think this made him sort of understand what he was talking about at a more visceral level and so maybe it’ll lead to more empathetic and trenchant conversation.