Andrew Jenks Talks About His Troubling Documentary dream/killer
(from Sag Harbor Express Online on December 1, 2015)
dream/killer fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Meanwhile, beginning this Friday, you can see Andrew Jenks’ powerful indictment of the criminal justice system in Manhattan at the AMC Empire on 42nd Street. On December 11, it opens in L.A. at the Laemmle Fine Arts.
From the Press Notes: In the fall of 2005, 19-year-old Ryan Ferguson was convicted of murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison based on someone else’s dream. When Columbia [Missouri] Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt was brutally murdered in the newspaper’s parking lot, the crime went unsolved for two years, leaving the affluent college town desperate to bring home justice. At the time, it was the only unsolved murder in the city. A break in the case led police to Chuck Erickson, who confessed to the crime, implicated Ferguson as an accomplice, and left America with one of the country’s most outrageous miscarriages of justice. Over the next 10 years while Ryan languished in prison, his father Bill engaged in a tireless crusade to find justice. dream/killer tells the story of this extraordinary father’s journey to free his son. The cast of characters reveals the very best and worst of the American judicial system. From the questionable District Attorney-turned-judge Kevin Crane to the high-powered Chicago defense attorney Kathleen Zellner. The documentary uses archival footage from when Ryan was first arrested, interviews with him in prison, and court hearings that reveal the flaws of the American judicial system. The arguments of the ruthless prosecutor, which are eventually countered by Zellner, are also depicted to show how easily the system is influenced. Interspersed with footage from the Ferguson family archive, dream/killer looks at the personal consequences of a wrongful conviction.
When dream/killer played at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, I spoke to director Andrew Jenks and separately to Ryan and Bill Ferguson. This is my conversation with Jenks, followed by a link to my interview of the Fergusons that was published here in April.
Danny Peary: In your “Director’s Statement,” you say you originally wanted to make a documentary likeErrol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and also help free a man who had spent years in prison because of a miscarriage of justice. Was that your initial goal?
Andrew Jenks: First it was just about my understanding of the case. I hadn’t done enough research at the time to know whether or not he was guilty. But I quickly realized that he most certainly innocent. I love Errol Morris and thought: “If I’m any good at what I do, maybe I can make something half as good asThe Thin Blue Line.” I thought we’d also use reenactments and show different ways of looking at a murder. We’ll make a movie, it’ll come out, and maybe, maybe, maybe it will help this young man, Ryan Ferguson, get released. But as we were filming, Ryan’s conviction was vacated and he was released. Once that happened we knew we had a different movie on our hands. It was no longer going to be The Thin Blue Line, per se, but it could be something equally powerful.
DP: If there had been no media attention at all, do you think Ryan would be out of prison?
AJ: I think he’d still be in there. However, even if there had been no media attention, I think Bill Ferguson, his dad, this superhero of sorts, would find a way to get his son out eventually. But I think that the media—and I don’t mean our movie, but 48 Hours and CBS–being there early on, and then the national coverage that kind of came with that, put a lot of pressure on the local judicial system and the police. I think the media played a large part in getting him freed.
DP: When did you meet Ryan Ferguson for the first time?
AJ: I started speaking with Ryan about two and a half years ago. We talked on the phone quite regularly, at least two to three times a week. I met him in person about two years ago in the Jefferson City Correctional Center, the JCCC, which is a maximum security prison. That’s when we did our first interview.
DP: Obviously any kind of positive reinforcement was beneficial to him, but I bet it was hard for you to know that a movie about his plight might not do him any good. Were you wary about giving him too much hope?
AJ: Yes, I think any time I’ve made a documentary or a TV show, there’s definitely a degree of managing everyone’s expectations and making it clear that we could end up going nowhere. No one may see what I film or, if I don’t do my job, it could be a terrible movie. I’ve made bad movies in the past, so let’s hope this is not one of those.
DP: You had a real burden, I would think, to get it right.
AJ: There’s certainly an element of pressure, but Ryan had already gone through so much and had been so wronged that he had already pretty much managed expectations to a T. So there wasn’t really a need for me to say, “This movie will change things.” I think he had already heard that from plenty of people at that point and was very aware that promises made to him didn’t always come through. He had experienced disappointments. I’m lucky to call him a friend, but I consider him a mentor of sorts, and admire him. Not to be too cheesy, but I’ve never met anyone like him and his family.
DP: I would think you wanted to make a unique film but at the same time show that this story of an innocent man being railroaded into prison represents millions of cases, that such trials go on all the time.
