Kary:

This is The Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where stories of crime and justice are told. On today’s podcast I am joined by Vince DiPersio executive producer of Kim Kardashian: The Justice Project which airs Sunday, April 5 on Oxygen.

During the course of his 30+ years as a filmmaker, Vince has been nominated for multiple Academy Awards and has won multiple Emmys. I first got to know Vince back in the early 1990s when we worked together on documentaries for HBO.

Our conversation covers the evolution of his career as an audio visual storyteller, and culminates with a focus on the specifics of his work with Kim Kardashian on their new film. And so without further ado, here is my interview with Vince DiPersio.

Kary:

We’re joined by my old friend Vince DiPersio. We go back maybe 25 years, right? Maybe 30.

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah, probably 30 years.

Kary:

Yeah. Back to the early ’90s when you were makiing films for Sheila Nevins.

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah. When we were still dinosaurs running around Wilshire Boulevard.

Kary:

That’s right. And what do they call those things? Dire Wolves.

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah.

Kary:

Vince, tell me about your upbringing, and specifically, what the first memories of storytelling are that you have.

Vince DiPersio:

I grew up in kind of a poor neighborhood in Philly. If it was Ireland, they would call it The Lanes. A little dead end street. My father left when I was three. My mother remarried. My step father worked in a chemical plant. My house was on a dead end street, then ended up on the railroad, Catholic school.

Vince DiPersio:

A lot of the kids, I grew up with, got into trouble. I never, for some reason, I was able to navigate not getting into trouble. I watched the guys around me, the men around me. They’re working in these factories, they were slowly going away. In my neighborhood, there was a factory literally on every other block, and on every corner, there was either a church or a bar.

Vince DiPersio:

And the factories started to go away, and the men started to drink more. From my friends, I would hear more and more stories about angry fathers. I just felt something was wrong, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, and I didn’t have the education to put my father on it. Then I heard Bob Dylan on the radio, and that voice said, “There’s somebody else out there who’s thinking about these things.”

Vince DiPersio:

So, I immediately like 15, 16 got into the folk scene in Philly, hanging all these coffee houses. The beatniks were leaving, and in fact, we got thrown out of a coffee house one time for playing a kink song. No rock and roll in here. But I started to gravitate towards that culture, and just when I get out of high school, and it was all starting to explode, and my friends were getting in their Volkswagen buses and going to San Francisco, I got drafted. I was a roughneck, punk kid, from Philly, and I got drafted, but I just did really high on the army’s intelligence score. So, they sent me intelligence school, and I was with all these guys who had graduated from college, and a couple of guys from Philly.

Vince DiPersio:

I remember one guy, Issac Siegel, kind of took me under his wing. A big, garrulous guy, funny guy. I was able to hold my own with him intellectually, and up to that point, being from a neighborhood where none of us were going to go to college, we kind of looked down our noses as college kids, as stuck-up elites. The interchange of ideas, even in the army, amongst these guys who had all graduated from college, got me excited.

Vince DiPersio:

Then I spent a little time in the combat zone, came back, I was in Korea, and I made friends with a guy who was a photographer, and there was a Korean guy who was running the local photo lab on base. I went down one day, and I looked through his photos, and I talked to him, and I got really excited about photography. Then an AP wire photo photographer came through the base, and I started talking to him about what he did. He said, “I’m a journalist, and I concentrate on war zones, and I’m trying to show people what war is really like.”

Vince DiPersio:

And I thought, “Man, that’s a way to live.”

Kary:

What year would that have been, that you were in Korea?

Vince DiPersio:

It would have been ’67, ’67. Yeah, I got out in ’68. So, when I got out, I wanted to be a still photographer. Then I went to the Philly Art school for a while, where you had to take drawing, and I thought Philly art school is the perfect place to be. One day in a drawing class we were drawing in charcoal, and there was a nude model, we’re drawing nudes, and the drawing teacher came by, a really funny guy, I still remember his name, Mr. Kalen. He came over to me and he said, “Let me see your charcoals.”

Vince DiPersio:

He looks at my drawing, he takes my charcoals, and he went over to the window, and he threw them out the window, and he said, “Never try to draw anything again.” So, then I realized photography was a little safer. So, the community college in Philly had a photography department, and to get a degree from that photography department, you had to take a course in document film making.

Vince DiPersio:

The guy who ran it was a total, I don’t want to get political, but a total right-wing, probably a racist, said a fair amount of racist things, but he was passionate, passionate about movies and about documentaries, and what you can do with them. I took that course, and after the third day, that was it, I was done. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Vince DiPersio:

Something about putting the sound and then the picture together just made the story more complete, and the message a little more solid, and I was in.

Kary:

What was your interaction with the criminal justice system as you were growing up?

Vince DiPersio:

It was a different time. In fact, I just wrote a great book about my neighborhood, about the criminal justice system in my neighborhood, a fictional book, because my neighborhood is now overrun with oxy addicts.

Kary:

What’s that called?

Vince DiPersio:

It’s called Long, Bright River. I can’t recommend it enough. I mean, it was chilling to read, because it’s all the streets I know from growing up, and the schools, and the churches, and there’s a scene where she goes into a cathedral, that used to be in our neighborhood, that now is like a crack house. The church abandoned it.

