Gripping, ominous, and chilling, The Innocent Man is the latest tale that has audiences buzzing on streaming juggernaut Netflix. The brooding series is based on the true crime novel of the same name by author John Grisham.
Much like the wildly popular streaming series Making a Murderer, The Innocent Man is an eerie whodunit, but at its heart, it’s a story that brutally illustrates that the challenges and corruption that plagues the U.S. criminal justice system.
Encompassing a winding six-episodes, The Innocent Man centers on the quiet town Ada, Oklahoma, and the brutal murders of waitress Debbie Carter in 1982 and store clerk Denice Hathaway in 1984. The investigations and trials rocked the city and ended with the conviction of four men. But as the series deftly illustrates, the entire process was flawed and confessions were coerced. The families of the murdered victims now live tortured lives, as do the wrongfully convicted men. (The tale of Ronald Williamson is especially disturbing.) The series mixes archival footage with riveting dramatizations that reflect the stark desolation of the story.
The Innocent Man is the brainchild of executive producer Ross Dinerstein, a Houston native and 15-year veteran of Hollywood who has dozens of titles successfully released — including one with Stephen King. After Dinerstein approached Grisham about a series, the celebrated author later handpicked Dinerstein to produce the project.
CultureMap caught up with Dinerstein, who shared the frightening story behind his riveting mini saga, which is now available to 137 million viewers worldwide.
CultureMap: Congratulations on the success of the series. Is this story so scary because it hits home?
Ross Dinerstein: Oh yeah. True crime is terrifying and I think audiences love to be scared. And true crime — it’s real, and it can happen to you. And even John Grisham says, you know, when he wrote the book, he was reading the obituary for Ronald Williamson and saw that they were both from small towns in the South and they’re both star baseball players. And John even looked at it and was like, “That could’ve been me.”
And I think people are fascinated by these stories because it could very well be them or their neighbor or a family friend that is, you know, wrongfully accused.
CM: Truly, in the right circumstances, this could happen to almost anybody.
RD: It’s my worst nightmare personally to be imprisoned for a crime I didn’t commit, let alone sentenced to death for a crime I didn’t commit. And that, I think, is just terrifying.
This is important because it puts a magnifying glass on a very big flaw in the criminal justice system. Innocent people are being arrested and incarcerated and sentenced to death with little to no evidence, with either corrupt or mishandled evidence and they really don’t have a day in court. They have their day in court but, once they’re convicted, it’s next to impossible to get out, to get that overturned.
And, if you’re innocent and you’re in prison, you’re most likely gonna stay in prison.
We forged relationships with a lot of the people in this, from the family members of the victims, and we just owe it to them to tell the story. Because, honestly, once you’re locked away, people don’t really care.
CM: Did you create this series especially for binging?
RD: I’ll be very surprised that if anyone doesn’t watch, you know, all six episodes in over a day. We’ve created it to be binge-worthy. We’ve edited it that way. We feel like it’s an important part of the experience of watching it, because there are some ebbs and flows and the momentum builds and, then, the ending does leave you with a taste in your mouth. And I think most people will want to watch it all, if not in one sitting.
CM: Viewers are drawing a lot of comparisons to Making a Murderer.
RD: With Making a Murderer, there are obviously some parallels because of Netflix. But our access was very different than theirs, and there wasn’t a lot of archival and there weren’t a lot of people that were still alive involved in ours. So, we really did kind of come up with our own language and our own game plan.
Our show relies heavily on recreations and they’re very cinematic and they’re very beautiful. And it comes from my narrative background, where we really focused on that. So, I think people will be surprised at sort of how cinematic and visual our show is.
CM: This series is especially haunting. Was it as hard to make as it was, at times, to watch?
RD: Look, it’s a really hard show to make as a filmmaker, because it’s really depressing.Yeah, I really struggled with it. I spent a lot of time in Oklahoma and ended up making a very silly, R-rated comedy right after we finished shooting it to sort of balance my soul.
CM: The response on social media is tremendous — people are calling for new investigations — and it’s gone global to 133 countries.
RD: True crime is really big in the U.K., and there’s already been a lot of press in [Britain] for this show, including a newspaper in the U.K. actually showing up at one of the subject matter’s houses, essentially stalking her and just demanding an interview. And it was a really minor character too. So, I think this is gonna be big in the U.K. I think it will be big in the U.S. But Netflix’s reach is global, and they’re known for these true-crime docs. So, I feel like it’s really gonna catch on.
CM: How does it feel to have a title available on Netflix’s welcome screen and available to more than 100 million viewers?
RD: I’ve been making indie films for 15 years and to get 25,000 people to see your film was a home run. It’s a really big moment. But at the end of the day, this is just something that I’m just so excited about.
I’ve been a part of about 40 different projects, and this is about the most important thing I’ve ever done and this is the project that I’m the most proud of.