Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where stories of Crime and Justice are told.

Today’s podcast is part one of a two-part interview with Brian McGinn, Executive Producer and Director of the Netflix series Chef’s Table and, our primary our primary focus in today’s conversation, the feature documentary Amanda Knox.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand the values and aims of storytellers in the world of crime and justice.

I connected with Brian through my USC colleague, Filmmaker Ted Braun who joins me in interviewing McGinn on the podcast. I found Brian’s perspective on filmmaking in general and the Knox story in particular, refreshingly down to earth and unpretentious. The Knox film is especially insightful, as the New York Times put it, about “how we judge attractive young women who dare to stray from what we consider appropriate social behavior.”

So without further ado here is part one of my interview with Brian McGinn.

Kary:

Please just give us a sense of your path into storytelling. Where did you grow up? Where did… and when did you think you wanted to tell stories, be a filmmaker? Where did it come from?

Brian McGinn:

I grew up in Palo Alto, California. My dad is a professor at Stanford, so I grew up in –

Ted:

A good one.

Brian McGinn:

Ted’s friends with my dad. I grew up in a hyper intellectual household and so film in a lot of ways was my rebellion against my dad. It was like, “Hey dad, screw you. I’m going to go do something that’s not being a lawyer or a doctor or a professor.” I think it was when I was 16, I saw Apocalypse Now and Memento, those were kind of like the two first two movies. I’d grown up in a household that only had PBS, so to that point all I watched were Frank Capra movies and Lubitsch movies and things like that. Those movies had a big impact on me, I started making shorts with my friends from high school who are now actors actually, and went to school.

Brian McGinn:

I went to Duke, not really a film school at all, mainly for basketball because we have a much better basketball program than you guys do here, substantially better, and I got lucky because I got a one man film school. There was a teacher at Duke who had taught David Gordon Green, Jeff Nichols, Danny McBride, and all of those kind of that kind of group of people at North Carolina School of the Arts, who had moved over to Duke and was randomly teaching documentary. I took his documentary class and then I went, “Oh wait, this actually is film school,” but from one person with two students. Ryan White, who made The Keepers was in my same class.

Brian McGinn:

I was doing that. I learned a lot from him. I moved out here after school. I was doing sketch comedy for three years, directing sketches that went pretty well, so I had like a weird comedy career. Eventually I auditioned to do Digital Shorts for Saturday Night Live to replace Lonely Island, I did not get that job, and then I went, “Oh God, what the F am I supposed to be doing?” And I thought, “Okay, you always wanted to make movies. You have to figure out what the path is to doing that,” and the path for me in that moment which ’09, ‘010, ’11, was, “Why don’t you go into documentary?” Because this was this moment when a lot of documentary filmmakers were able to crossover into scripted work, and you could still make a documentary that looked good and it would weirdly stand out because of that which now seems strange in today’s world, so that’s how I started making docs.

Brian McGinn:

My first doc was a comedy about the guy with the most Guinness records of all time. It was sort of like Kim Kong meets Man on Wire, it was the way I was… what I was going for, and then in the middle of that my subject dropped out, and I had a 25 minute short instead of a feature. At that point I met… This is way too long, by the way. I’m so sorry. I met David Gelb, who’s a USC alum who’d made Jiro Dreams of Sushi. He was making that the same time I was making the Guinness record movie. We got along really well. We started making Chef’s Table together, and all the while we were making Chef’s Table, I had sort of had this movie in the back of my head and I’d been doing a lot of legwork trying to figure out how to get access to the various people in the Knox story, which was very complicated.

Brian McGinn:

I had approached her right after she got out of prison. She had said she didn’t want to do a movie, and then three years later in 2014, she came back and said, “Actually, I do want to do a movie. Are you still interested?” And I said, “Not really, but let’s do an interview, and then once I do the interview, I can go from there.” But yeah.

Kary:

How did Rod Blackhurst partnered with you on this?

Brian McGinn:

Rod and I had been doing sketch together. I think one of the things that I learned really quickly after graduating and moving out here is that when you’re just one person, you can’t really… it’s really hard to keep making enough stuff to be feeling like you’re moving forward and especially in LA where there’s so many people trying to do the same thing that you are. You need to partner up with people so that you have a support system as well as collaborators.

Brian McGinn:

We started just making sketch comedy with my childhood friend who was like a comedy actor, and we started making these things for Funny Or Die, and then when the Knox movie came around the first time we were working together, and I was like, “Let’s do this.” That’s how that happened.

Kary:

Coming at it from purely in a kind of an entertainment interest, you’re coming at this not to save the world, but –

Brian McGinn:

No.

Kary:

But to entertain people, to tell stories, and have some fun.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Kary:

As you… What compelled you to pursue the Knox story initially, and then when Amanda came back after all that time and said, “Yes,” what drove you to continue to pursue it?

