Patton Oswalt on the Painful, Personal Process of Working on and Watching ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’

The new HBO docuseries explores writer and investigator Michelle McNamara’s obsessive hunt for the Golden State Killer—and her devastating premature death

One of the most-read stories ever published by this magazine was the 2013 investigative essay “In the Footsteps of a Killer” by Michelle McNamara. The writer, married to stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt, had been chronicling unsolved murders and the like on her blog True Crime Diary, but this was her major debut—and it was also the first time many people had ever heard of a serial rapist and killer who terrorized California in the 1970s and ’80s, a nastily prolific predator who had never been caught. He had many different names, all of them clumsy. She dubbed him the Golden State Killer, and it stuck.

The magazine piece led to a book deal, and McNamara was deep into writing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark when she suddenly died in her sleep in April 2016. (The cause was a combination of prescription medication—one way she dealt with the toll of wrestling with such an intense subject—and an undiagnosed heart condition.) With the help of her research assistant, Paul Haynes, and investigative journalist Billy Jensen, the book came out two years later and was an immediate bestseller. The poetic, tragic, stranger-than-fiction epilogue of the whole thing was that, shortly after publication, the killer was caught.

A new six-part docuseries on HBO, directed by Liz Garbus, covers the contents of the book and the real-life epilogue, but it’s as much a story about McNamara—her obsession, her genius, her deep empathy—and her premature death. Oswalt served as an executive producer, and he appears throughout as both a talking head and via intimate, poignant text exchanges between him and his late wife. He spoke briefly to Los Angeles magazine during a grueling press junket to promote the series. 

I feel bad contributing to the press gauntlet you’re having to run for what I imagine is not a very fun subject to keep rehashing. But I am glad to talk to you—not least because this is for Los Angeles magazine, which obviously has some some deep ties here.

Oh yeah.

How big of a deal was it to Michelle when she got the green light to write the piece for the magazine?

She was really, really excited. She had been doing investigative writing on her website, but to get a magazine assignment was a really, really big deal. I think she’d published some short stories and poems in different literary journals, but I don’t know the actual publishing history.

One of the things I love about this series is that it’s not just the compelling story of the Golden State Killer, and it’s not just the compelling story of Michelle—it’s a story about obsession, and the creative, exhilarating act of writing itself. Were you and Michelle a lot alike in terms of being writers and your respective obsessions? I know you’re a huge movie and pop culture fiend.

I mean, we were very similar in diving super, super deep into whatever we were into. That’s definitely one of the things that really clicked for us.

There’s a text exchange between you and Michelle in here, where you said something about how the created thing wants to stay warm and safe in its womb—I’m paraphrasing, obviously—and that trying to pull it into the light is why it resists so hard. I loved that metaphor. Where did you get that insight? I assume it was hard won.

That took a long, long time for me to kind of realize. That there’s a comfort in just rolling something around in your head and not putting it out in the world, but you’ve got to put it out there, man.

But that the thing itself does not want to come out is so resonant.

Wow, thank you. I appreciate that. You’re right, it was hard-won, and just a lot of trial and error.

michelle mcnamara
Michelle McNamara and Patton Oswalt

One of the moving things about the series is those text exchanges between the two of you, and the way it illuminates your relationship and your dynamic. It seems very brave and vulnerable of you to let that stuff be out there for the whole world to see. Were you reluctant at all?

I was a little bit, but the way that Liz frames it and put it in there made me confident and comfortable enough for it to be out there. Because she is such an amazing filmmaker, that’s what really put me at ease.

How hands-on were you as an executive producer? Did you have the ability to veto stuff from being included, or have any say about the way things were presented?

It was more of, I was collecting all the material and letting [Liz] shape it. I mean, every now and then I would go, “You know, maybe not this, maybe this instead.” But for the most part, I just let her shape it. You have to trust and put it on other people’s hands.

I was thinking of you as someone famous for being a passionate movie lover, that it must be strange to be part of something like this, which has cinematic qualities—suspense, violence, drama, score, even an ongoing reference to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Is it weird seeing something from the perspective of a movie lover when it’s your life, and even a painful part of your life?

Yeah, I mean, I’ve only watched four of the six episodes. I’ve watched the first four. I couldn’t get through all of them—it’s just still too soon, and it’s still too fresh. I talked to Liz about that, and she totally understood. That’s the best I could do.

Does your mind go there, though? Is the movie-lover mind activated when you’re watching this?

I mean, yeah, sometimes—but this is too personal for the movie-lover mind to kick in.

What I loved about the book, and it’s powerfully presented here as well, is just how much Michelle is part of the story. Other people have compared her to Truman Capote in that way, which I think is appropriate, but it does seem like a pretty unique thing for a storyteller to be as vivid a part of the investigative journalism of a criminal without it being intrusive or annoying. How do you think she managed that?

That’s more of a question for Michelle, and it’s more of a question for Liz. They’re the ones who did the work and the constructing. Again, that’s so outside of my wheelhouse [laughs]. I just can’t… I’m so sorry.

That’s OK. I’m curious, maybe, how you relate to that yourself. Because you’ve written several books about movies, and you’re there as the narrator, bringing the reader into your brain. And I’ve seen that go both ways—there are some celebrity profiles in newspapers where the author is there in every sentence and it’s very annoying. But I feel like Michelle handled it so delicately, and is such a present narrator.

Again, that’s a question for Michelle or Liz. I’m so sorry, but again, it’s just a skill that they have.

Another thing people often point out is Michelle’s ability to take something true crime, and make it such a sympathetic, non-exploitative account of victims, and not sensationalizing the victimizer.

Yeah, definitely. The killer is not the focus in this at all. That was, first, a choice by Michelle, and then a choice by Liz, who just did brilliant.

What do you hope is the edifying takeaway from the series?

That is going to be up to the individual viewer. I just won’t try to dictate what people should take from something. Always, you put a piece of work out into the world and other people decide what that is, you know.

RELATED: Michelle McNamara’s 2013 Story “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark”

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