5 Questions With...Irene Taylor Brodsky, director of BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN

Journalist and documentarian, Irene Taylor Brodsky, turns a sensitive lens on an incendiary topic--juvenile criminal justice--in her latest documentary BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN. BTS chronicles the 2014 case of a pair of 12-year-old Wisconsin girls who attempted to murder their friend to appease the Slenderman, an Internet bogeyman they were convinced would otherwise harm their families.  Brodsky is this year’s recipient of the Adrienne Shelly Foundation Excellence in Filmmaking Award. We recently spoke with her about this true crime drama that continues to unfold.


NFF: You have a background as both a documentarian and a journalist. As a true crime, this is a topic that likely pulled on your skills from both disciplines. Can you speak to the difference in telling a nonfiction story versus reporting on a crime?

Irene Taylor Brodsky: Well when you’re reporting you know you’ll be processing information quickly and publishing towards a deadline. When making a documentary you can take the time to watch things unfold, make a decision and handle things carefully. You can develop trust with your subjects and they can tell you things you don’t have to share right then. You can sit on things and not have to share them with the public. So I knew things before the public knew and didn’t have to reveal it. It’s key because you can get information and research things as a journalist, but you rarely get the time that a documentarian has to sit with the information and analyze it. It’s nice because you can develop an understanding of your subjects and not be an emissary to the public. Now this doesn’t make you an advocate for your subjects, but it is a benefit to be able to have time with the information you’re uncovering.

In this story, we were following a legal case and knew things would come out in the case, but I was able to talk with the parents about mental illness [with Morgan Geyser’s parents] before it was discussed in the case or publicly. It was clear once the outside world knew, even their understanding of their own daughter’s mental illness would change. My film has a first person perspective before everyone got a chance to chime in. This film is not looking at guilt or innocence but whether to be tried as an adult for an adult crime.


NFF: At a surface glance BTS may seem to be a film about the perils of online engagement, but you’re actually looking at very specific stories in Anissa and Morgan. It raises questions of mental health and teenagers’ specific vulnerability to influence. Talk about the challenges of covering such issues.

ITB: You know I think the documentary is both for parents and non-parents alike. It does address the horribly modern challenges we face raising kids in the age of the internet. ‘Horribly modern’ because we’ve already had TV, books, and recently films, but the internet is different. The internet is such an echo chamber, and you can always find someone to root on questionable behaviour.

As to the difficulty of addressing mental illness, the film is about brain development, that’s actually where the film initiated. It was born out of a lofty idea which we were unsure of how to tackle; and then this event happened and we saw it as the perfect vehicle to discuss the issues we’d intended to cover. This crime happened a couple of days after Morgan turned 12, so her and Anissa’s love affair with Slenderman happened when they were just 12; juveniles, whose brain development was still very much in flux. Juvenile justice is also at the heart of this story--that somehow children should be held to a different standard than adults.


NFF: You were able to speak with the girls’ parents about the worst day of their lives, and what is an ongoing nightmare. Talk about how you went about laying the groundwork of trust to enable such candor from them.

ITB: Well I never approached them physically or directly in court.  I sent them letters and films I had done. I kept my letters brief because I didn’t know what the film would be at that point. My message was, “Don’t let me tell you to trust me; here’s my work.” As I mentioned earlier, unlike journalists who are working under deadline, I could tell them that what they would tell me wasn’t going to be made public immediately; I think that was helpful. I also reached out to their lawyers and sent the same messages. One family said it impressed them that the last film I’d done was “Grief Camp” (about a summer camp for children who were grieving for lost parents). It’d just won an Emmy for Best Kid’s Program and it helped that I had brought a different subject to light which showed how kids are not mini adults. Ultimately you’d have to ask them why they trusted me. I couldn’t have foreseen whether or not my approach would work.


NFF: What do you hope audiences will take away from screening BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN?

ITB: That this isn’t just a titillating story of childhood criminal activity. The film forces us to confront how we deal with the internet and it’s something we have to reckon with vis a viz our children. It’s a true crime story, but not a “who done it?” It’s a “why done it?” The legal posture of the case is not to ascertain guilt, but the level of the legal culpability that’s going to be ascribed.


NFF: Why should audiences come to see BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN at the Nantucket Film Festival?

