Kary:

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

Today’s podcast is the second part of a two-part interview with Brian McGinn, Executive Producer and Director of the Netflix series Chef’s Table and, 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 the conclusion of my interview with Brian McGinn.

Kary:

The film comes out, what is the impact on the various subjects?

Brian McGinn:

Yeah, it’s interesting. Well, first off, we showed the movie to everyone in person before the movie came out because we knew there was such a rabid online debates still raging about this case. There’s a website called True Justice For Meredith Kercher, it has a number of people that continue to advocate for Knox and Sollecito’s guilt, and have their own theories about what happened. There’s a still quite rabid Twitter discussion about the case, so we knew that once it came out that everyone’s perspectives were going to be warped which it’s sort of an interesting opposite.

Brian McGinn:

You’ve must experience this, but when you finish a movie and you show it to people, I often find they don’t like the movie when they’re shown at the first time because they don’t know what to think, and then once they watch it with an audience and the audience loves them, then they go, “Oh, I quite like this movie,” and this was strangely the opposite.

Ted:

I actually have… The subjects of the films that I’ve done have all agreed to see the film for the first time with the audience.

Brian McGinn:

Really?

Ted:

Yeah, including Betting on Zero where the subject, Bill Ackman, was at super high degree of exposure and he sat and watched it with his family for the first time at the Tribeca Film Festival. He said he didn’t want to be accused of knowing what was going on before he sat down to watch it that night.

Brian McGinn:

Wow.

Ted:

Yeah.

Brian McGinn:

Wow.

Ted:

Yeah.

Brian McGinn:

Huh –

Ted:

I haven’t had that.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah. Well, this one for me –

Ted:

I can understand exactly why it was necessary in that case.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah. We also wanted to try to cut off the idea that people could have any feelings of being misrepresented in the movie because it was very important to us that we reflected everyone’s points of view –

Ted:

Of course, they need to be with you when it came out in the press, yeah.

Brian McGinn:

So –

Ted:

For us with Betting on Zero, it was important to be independent of us.

Brian McGinn:

To be distant.

Ted:

Yeah, actually, because they were accusing us of having been imbed with him. So [crosstalk 00:35:54] –

Brian McGinn:

Oh, interesting.

Ted:

All of us that he’d not seen it until [inaudible 00:35:58], though it was a huge sort of gamble.

Ted:

Who did you show it to first?

Brian McGinn:

We showed it to Mignini first, I think, and he quite liked it. Knox, I don’t think she knew what to think about it. Sollecito I think liked it, but wish there had been more of him in the movie, and that was just part and parcel of the 90 minute thing and the reflection of how obsessed the world became with her. Pisa said it was his favorite documentary he’d ever seen, and the only things that he wished he’d changed about the movie was his tie was not straight in a couple of the scenes he is a character.

Brian McGinn:

The strangest thing for me was I thought that almost all the chatter after the movie was going to be directed at Amanda, and the thing that kind of bummed me out was that it actually ended up being all at Pisa, not all but… and it turned into –

Kary:

You didn’t have a sense after finishing it that Pisa comes off looking like a horse’s ass? I don’t know, did you guys feel that way?

Brian McGinn:

Horse’s ass? Or no horse’s ass? I think that we knew that we were letting him be pretty honest with his feelings about this story, I don’t think we knew that people would make it personal about him, and I think that’s the thing that has now just… It’s in every part of our society now, is that everything becomes personal, and so I don’t think people understood and we try to talk about it in the press but like what are you going to do, that Nick Pisa is working for the Daily Mail as a freelance journalist, he’s getting paid €30, £30, for every story he publishes.

Brian McGinn:

If you a family, how many stories do you need to publish in order to support your family? He’s sort of right, you don’t have time to fact check your stories. I don’t think that’s an ideal situation, I don’t think that’s what journalism is, but he’s right that if you’re a Daily Mail journalist and you need to support your family, that’s what you’re doing. I always had hoped that Pisa would stand in for this change in the journalism culture that was happening at this time period, and I think you’re seeing now is even worse with the types of people on both sides of the aisle that are just not basing their reporting in any sort of actual, anything more than just what people want to read or see. I was always hoping it would be more about that and instead it became about like, “Man, what an asshole.”

Ted:

Or a horse’s ass.

Brian McGinn:

Or a horse’s ass, yeah.

Brian McGinn:

That’s the scariest part of making any movie for me by the way, is showing it to the people that are in the movie.

Ted:

Yeah.

Brian McGinn:

Like way scarier than showing it to an actual audience, it’s the worst. It’s the worst thing.

Ted:

And doing it over and over again is even fucking worse, there’s nothing worse than it.

