HBO’s upcoming true crime documentary series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” is based on the 2018 nonfiction book of the same name. The author, Michelle McNamara, died before the book was finished, but she did almost all of the research and writing that became the final product. It was fully finished by crime writer Paul Haynes, investigative journalist Billy Jensen and McNamara’s husband, comedian Patton Oswalt.
If you’re uninitiated, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” focuses on the story of a serial burglar, rapist and killer who operated in California throughout the 1970s and ’80s. As of its publication, the case was still unsolved; two months later, the police arrested and charged someone.
The man who committed those crimes was known by several monikers; the most common names used during investigations at the time were the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker and the Visalia Ransacker. The first two were often combined as “EAR-ONS.” But McNamara was credited with coining the name he’s known by now: the Golden State Killer (GSK). And many believe that if it weren’t for her hard work and detailed research, the crimes may remain unsolved. In April of 2018, 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo was charged for several of the GSK’s crimes using DNA evidence.
McNamara’s book was a huge hit when it was released. I’m one of the many who pre-ordered it and read it within a couple of days. This success was no surprise, given what a huge audience true crime has, along with McNamara’s tragic death.
And then there’s the role that the My Favorite Murder podcast played in talking about it. My Favorite Murder isn’t just popular for a true crime podcast; it’s one of the most successful podcasts in existence. They now have the Exactly Right Podcast Network, and Jensen has a podcast on the network with retired cold case investigator Paul Holes — it’s called Jensen & Holes: The Murder Squad. They aim to shed light on unsolved cold cases and (hopefully) solve them with audience participation. Anyone familiar with true crime knows that a big part of it is wanting to be an armchair detective; that is, learning about a case and doing your own research to help solve it. (I promise this is all related to the upcoming docuseries.)
Because of COVID-19, ATX Television Festival couldn’t be held the traditional way, but they found a welcoming workaround: a virtual festival that was open to anyone and everyone, called ATX TV…From the Couch! So on Friday, June 5, the audience logged on to watch a preview of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” and hear from the show’s four directors. Those four are Liz Garbus, Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane and Josh Koury, who all collaborated on the entire series, rather than a more disjointed form of direction of each episode. The panel was moderated by Danielle Turchiano.
The preview of the show would have any true crime fan’s interest piqued. It included voice messages from McNamara, as well as footage of Oswalt signing copies of the book. There’s also a voiceover component, as Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone,” “The Office”) reads excerpts from the book. One line stood out to me in this clip: “Murderers lose their power as soon as we know them.” The idea is that someone who is unknown or impossible to catch is much, much scarier than a human standing right in front of us. They’re only human.
The series will also feature interviews with detectives, survivors and victims’ family members.
During the panel afterward, Garbus described McNamara as a “creative pioneer,” saying that the author was ahead of the true crime and armchair sleuth fad. She praised the author’s great writing and unique voice as well.
Turchiano asked the directors why they believe true crime is so popular, and the answers were interesting. One of them said that Karen Kilgariff of My Favorite Murder calls it an “escape.” Others floated the ideas of voyeurism, puzzle solving and women’s empowerment; after all, most of the crimes we focus on when we hear the term “true crime” have men as perpetrators and women as victims. It never hurts to seek more knowledge and be more aware of your surroundings.
When asked why they got into documentary filmmaking specifically, Garbus cited the storytelling component, with emphasis on how the editing makes a narrative come to life. Wolff referred back to McNamara, saying that the skills that journalists and documentarians have could “make a really good lawyer,” and that’s what they have in common with the author. She also said that these types of stories can help people understand culture as a whole. Kane said that he likes how documentaries are “impressionistic but grounded by facts and emotion.” And Koury used a cliché (but it’s a cliché for a reason, right?): “Truth is stranger than fiction.” He added to that, noting that it’s rewarding to tell stories.
One of the most interesting tidbits from this panel was the fact that they started making the six-episode series very shortly after the book came out. In fact, DeAngelo was arrested on their first day in development. The world works in mysterious ways.
If you’re planning to watch “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” you can catch it on HBO starting on Sunday, June 28. There will be a new episode released every Sunday, with the finale airing on August 2.
Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, Jackie has called Austin home since choosing to attend the University of Texas, where she graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism. She loves spending time with her dogs, writing about pop culture in all its forms and spending time with friends – eating, drinking and doing trivia.