Toni Collette and Merritt Wever are pacing around a room designed to look like a police department on the set of the Netflix limited series Unbelievable. Detectives watching an interrogation video of a rapist, Collette and Wever play off each other fluidly in take after take, their faces radiating an ever-shifting sequence of frustration, horror, and resignation. “Cheer the fuck up!” Collette finally shouts at Wever, kicking a chair in exasperation. “You can’t take all the bad guys out at once.”
What makes Unbelievable different from your standard crime-solving series is that the “bad guy” is a young female victim accused of falsely crying rape. It’s based on a true story that inspired a Pulitzer-winning investigative report by Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller in ProPublica and the Marshall Project in 2015.
Marie Adler, the teenager at the heart of this riveting, sometimes brutal eight-part series, stands in for thousands of rape victims who have been distrusted and mishandled by the justice system. Played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever, Marie tells the cops that she was assaulted by a masked intruder. But the policemen find her blank, dissociated demeanor suspicious. The more they pressure her for details, the more her story seem to shift, until she eventually recants. Instead of pursuing her attacker, the police charge Marie with filing a false report, making her a pariah in her community.
“Nobody wants to watch anything 100% devastating,” showrunner Susannah Grant points out. Unbelievable gets around this problem by twining a second narrative around Marie’s grim storyline. The series simultaneously trails two female detectives (Collette and Wever) investigating a rape case with precision, empathy and determination. “We get to tell a more aspirational story about strength and resilience along with this devastating, catastrophic thing that happened in this woman’s life,” Grant says. The propulsive parallel narrative of the efficient female cops helps viewers withstand what would otherwise be unbearably sad. As Vulture’s Jen Chaney writes, the Collette-Wever partnership as Detectives Grace Rasmussen and Karen Duvall feels “like the True Detective that we never got…and that we didn’t know how much we needed.”
I visited the set just weeks after the Senate hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s candidacy for the Supreme Court. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony had shaken loose long-suppressed memories of abuse and exploitation among women all across the country. She became the avatar for women who, like Marie, had spoken up only to be discounted and dismissed. But the initial drive to adapt this story for television began well before Kavanagh or #MeToo. The project attracted interest from a number of writers and producers, including authors Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, Confirmation screenwriter Susannah Grant, Katie Couric, and producer Sarah Timberman. Rather than compete against each other for the rights to the story, they ultimately teamed up, with director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) completing the creative supergroup.
“A good part of the first year was spent figuring out what form it should take and the best way to tell it,” Timberman says, sitting with Grant in the police station’s mock conference room, while crew members reset lighting nearby. “There was a lot of trial and error. Particularly with Marie’s story and finding the right way in.”
The thorniest issue, requiring the most collective wrangling and worry, was how to depict sexual assault. “My brain initially tripped into an objective viewpoint of it,” says Grant. “And then I thought, No, that cannot be how we do it. It just had to be subjective from the get-go.” The camera stays with Marie as she slips from traumatic flashbacks to happier memories. “You don’t ever watch it happening except in the victim’s retelling of it,” Grant explains.
Initial plans to shoot scenes following the rapist were quickly scrapped. “There was a part of the story that was him stalking a future victim, and ultimately we ended up dropping that entire bit,” Timberman recalls. “[Netflix] felt strongly that his point of view was unnecessary for the storytelling.… You know, it’s not a portrait of a serial killer. It’s a portrait of the people who, unfortunately, find themselves either having their lives devastated by rape or the people who are tasked with investigating it.”
They jumped in at the deep end when production started, scheduling director Cholodenko to shoot the central assault scene on day two. “What’s also been interesting is that there’s been an almost therapeutic process at work in making this show,” Timberman says, looking for affirmation to Grant, who nods. “You are making a show that involves several hundred people and, you know, any number of people have talked to us about their stories—including people you’ve known for years who didn’t want to talk about an assault that dated back many, many years. There’s something almost contagious in unearthing and processing these things.” Grant mentions an incident just a few days earlier, when a woman on the Unbelievable team dissolved in tears during the shooting of a courtroom scene because it triggered her own memories of a “bad situation.”
But the bruising seriousness on the set is threaded with levity. The actors rehearse a scene in which Collette shrugs off Wever’s attempts at friendship. “Don’t do that sincere this-meant-the-world-to-me, women-bonding shit!” she snipes, to which Wever audibly mutters, “Cunt!” While shooting another scene, Collette side-eyes the camera perched behind her. “I’m nervous that my butt is very much on show,” she says, cracking a wide smile. The duo is very loosely inspired by two real policewomen from different precincts whose paths had crossed. “But there was a lot of invention necessary,” Timberman says. “It just seemed like a great opportunity to take two different looks at how a woman might function in a predominantly male workspace.”
As for the role of Marie, Dever’s name came up very early on. Timberman had been an executive producer on the series Justified, which the actor joined at the age of 13. “Kaitlyn lights up when she smiles,” Timberman says affectionately, and it was crucial to find someone who could create that sense of a young person still pulsing with vitality and tender sweetness despite the shattering events that have derailed her life. “It takes a long time,” she continues, but “it’s incredibly moving to see her come out the other end of the story.”
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
— Our cover story: Lupita Nyong’o on Us, Black Panther, and much more
— Five appalling stories from the set of The Wizard of Oz
— Hugh Grant’s very English comeback
— How’s Joker? Our critic says Joaquin Phoenix towers in a deeply troubling film
— Lori Loughlin finally gets a win
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hollywood newsletter and never miss a story.