Kary:

Let’s talk a little bit about style. You mentioned, and it’s clear you’re heavily influenced by Errol Morris –

Kary:

Tell us about the impact of… tell us a little bit about the technology because we haven’t really talked about it in this –

Brian McGinn:

Interrotron?

Kary:

Yeah. Tell us about the technology, and then tell us about the psychological impact.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah. It’s amazing. Errol came up with this idea and it’s brilliant. All of his technological innovations, he… It’s basically two cross-connected teleprompters. Normally you would use a teleprompter for a political speech and the words would scroll on the screen and it would allow you to kind of make pseudo eye contact with the camera while you’re giving your speech so that you don’t actually have to memorize it.

Brian McGinn:

What the interrotron does by cross-connecting the prompters is it projects… you basically connect the prompter that’s right in front of the main A camera and that is facing the subject, you cross-connect that to another camera, so it shows the feet of a second camera, and that second camera is pointed at the interviewer, in this case me, so that my face is directly projected on the teleprompter that the subject sees.

Brian McGinn:

They literally cannot see a camera, a lens, anything, and you black out everything else. Essentially all that people can see is a giant light and the face of the interviewer, and it turns it into a conversation and something way more intimate, and what it also does psychologically for the audience is it means that the people being interviewed are speaking directly to the audience instead of speaking slightly off camera to an interviewer. For this movie, the choice to do it was basically this whole thing became about who did you believe? And had been that for so long and we thought that it was a really effective way of illustrating that visually, and then I also became really interested kind of hacky film school style with the way I thought Amanda as a cipher was kind of representative of like the Kuleshov effect where basically people could project anything they wanted onto her.

Brian McGinn:

That old Russian experiment where basically you intercut a woman’s blank face with a baby carriage going down the stairs, a nice meal, a baby, all these different things, and then basically the audience will project upon that same blank expression whatever feeling they have about the other image. I thought that was a really apt way of thinking about what Amanda became, which is just a way for everyone to project their own feelings about the way they saw the world, the way the things that they were important to them, the way they viewed behavior, all of these different kinds of things onto her. Because at the end of the day, I found her just like a relatively quirky, kooky, 20 something person who had… She wasn’t like a complex criminal mastermind, or she’s really good.

Kary:

There’s also these moments when Amanda and Sollecito are –

Brian McGinn:

Staring into camera?

Kary:

Staring into camera and either waiting for a verdict or… Tell us about how you got those images.

Brian McGinn:

That’s probably from, as you can tell, I have extreme verbal diarrhea. That was probably, each of those are probably them waiting for me to ask them a fucking question, as I ramble incoherently and go, “I don’t know if this is a question,” so a lot of those moments were taken from there and then we realized kind of early on how interesting because there was a lot of crosstalk in the story where people would be speaking to each other across time, across memory, whatever, and so we thought it was interesting to kind of play with that as a medium. The interview stage and set could either take you into an interrogation room, could take you into the courtroom, could take you all of these different places, depending on how you presented the interview. I think that was one of the things that I hadn’t seen as much of and that I was really excited about doing because it felt like, “Oh that’s a way to make interview transporting even though they’re still sitting in a chair,” and so that was really exciting to me.

Ted:

I’m curious because one of the things that’s tricky about a film is when you are going to sit down and talk with someone or when you are going to talk with them whether they sit down or not is, what is it about that space? What is it about that environment that’s going to be reflective to the viewer of something that’s important to you as a film? For instance, is it going to reveal something about their character? Or is it going to highlight a dimension of them that you want the audience to pay particular attention to? Or are you trying to create a space where they’re feeling comfortable and can open themselves up?

Ted:

You said that you started this whole thing by filming that first interview, and you started knowing you were doing it with the Interrotron, and knowing from what you’ve described that that means taking her out of any familiar space into this very, very kind of weird environment where she’s doing something she would never do in normal life, which is staring at a –

Brian McGinn:

At a screen.

Ted:

Prompter screen with your face [crosstalk 00:47:10] –

Brian McGinn:

Well, the backdrop –

Ted:

All these sort of… Why that? And was it a creative hunch or was it –

Brian McGinn:

Part of it, it was a combination of everyone needs to be on a level playing field. Everyone had to be on the same great backdrop, roughly the same size in frame, looking into the same camera.

Ted:

So not even knowing yet who you had, you knew you wanted everybody on the same playing field?

Brian McGinn:

The story was so explosive and people had already made up their minds to such an extent that it felt like if we really didn’t want to make the film about what we believed, and that’s why the movie is not really firmly making a really strong argument, personal argument for that, we’re following the way that the courts decided the case. Because for us, the thing that was much more interesting was the way that all of us spun the public narrative and how we consumed it and were so fascinated by it. Keeping everyone on a level playing field from a visual standpoint, I think helped us with that. In terms of making people comfortable –

Ted:

But that was a thought from the beginning.