Vince DiPersio:

But the cops I knew, growing up, all knew me. They all knew my name. So, if I did something, they would drag me down the street to my mother, knock on the door and say, “I saw Vince. He was throwing rocks at cars.” And my mother would slap me in front of the cop. Then, one time, I was arrested. It was for turning on a fire hydrant, in the middle of the summer. I was six foot tall, I weighed 100 pounds, and I had the fire hydrant wrench under my tee shirt, which you could see from a block away. The cops saw me, grabbed me.

Vince DiPersio:

Instead of taking me home, this time, they took me down to the station, and called my mother, and my mother said, “Leave him there.” Then around midnight, they called my mother and said, “Do you really want us to keep him over night?” She came down and got me. But it was a cordial relationship with the police in our neighborhood, because in their defense, they were not in their cars, they were walking the street, they knew all the people who lived in the neighborhood, they knew the grocers. They would stop and do coffee, they would stop in the bars with the guys, they were part of the fabric of the neighborhood.

Kary:

Do you remember, as a kid, any criminality around you? Do you remember?

Vince DiPersio:

Oh yeah. Yeah.

Kary:

Do you remember any friends or relatives, who went through the criminal justice in some way?

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah. A lot of friends. My neighborhood, it was run by the mob, and there was a famous guy in my neighborhood, Mad Dog DiPasquale, who eventually was caught with two dead federal agents in the trunk of his car. Mad Dog’s younger brother kind of hung with us. So, we knew all that, and I had a friend in the, I want to say it was ’66. I got drafted, and then I went into bootcamp, and one of my best friends was a kid named Georgie, and Georgie had a glass eye from when he was a kid that got into a rock fight, and somebody knocked his eye out.

Vince DiPersio:

He was always trying to get in with the big guys, and there was a war between … It was centered in my neighborhood for some reason, but the truckers started a revolution. It was called The Voice of 107. There was a splinter group of the teamsters, and they were mad about the mob taking all their retirement money, and they didn’t like the way things were being run. A literal war started, where people were being dragged out of trucks, and beaten, and people throwing wrenches too, and one of the leaders of the rebellion, my little street ended on an avenue, and there was this delicatessen on the avenue, and the delicatessen’s owner had a couple of hot daughters, and he was living above the delicatessen with one of the daughters, and they were both murdered.

Vince DiPersio:

It turned out I didn’t know about any of this, Georgie didn’t tell me about any of this, but Georgie had stolen the gun that was used in the murder. They were talking about it, and Georgie was murdered by Mad Dog. I mean, everybody in the neighborhood knows it, what happened, but nobody would talk. Nobody ever did anything.

Vince DiPersio:

So, there was that kind of activity. Then just another funny little story was the numbers writer used to come down my street, my house at an alley, there were row houses, and there was an alley between my house and the next house. I was 10, and I was playing a game called step ball, where you bounce a ball off the step, it’s complicated city rules. But anyway, Snookie the Bookie comes running down the street, knocks me over, and runs into my alley. 30 seconds later, two plain clothes detectives come running down the street, they grab me and they go, “Where did he go? Where did he go?” And I just pointed them to my alley, and they arrested Snookie.

Vince DiPersio:

About two hours later, there was a knock on the door, and I got invited with my mother to go to the barber shop, on the avenue, where there was a guy sitting on the chair, and the chair spun around, and he shook his finger at me and said, “You did a very bad thing, and you’re going to have to make it up to us.” And that was the drop off point for numbers, right? And we knew, the kids knew, that was a safe place where the cops would never go for some reason, or if the cops went in, they went in and picked up money, right?

Vince DiPersio:

Sure enough, six weeks later, Snookie comes running down the street, grabs me, and pulls me into the alley and says, “Here’s what’s going to happen.” He gives me the numbers, stuffs the numbers in my pocket, and he says, “You’re going to walk out on the alley, the detectives are going to come looking for me, you’re going to walk past them, and you’re going to go to the barber shop with these numbers.” He comes out of the alley, and he runs right up to the railroad.

Vince DiPersio:

Sure enough, detectives come running by, they run right by me, then they start chasing him up onto the railroad. Then he looked back at me, and they clicked, and they turned around and they started chasing me. So, I went running across the avenue, through traffic and everything, and the old guys have the door open to the barbershop. I got into the barbershop, and they closed the door, and the detectives were right there. There was some kind of rules where they couldn’t go in. So, I paid my debt.

Kary:

They needed a search warrant at that point?

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah. That was my one brush with that whole … I just knew enough that I didn’t want to be involved.

Kary:

What was your first experience with systematic injustice, and a personal connection to someone that was going through a personal-

Vince DiPersio:

It brings back all these memories. I had a friend, Joe Keller, he was a year older than us, from an even rougher part of the neighborhood, and he was a battler. He always liked to fight. In fact, we all thought there was a screw loose because he would fight with anybody. You could be his friend one day, the next day you’d be in a fight.

Vince DiPersio:

He got into counseling, and he started to turn his life around, and he volunteered to work in prisons. He was 19 maybe, 20 at most. He was working in a prison at Philly, and they found him hanging in a cell, and nothing happened. Then we all knew something. He had been murdered, but nothing happened. We didn’t have any recourse, we didn’t know what to do, Joe didn’t have a family, but he just disappeared.

Kary:

And you never got a sense of what might have happened? Were there any rumors on what might have happened?

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah. The rumors were that he may have been gay, and somehow that was connected, but that was just a neighborhood rumor. There was nothing to base it on. I had known him for 10 years, and I had never seen that side of him.