ITB: I think it’s a confounding look at the internet universe, rooted in a very tragic story that maybe they can take something away from. You can dabble in theories about the role the internet plays in our lives, but this is a disturbing cautionary tale. Hopefully this event will be an enigmatic blip and not a heralding of things to come. As I said earlier, the internet is here and it’s a huge part of our lives and has a huge impact on our lives. We need to have manifold considerations--legally, morally, pragmatically--around its perils. And it has a great soundtrack!

BEWARE THE SLENDERMAN plays the Nantucket Film Festival tonight at 6:45pm.  Irene is also a part of today's Morning Coffee With... at 9am, with Robert Greene, Barbara Kopple and Roger Ross Williams.

5 Questions with...Tom Scott, co-founder of The Nantucket Project (TNP)

NFF:  Mr. Tom Scott: co-founder of Nantucket Nectars; co-founder of TNP; Chair of the Nantucket Film Festival board.  I think it’s safe to say you love this place!  Where does your love for Nantucket come from?

TS: I grew up going to Cape Cod; went there every summer of my life. In college, I wanted space from my family and went to Nantucket and fell in love with the place.  It’s an inspiring place and one of the things about it is everyone is enterprising; so many work both for themselves and a variety of jobs. Being surrounded by that was inspiring to me. On Nantucket you have to perform and that spirit of enterprise relates to how I’ve grown here.

NFF: TNP operates across three separate platforms: (1) the annual September event on Island, (2) TNP IdeaFilms, in partnership with Harbers Studios, and (3) TNP Scholars.  Can you give a thumbnail portrait of each and describe how it evolved into this configuration?

TS: TNP is like this ‘message co-op’; all these curious people who want to be in a beautiful place are together.  People who are trying to impact the world and be the beneficiaries of what we do and grow year round in Nantucket.  Holly [Gordon, of TNP Scholars] is the galvanizing force of all the co-operative efforts.  At the September gathering, the best ideas from the Scholars are taken and shared, or are the basis for Films. Ideas become Talks that become Films.

NFF: TNP/Harbers Studios Presents is a new event at the Festival, marrying your TFF and TNP roles into the Ideas/Talks/Films Program.  Talk about how this program emerged.

TS: Mystelle [Brabbee, NFF’s Executive Director] brought it up and The Nantucket Project’s IdeaFilms notion is ideas from TNP scholarship that lead to talks at TNP that yield films which hopefully galvanize the entire effort. In conversations with directors, you’re often defining what it means as you discuss it; ultimately it manifests in different ways. But at the Festival, as at the September conference, the setting is perfect--a theater, short films--and it may or may not be obvious what we’re doing, but we hope that the TNP experience is preserved and NFF audiences will get a sample of what we do each year.  I’m glad Mystelle planted the seed!

NFF:  The Nantucket Project had its 5th Anniversary last year; looking back, what are you most proud of about its accomplishments so far and where would you like to see it in 2020?

TS: That’s a good question. It’s an unwieldy thing, what we’re trying to accomplish, but behind it is an ethos--we believe in cultivating things. People with a good spirit, working hard to create open communication are valuable and necessary. It doesn’t always work, but by and large it does, and in order for it to do so, it takes work. There’s a nuance we can directly appreciate, and hopefully others can too. All that I’ve said here can be best utilized and actualized through our films which are the most shareable aspect of our work. All the work we put into the in-person experience can’t be captured but for film. All the world can feel an impact through it. We did a film with Larry Lessig [Harvard Law Professor] seen by 5 million people, and it’s the one film that is the best distillation of the TNP talk experience [see it here]. It’s meant to give you the experience of being there. And if you get the right film, people, and director, you can make these transcendent pieces.

NFF: In your own words, why should people attend TNP/Harbers Studios Presents Ideas/Talks/Films?

TS: I think it’s efficient, valuable, enjoyable storytelling and you can’t separate enjoyment from learning...or, you shouldn’t!

The inaugural TNP/Harbers Studios Presents IDEAS/TALKS/FILMS takes place on Thursday, June 23 at 7:45pm in Dreamland Main. Tickets are available here.

