Liz Garbus’ I’ll Be Gone In The Dark Isn’t The Golden State Killer Story You’re Looking For — It’s Better
A new documentary series coming to HBO June 28 details the case surrounding the Golden State Killer, so you may expect it to be a typical true crime tale. The genre has enraptured millions of women, with stories of victims’ final moments and the monsters that took their lives. But just five minutes into the first episode of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, it’s clear something is different about this one. The difference according to the series’ director, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), has everything to do with the film’s actual subject, crime writer Michelle McNamara, whose citizen sleuthing famously helped bring down the Golden State Killer and gave him his name.
“Michelle was a writer who brought you closer to these extremes of the human experience in such a visceral way, and that is a really interesting and valuable exercise for us all to experience,” Garbus tells Refinery29 over the phone a few days before the series’ launch.
McNamara, who tragically passed away in 2016, ran a well-known true crime blog and podcast called True Crime Diary, through which she aimed to solve crimes rather than gawk at the gruesome details. As early as 2007, the LA Times credited McNamara’s reporting with helping to connect the dots in a 35-year-old cold case, but it wasn’t until she started digging into the Golden State Killer story that her writing hit the mainstream. In 2013, McNamara published an article titled “In The Footsteps of a Killer” in LA Magazine, and the hunt that would land her a book deal and national fame intensified.
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark references the Golden State Killer’s infamous words to a survivor — he told her, “You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark” — and the title of McNamara’s book upon which the series is based. The docuseries, filmed after her death, follows her investigation, gives voice to the survivors, and spotlights the woman who helped bring them peace — and the toll the investigation took on her health and family life.
“This journey is very survivor- and female-centric and takes you through not just Michelle’s incredible and obsessive investigation, but through these survivors’ experiences over decades with this crime being unsolved, as well as the way rape was treated in the seventies,” Garbus explains, noting that the series doesn’t even mention serial murderer Joseph James DeAngelo’s name until the penultimate episode. “This is not about him, but about all these other experiences that are unfortunately connected to him.”
Garbus, who says she’s not really sure “true crime” means much of anything these days, has spent years making documentaries about the justice system (The Execution of Wanda Jean), injustice (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib), and beloved women (What Happened, Miss Simone? and Love, Marilyn). I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, which was first presented to her as a manuscript of McNamara’s posthumously released book, was a natural fit.
And while telling McNamara’s story means telling the story of the then-unsolved murder mystery, Garbus notes she took care to ensure that this wouldn’t be just another whodunnit or an exploitation of the personal strife McNamara faced as she was searching for the truth.
"This is not about him, but about all these other experiences that are unfortunately connected to him."
“In a lot of my films, I’ve been around people who are dealing with some of the toughest things in their life,” notes Garbus. “I think that I handle it with sensitivity and care and always remember this was someone’s mother, daughter, or sister.”
She and her team — including Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane, and Josh Koury, who co-directed the series — took great care to show the breadth of McNamara’s life through interviews with friends, family, and her widower, comedian Patton Oswalt. Oswalt, who serves as an executive producer on the series, gives what might be his most candid, affecting interview ever about his late wife in the service of showing the world who she really was.
“He made it pretty clear that he wanted to give us what we needed, but then get out of the way. We discussed that it was so painful for him. He is not a documentary filmmaker, and like with the book, finding people who could carry it was his goal. He was available to us; he did interviews for us; he gave us everything we asked for; but he stayed out of the filmmaking process, which I think was self-protective for him and out of respect for our creative process,” explains Garbus.
Garbus was greatly focused on making the docuseries feel “like this was a present-tense journey you are going on with Michelle,” yet there was another piece of the puzzle that deserved equal attention. It was integral to offer a platform to survivors and victims’ families, whose lives were forever changed by California’s most notorious serial murderer — a vociferous, deliberate rejection of DeAngelo’s “silent forever” threat. Whether it was because of their parents — one of the survivors was just a teenager when she was sexually assaulted — or because of way rape was understood in the ‘70s, many of the women who survived their encounters with DeAngelo spent years in silence, not acknowledging the abuse they withstood. In the HBO docuseries, they are openly sharing the truths of their experiences for the first time.
“It’s not easy to talk about it, but really the shame, the silence, is his — not theirs. When you push things down or sugarcoat them or pretend they didn’t happen, they’re inside you and they become cancers,” says Garbus. “For me, the biggest triumph was one of the last scenes in episode 6 when all the women come together and they’re talking openly about their experiences with the cameras there. It sort of says, Screw shame. We are living. We are rejecting the silence and the secrecy.”
I’ll Be Gone In The Dark premieres Sunday, June 28 at 10 p.m. on HBO. Episodes are also available to stream on Youtube, HBO, and HBO Max after they air.