How Netflix's 'Unbelievable' Prioritizes Assault Survivors In This Harrowing True Story
Inspired by the real events of The Marshall Project and ProPublica article, "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," and the This American Life episode, “Anatomy of Doubt,” Netflix's Unbelievable is a devastatingly realistic look at sexual assault and the way society fails victims of these crimes. The series painstakingly examines the details of the 2008 true story of a teenage rape victim Marie (Kaitlyn Dever) who was accused by law enforcement and even some of those close to her of making up her assault. It's the kind of story so emotional and jaw-dropping, it's hard to believe it's actually based on real events. And dramatizing trauma while respecting the real stories of everybody involved is no easy task, whether you're an actor, director, cinematographer, showrunner, or some other member of the crew.
"There’s really no way to prepare for a role or a story like this," Dever tells Bustle at a Lower East Side hotel. And she certainly tried: Before filming, Dever read the 2015 article by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, listened to the 2016 podcast, and looked at police reports connected to rape cases. (Only 230 out of 1,000 rapes are reported to police, according to RAINN.)
"I was just really trying to understand the emotion that my character Marie was [going through] during all of this," she says. "We were doing this story on her assault, but I had to just think about what was going on in her life just before [the assault] and in the aftermath."
It was a lot to take in mentally and emotionally for Dever, whose last splashy project was a starring role in Booksmart, a big-hearted high school comedy. "It's not something that you can tune out at the end of your day," she says of the trauma Unbelievable taps into. "But I put as much work as I possibly could into it, because I knew that I had to do this girl justice if I’m going to tell this story."
The eight-episode limited series, streaming Sept. 13, is certainly interested in justice for Marie and other sexual assault victims who have gone ignored. It also puts law enforcement's successes and failures in cracking the case under a microscope in an attempt to understand how something like this could ever happen. That involved recreating Marie's assault and also that of Amber (Danielle MacDonald), whose account of her own rape later helps detectives played by Merritt Wever and Toni Collette corroborate Marie's assault allegations. Though the assault scenes are raw and tough to watch, Unbelievable creator Susannah Grant felt the weight of the responsibility of depicting the real peoples' trauma.
"Sensationalization is never my instinct as a dramatist. I find it rarely leads to better storytelling," Grant writes in an email to Bustle. But she was also "keenly aware that these events actually happened — to real people. I tried to keep in mind the idea that one day, I'd have to look them in the eye and tell them I handled the truth of this brutal chapter of their lives with respect and integrity."
"I wanted to tell this story in a way that would carve it indelibly into the audience's hearts, maybe even more profoundly than their minds."
That respect translated to the attitude on set, where MacDonald says the cast was supported by "mama bear" wardrobe and prop departments, along with cinematographer Quyen Tran, who was behind the camera for the first three episodes. "It was hard to not be entirely emotional that day," MacDonald tells Bustle of filming her assault scene. "But [Tran] would come up and say exactly what the next shot was. She would say, 'I want you to feel covered and safe, this is what we’re seeing, this is what we need to do.'"
MacDonald also praised Blake Ellis, who played Marie and Amber's rapist, for working with her before the assault scene to make sure she was comfortable. "That was helpful in a way as well," she says of Ellis talking to her before the cameras started rolling. "I know this is a real person who is not trying to hurt me, and that was helpful mentally."
But no matter how safe the set felt, nothing could help MacDonald forget that this scene was based on a real person's experience. "We felt safe and got to stop and take it how we wanted, and that’s what’s crazy," MacDonald says. "That’s not how this situation went down in reality. And it’s still terrifying to do it this way."
But although filming such devastating scenes was a harrowing process, Dever says she signed on for the role because she wanted others to understand the reality of Marie's situation. "Her story is so shocking and part of me thought, 'Oh, this is very timely,' but it’s not at all timely," she says. "It’s been happening, this happens to people every day."
That's actually an understatement. According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds. And those who actually do report their assaults don't often see their assaulters prosecuted. RAINN reports that out of 1,000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free. That's a big number, sure, but it's hard for someone to feel empathy for a faceless figure.
Unbelievable is one way of putting faces to the statistics. "I wanted to tell this story in a way that would carve it indelibly into the audience's hearts," Grant writes, "maybe even more profoundly than their minds."
It's why despite the difficulty a project like Unbelievable may present for an actor, Dever knew that the benefits would far outweigh her own discomfort. "I wasn’t even thinking about myself anymore," she admits. "I was thinking about Marie. With this show we’re giving Marie and other survivors the voice that they never had. The voice that they deserved."
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.