Brian McGinn:

Oh yeah. Yeah.

Ted:

Before you even had your full cast of characters for the doc, you knew you… Sort of from a thematic filmmaking stylistic approach, it was you were going to [crosstalk 00:48:28] –

Kary:

You were ripping off Errol.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah. We knew we were doing Errol from minute one. It was just so clear that that was the right, it was the right way to do it. You don’t want to go into her house and do like a normal sit down interview, it just doesn’t feel… that’s not something that we… It’s a different kind of movie, and we also don’t enter intimate spaces in the movie very often. The movie is quite backed off, there’s very little emotion in the movie, and that was all our choice that this was not a movie about invading people’s private spaces, this was a movie about how do people tell their own story and letting them have the space to do that.

Brian McGinn:

I think we did I think 30 hours of interviews with her, 15 to 20 with Mignini. I don’t know if I’m being accurate in that, but we did so many interviews with everyone and spent so long talking to them that the main goal was just for people to no longer be… and this is what we do on Chef’s Table, to just exhaust people of the normal things that they say so that they can hopefully say something interesting because it’s very boring hearing this things that everyone says in a normal interview situation.

Kary:

I’d like to ask you one last question and then turn it over to the students for some questions. What is the best piece of advice as a storyteller that you ever got? Or what’s the best piece of advice you can offer these young budding storytellers?

Brian McGinn:

The best advice ever got was to make one thing a week, it was by my professor at Duke, and he said, “It doesn’t matter how good it is because no one wants to see your garbage until it’s good anyway and it’s going to take you a bunch of years to get there.” I think that’s the one thing whenever I go back to Duke or wherever I meet young filmmakers, they always want, “Here’s a script that I’ve written.” “What! Is this your 30th script?” “No, it’s my second script.” It’s like, “Well, it’s guaranteed to be garbage then, stone-cold guaranteed to be garbage.”

Brian McGinn:

And then I would recommend that anyone entering the film industry rather than trying to work their way up in the agency system or doing anything like that which is going to depress you about the film industry to no end, that you say, “I’m going to make my money outside of the film industry if I need to, and I’m going to only do things in the film industry that are rewarding and that I like until I get to a point where I can actually do something as a job that is rewarding,” and I think that job, if you want to be a director, should always be starting in editorial.

BREAK

Kary:

Before we wrap it up, a couple of questions from students. The first one… Did you ever give any thought to interviewing members of Amanda’s family for the film?

Brian McGinn:

Oh, that’s an interesting question, and I have never gotten that question before. Why didn’t we? We interviewed her mom, we interviewed… Did we interview her dad? I don’t know. It was just a matter of we didn’t have the victim’s family, we didn’t have… It just felt like it was not what we were interested in. I think we all can imagine what it’s like to have your child in prison for something that they say they did not do, and the feeling of helplessness that comes from that, and I think that what we tried to do rather than include her parents as characters in the movie from an interview standpoint, was we found moments where we felt like explained their point of view on the story in archival.

Brian McGinn:

At all times we were looking for ways to make the story more efficient, and so when we had the recordings that were done in jail between Amanda and her mom, where they were talking for the first time after she had been arrested, it felt like what more did you need to know about what it was like to be the mom than to hear that recording? What were we going to get out of it? And that was constantly when you’re making a 90 minute movie, you’re like, “Well, what do we get out of it that helps people understand further?”

Ted:

That scene with the dad…

Brian McGinn:

Oh, when the dad gets… I think it’s my favorite moment in the whole movie when the journalist from TMZ, I believe, asks Kurt, Amanda’s Dad, “Well, she hasn’t done a major interview yet. She’s not going to be a hot commodity” –

Ted:

Hot property.

Brian McGinn:

“Hot property if you don’t do the interview quickly,” which I think is such a funny explanation of where we’ve come. Where he’s like, “Hey, why aren’t you taking advantage of this situation, dude? Come on.”

Brian McGinn:

Yeah, I think that shows the gap between the kind of human experience of being in it and the… Because she is a commodity to the journalists and to the people that are so obsessed with that, and that was something that we became really interested in.

Kary:

Yeah. It also speaks to why Pisa was so convinced he looked great in it is because when they’re inside the bubble, that logic makes complete sense, and it’s only when the reality of how the general public reacts to that kind of behavior, that kind of mentality –

Brian McGinn:

And it’s no different than what we see… The idea that a journalist could say like, “Wow, we have some girl on girl crime here and both of them are really hot,” that’s such an inappropriate… It has absolutely nothing to do with the case. It’s so insensitive to this situation, and yet when you are looking at it as like, well, what’s the good headline for it? Is it orgy of death? You know what I mean? When you’re starting to think of it in those terms, that is the way that you process the whole story.