AJ: Yeah, it’s estimated that 3% to 5% of those who are behind bars are wrongly incarcerated, so that would amount to about 100,000 innocent prisoners. I would say that’s a pretty conservative estimate. So through Ryan’s story of being sent to prison and his dad’s nine-and-a-half year odyssey of trying to get him out, we in turn were also able to show this larger story about how America’s judicial system is broken at its core. How disheartening it is to know that prosecutors have absolute immunity. Kathleen Zellner, who eventually represented Ryan, was really able to articulate that. She is, I like to say, kind of “America’s lawyer.” I think she’s overturned something like eighteen wrongful convictions for people who had either been given a life sentence or the death penalty. She was able to say that what happened to Ryan could happen to anyone. If you look at Ryan’s case and think, “Well, this couldn’t happen to me,” you’re definitely wrong. If there is an unsolved murder, you could walk outside today and me and my buddy could point at you, and that’s all it takes, two eyewitnesses. That’s the reality for why I think the police and a district attorney who needs a conviction can easily frame someone and get them put behind bars. Kathleen recently told me, “I could frame Mother Theresa if I wanted to.” I think that’s shockingly true.
DP: Let’s talk about the villain of the piece, the unethical prosecutor Richard Crane, who partly because of winning this high-profile trial rose in the ranks from D.A. to judge. Did he convince himself that Ryan was guilty, or do you think he didn’t care if he was innocent?
AJ: Well, I’m even hesitant to almost call him a villain. I think everyone is a human being. I think he did a tremendous amount of wrong, and he was manipulative, but once he saw the opportunity to put these two suspects behind bars, he was convinced of their guilt. [Note; Ryan and Bill Ferguson believe Crane always knew they were innocent.] I would like to think that he no longer thinks that. But I know that even when some of the facts started to come out, he would still publically say that without a doubt they’re guilty. Crane and his team manipulated police reports, manipulated Chuck to believing he was guilty and that Ryan was his accomplice, manipulated Jerry, manipulated Ryan, and did other awful, awful, awful things. But the reason I don’t specifically point him out as the villain is because I think he turned into a villain because the judicial system itself allowed him to do so. By not holding him accountable and giving him immunity, the system encouraged him to do all these awful things. As a prosecutor, you just want to do your job, which is to get one conviction after another, whether the person on trial is guilty or innocent.
DP: And basically Crane knew what it takes to get convictions. He had experience.
AJ: Right, he knew how the system could work in his favor. I wouldn’t lose sleep at night by saying that he is the villain of the movie, but I think it’s also important to point out the circumstances and the environment in which he works allows bad stuff to happen.
DP: Talk about having archival footage of the Fergusons. Was it good to have as much as you had, or would you have actually preferred less, so you wouldn’t be tempted to get off track and spend too much time on Bill Ferguson’s history.
AJ: It’s as if Bill Ferguson knew during his entire life that there’d be a movie made about him. Obviously, he never thought it’d be a movie like this about his efforts to get his on out of prison on a murder charge. When you look at his background, and see all the different things he did in that footage, you see that it made him into the person who would be determined to get his son out, and never take no for an answer and always try to figure out another piece of the case. I think if Bill had said in an interview, “I spent my twenties going across Europe, then down through Africa and then across Australia,” that would have been interesting to hear, but actually seeing his footage of that makes a world of difference. Without that footage I don’t think the film would have been what it is.
The movie definitely benefitted from the footage in terms of the storytelling done by me and Sam Lee, who was my editor, co-producer and so much more. She did such an incredible job crafting this movie.
DP: You don’t mention that Bill and Leslie Ferguson have divorced until later in the film. Did you want us to be surprised?
AJ: No, there was just so much story in Ryan’s life—and so much story in general—so bringing in the divorce would have been a whole other sidebar that would have taken us down another route.
DP: I was surprised because the archival footage makes you think they are the perfect couple.
AJ: Yeah. I think that in a sense they are the perfect couple, because they were able to come together when their son’s life was at stake. People forget that every day Ryan was in prison, his life was on the line. Those are dangerous facilities, and murders are happening more frequently than anyone realizes. Their divorce, in a sense, was a bit inconsequential, but more relevant is that here are two parents who come together for their son, whether they still loved each other or not. I don’t know if it changed much.
DP: From watching footage of them in their youth, I could have been friends with them back in the sixties. They seemed really familiar.
AJ: That’s great to hear. I think they, as a family, are very relatable to a lot of people. They’re kind of this all-American family, if you will.
I hope that will make a big difference when people watch the film.