Kary:

Right.

Vince DiPersio:

So-

Kary:

But how would his homosexuality have factored into it?

Vince DiPersio:

He’d hit on somebody. I always thought that was made up, that something else was going on, that I’ll never know about.

Kary:

Tell me about your pathway from finishing studying documentary in school to becoming a filmmaker?

Vince DiPersio:

After the community college, I went to Goddard College, and Goddard at the time was in this little idyllic spot in Vermont, 200 students. There was no grades, no curriculum, not even any classrooms, and you made your own way. I got into Goddard by sending them a bunch of stuff. It was short stories I had written, photographs I had taken.

Vince DiPersio:

I refused to send in the application. I just send this box of stuff, and I got a call from them. They said, “You need to come up here and talk to us.” So, I went up to the school, there was three or four guys. One of them was a tough Jewish guy from Brooklyn. He was running the library at the time, and he was transitioning into being the writing instructor, but he initially locked into me. We had the same childhood, we grew up the same way.

Vince DiPersio:

“There’s something you want to say, but I can’t open this box of crap you sent us, what it is you want to say. We can help you figure that out.” So, I went to Goddard, and I spent a lot of time with him, and he talked to me a lot of nights over bottles of Slivovitz, sitting in his house because half the classrooms were in teacher’s houses. Just talking through what it means to try to develop a voice, and how to use a voice, and why, and the perils. He was making nickels and dimes as a teacher at this radical college.

Vince DiPersio:

“It’s not an easy life.” He would tell me all that stuff. He just honed in on what I was working on. I went away, and I did a little documentary. He looked at it, and he said, “This is what you should do. You should do this.”

Kary:

What did you make the film about? Do you remember?

Vince DiPersio:

I was driving home one night in a snowstorm, and a pretty girl was standing, hitchhiking, and I picked her up, and took her to the bar where she worked, which was in my neighborhood. It turned out she was a transvestite. So, I made a documentary about her, called, “Things My Mom Never Told Me.”

Kary:

How did you make your path from finishing Goddard to working as a professional storyteller?

Vince DiPersio:

The only people that I knew, from growing up, that worked in film, were NFL films, which was based right outside of Philly. It was based in Philly, then moved right outside to Cherry Hill. I thought, “That’s what I’m going to do. I want to be a sports documentarian.” And in that class, in the community college, he showed us a film, a brilliant film, about the Rams going for the Super Bowl.

Vince DiPersio:

In the film, there was a shot, and the shot was Allen, who was the … I can’t remember his first name, but he was the coach of the Rams. He was yelling at the team at half time, “You guys got to pick it. You got …” The camera was focused on him, and it moved down. He had a sandwich, and he was peeling the crust off the sandwich, while he was yelling at these guys. That insight, the genius of that cinematographer, said to me, “Man, you can really do stuff with this camera thing just by juxtaposition.” So, that made me really interested.

Vince DiPersio:

Then I saw Mean Streets, and Mean Streets was about my neighborhood. It’s Scorsese’s film, and I thought, “I want to be Marty Scorsese.” Not knowing that there could only be one, and that there would never be another Mean Streets. So, I put everything I had in the U-Haul, I applied to AFI in Cal Arts, and I got into both of them. Then, when I went out to Cal Arts, and it seemed just like Goddard. So, I went to AFI.

Vince DiPersio:

In AFI, I had access to all these professional screenwriters and cinematographers, and I held my own with everybody, and I thought I would be a feature filmmaker. I wrote a script coming out of there, and I got to make the script. I went to Sun Dance with the project, and I got to make the movie, and it was such a horrible experience, make a feature film as a young guy, with 50 people on the set, would say, within ear shot of me all the time, that they could do it better than me.

Vince DiPersio:

It just felt awful and icky. Then the film got really great reviews, and it got into Sun Dance, but the producer and I didn’t get along, and he had it pulled from Sun Dance, from the festival. I remember sitting on the floor, in my bedroom, crying my eyes out and thinking, “There must be a better way.” At that point, a friend of mine, had done a shot documentary for Sheila, and he wanted to do something bigger. In the course of making my feature film, we wanted to do some timeline shots of Philly.

Vince DiPersio:

So, we went across the river in the Camden, which at the time, had been overrun by crack. We would turn corners in our car, and mobs of people would come running up to the car, to try to sell us crack. I thought, “Man, there’s something. This is bigger than what’s being played on the news. This is an epidemic.” So, I somehow wrangled to meeting with Sheila, and I told her this story, and Sheila said, “What color were they?” And I said, “Actually, they were mostly white.” She said, “Well, that’s a film.”

Vince DiPersio:

If you make a film about white kids on crack, because at the time, the overwhelming perception-

Kary:

What year would this have been?

Vince DiPersio:

I want to say ’90, maybe. But the overwhelming perception was that it was a ghetto problem, nobody was going to do anything about it.

Kary:

Right.

Vince DiPersio:

So, I got to-

Kary:

Sheila is of course, Sheila Nevins?

Vince DiPersio:

Sheila Nevins. Yeah, I’m sorry. You know her from HBO. She saved documentary film in this country.

Kary:

She was the god mother of documentaries.