Brian McGinn:

The Knox thing I became interested in because there was an article that I had read from the first day of the trial, where it was a picture of her walking into court and the headline said… And she was smiling in the picture, and the headline said, “Smiling, laughing, on trial for murder,” and I thought, “What a romp in the park it must be to be on trial for murder,” and I thought, “Huh, there’s something interesting there about the story that’s being told in that picture,” and I was really interested and still am in the way that we tell stories and understand how things happen in the world through kind of the quickest, most surface level description that may bear no resemblance to what’s actually happening. That was my jumping off point for the movie.

Brian McGinn:

I honestly, and I find this in everything, I was no longer interested in the story by 2014 when she came back around. I’d been making a food show, I was rapidly gaining weight flying around the world shooting profiles of famous chefs, so it wasn’t really of interest to me by that point, and I only did it because I felt like I had to do it because of my producer and fellow partners on the project still wanting to move forward with it, and so I did it and then as always happens, once I started working on it, then I became totally sucked into it and couldn’t think about anything else for years.

Kary:

Tell me about the first interview with her that it sounds like that was the beginning of you getting hooked again.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah. The first interview is where she says a lot of the kind of big picture things that she says in the movie, for example, the opening lines about either I’m a psychopath or I’m you, that came out of the first interview and –

Ted:

The footage that we see in the film, in other words, that’s it?

Brian McGinn:

Yeah. In fact, the thing that she was not capable of doing in the first interview was being in the moment and experiencing anything that she had gone through, all she could do was analyze. That was, I think, in talking to people that have been through that kind of experience, that seems to be a normal thing. I actually just went through it on another thing I’m doing where the only thing that could come out of her mouth was sort of like a 30,000 foot bird’s eye view of the whole situation.

Brian McGinn:

For a while that was frustrating as an interviewer, and then I kind of leaned into it and we really talked in that first interview almost like entirely about why people were so obsessed with her and it became a process, almost like a therapy session for her, she tried to figure out for herself why the hell it is. Because I don’t think that she was really being asked those questions by her parents or anyone like that.

Ted:

Brian, the material that ends the film is also sort of 30,000 foot view stuff about –

Brian McGinn:

What ends the film?

Ted:

People need a monster.

Brian McGinn:

Oh yeah. This is the same interview.

Ted:

Yeah.

Brian McGinn:

I think.

Ted:

Interesting, yeah. Because that perspective gives the film its sort of vantage point or at least it seems though that’s… And that was the first thing you had.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah, and it’s strange because I was a huge… One of the big influences for me is Ira Glass and this American life which is kind of, I think been more responsible for what we do on Chef’s Table than anything else. But his rule is always you do the story and then you say how it feels. I think in this case what often happened was you would do the story and then you would say what it might mean, and that became sort of the modus operandi for how she would be used in the movie.

Ted:

Giving you what it meant.

Brian McGinn:

What it could mean.

Ted:

What it could mean, yeah.

Kary:

Once you re-committed to doing it, how did you go about planning? Who did you feel you needed to get in order to complete this story?

Brian McGinn:

To me, we couldn’t make it without her and the prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini. We weren’t going to do it without the two of them. It took a long time. It took three years to get her to sit down for an interview, then it took another year to get him to sit down for an interview, and in between, we interviewed his kind of second in charge prosecutor and tried editing with him for awhile and that was quite boring, he was not very interesting.

Brian McGinn:

I would say the process of… The reason why the movie took five years, and I’m sure you guys have experienced this in your various efforts, but the reason why it took so damn long was we were constantly trying to figure out, “Is this the right person to talk to? Is this the right person to talk to?” And we knew we wanted as few people in the movie as possible because I hate talking head movies where there’s 30,000 characters and you can’t tell who’s doing what and it just feels like a tapestry of an essay instead of from the actual perspectives and points of view of the people involved. That was kind of the way we settled on him.

Ted:

In my case, I usually don’t go until I know I’ve got those people.

Brian McGinn:

Really?

Ted:

I mean not the entire ensemble, but I usually don’t go on until I know I’ve got a core group. But these things come together in very different ways.

Brian McGinn:

I think it was also because the case was being pursued by so many other people.

Ted:

Yeah. Well, that was the factor. You had her.

Kary:

I have to say, I don’t think it would’ve been the same film without Sollecito and Pisa either.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Kary:

When did they fall into place?

Brian McGinn:

Raffaele came very quickly after Amanda, because once we had Amanda she reached out to Sollecito for us. Nick Pisa, I knew… The media for me from the minute one was the third part of the puzzle but it took a while to figure out who the right person was, and for awhile we were going to do an American journalist who had been very much on Knox’s side, an Italian journalist who had very much been anti-Knox, and then a British tabloid journalist.

