Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Lost Girls, on Netflix March 13.
Based on Robert Kolker’s best-selling book about the lives cut short by a serial killer still at large on Long Island, the movie is less interested in how or why the women at the centre of this tragic true story were murdered than who they were while they were alive, and who they have left behind. In many ways, Garbus’ narrative feature debut is the perfect companion piece to the never-ending stream of true crime content teasing our morbid fascination with the tortured psyche of serial killers. Without a “who,” there can be no whodunnit. Instead, there’s those picking up the pieces.
In Lost Girls, that person is Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), a mother of three living in Ellenville, NY, and barely making ends meet working two jobs. In May 2010, her daughter Shannan disappeared, leaving behind only a panicked 911 call from Oak Beach, a gated, insular community on Long Island. It took the police nearly an hour to respond, by which time Shannan was already gone. Tired of being dismissed and hung up on in her search for Shannan, Mari takes the first of many drives down to Long Island to pressure the police to investigate.
We still don’t know who killed Shannan, or the more than 10 other women whose bodies were discovered while searching for her. Were the crimes connected? Did the police stumble on a serial killer by accident? Lost Girls doesn’t really care. What Garbus focuses on is the police and the press’ dismissive attitude towards victims they perceive as unworthy because they were sex workers responding to ads on Craigslist.
Mari too, is an imperfect poster child for the case — having placed Shannan into foster care as a teen because she didn’t know how to take care of a child living with bipolar disorder, she knew how her daughter was making the extra cash she sent home every month. In fact, the movie shows her calling to ask for money early on, prior to Shannan’s disappearance, implying that perhaps this request sent her to her death. But Garbus, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, doesn’t judge. Nor does she let us despair. With no clear resolution to the case, what sustains Mari and her two remaining daughters (Thomasin McKenzie and Oona Lawrence) is the community they build with the relatives and friends of the other victims. Like those they’ve lost, these women have been overlooked and demeaned, their concerns trivialised and questioned. With Lost Girls, Garbus has given them all a voice.
Refinery29: The “dead girl” trope is so pervasive in horror and true crime, but the only body you show is a skeleton, at the very end of the film. Was that intentional?
Liz Garbus: “The film was about the surviving women — not about the sex work that these young women engaged in that ended up being how they were defined in their death. It was really about the family members and their search and their desire for justice. The living legacy of these girls was the love of their family members. Certainly, you can envision other ways of telling the story, but I really wanted to keep Mari Gilbert's struggle front and centre as representative of that search for justice and that female voice that needs to be listened to and heard. And she was speaking for the lost girls.”
The reason it was so striking is that we’ve been conditioned to expect flashbacks to victims engaging in sex work, or graphic images depicting their deaths. But there’s none of that here — we only see them as their families saw them.
“This is the kind of anti true crime or anti serial killer procedural in that sense. It's the other side. It's what's left out of all the movies that we're used to seeing. First of all, there wasn't really any procedure to focus on, if one wanted to actually make the more traditional procedural version. It was a case marked by the lack of procedure.
"It's not my interest to make her likeable. It's in my interest to make her real, and present women in films whom we can relate to, and not have to compare ourselves with and always fail.”
How did you first become aware of this story?
“The story came to me in the form of the script by Michael Werwie, which he had adapted from Bob Kolker's amazing book, Lost Girls. [The book] tells the story of five missing women and their families, with really incredible Hunter Thompson-esque detail of reporting really letting us understand their lives. That was what really inspired me: the backstories of these women and the struggles that brought all the young women to their fates, to that day. [All] that was embodied in the women who were fighting for justice for them. Michael figured out a way to kind of tell their stories through the journey of Mari Gilbert, the flip side of the way that these stories are generally told.”
You’ve been nominated for two Academy Awards in documentary filmmaking. What made you decide to make this movie a narrative feature?
“There have been really great docuseries about this case and covering this case and covering the search for these women and covering the police inaction. But this script was a story that hadn't been told. The story of Mari Gilbert and her family and the other women's families and what they went through. This was my opportunity to tell the story.”
Were the families involved in any way?