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah, exactly. So, she gave me a little bit of money, and I did some research, and I found out that South Florida was rampant with white kids on crack. So, I went down to South Florida, I met a couple of people, got enough characters, shot a little bit of stuff, brought it back, showed Sheila, and she gave me the money to make a documentary. We did, and that documentary got nominated for an Oscar. I was like, “This is what I want to do.”

Kary:

And that was called?

Vince DiPersio:

Crack USA.

Kary:

Yeah. I have here, it was … It came out in ’89.

Vince DiPersio:

’89, yeah. So, it would have been ’89.

Kary:

Wow.

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah.

Kary:

So, that was the beginning of a career that has been eclectic and varied, but it seems to have a throughline of returning to crime and criminal justice issues. When you made Crack USA, what was your assessment of the state of the culture that had led to this crack cocaine epidemic in America?

Vince DiPersio:

It’s a really good question. First of all, I was definitely part of the counter culture. So, I have an attitude about police. But the only way to get into that world was to hook up with cops. So, I hooked up with the anti-drug unit, in the West Palm Beach Police Department, and also the anti-drug unit in the sheriff’s department. Riding with those guys, I was forced to look at this epidemic through their eyes.

Vince DiPersio:

What surprised me first was how much empathy they had for what these kids were going through, and how bad the problem was, and how heartbroken they were. That was that side of it, and I already knew the cause of it. Coming from the neighborhood I came from, half my friends, over the years, by that time I was in my late 20s, had passed away from drug overdoses. It was that fact that those factories went away, the jobs went away, the neighborhood was being left behind, and the young kids clearly knew that they were being left behind.

Vince DiPersio:

So, we had cops on one had that were really doing all these kinds of crazy draconian things, putting on suits of armor, and kicking in doors. In those days, we could run in with them with the camera, and on the other hand, these kids that were just lost. It just made me think, “This is a really complicated issue,” and I was wrong to be so anti-police on the one hand. And on the other hand, society isn’t looking at these really big problems.

Vince DiPersio:

So, it’s ’89. This is 2020. Nothing has changed.

Kary:

Did you have a sense at that time? After that, you did The Cocaine War, you worked the Memphis PD film. Did you have a sense that there was a severity to the sentences that were being given out, that was kind of disproportionate to the crime, and that felt more retributive than rehabilitative in its mission? Did you have any sense of that at the time?

Vince DiPersio:

No. I was ignorant of it. Where I settled was these are really huge problems, and we have a problem in this country because of the way our political system runs, that you can’t run as a long-term thinker in American Politics. You can’t say, “15 years down the road, I’m going to have this problem solved. It’s got to be instantaneous.”

Vince DiPersio:

So, the election would come, and nothing would happen, and things would just continually get worse. What I did take from that first film, which led to the film in Memphis, was this incredible misunderstanding we have of where our police departments are, and why they’re the way they … I rode around with this captain, from the sheriff’s department, Jack Maxwell his name was. He was so clearly brokenhearted.

Vince DiPersio:

In Florida at the time, West Palm Beach, there’s a lot of canals that run through West Palm Beach, and there were these neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods had been jiggered, so that they were bordered by canals, and there was one way in and one way out, and it was a way to separate black Florida from white Florida. What happened was they became fortresses for the drug dealers, right? We would drive through these neighborhoods, and he was so clearly brokenhearted, that it changed my whole attitude about where the police were coming from.

Vince DiPersio:

I left that, and I thought about it for a long time, and where I came down was that there’s one stimulus that’s causing two problems, that is that these people that have been left behind in our society. On the one hand, you have crime developing in the streets, because people are hopeless, and on the other hand, you have police who maybe joined the force, contrary to popular opinion, to try to do something good, and in six months, face with this hopelessness, realize that they’re never going to be able to make a difference. So, you have really fiercely, angry kids in the street, and you have cops who have to somehow turn off their empathy, because they would just go nuts, faced with this degradation day after day, that they can’t do anything about. That was the problem, and both sides were victims of that problem. That’s kind of informed everything I’ve done since.

Kary:

The Memphis film was really powerful. I remember it depicted a department in Memphis, that had an epidemic of suicide, and post-traumatic stress among most of the force, particularly in the homicide unit. But also, trauma caused by the abuse that they witnessed and so on. What was the next film that you worked on in the criminal justice system, that had a deep impact upon you, in the way that the Memphis film did?

Vince DiPersio:

It was Lost in Bolivia. We somehow got a connection to the DEA. Sheila wanted to do something. Sheila, at HBO, wanted to do something with one of the big agencies, and we tried the FBI, we tried … Just to see where criminal justice was going in the country, and the DEA felt like they wanted help for some reason. So, they invited us in, and they let us go down to Bolivia with a team of DEA agents. They would do these 90 day rotations. We would go down to Bolivia, and they ran like an occupying army. Really, kind of.

Vince DiPersio:

So, we got deep into the drug war in South America, and what I’ve discovered was that every single thing they tried to do that was positive was blunted by forces here. For instance, they were clear cutting the jungle way back then, to grow cocaine because the coca plant grows for 20 years, and you don’t have to cultivate it, you don’t have to do anything. You put it in the ground, and twice a year, you harvest it. It’s impossible to kill, it’s a great crop, and the Bolivians couldn’t understand why we wanted it to ruin good coca, which they used for medicinal purposes. But if we wanted it, they were willing to make it, right?

