New Year, new murder mystery—kind of.
At the end of January, TNT unspools I Am the Night, a six-episode miniseries that charts one woman’s exceedingly strange journey of self-discovery in the ’60s. That woman is Fauna Hodel (played with aplomb by India Eisley), whose autobiography, One Day She’ll Darken, has been loosely adapted for the small screen by the wife-husband directing-writing duo Patty Jenkins and Sam Sheridan.
And truly, we mean strange. As a child, growing up outside Reno, Nevada, Fauna was led to believe she was biracial. But as she grew into her independence and began uncovering the details of her past, she learned she wasn’t who she thought she was—not the daughter of an interracial couple but rather the estranged daughter of a very wealthy white SoCal family, one that’s been linked over the years to L.A.’s most infamous unsolved murder. “Fauna’s story is mind blowing,” Sheridan says. “It’s one of these stories where the true story is almost impossible to believe—it becomes so strange and byzantine and weird.”
To make it more digestible, the writer had to fictionalize and stylize aspects of the story. The result is a flashy, fast-paced noir thriller that will keep you hooked till the end. Ahead of the premiere, we talked with Sheridan about fact versus fiction, deleted Chris Pine scenes, and spooky on-set experiences.
I heard that before she died the real Fauna Hodel sought out you and Patty to tell her story. How did she find you two and what was that initial conversation like?
It goes back 10 or 12 years: Patty met Fauna through mutual friends, and they went and had coffee somewhere. I didn’t meet Fauna for many years, because Patty was sort of pursuing this on her own. So Patty came home and was like, “Man, you won’t believe this story!”
I wasn’t really involved—except as a spectator—for a long time. I know they had pitched it around, but that was probably around 10 years ago, a little before the boom in TV and the True Detective resurgence of the miniseries. Those two things made a much better atmosphere for us to pitch.
And then Patty and Chris Pine were becoming great friends on Wonder Woman. So she told me, “Chris loves this story.” And that was sort of my entry in because I’m a huge noir fan, and I saw Chris Pine as an avenue to balance the story and bounce things off of—instead of it just being Fauna’s detective story. Which is amazing, but it was daunting until I saw a classic, sort of noir foil in the mix, someone who could be that guy to help structure and subvert the genre.
As a Marine-turned-painter-turned-firefighter-turned-writer, you don’t exactly have the most traditional TV background. How did your past experiences help you tell this story?
I’m interested in authenticity and research, and I think my real-world experience from a variety of different environments and subcultures lets me bring an authentic voice to the table. Both [Patty and I] began as oil painters. I went to Harvard, and my mom was also a painter and an art historian. And as you study art history, you see the Surrealists—like Salvador Dalí and Man Ray—are accepted as these great thinkers. In my research, I ended up reading the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, which, I mean, if you want a bad time, try reading that book. It’s one of the worst experiences you’ll ever have. Because anybody who holds that up as something they idolize is super questionable. And these guys [the Surrealists and the men featured in this miniseries] did; they all did. And listen, I think with the original, there’s certainly that question of, “Is it satire of Italian politics or fascism on some level?” But it’s also a deep pathological hatred of women. So that was [another] intriguing part of this story: to [re-evaluate] these people, these great men who we’d all kind of accepted as geniuses.
Can you talk about what the rest of your research process was like? It seems comprehensive—you even got down the weird pronunciation of “Los An-guh-lees.”
Yeah, that was a thing, dude! In the ’30s and ’40s, there was a real debate about how we say “Los Angeles.”
But when I do any project, whether it’s a nonfiction book or total fiction, you still start with what’s really there. So the first thing I do is read probably 20 books, and then I reach out to those authors or follow up with more in-depth books, and watch film and documentary footage. I have pages of notes on about 50 or 60 books just for this project—from 120 Days of Sodom to Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series to Ben Hecht’s Gaily, Gaily to the Surrealist Manifesto to The Marines of Autumn by James Brady, and Racecraft by sisters Karen and Barbara J. Fields.
I’m trying to look for those details you can’t make up, that sell you on authenticity—like Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried: the way the troops acted. The more research you do, the more you can find and steal authentic details from all over the place and slot them in. That’s how you make something that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
So what’s fact and what’s fiction in your story? Where did you have to take creative liberties and why?
What I would end up telling TNT is, “All the crazy shit’s true, man.” The kind of things I’m making up are the more traditional noir beats to explain the story and give it momentum to carry us through a TV show—that’s the made-up stuff. Certainly as we get later in the show, it becomes more and more fictionalized.
But what I was trying to do was show, in a metaphorical way, the real Fauna’s confrontation with this toxic past and her defeating it, sort of moving on with her life and not giving a shit. By being that kind of person—by being about love and by trying to help people and care for people, by being bigger than your past and the demons in your closet—she sort of repudiated everything they stood for. I just made it into more of a thriller.