5 Questions with...Jedd and Todd Wider, directors of GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM

Our latest interview with talent from this year’s Nantucket Fest is with the directors of the feature documentary, GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM, which just won a Special Jury prize at HOTDOCS.  Veteran documentarians, Todd and Jedd Wider are brothers and creative collaborators on this powerful film which tackles the subject of mental illness through the personal journey of its subject, Linda Bishop. We recently got to chat with Todd and Jedd.

NFF:  The New Yorker did a profile of Linda Bishop’s story, but yours is a much more artful approach than one might expect from a documentary.  When did you first learn of Linda Bishop, and how did you decide to approach telling her story?

Todd: My inspiration came from an encounter with a homeless man in New York.  I would see him in the neighborhood, and called the Police to help him and they asked me why I kept calling.  It led to a discussion around social services for the mentally ill who fall into this gap where they’re not under medical treatment, aren’t necessarily criminal, and may only come into light if they’re being considered a public nuisance.  I also came across Rachel Aviv’s article (from the New Yorker) and she was a great resource.  She’s listed as a consulting producer on the film.  As to the approach to telling the story, that came in the filmmaking.  Our thought was we should show Linda Bishop’s state of mind in depicting her story, because that would be the best means for gaining empathy from the audience.

Jedd: We are documentary veterans and are attracted to stories with socio-political relevance and we like to shine a light on under-discussed topics to, hopefully, inspire people to do something. For this topic, treatment of the mentally ill and homeless is lacking in our society. Linda’s story should be a cautionary tale for us as a society; she fell through the cracks and suffered an experience no one should have to go through.

NFF: The photography of the film has a weightless feel; almost trippy.  Can you describe how you developed the look with your cinematographer?

Jedd: Our Cinematographer, Gerardo Puglia, is so gifted and was a brilliant creative partner. We wanted to make an experimental type of documentary, lending the viewer Linda’s perspective as she lived in the house, so the film was crafted to put the viewer inside the farmhouse.  Linda’s food writings and recipes were written in great detail and we shot all of it. Her writings are so descriptive, it’s clear she wrote from memory, but her fixation on food was around the time that she was actually running out of food and beginning to starve.  So we used 16mm for the food shots to give it that aged patina look.  And the floating camera that’s used throughout is meant to convey ‘the eye of God,’ or an omniscient viewpoint.

NFF: Linda Bishop’s journal gave you this rich resource of her voice.  Did you know you wanted to have the entries performed from the start?  Talk about your casting of Linda’s voice.

Jedd: We always knew we wanted to incorporate the journals because it’s Linda’s voice, but we also wanted to have a window into her state of mind which evolves and eventually disintegrates. The matter of how it would be used evolved during the making of the film.  We considered using passages or doing a dry read, but it soon became evident that the best use would be a performance read; that it would the best way to pay respect to Linda.

Todd: Lori Singer, an accomplished actress and musician, was who we cast as Linda’s voice.  She approached the performance in a lyrical, almost musical way.  She examined how Linda wrote, the impression of the pen on the page and if more words were squeezed into a line. Lori created a character of Linda in her head, then translated it. As a form of rehearsal, she recorded performances in the closet of an abandoned house and didn’t eat, to get into character. Many of her original rehearsal recordings would up in the film. We want you to feel something for the voice, and towards the end of the film, when the voice disappears, we want you to feel the loss.

NFF:  This is clearly a personal film—about Linda, her family and their journey with her illness—but of course there’s an issue at its core.  What sort of an engagement with that issue do you hope audiences will have?

Todd: People often ask for an “action plan” from documentaries, as though we’re expected to provide a blueprint for activism, but as much as we care about issue impact, we’re filmmakers first and we want you to have a cinematic experience. The film is photographed on different film stock to provide photographic texture; Lori’s performance creates a narrative, and Rashomon was an inspiration for story structure: the same question is at the beginning--there’s a dead body in the house; who put it there?  We want the film to linger with the audience.

NFF: In your own words, why should people come to see your documentary at NFF?

Jedd: See it to go on a journey and if you join us, your mind will be blown away in a beautiful and elegiac way. It’s a worthy way to spend 90 minutes and worth forgoing the beach!

Todd: Linda Bishop is from New England (NH), much of what she writes is about living there and will be familiar to the community, and this is a major issue, not only there, but throughout the nation.  

GOD KNOWS WHERE I AM plays Nantucket Film Festival on Friday, June 24th and Saturday, June 25th. Jedd and Todd will be in attendance at both screenings.