Brian McGinn:

We were kind of discovering as we went how it worked with all the journalists in this story, and it really was like spring break, it was crazy. All these people lived in the same hotel in Perugia and they were all sleeping with each other and cheating on their spouses and then going on TV and talking about how this young woman was a sex crazed maniac, and so I thought that was really interesting. So for awhile I was kind of really obsessed with that angle and we were going down that path, and then we did the Pisa interview and we were like, “Oh, maybe we don’t need any other characters.”

Kary:

In the hallway before class, we were talking a bit about Mignini and some of the other elements of his career and things that were going on at the same time. I wonder if you might talk about that and your conversations with your editor –

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Kary:

And also talk a bit about how you came to a 90 minute film rather than –

Brian McGinn:

A 14 hour.

Kary:

Yes.

Brian McGinn:

Okay. Well, that one’s easy to answer. The reason it’s a 90 minute film is that this was made before making a murderer, and so the idea of a multipart docuseries, the only example in the true crime space that I can think of prior to that was, The Staircase, and this was just not that kind of movie because it’s a talking head and archive movie. That one’s pretty easy to answer, though it’s certainly the story is crazy and there’s so much crazier stuff that’s not in the movie that’s actually probably the most insane stuff and most interesting stuff, but just got cut because it didn’t make sense and a lot of that was character material for each of the main characters.

Brian McGinn:

Pisa told us the story about Mignini arresting a bunch of 80 year olds British pensioners who had moved to the Perugia area for retirement and were growing poppies, poppy flowers, in their front yard, and Mignini became completely convinced that the old couple was growing the poppies to turn it opium, so they could make a little side buck in their retirement. There was constantly like… There’s all these stories, anyone you talk to would tell you a wild story.

Kary:

You mentioned before class that you would have this dialog with your editor about how –

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Kary:

How to maintain a balance of mystery at the very least so that –

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Kary:

Because it was very easy to tip the scales to –

Brian McGinn:

In one way or the other, yeah. I think that the biggest fight that my editor and I had, Matt Hamachek who also did Cartel Land and The Trade and City of Ghosts, he’s amazing, the biggest fight that we had was over there’s one scene early in the movie where when Mignini discovers the crime scene and analyzes it, one of the key facts for him is that Meredith Kercher’s body is covered by a blanket and he says, basically that means it must have been a female murderer because only a woman would cover the body of someone they’ve killed. That’s something that a woman would do. We had unbelievable fights about that. I insisted it staying in the movie and he told me it would ruin the entire movie.

Brian McGinn:

All of those fights were about –

Kary:

He thought that because –

Brian McGinn:

He thought that for an American audience, it seemed so outlandish to jump to that conclusion that it would make everyone think, “Oh, he’s a crackpot investigator,” and we didn’t want to do that. I think that just goes to show that you can kind of the one person who you trust more than anything on both sides, both on his side and on my side, we were both so convinced of our positions and after working on something for that long that you could still come to opposite conclusions and not be sure which way to go. It’s kind of like a good way of describing the movie making process, which is you’re kind of making decisions hoping that they’re going to be the right one, and you have to kind of trust your gut and you’re not always right. It’s always a weird experience to try to come to conclusion.

Ted:

Also the value of disagreement and creative tension, the right sort of creative tension.

Brian McGinn:

You were talking to me about that at breakfast the other morning about how that you love working that way.

Ted:

I don’t seek it out, but when it happens I embrace it because it’s stimulating.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Ted:

It presses you to be different, it presses you to be clear about what values you have, and if you’re collaborators forceful it opens you to things you wouldn’t otherwise consider.

Brian McGinn:

I think it means –

Ted:

I’d rather have that friction than marshmallow mush.

Brian McGinn:

I think it’s also the only way that you make stuff clear, because I think if you don’t fight and argue about why stuff is in there and what purpose every single thing is serving… I could tell you what every line of dialogue and what every short is doing, or at least in our brains, was doing in the movie, and I think that was only because we were fighting every single day about everything as friends.

Ted:

It’s especially productive in post.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Ted:

In production we don’t have as much time, it’s a little different.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Kary:

The Kercher’s, well, tell us a bit about your approaching them and their response to you, and then why do you think they were so convinced of her guilt? And then if you could also talk about the other friends of –

Brian McGinn:

Meredith’s friends?

Kary:

Amanda and Meredith.

Brian McGinn:

Oh, okay. The Kercher family we approached five or six times over the course of making the movie. We really wanted their voices in it and they never once, and we went through various avenues, and they never once even agreed to speak to us to even hear us out, and we respect that decision. They’ve been through the worst part. They’ve had the worst part of any of this story, and I think it’s exacerbated by how many twists and turns happened legally, because I think to answer kind of the second part of your question, it’s so hard to… I can’t even imagine what it’s like to lose a daughter, but then also to constantly be on edge about whether the person that you’re being told did it is legally guilty or not, and being bounced around like that for eight years is just… That’s why at the end of the movie there’s this archive where you see her and you see the incredible toll that her being Meredith’s mother, and you see the toll that the whole experience has taken on her, and she’s just kind of left going like, “I don’t even know what to think anymore.”