When you were writing, did you show it to Fauna or her daughters for approval? How much collaboration was there, and what was their reaction?
Fauna had tried to do this before, several times. And I think she just trusted and loved Patty, and trusted and loved me by the end enough that she was content. She certainly read the pilot and probably looked at other things. And her daughters all did. So yeah, I told her, clearly, everything we had to fictionalize.
If you look at the real story, it’s a much slower burn, in terms of resolution. And listen, there’s a million ways to do something, and you could do it in a more purely nonfiction way. But that’s what documentary film is for, and that’s a different experience and it reaches a different audience and it doesn’t quite do the same thing. As artists we’re always balancing those decisions in terms of how you Trojan horse your ideas and get them into an amazing piece of entertainment everyone can enjoy.
There are some genuinely funny moments in here. Did you always plan to defuse some of the darker moments with humor?
Definitely. That was part of the plan from the start: to balance this with humor and lightness and action and speed and noir—you know, “the dame walked into my office” stuff. Because it was just such a dark story that it was gonna be hard to stay with. But comedy’s so much about timing. You have to allow for the moment to be the moment, and Chris is masterful at that: finding funny turns and twists inside things. So some of it’s scripted and some of it’s him just riffing on stuff.
What were your favorite moments of Chris improvising?
There’s a lot of hilarious stuff we couldn’t use because it was taking us too out of the tone—you can’t be cracking jokes like a comedian. But Chris riffing in [his character Jay’s] apartment. There’s a good half-hour comedy of Chris just being drunk and falling asleep and waking up and going to the bathroom and puking and pissing.
Many scenes are shot within the real Sowden House. What was it like filming there? It’s such an iconic piece of L.A. architecture, but it’s also kind of creepy looking and has this dark past.
We were there a lot—a total of five or six days and nights. Everybody that was sensitive to those things [was creeped out]. But nobody was terrified and had to leave running and screaming. The owners were great; they were wonderful people, and they were totally down with the whole story and shooting it. I think some people had a stronger reaction than others just because they’re more sensitive to those bits of—whatever you want to call it—psychic residue.
I’ll say this: I had an old friend of mine who writes me once a year to say happy birthday. And she wrote me after I’d been in there for four days, and she was like, “I wanted to see if you were dead, because I’ve been having nightmares about you every night.”
Yeah, so those last four days—the days we’d been shooting. And I was like, “Uh, I’m fine, but funny you should say that!” Certainly, Fauna’s daughters had very strong reactions in there. Same with Patty and Chris and India. It’s an interesting place. There’s something beautiful about it. It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr., right? So it’s another guy who was trying to be another great artist. Another guy who was trying to communicate with his uber-famous father. And most Frank Lloyd Wright, Jr. stuff is sort of an abomination. You know, it’s not great. It’s not a style that I like. It’s ugly. And this is his best. There was something really interesting about failed artists and the price they pay to live that illusion, which kept popping up thematically.
My first reaction [when I saw the house was], “This is a place where you could do whatever you wanted and nobody would know.” If you read the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, the opening riff is about these guys finding a safe place to do their horrible things. A place where no one can get them. It was definitely that, and I have no doubt some really bad shit went down there.
Are there any L.A. locations your team couldn’t get access to that you wanted?
I really wanted to shoot on the L.A. River, the concrete craziness that was built in 1938 by the Army Corps of engineers to control the floods that used to kill people and destroy property, and that we all drive around without seeing anymore. Weirdly for L.A., it rained just enough that we couldn’t get in there for safety reasons.
When you were approaching this as a writer, did you want it to be self-contained, or is there a world in which there could be a second season of this show, whether it’s a continuation or a different true-crime autobiography you tackle?
I think it’s very self-contained. That was always the issue with this story early on: It wasn’t a TV show that runs forever, but it was also way too much for a feature. That being said, who knows? I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of great characters that I’d love to see more of. I even think there’s, like, a Billis story [laughs]. There’s all kinds of things that are great that I love and would love to see more of. But I have no idea.
You mentioned the True Detective miniseries resurgence earlier. Do you think we’re hitting a wall with these kinds of shows? If so, how can writers and directors keep the genre fresh?
Listen, we’ve all been waiting for the superhero genre to be over. And it’s never over, right? You have to assume that, like the western, it’ll go out of style to some extent. I think it’s just a question of attaching to something real. And by real I mean it’s got to be about something in terms of a universal human truth, something that touches everyone’s lives. Not all of us have had the kind of racial confusion as, say, Fauna Hodel, but we’ve all wondered, “Who am I?”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. I Am the Night premieres January 28 on TNT.
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