Vince DiPersio:

So, the US government comes in, and they say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We have this team of farmers, from Texas, and they’re going to teach these guys how to do triple canopy farming, and we’re going to give them $2000 a hectare to tear up their coca, and they’ll plant orange trees.” But under the orange trees, they’ll plant corn, and under the corn, they’ll plant … So, it was this whole ecological thing that would sustain itself, but it took 10 years for the oranges to come on.

Vince DiPersio:

Then all this had happened, the oranges were just coming online, when we got to Bolivia, and the Florida Citrus Lobby stepped in and said, “What are you going to do with those oranges, that people are growing in Bolivia?” And the Texas farmers who were running this program said, “We’re going to sell them to Peru and these other places, Chile.” And the Florida Citrus Lobby said, “No. We sell oranges to them.”

Vince DiPersio:

Those oranges rotted on the trees, the Campesinas went back into the jungle, burned more jungle, and took that money and started growing coke again. The futility of it all was just amazing to me, and again, I ran into guys who … They were dedicated, they really wanted to do their mission, but it was a doomed mission from the start. In fact, Peter Jennings was the host on it, and he got down there, and on the first night of dinner, ABC, whenever they send one of their correspondents out, they prepare a giant briefing book.

Vince DiPersio:

All the facts, all the figures, everything the person should know, so that they arrive really informed, and Peter was really well informed. He got into a tango with the head of the DEA guy down there about the inefficiency of it, and why it wasn’t working. I took Peter outside and I said to him, “You’re making the same mistake journalists made in Vietnam. You’re blaming the troops for the policy.” Peter, who was a genius, looked at me, and he said … Firstly, no. He said something that I can’t repeat, but then he said, “You’re right.”

Vince DiPersio:

So, he became their friend, and we made an amazing film where he basically asked us to show the country how futile their mission was.

Kary:

When was the first time that you went into a prison?

Vince DiPersio:

The first time I went into a prison was-

Kary:

Or jail?

Vince DiPersio:

I did a film about how white supremacists were using the internet, to recruit lone wolves, way back when, and one of the people who we went to interview was Joseph Franklin, who was a serial killed, and that was the first time. Then I was doing a film about Martin Luther King’s assassination, and went in to see James Earl Ray in prison, and that was an incredibly crazy experience. But I didn’t really have an attitude about … I kind of was on the side. I hate to say this about myself, but it’s true, that for instance, if you committed a murder, good. Lock them up. Who wants murderers on the street?

Vince DiPersio:

I’ve been fortunate. Projects seemed to come when I need them, for the next step of my education. Before this one came, I did a film The Female Homicide Detectives in Atlanta and Cincinnati, and the gag on that film was their women. It’s a really prized position to grab, if you’re in the department, as a homicide detective because you get to wear a suit, you’re working your own hours. If you don’t have a case, you’re not working. But these were wives, and mothers, and just going to all these homicide sites with them really just got my back up about the way kids are slaughtering each other.

Vince DiPersio:

It wasn’t until I got to this film that I understood why they were slaughtering each other, where that was coming from.

Kary:

How did you get involved in The Justice Project?

Vince DiPersio:

I had done four shows in a row for the Oxygen Network, and one of them, Aaron Hernandez, was the highest rated doc show that they had done up to that point. So, they kept throwing shows at me, and I had been in Santa Cruz to see my son, and we were sitting in Santa Barbara at a café. My phone rang, and it was these two women from Bunim-Murray, Julie Pizzi and Farnaz Farjam, and they said, “We’re doing a film with Kim Kardashian about prison reform.”

Vince DiPersio:

I didn’t know anything about Kim Kardashian, except what you would know from a casual, flip through the TV dial. But I did know that she had gotten someone out of prison, and that she was trying to become a lawyer. It just made me sit back and say, “Wow, there’s somebody who’s got power, and who has this reputation sitting over here, and now she’s making a radical left turn in her life.” It’s pretty interesting.

Vince DiPersio:

So, they talked to me, and talked to me, and talked to me, and then they said it was for Oxygen, and I turned them down. I said, “I just did four films in a row for them. I think I what about now go some place else.” They were like, “Well, we’re going to put you on the phone with Kim. We’re not going to let you go.”

Vince DiPersio:

So, I got on the phone with Kim, and right away I was so impressed with A) How much she knew about the subject, how smart she was, how passionate she was, but also she was at a turning point in her evolution in the criminal justice, and her exploration in the criminal justice field. She started out getting woman, Alice Johnson, out. I think what Alice Johnson did, she had kids, her husband left her, she didn’t have any money, the drug dealers came to her and they offered her a proposition, and the proposition was, “You’re going to answer a phone. Buyers are going to call the phone, and they’re going to give you information, and then you’re going to call us and give us the information, and you’re going to be the go-between, so that we never have direct phone contact.”

Vince DiPersio:

And for that, she got arrested, and she got life without parole, and the drug dealers, they were out in seven years, and that was an easy one for Kim. She was fooling around with her Twitter feed, and Alice Johnson came up and she saw a video of Alice Johnson, and she got interested. She went on Twitter about it, and it got such a response that she decided she should try to do something, and I think Kanye had something to do with it too.

Vince DiPersio:

Finally, she had made friends with Jared Kushner and Ivanka, and she knew that Jared was interested in prison reform, because his father had spent time in prison. So, she called him, and he said that he was really interested in it, that while his father was in prison, his father started helping other prisoners write briefs for appeals and stuff, and he visited his father a lot, and he got to interact with some of the other guys, and there was a soft spot. He said, “I’ll walk you to the president.”