DP: You have this film and you’ve watched it probably a zillion times. What still gets you? Where in the movie do you have your emotional shock?
AJ: Every time those shackles are taken off Ryan and he hugs his mom for the first time. That, I think, will always get to me. We had a rough cut of the film done and we sent it to Kathleen and different lawyers and different people to get objective opinions. When Kathleen saw it she sent us that footage. I didn’t know it existed and I don’t think anyone else did either. She sent it, I seem to remember, as a text message. We had already finished the film, and I said, “Oh my God!” For me, the movie was obviously lacking that key moment. We had a whole cut in which Ryan gets out and then we go directly to that press conference at the Tiger Hotel, and I was always thinking in my head, “This movie will never be what it could have been, because we don’t have footage of that moment he gets released.” When Kathleen sent me that footage, I couldn’t believe it, man. That moment will always give me chills or cause a bit of tearing up. I got to know his mom and dad so well while their son was still behind bars. They got only a couple of seconds to hug Ryan now and then when they visited him in prison. So to see him hug his mom and dad for more than two seconds and actually grab them is so powerful.
DP: What got me was every time you put on screen how many years he’s been behind bars. Because we’re seeing Ryan’s life slip away.
AJ: I’m happy you say that because that was tricky. We wanted to figure out the right way to show that passing of time. Again, I’ll say that Sam Lee really shaped this movie. She had the ability to take a step back and see what in the narrative was special, I think also it’s important, as we’re talking here, that we recognize that while Ryan is now free, it’s not really a happy ending. Ryan is one of many individuals who were wrongly incarcerated for many years; there are many other innocent people who are currently in prison and will be for the rest of their lives, unless they get the death penalty. They shouldn’t be there. Ryan is just one example. He is out of prison but he lost his 20s. He’s figuring out who he is right now, and I think it’s actually quite sad.
DP: It’s a better ending than it could have been.
AJ: That’s a good way to put it.
DP: And what about Chuck, whose lying and confused testimony played a huge part in getting Ryan convicted. He’s innocent of the crime, too, but he’s still in jail.
AJ: Chuck is still in jail. It’s quite clear if you look at the facts that he didn’t commit this crime. So he’s also a victim. He was told things by the arresting officers and he was manipulated by them and Crane. He was the one that was first interrogated, and was the one that put him and Ryan at the scene of the crime–at least he said so. And he was the one who really got manipulated by Kevin Crane. He got terrified.
DP: That footage of him denying involvement before the police convinced him to confess—couldn’t play in the courtroom, so the jury had a hard time seeing that he was manipulated.
AJ: It was unbelievable. We weren’t able to put it in the movie, but sometimes you hear the casual nature of people in the courtroom, where people say they want to get out of court early on a Friday so they could go to the ball game. And I’m sitting there thinking “Good God, we’re talking about Ryan’s life here!” I don’t know how Bill and Leslie were able to keep fighting with such vigor.
DP: Certainly the most regrettable moment in the original trial, as you presented it, was the female witness who would have testified that Ryan was not the killer she saw in the parking lot if only Ryan’s bumbling lawyer had asked her–that one question could have changed everything.
AJ: If he had asked her, she would have said, “That’s not the guy.” It’s shocking to think, however, that during the retrial she did point that out and he was still put behind bars. And to think that they went back into court and another witness Jerry Trump admitted he committed perjury and made up his incriminating story. and Chuck said he lied, and at that point there was no DNA evidence, no physical evidence, and no other eyewitnesses, yet they continued to say that Ryan was guilty and should be behind bars. It’s shocking.
DP: In America, you’re supposedly innocent until proven guilty, but once you’re guilty it’s impossible to prove your innocence. Does that make sense?
AJ: It sure does. Ryan was in jail for eighteen months before he even got to trial, so even innocent until proven guilty is a joke. And Ryan would tell you that a local jail is in a lot of ways worse than a prison. They kept the lights on 24/7 and many times he wasn’t properly nourished, to say the least. He was given an arbitrary $20-million bail that guaranteed he wasn’t going to get one second of freedom until trial. So he was behind bars for 18 months before getting a stab to prove his innocence. It was absurd.
DP: How did your world premiere screening at the Tribeca Film Festival go?
AJ: The best part was when the Fergusons came up after the movie and everyone gave them a standing ovation. That’s all you can ask for, you know.
To see the trailer:
To read my interview with Ryan and Bill Ferguson, copy and paste this link:
For movie fans who are or know baseball fans, I hope you consider my new book about Derek Jeter, copy and paste this link.