“I started this project back in 2015, and I was very lucky to have been able to meet and spend some time with Mari Gilbert before she died. Amy did not have that opportunity. Mari died in 2016, and I think Amy got involved in the project in 2018, as we were going through some rewrites.”
As viewers, we’re presented with these very complicated feelings about Mari Gilbert. You don’t let her off the hook for the way she treated her daughter, but we’re also always on her side. Was it challenging to toe that line?
“I don't know how challenging it was for me, because it's how I felt. Amy [Ryan] and I are both moms, and we have all made mistakes as mothers. Mari's own sense of guilt was what fuelled a lot of what people perceived as prickly in her. I think that kind of defensiveness, and her lack of desire to connect with her children, might push people off. Once you understood where it was coming from, and the depths of those feelings, it's no longer something that you hold against her. It's not my interest to make her likeable. It's in my interest to make her real, and present women in films whom we can relate to, and not have to compare ourselves with and always fail.”
Jumping off that, often when sex workers or former sex workers are portrayed in film, they’re made to seem exceptional in some way as if to redeem them. You really avoid the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope.
“They're all real people. Shannan was a student trying to get by. She's just as complicated as all the rest of us. There's no need to make her seem perfect in order to give her humanity.”
There’s a lot of emphasis in the movie on the demeaning language our society uses to describe women, and in particular sex workers. What point did you want to make?
“It's so prevalent. We did a festival screening the other day and a very well intentioned person raised their hand and asked a question about ‘missing prostitutes’ — they included that phrase in the sentence. It's just reflexive to reduce people to the part that you might condemn about them. In some way, it's also trying to make them responsible for their own victimhood. Like, ‘if they were in this kind of work, this is the kind of thing that might happen to them.’”
The case is still ongoing. Was it frustrating for you to know that you wouldn’t have a clear-cut ending?
“It was certainly one of the challenges. It could never be a whodunit where there's no who. What I found in going through the material and my conversations with Mari and with Bob [Kolker], was that the resolution was in the community that was built. Even just the other day, when some of the family members came to our screening at the Athena Film Festival, the way they were holding each other and supporting each other — that was the emotional resolution of the movie. And also Mari's kind of renewed sense of connection to her surviving daughters.”
Right after the trailer was released, there was a small breakthrough in the case —
“No. It's even more cynical than that.”
“The day that the trailer was released and got two and a half million views on Facebook, which was prior to Sundance, the police department held their first press conference in many years. It certainly seems that Mari was right, that using the media was very effective in this case. Because you can see that they decided to speak up, strangely enough at the same time that there would be the first little drop of media about our film on the internet.”
That's the movie in a nutshell: Young women in vulnerable positions and not considered important until the media gets involved.
“It's [sad] that it has to happen this way, but look, if people watch the movie and then they're interested because it's an unsolved case, and they want to Google, then more people will get their eyes on [the evidence] that [the police] have had for nine years that they never released before. We want them to be responding to it, no matter how suspicious their timing might be.”
I can see Reddit going absolutely crazy trying to solve this case.
“I really hope so! It's really heartening for me. My daughter, who's 15, brought two of her friends to a film festival screening and they came back for a sleepover. When I knocked on the door of their room to say, ‘Maybe you guys should think about going to bed,’ at 12:30 that night, they were on the internet watching videos, looking at the documentary, looking at all the news conferences. That was exciting for me to see that. I hope that viewers who aren’t in my family engage in that way. I hope that people will be interested in the case and they'll talk about it, and that will increase the pressure on the police to keep talking about and doing things about it.”
What do you hope they take away from the movie?
“When I started making films, I made a film in Angola Prison, called The Farm. In that film somebody said, ‘A person is not equal to their worst actions. A person is so much more than that.’ To reduce people to those socially unacceptable flaws that you see in them is a really sad way to go about looking at other human beings. One that one of the insults that these families are going through right now is that New York is going to pave over the burial sites. They're planning on putting a bike lane exactly where their loved ones were found. I'm really trying to talk about that because it's scheduled to be completed in 2021. It's just another insult for these families who have been so illegitimately regarded throughout this entire process.”