HBO's 'I'll Be Gone In The Dark' Brings The Golden State Killer To The Small Screen

Jun 26, 2020
Originally published on June 26, 2020 6:06 am

In the 1970s and '80s, a string of violent, terrifying crimes went unsolved around California. The perpetrators got nicknames: The Visalia Ransacker. The East Area Rapist. The Original Night Stalker.

And then in 2013, true-crime writer Michelle McNamara connected the dots in a remarkable article for Los Angeles Magazine. She suspected they were all the same person, and she gave him a name of her own: the Golden State Killer.

Two years ago, police caught him. But McNamara never saw it. She died in 2016, of an undiagnosed heart condition and an accidental overdose of prescription medications, while working on a book about the case. Her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, helped to finish her book, I'll Be Gone in the Dark.

Now, HBO has adapted the book into a docu-series, directed by Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus. Oswalt says his late wife made such a good detective because she had "a lot of cop instincts. The two main ones — being very, very dogged in the face of following the wrong lead for a while and not getting discouraged. And also the ability to, when questioning people and talking with them, to just sort of fall back and go silent and let them — the less you ask people, weirdly enough, the more they will talk."

Garbus adds, "What I love about Michelle's backstory is, you know, she came to L.A. and she was this aspiring writer and she worked on, you know, I don't know, America's Craziest Cop Chases ... But then she got a job working for a private investigator and like sitting on stakeouts, you know, and so it was kind of like there's two sides to her — the screenwriter and and then the lady on a stakeout."


Interview Highlights

On why they decided to make this series now

LG: First of all, when HBO sent me the manuscript, I didn't know about Michelle McNamara. I didn't know about the Golden State Killer. So my mind was was blown on both fronts. And Michelle just had this voice that I related to so, so deeply. I mean, first of all, she was just an incredible writer. And second of all, just as a mother and a working woman, and all of the things that she was trying to balance in her life, I really related to that.

On revisiting McNamara's death

PO: Yes, that was one of the that was one of the tasks that was before me, unfortunately, but yeah, I knew that I would have to do that.

NK: How did you make it through that?

I don't remember. Sloppily and badly. You're more like, I want to embrace life now rather than going over and over again. How, I mean, how I got through it was I woke up every morning and I went to bed every night and tried to, you know, just walk my way out of it. But you realize very quickly that you're not walking out of it. You're being put through it. So it's kind of out of your control.

On McNamara's role in solving the crime

... one of the good things has come out of this is that the survivors have gone to every one of his court hearings, and he cannot meet their gaze. They all look at him, and he can't raise his head and look at them. He's so reduced. - Patton Oswalt

PO: Well, I mean, even before the DNA, the fact that she gave him the name the Golden State killer — and this is going to sound a little sick, but, you know, he was not given a cool name. And there is, unfortunately, a branding aspect that goes with solving a lot of cold cases, where if the killer doesn't have a cool name, it slips from the public's consciousness

On where they were when suspect Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested

PO: Oh, well, we were both in the lobby of the Sofitel in Chicago. We had done a book event the night before. And then the next morning, we're all getting up to fly to New York and we're all getting texts that he had been caught. And we're like, what in the hell?

LG: It was our first day of filming. We thought we were going to Chicago to just kind of do a chill shoot at a book event, a light lift. And then like Patton said, [we] woke up early. My cameraman was already on a flight somewhere else. And then all of a sudden we find out this has happened, and we're shooting Pat with an iPhone.

On the possibility of meeting Joseph DeAngelo

PO: It's not that I want to meet him. I just want to ask him the questions that Michelle has for him at the end of her book. You know, I would love it if I could just sit down and convey her question to him and see if he answers or not. I mean, one of the good things has come out of this is that the survivors have gone to every one of his court hearings, and he cannot meet their gaze. They all look at him, and he can't raise his head and look at them. He's so reduced.

On what McNamara might have done next

PO: What would have been next would have been as surprising to me as it would have been to her. She was very nonjudgmental about where her obsessions led her. So it would have been really interesting to see where that energy and that focus and that creativity and empathy would have taken her. It could have taken her anywhere. And I know enough about her to know that I would not be able to predict that. That's what I can say with certainty. It would have been something totally surprising.

This story was produced for radio by Bo Hamby and Matt Kwong, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the 1970s and '80s, a string of violent, terrifying crimes went unsolved around California. The perpetrators got nicknames - the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker. And then in 2013, true crime writer Michelle McNamara connected the dots in a remarkable article for Los Angeles Magazine. She suspected they were all the same person. She gave them a name of her own, the Golden State Killer. Two years ago, police caught him, but McNamara never saw it. She died in 2016 while working on a book about the case. Her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, helped to finish her book, titled "I'll Be Gone In The Dark." HBO has adapted the book into a docu-series directed by Oscar-nominated director Liz Garbus. It premieres on Sunday, and our co-host Noel King talked to both of them about it.

NOEL KING, BYLINE: Liz Garbus and Patton Oswalt are with me now. Good afternoon to you both.

PATTON OSWALT: Good afternoon. Hi.

LIZ GARBUS: Hello.