Vince DiPersio:

She went in and she met with Trump, and she took a lot of heat for it, but her position was, “I will talk to anybody who’s willing to help,” and they got Alice Johnson out. So, she started getting deluged with letters from people in prison, “I need help. I need help. I need help.” When she was working with Alice Johnson, she then started working with Van Jones and Jessica Jackson, who ran this organization called Cut50, and Cut50 had been working for two years trying to get a bill passed, and the bill was The First Step act.

Vince DiPersio:

The idea behind that bill was Van Jones, it was a particular passion of his. There were a lot of kids, who got arrested, on a third strike for a minor drug possession, and they had life sentences, and the First Step act was to review those kids, see where they were in prison, how they had done. Had they worked to rehabilitate themselves? If they had, to get them out. They had been working on it for two years, and Kim got involved, and Jessica told me that within two weeks, the bill got passed after Kim got involved.

Vince DiPersio:

But they sat her down, and they said to her, “That’s only a small percentage of the prison population. If we really want to address mass incarceration, we have to look at people that have committed more serious crimes.” Kim, up to that point, said, “I don’t want to be involved with anybody who’s done anything icky.” So, think walk her into San Quentin, and she sat down with a bunch of guys that had committed murders, that had gone to college where they’re in San Quentin, had been in for 30 years, were counseling other kids, guys were working in the AIDS hospice, people that had really committed a horrible crime at the age of 16 or 17 and are now at 40, were complete different human beings.

Vince DiPersio:

She said, “I want to get involved in trying to help these people too.” She said that to me on the phone, and up to that point, I was where she was. If you commit a horrible crime, you should stay in prison forever, and I thought, “There’s a reason why I’m being offered this. I need to look into this.” So, I jumped on board.

Kary:

And how did you go about working with Kim, to structure your approach to shooting the film? Was it something that you wrote an outline for? Did you identify a bunch of stories that you wanted to focus on? How did you go about structuring the shooting of the film? Then later we’ll talk about editorial.

Vince DiPersio:

The first thing I did was I asked Kim to send over a bunch of these letters she had been getting from people. The ones that had touched her the most, because it was her project really, and it was going to ride on her passion, and on her reputation, and I wanted to make sure that if we were going to pursue cases, she was on board with those cases. In case anything awful happened, at least it would have been her choice.

Vince DiPersio:

So, she sent over a bunch, and I was reading through them, and reading through these stories. Story after story was somebody who had done something awful when they were a kid, had acknowledged the fact that they did it, wrote long, passionate letters about where they came from and how that moment happened in their life, and what they’ve realized since then, and the remorse that they’ve lived with, and everything they’ve tried to do to make restitution. Sitting there in jail with the knowledge that they could never give a family back their child, but they might be able to make some impact on the world. Do something positive.

Vince DiPersio:

So, we started calling, there were a lot of hurdles to get over. “Can we get in the prison and talk to the person?” That eliminated a bunch of people. “Could we at least get a person on the phone with Kim? That only made a bunch of people because the prison systems state by state, they vary, and some states are just so much more difficult to deal with, if you want to do anything to help prisoners than others.

Kary:

And how did you cull those stories down to the four stories that you focus on, after Kim tells the Alice Johnson story?

Vince DiPersio:

Well, Kim said to me really early on, “Look, this is a two hour show, we want to make a documentary that takes people on the journey that I’m going on.” And me personally, I was going through the same journey. So, we want to educate people, we don’t want to preach to the converted, let’s make sure we have people that can really articulate their story, but don’t worry about how many we choose because I’m not going to abandon the others. I’m going to pursue them on my own.

Vince DiPersio:

So, then I went for the four that touched me, touched her, had the access, and clearly demonstrated someone who had done something horrible, had admitted it, had demonstrated remorse, and had really tried to change their life, and I didn’t know if I would be convinced at the end that I agree that they should be out.

Kary:

Tell me of that shooting and the interaction with either those individuals, the ones that you were able to get access to, or recording Kim’s phone calls with them from prison. Tell me about that engagement, and the discoveries you’ve made in the course of production.

Vince DiPersio:

So much of it was centered around Kim, because she’s an industry, she has four kids. She’s the anchor for that show, the Kardashian show. She’s got a multi-million dollar industry on the side, and she has a husband who’s really demanding, and who really keeps pushing her to do something that makes a difference socially, but she has really limited time for us. So, there was, “Can we get in?” And, “Will it fit Kim’s window?” And moving all these separate parts around, but it’s continually struck every time Kim showed up, every time I got Kim on the phone, every time I got into a room with Kim.

Vince DiPersio:

There was nothing else on her mind, but this. She has this amazing ability to compartmentalize, and she was so passionate about this that it didn’t matter if she had been in Europe the night, and she had flown overnight to get to us. When she sat down in a chair or when she got on the phone with somebody, she was present, and her dedication just seeped into the crew. These six or seven people we had that varied, and we all felt like we were on some kind of mission to help her tell this story.

Kary:

There were three or four moments in the film that just really struck me as magical. There’s the sit down with Alexis Martin in jail, there’s the sit down with Momolu in jail, there’s the meeting with the other folks that are part of the Georgetown project at the DC jail, and there’s the release of David Shepard at the very end. Tell me about those experiences.

