Susannah Grant isn't afraid to write about brave, bold women who must overcome adversity while dealing with powerful institutions. The writer, director and Amherst College alum earned an Oscar nomination with her screenplay for Erin Brokovich. Grant also penned Confirmation, the Emmy-nominated HBO film about Anita Hill. Her latest project, Unbelievable, may be her most important work yet. The new limited series, which debuts on Netflix this weekend, is a dramatization of a Pulitizer Prize-winning article by ProPublica and The Marshall Project about a young woman who was charged with lying to the police about being raped, and the extraordinary female detectives who uncovered the truth. We caught up with Grant during her recent trip to Boston to discuss Unbelievable and the conversation she hopes it sparks.
You graduated from Amherst College. Do you get back to Boston often?
I do get back often. My in-laws live in Wellesley, so we’re here a lot. And my daughter goes to Amherst now, so I’m there from time to time too.
How did you discover the story that inspired Unbelievable?
Honestly, I can’t remember if I just stumbled upon it myself, or if someone recommended it to me. But I read it when it came out, The Marshall Project and ProPublica article, and I thought it was just such an amazing piece of journalism, and won a Pulitzer for Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller—and really well-deserved—and immediately thought it would translate into our medium really well, that we could do a lot with it and tell it in a way that had maybe a different impact on the viewers.
When you first read the story, what aspects of it struck you the most?
I was horrified by what Marie went through, but I was also so inspired by one thing she said, which is that "I really just try to be as happy as I can be." It’s a line that I kept in the show because I thought it was so indicative of her character, of her determination not to be pulled under by this. And then at the same time, just in awe of those detectives and how well they did their work and went above and the dedication they brought to it, and really realizing that in many cases that’s what it takes. So it was the people, it was the incredible story, for sure, but then those human beings. I thought they’re worthy of more attention.
Was it surprising at all for you to see the lack of communication between the various law enforcement departments?
That did surprise me. The lack of communication between departments really did surprise me. And it continues. I’m not an expert on law enforcement, I mean, I know a lot about the research we did for this, I’ve heard in other podcasts I’ve listened to about crime that this is an issue nationwide, a lack of sharing of information. And I think a lot of it is man power related, that cops have long busy days, and then to load all the details of a case onto a database, it takes time. We really didn’t want to vilify any officers in this. There were people who made really horrible mistakes in this. But our hope was not to cast them as villains, but cast them as people who share maybe a lot of the misconceptions that a lot of us told, but were in decision-making positions and made really, really bad decisions.
What are some of those misconceptions?
Well, that there’s one way a rape victim should react. That if she’s not reacting in that way, she becomes untrustworthy. And the lack of understanding of how trauma affects a brain, the pure brain science of that. Sometimes that means that a sequential reporting of events is impossible, or that there are huge blank spots in people’s memory, or there’s just massive confusion. And, again, if you understand that about trauma, you’re gonna take a victim’s narrative, you’re gonna listen to it differently than you do if your only experience is with narcotics, as was the case with the Washington cop.
What do you hope audiences walk away thinking about after seeing Unbelievable?
We really just hope that it can start a conversation about stuff that we haven’t really talked about in our culture. This is big and looming and very unjust. I think if you think too hard about what effect you want your work to have, it might compromise the quality of the work you do. But it felt like a good conversation to be having, and we’re clearly not starting the conversation, there have been people working on this on a sort of ground-level for a long time, but to amplify it. To amplify that conversation, that’d be great.
Unbelievable is available to stream now on Netflix.
Photography by: All Photos Courtesy of Netflix