KING: Patton, I want to start with you. Your late wife was a remarkable person, an obsessive by her own admission. She's shown in the series not just doing some of the detective work but in some ways leading the detectives along with her as she goes. What was it about her that made her such a good sleuth?

OSWALT: I think that she had a lot of cop instincts, the two main ones being very, very dogged in the face of following the wrong lead for a while and not getting discouraged and also the ability to, when questioning people and talking with them, to just sort of fall back and go silent and let them - the less you ask people, weirdly enough, the more they will talk. And she was so good at that.

GARBUS: What I love about Michelle's backstory is, you know, she came to LA, and she was this aspiring writer and she worked on, you know - I don't know - "America's Craziest Cop Chases" was one of her earlier jobs. But then she got a job working for a private investigator and, like, sitting on stakeouts. You know, so it was kind of like these two sides to her that, you know, the screenwriter and then the, you know, the lady who was on a stakeout. You know, it was just great.

KING: Liz, you're the kind of artist who's at a point in your career where you can pick any project you want. What about this made it the thing that you wanted to do?

GARBUS: First of all, when HBO sent me the manuscript, I hadn't - I didn't know about Michelle McNamara. I didn't know about the Golden State Killer, so my mind was blown on both fronts. And Michelle just had this voice that I related to so deeply. I mean, first of all, she was just this incredible writer. And second of all, just as a mother and a working woman and, you know, all of the things that she was trying to balance in her life, I really related to that.

KING: Patton, I want to ask you, when HBO bought the rights to adapt the book, I'm sure you understood that you'd have to revisit Michelle's life, but you would also have to revisit her death because her book was a part of her death.

OSWALT: Yeah. Yes. That was one of the - that was one of the tasks that was before me, unfortunately. But, yeah, it was - I knew that I would have to do that.

KING: How did you make it through that? How do you do that?

OSWALT: I don't remember. I - sloppily and badly. You're more like I want to embrace life now rather than going over and over again. How - I mean, how I got through it was I woke up every morning and I went to bed every night and tried to, you know, just walk my way out of it. But you realize very quickly that you're not walking out of it. You're being put through it. So it's kind of out of your control.

KING: I want to ask you about the nuts and bolts of the Golden State Killer, Michelle's obsession, his arrest and what's come after. How instrumental was she in solving this, in helping to solve this?

OSWALT: Well, I mean, even before the DNA, the fact that she gave him the name the Golden State Killer - and this is going to sound a little sick, but, you know, he was not given a cool name. And there is, unfortunately, a branding aspect that goes with solving a lot of cold cases where, if the killer doesn't have a cool name, it slips from the public's consciousness.

KING: Where were you both when Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested?

OSWALT: Oh, well, we were both in the lobby of the Sofitel in Chicago. We had done a book event the night before. And then the next morning, we're all getting up to fly to New York, and we're all getting texts that he had been caught. And we're like, what in the hell? And I'm going to let Liz take this over from this point because that must have been such an insane moment for you.

GARBUS: You know, it was our first day filming. We thought we were going to Chicago to just kind of do a chill shoot at a book event.

OSWALT: Right, right.

GARBUS: That's a light lift. And then, like Patton said, woke up early, my cameraman was already on a flight somewhere else, and then all of a sudden, we find out that this has happened and we're shooting Patton with an iPhone. But, yeah, it was crazy.

KING: Joseph DeAngelo is expected to plead guilty in just a few days to 88 counts of murder, rape and other charges. Patton, I've read that you've said you would be interested in meeting him.

OSWALT: It's not that I want to meet him. I just want to ask him the questions that Michelle has for him at the end of her book. You know, I would love it if I could just sit down and convey her questions to him and see if he answers or not. I mean, one of the good things has come out of this is that the survivors have gone to every one of his court hearings, and he cannot meet their gaze. They all look at him, and he can't raise his head and look at them. He's so reduced.

KING: There's a clip from the documentary that is remarkable in which Michelle is writing to the killer. This is before anyone knows who he is. She's acknowledging that he is probably still alive. But at this point, he's now old and feeble, and she tells him how she thinks things will end for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK")

AMY RYAN: (As Michelle McNamara) Some think you died or went to prison - not me. I think you bailed when the world began to change. Its true age must have slowed you, but your heyday prowess has no value anymore. Virtual windows are opening all around you. You the master watcher are an aging, lumbering target in their crosshairs. A ski mask won't help you now.

KING: Patton, I heard that and I couldn't help but wonder, what do you think Michelle would have done next? This thing is solved. What would have been her next project?

OSWALT: What would have been next would have been as surprising to me as it would be to her. She was very nonjudgmental about where her obsessions led her. So it would have been really interesting to see where that energy and that focus and that creativity and empathy would have taken her. It could have taken her anywhere. And I know enough about her to know that I would not be able to predict that. That's what I can say with certainty. It would've been something totally surprising.

KING: And probably very cool.

OSWALT: And definitely very cool.

KING: Patton Oswalt and Liz Garbus, thank you so much for being with us.

OSWALT: Thanks. Thanks for having us.

GARBUS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "PERFECT INSTANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.