Vince DiPersio:

Wow. Momolu’s letter was particularly striking, and he kept talking about this Georgetown program. So, I called the guy who ran the program, really interesting character, and he said, “I can get you into the DC jail. I can get Kim in. But if I get you in, I don’t want you to just talk to Momolu, I want to put Kim in a room full of 40 or 50 lifers that had been there forever, and I want her to hear their stories, and see them as human beings, and let her make her own mind up about them”

Vince DiPersio:

So, the first really big thing we did with Kim was roll into the DC jail, and go into a room that was right out of OZ. There were 50 guys in orange jump suits, knit hats. There were a handful of women because miraculously, Georgetown is able other do sexually integrated courses where men and women are together, which in prison is totally unheard of. So, we went into that room, they introduced Kim, and the first thing to start was their response to Kim. They didn’t respond to Kim as Kim Kardashian from the Kardashians, they respond to Kim clearly as a fellow warrior who is trying to help them, and that really, really struck me.

Vince DiPersio:

Then they started standing up and talking to her, and instead of polishing the apple when they talk to her, they would tell Kim their story, but also, every one of them charged her to do more. “That’s great, but you should do some of this.” But the other thing that struck me was just how intelligent, and how compassionate, and how just warm these guys were. There was a scrum afterwards where Kim went off, the camera went with Kim, and she was talking with the women. A bunch of the guys crowded around me, and wanted to talk to me and Paul, who was my partner, who was with me on this one. They crowded around Paul.

Vince DiPersio:

The interaction was so basic, and so human, and so devoid of any kind of weirdness because they happen to be inside and we were outside, I could just see that these were changed human beings, and they might be able to contribute something really valuable to society. They all had something they wanted to do. Then, I think the next day, we met a guy, he hooked us up, the guy who ran this program at Georgetown, Dr. Howard, hooked us up with a guy who had committed a murder at 16, going the the Georgetown program, wrote his own brief, was the first guy to get out, and was a law clerk. He was studying law to go back and help the other guys.

Vince DiPersio:

I sit across from the kid, two feet away from him, while he talked about his murder, and to feel his remorse, and to feel what he lives with every day about not being able to do something about it, and that here who he was now, a father with two kids in private school, studying for the law, really well regarded and loved at his law office. It was life changing.

Kary:

Who was that? Was he in the film?

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah. He’s in the film. He’s introduced in that group scene. It was Malik, his name.

Kary:

Halim?

Vince DiPersio:

No, no. Not Halim. Halim is an artist. Malik is his name.

Kary:

I see because Halim was wearing the Georgetown sweatshirt, right?

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah.

Kary:

And he was friends with-

Vince DiPersio:

Momolu. They were all friends.

Kary:

Yeah, the three. And the fourth guy as well?

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah, yeah. So, what happened was those were three kids from the same neighborhood in DC.

Kary:

Right. Halim, Karim-

Vince DiPersio:

Karim.

Kary:

… and Momolu.

Vince DiPersio:

And Momolu. Yeah. So, Halim, Karim and Momolu. Momolu and Karim, who lived across the alley from each other.

Kary:

Right, and they went for the same crime. They went to jail for the same-

Vince DiPersio:

For the same murder, yeah. And Halim went for another murder. But here’s three kids, who played in the schoolyard together when they were six, and Karim was beautiful talking about that. “We were kids, and we did all the stuff that kids do. Then when we were 12 or 13, people put crack rocks in our hands and said, “Go out there and make some money.” And because we are young, and we were ambitious, we were doing well, and the older guys started coming around and hitting us, taking our money, beating us up. So, we started carrying guns. One thing led to another, and we wound up at 16, in gun battles, where people were killed basically.”

Vince DiPersio:

All three of them were really articulate about it, but Karim especially, just about how in his neighborhood, the neighborhood he grew up in, there was nothing else for him. There was nothing. Unless a miracle happened, somehow he was touched by something or a rich uncle sent … He was providing money, putting food on his table.

Kary:

I want to go into shaping the film after these interviews. But can you talk to me a little bit about Alexis?

Vince DiPersio:

Yeah. Kim has a real interest in women that have been abused. Sex trafficking, she didn’t know a lot about sex trafficking. She got a lot of letters from women who were sex trafficked, Alexis’ case is really horrible. Alexis has been raped from the time she was eight. There was a court record of her abuse. She had been hospitalized, so doctors had looked at her. She had made a complaint about a guy when she was 12, when she did a-

Kary:

Nine.

Vince DiPersio:

Nine.

Kary:

Nine, and they found semen in her underwear.

Vince DiPersio:

Semen in her underwear, and nothing happened to that guy. So, here was a case where she was let down by the system in every way possible, and finally at 14, she hooks up with a guy, and the guy starts acting like the father she never had, and he’s running whores, but not her, and she’s just picking up money for him and doing little things. Then one day, her turn comes, and he turns around, and he rapes her.

Vince DiPersio:

So, to get away from him, and she had called her probation officer. He was moving her from city to city in these underground strip clubs, something I knew nothing about. I’m sorry, I know about it where they take place in people’s living rooms, and they bring in these underage girls, and she called from one of those trips to her probation office, and said, “This is what’s happening to me. You have to know what’s happening to me. It’s why I won’t be at my probation meeting this week,” and nothing was done. Nothing ever happened.

