Aaron Quinn and Denise Huskins may not be household names, but what happened to them was made ubiquitous by a widely-known association: “Gone Girl.”
The California couple made headlines in 2015, just one year after David Fincher’s adaptation of the popular Gillian Flynn novel. Huskins was kidnapped, her then-boyfriend telling the police a shocking story, and after 48 hours, she came home. Their ordeal was treated like a “real-life ‘Gone Girl'” by the media — as well as local and federal officers — and now retold in the Netflix docuseries “American Nightmare,” helmed by Bernadette Higgins and Felicity Morris.
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When Quinn and Huskins’ story reached the duo behind “The Tinder Swindler,” it was once again via “Gone Girl”-association. Higgins told IndieWire she was struck by all the twists and turns in their story (which doesn’t end after Huskins came home), and the “sheer audacity” of law enforcement in the situation.
“That’s been the constant question: Why?” she said in a video call with IndieWire. “Why why why less than 12 hours after her release with did they feel so confident going on national television, calling them liars — before even speaking to her?”
The three-episode series moves chronologically, starting with Quinn’s 911 call and conversations with the Vallejo P.D., then Huskins’ version of events and the F.B.I.’s involvement, building to a finale that pieces everything together. (No spoilers here, but there are a few more wild twists in store!) During hours of extensive research calls, Higgins and Morris determined that no one could tell the couple’s story better than they themselves could, putting both Quinn and Huskins’ on camera.
“The most compelling stories are the stories of the victims rather than the stories of the perpetrators,” Morris said. It’s how she chose to structure “The Tinder Swindler” and implemented again in “American Nightmare.” “Having our first conversations with Denise and Aaron, it was quite clear that in them we had the most compelling storytellers, who would be able to cut through to the audience and make them feel the spectrum of feelings in watching the series.”
In Episodes 1 and 2, viewers will see Quinn and Huskins telling the story in 2015 and the present — intercut versions that line up after years.
“We really wanted the audience to have that interactive viewing experience where they were thinking ‘Do I believe this guy? Does he seem convincing? Does he seem stressed enough about this? Is he answering like a killer or like a victim?'” Higgins said.
“It’s no easy thing for these contributors to do, to sit there and kind of bare their souls,” Morris added. “It’s the interviews that are the bedrock of these retrospective films and series.”
Netflix has excelled at the true crime genre for years with docuseries as well as fictional retellings like “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” and the recent “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” The three-part structure skillfully organizes disparate threads of investigation which ultimately intertwine. Hearing from Huskins and Quinn firsthand makes “American Nightmare” unmissable, as they recount the inciting events of the kidnapping through to the months that followed and the shocking conclusion of their case.
For anyone unbothered by routine miscarriages of justice, particularly against minorities and the poor, “American Nightmare” serves to puncture the fantasy that privilege guarantees protection. Huskins and Quinn are the perfect all-American couple on paper, but their story shows they were still targeted and vilified. They carry that trauma in their present-day interviews — and they got off far better than most.
Higgins said that she and Morris are always looking for “holy shit stories,” but that the ones they actually pursue require more depth. A gripping headline is enough to bring viewers in, but what will keep them coming back — and what will have them thinking and talking about the story long after it ends?
“There has to be another reason, a why. And there are so many whys in this story,” Higgins said. “Why aren’t women believed when they say they’ve been sexually assaulted? Why do we just assume that people are guilty because it fits a certain kind of generic the-boyfriend-did-it. Why are we more interrogative, why do we suspect the truth? So there’s a lot of whys that we want the audience to go away thinking about once they turn off their televisions that go beyond just watching a thrilling story. You want people to interrogate their own prejudices and to really start to demand more from the systems which are supposed to protect us.”
“American Nightmare” is now streaming on Netflix.
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