Brian McGinn:

I think that’s the… A lot of people talk about the justice in relation to Knox and Sollecito because that became the headline news but in a way you see that at the end of the day, the real victim of the justice system was not Knox and Sollecito, it was the mother who still has no answer for what the hell happened to her daughter after all that time. I think that’s [crosstalk 00:24:20] –

Ted:

It’s true no answer that she’s satisfied with.

Brian McGinn:

No answer, because Rudy Guede who was convicted of it was only convicted of being a part of it, and so she’s still… There’s no definitive answer to what happened. At least –

Ted:

She believes that there was another party involved.

Brian McGinn:

Technically so do the Italian verdicts. Guede a was… We could really go into esoterica of the Italian legal system, but technically Guede was convicted in collaboration with two others and his verdict and sentence was not changed as a result of the Knox and Sollecito being found innocent.

Kary:

Tell us about the your getting access to the police footage of the crime scene.

Brian McGinn:

Oh, goodness. We got access… After the case was closed, I think we were the only people that visited and this was… the Italian system is so bureaucratic and they had all of the case files, all the recordings, and everything, stored in the library for the Italian Supreme Court. Every time we’d call them they’d be like, “You need the permission for the Florence court in order to get into the Supreme court.” And then we’d call the Florence court and they’d say, “You need the permission of the Supreme court to get in, for us to give you permission to [inaudible 00:27:11].”

Brian McGinn:

We eventually got the head of the Italian Supreme court on the phone with the head of the Florence court to kind of for each of them to take no responsibility for granting us access to this archive. We got in and literally all of the evidence, then supposedly murder weapon, the rock that had been supposedly thrown through the window, everything was just kind of like in a box, and we went through all that and found a ton of stuff, including the police… The footage of Meredith Kercher in there which was shot by Knox on her camera, was on an SD card, and when we showed the movie to Mignini, Mignini was like, “I have never seen that footage,” and basically the Italian police were incapable of opening a video files on an SD card, they didn’t know how to do it and so no one had ever seen the footage that Amanda had shot of Meredith. I don’t know, that was a whole long thing, and then getting all of the crime scene footage was another experience altogether.

Brian McGinn:

That’s something that I didn’t expect. Having not made anything true crime related was… nothing really prepared me for the graphic vicious nature of that kind of material and it’s something that I would not recommend to anyone.

Ted:

Are there things that you didn’t include in the cut that you saw and disturbed you greatly?

Brian McGinn:

Oh, yeah. Yeah, really quite. I had never seen a murder, I had only seen the way murders are presented as an anesthetized for people to take in, and it is far more awful and disturbing than I think I could have ever imagined. It was bad.

Ted:

One of the films that we looked at in this course was the O.J film, and that picture I think makes incredibly strategic use of the crime scene footage.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Ted:

To just the effect that you experienced having watched that, but they made a choice or Ezra made a choice to be a little less –

Brian McGinn:

Graphic.

Ted:

Restrained.

Brian McGinn:

Oh, less restrained, yeah. Right.

Ted:

Less restrained. He was more graphic, yeah.

Brian McGinn:

Right.

Ted:

Yeah, that a couple of very key judges –

Kary:

And because his own general assessment was that O.J was guilty.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Ted:

Yeah.

Kary:

That it was important for the sake of the victims to show what this was all about.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Kary:

I think with your clear sense… I’m assuming that your sense is that Amanda and Sollecito are innocent, and if you show the crime scene and when all evidence points to Rudy Guede doing it by himself, then you’re still putting that crime scene, at least you’re associating it with –

Brian McGinn:

Huh, I’d never really thought about it that way. I think for us it was never about like, is it going to make anyone seem guilty or innocent? Because I think that the question of guilt or innocence was quite… I don’t want to be callous about it, but it was relatively uninteresting to us because by the time the movie came out, the final court decisions had been made. It wasn’t a situation where the movie was about or going to change that course of events, and I’d never thought about it in those terms. I think where we tried to think about it in the edit room was just, “Do we need to see it?” Or, “Is it unnecessary?” And a lot of the time I think we made the call which is, if our assistant editors had to black out the screen in order to watch the police footage, then that was a red line for us where it was not necessary for anyone to have to watch it.

Kary:

I think I misstated why Ezra chose to include it –

Brian McGinn:

Sure.

Kary:

He had, I think it was Hodgman, take him through his theory of the crime –

Brian McGinn:

That makes sense.

Kary:

Of how the crime was committed, and it was necessary to see the crime scene in order to have that theory makes sense.

Brian McGinn:

Totally.

End Part One.