Vince DiPersio:

So, finally she got desperate, and she thought, “I got to get out of here, but I need money.” Her mother may or may not still be involved in drugs, but her mother was not around. So, she orchestrated a robbery of her pimp, and the gag was her and a girlfriend, this guy lived with his brother, who had also raped her, her and a girlfriend were going to go, and they were going to seduce the guys. Her girlfriend was going to be with the pimp, and Alexis was going to be with his brother.

Vince DiPersio:

While they were having sex, these guys were going to sneak in and rob the place, and the pimp heard them when they made entry. Him and his brother confronted them, and they shot and killed the pimp, and they shot the brother in the head, but he survived. When they pulled Alexis in, she got a public defender, who was gracious enough to talk to us, and he knew her background. But up to that point, that kind of background held no sway in court.

Vince DiPersio:

What he didn’t know was the state had just passed a law called the Safe Harbor Law, 30 days before, and the Safe Harbor Law said if you are confronted with a juvenile who’s involved in a crime, no matter what the crime is, you have to take that juvenile and put them into a diversionary program, where they get psychiatric help, and they get counseling for the abuse they suffered in sex trafficking, and they get a special lawyer just to help them navigate the legal system. He didn’t know any of that, so he didn’t bring any of that stuff up at trial, and she got sentenced to life without parole. Then he found out about it, and he went back to the court and said, “Wait, wait. I didn’t know this.”

Vince DiPersio:

The judge didn’t know it. If the prosecutors knew it, they weren’t acting like they knew it. He didn’t know it. But once you have a conviction, it’s really hard to overturn that conviction, so she was in jail. Kim wanted to meet her because she was still fairly young, and I think she was 21 or 23, she had just turned 23, and Kim was like, “I got to sit face to face with her, because she’s really young.” I don’t know. Is she reformed? Is she sorry for what happened?

Vince DiPersio:

So, Kim sat down, listened to her story, and we all became convinced.

Kary:

Talk to me about shaping the film. You mentioned that neither you, nor Kim, nor the Oxygen folks were interested in preaching to the converted. How did you go about shaping the film with an eye towards an audience that may need to be persuaded on these issues?

Vince DiPersio:

I thought a lot about it. We had a lot of this material, of this amazing material, and from your experience you have 30 hours, 40 hours, and you have to distill it down to two hours to make sense, but also, you want to stay true to what the vision was. I just decided that we would not have a narrator, that Kim really wouldn’t do voice over, and that we would just let the interactions play. That’s what we did because what convinced me was her interaction, sitting down with Momolu, listening to his story, listening to Karim, being in that room with those guys and hearing those guys speak. Hearing Alexis tell her story to you, and see Kim’s reaction to it.

Vince DiPersio:

That’s what we did. We try to stay as true to the moment as possible.

Kary:

And when you were putting it together editorially, were there certain things you tried to emphasize? How did you go about weaving in facts? How did you go about weaving in the cards that give you information? Were you asking yourselves questions about, “Have I created a sympathetic enough portrait of this person? Have I created enough context in the viewer’s mind?”

Kary:

Who is that viewer? Are they naturally sympathetic to this person? Did you think about those things?

Vince DiPersio:

I thought about those this, but only in the sense that I didn’t want anybody to call bullshit on the film. So, we made a decision early on, and Kim was a big part of this, and Kim believes this, that you should know everything that somebody did, that you should not try to sugar coat anything. That any reasonable person, given the circumstances of the person’s life, and the act they committed, and the time that’s transpired between that act and where they are now, and what they’ve done with that time would either convince you or not convince you, but that we should give the whole picture, and let people decide for themselves.

Vince DiPersio:

Like I said, I went into it where Kim was. She was a step ahead of me. I wasn’t sure that murderers should be let out onto the street.

Kary:

Is there any plan for further films? Is there any idea of digging into some of those other stories, some of those other letters that Kim has received?

Vince DiPersio:

It’s an interesting question. First of all, there’s thousands of them. There’s thousands of stories like this, and Kim is actively involved in all those. In fact, now they’re trying to get the Second Step Act passed, which is an act that reexamines people that have been given life as juveniles for capital crimes, just to take a look at their lives. In fact, several states have now passed laws, saying that, “You cannot sentence a juvenile to life without parole, no matter what the act is that they’ve committed.” That there’s enough science now, about the juvenile brain, and how it evolves over time, and where a person’s brain at 16 and where it is at 40, to say that, “You’re not dealing with the same person anymore.”

Vince DiPersio:

So, the states have started to recognize that, and amazingly in this time and age, it’s bipartisan support for that bill, which I find really interesting. People are starting to realize that this mass incarceration thing is a disaster.

Kary:

So, I’m going to ask you one last question, which is something that I asked when I was teaching this class at USC, and it’s aimed at storytellers primarily. What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

Vince DiPersio:

The piece of advice I ever got was to listen. It isn’t about you, the filmmaker, and people are so happy about getting the chance to talk, and say what’s on their mind, and how they really feel without being judge that you’ll get to the truth somehow. They’ll give you the truth, and that’s really the best advice I ever got, and that came from Sheila. She was like, “It’s not about you. You get all the love and the awards afterwards. But when you’re making the film, it’s about that person.”

Kary:

That concludes my interview with Vince DiPersio.

Today’s podcast was produced and edited by Tristan Friedberg Rodman.

For more storytelling news and narrative analysis in the world of crime and justice, head over to CrimeStory.com. Thank you for joining us and we hope you will come back for the next crime story podcast.