Brian McGinn:

For us in relation to… There are a few other cases that I think have been about this, a lot of the, like the Michelle Carter case, which is relatively recent, the… certainly, what was the case in Florida where the woman pushed her kid into the…

Brian McGinn:

Casey Anthony. There’ve been a few of these stories that have become about the kind of salacious, heavily sexualized components of the story, but this one felt like it stood alone a little bit in the way that everyone got so titillized by it.

Kary:

The one thing that we didn’t talk about was that this story, I’ve heard you mention that in the way that O.J became the first big media trial of the cable news era, this became the first big criminal trial of the social media era.

Brian McGinn:

Yeah.

Kary:

Can you talk a little bit about that?

Brian McGinn:

Yeah. Well, it has two impacts. One, everyone has an opinion about it and their opinions are not necessarily based on knowing what the heck they’re talking about or the actual facts of the case. And number two, what was really interesting to me about this was the rise of social media means the decline of traditional publishing, and what that means is there’s infinitely less resources for foreign correspondents, for boots on the ground journalism, for long form journalism, for the kinds of things that help you present back to the general public a reasoned well reported narrative.

Brian McGinn:

What happened in this story I would always, one of my go to ways of talking about it was, Nick Pisa was reporting not only for the Daily Mail and for the Sun, but also for Sky News in the UK, for NBC News in the United States, so in other words you saw this tabloidification thing, where the tablet journalist suddenly was the real journalist, and that line blurring… We all love Maggie Haberman, but she’s a New York Post gossip journalist and now she’s the White House correspondent. That’s not the same thing, but there’s a line blurring that’s been happening for the last 20 years about, what are journalism prerogatives? What are the things we value in journalism? And what are the things that are important to us in terms of entertainment?

Brian McGinn:

Social media, it rewards entertainment, it rewards a good headline, it does not reward a good coherent well reported story. There’s no extra likes, there’s no extra shares for that, and so I think that this story kind of, because of all the titillating influences, became patient zero for that kind of rampant sharing of something that seemed really exciting and then that enters the… it enters that record as a fact when actually it’s emerging from the mock and becoming something else entirely.

Kary:

Okay, one more. We have time for one more. Amanda comes across as tremendously thoughtful and articulate and she appears to really trust you as an interviewer. Can you offer any insight into her intelligence and the way that you earned her trust?

Brian McGinn:

The reason why they seem so reasoned and profound is that unlike all of us, she spent four years in prison asking herself these questions over and over again. It’s sort of like, imagine she’s been rewriting that essay for four years thinking about, “Why the hell am I here? What is the point of this?” et cetera. I thought the same thing when she’d say those things and then you’d go like, “Oh wait, she just like everyone else, has been thinking about this nonstop for almost a decade.”

Brian McGinn:

In terms of getting her to do it, there were no promises ever made. I think that the two things that worked in our favor were, we were roughly the same age. It’s 27, when I started making this movie, and so I think everyone else who was approaching her was like a 45 year old grizzled news journalist or hardened documentary filmmaker, and I think that was appealing. I think the other thing that was appealing was, well there was no pressure put into it. Literally we talked to her in 2011 a week after she got out of prison, in Seattle. Talk to her a bunch, and those sit-downs were really interesting because we were kind of in a weird way, the first people she’d actually talked to about the experience because it wasn’t possible for her to talk about it with her family in the same way that she could talk about it with a stranger, because they knew her as the girl that had gone away to school to Italy and she was totally a different person. It was like there was a disconnect there.

Brian McGinn:

We had these conversations and we thought, “Oh wow, that’s very interesting,” and then she came back and said she didn’t want to do the movie, and we went, “Okay.” I think that by the time she came back to us three years later, the fact that we’d moved on with our lives just kind of demonstrates that this was not… we were not going after her with the reckless abandon of a normal, trying to get a subject to sign on the dotted line no matter what. I think everything was always on her terms. Like, “Do you want to do an interview? You let us know when.” “Oh, you want to do an interview? Okay, well sure. You don’t have to sign a release until we’re done with the interview, and if you like how it goes, then you can sign the release.” You know what I mean? It was always like, we were always very conscious of everyone in the story felt like everyone had been out to get them at some point, and so if people feel like there’s a chance that you’re out to get them, the best way to put them at ease is to give them the control over whether or not it ever gets used.

Brian McGinn:

We were like, “Yeah, we’re going to come spend money and shoot this interview, and if you don’t like it at the end, you just don’t sign the release, and we’ll go our separate ways.” That meant there were never any promises. Everyone always ask what she paid to be in the movie. We would never pay anyone to do a documentary, that’s a huge ethical problem. So none of those, it was all just giving them the power to say, “No,” or the power to say, “Yes.”

Kary:

Please join me in thanking Brian McGinn.

Brian McGinn:

Thanks guys.

Kary:

Thanks everybody.