5 Questions with...Penny Lane, director of NUTS!

Every year we give our patrons an introduction to some of the talent behind the films in the current year's program, and today begins our line-up of talent from the NFF16 feature films. We caught up with director, Penny Lane, whose second feature, NUTS!, is in our documentary section. NUTS! retells the tale of eccentric John Romulus Brinkley, an early 20th century physician who made a fortune curing men of impotence using goat testicles, built the world's most powerful radio station, invented junk mail, and nearly became the governor of Kansas.

NFF: As a documentary filmmaker, lots of potential subjects must come into your orbit on a regular basis; apart from its truth-that's-stranger-than-fiction appeal, what made you decide to tell this story?

PL: I stumbled on a book about Brinkley in a public library in 2008, and that was it; I knew I had to tell this story.  It took somewhere between 7 and 8 years to finish.  I felt he was such a master of his craft that I wanted to be as good a manipulator as he was, except in nonfiction form. Most of the time when watching documentaries, I feel over-manipulated, but in my storytelling I try to be subtle.  Since I was, in a sense, mimicking Brinkley's manipulative tactics, I went all out in that style, and it was quite a challenge since it's such a departure from my normal style. Aesthetically it was an interesting collage because everything we did was so manipulative from the outset.

NFF: This film has an unexpected...trajectory which I won't spoil by detailing too much, but can you talk about how you decided to construct the way the story would unfold?

PL: I knew the big picture structure early on.  I was telling a story about a con man and wanted the movie to, to some extent, perpetuate a fraud or pull a con itself.  'How to do it' was the issue! There are a lot of movies about interesting people or subjects, but an exciting marriage of form and content holds my attention.  In this case, Brinkley was a 'media maestro,' as am I; and I wanted to show how documentaries can also engage in the tactic of sleight of hand, or fooling people.  Documentary ethics is something I always think about, and this film was a kind of exercise of playing with those issues in a way.  Early on I knew I had to be a con man to tell this story the way I wanted to, but I'm too nice to pull it off, so I had to tell the audience that I was fooling them!  The takeaway is, when you're using the communication tactics of documentary, it's not that hard to fool people if you want to.

NFF: Let's talk about that title!  I like the choice of punctuation which takes if from being fairly straightforward and literal to tongue-in-cheek.  How did you arrive at NUTS, exclamation point?

PL: Hilarious story.  I brought on my writer, Thom Stylinkski, two years into the project.  We were emailing back and forth in our discussions about the drafts, etc., and we start talking about the title.  And he says, "why isn't it 'Nuts'?" And I'm like, "I know.  It has to be a really great title that's catchy and will grab people...I've got to figure it out." And in a later chain he goes, "but why not 'Nuts'?" and I say, "yeah...exactly.  It's got to be something out of the ordinary, you know, something really strong." And after a few times he's finally like "No. Like LITERALLY, why isn't it literally, 'NUTS!'" and I go "ohhhhh!!!"  

NFF: Animation is quite popular in modern documentary storytelling, and you use quite a lot of it here.  I was particularly drawn to the style of animation in NUTS!  Can you talk about your creative collaboration there?

PL:  Seven different animators' work is in the film.  The film is told in 7 chapters, and there's an animator for each chapter. For me, having different artists do different parts was appealing in two ways: (1). Production-wise, for one animator to do the 55 minutes of film that NUTS! required would have taken forever and been super expensive.  This way, we were able to have several people working simultaneously and it was way cheaper; (2) Artistry-wise, I liked the idea of overtly or unconsciously underlining the idea that a story is different depending on who's telling it.  So I worked with one animator early on to develop the general look of Brinkley and the other main characters so as to have some continuity in their look, and apart from that, everyone had the freedom to create as they liked.  As far as how I paired which animator with the chapter they were drawing, I looked for animators whose particular strengths matched with the themes we outlined, so, for instance, we gave the sepia section to someone I knew was strong in sepia animation.

NFF:  Last question, in your own words, why should people come see NUTS! at NFF?

PL: It's super fun! And most of the the time people don't associate documentaries with fun. But smart can be fun, or fun can be smart...however you want to look at it!

NUTS! plays Nantucket Film Festival on Thursday, June 23rd and Saturday, June 25th.