Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Behind the Scenes: 'At the Death House Door'

A scene many of us with Journey & many in Texas know well..

Excerpts from this interesting piece...

When they revealed he'd recorded audio tapes about all 95 executions he'd ministered to, we were hooked.

We didn't anticipate guard Fred Allen, nor Carlos' sister Rose, nor Carroll's family and the significance they would all play in the film. Nor did we anticipate just how closed and "well armored" Carroll was as a person and how this film would ultimately - in his words - prove to be "the therapy he never got."

Steve James of 'At the Death House Door' (And interview with the award-winning director)

Last spring I wrote about the superb documentary 'At the Death House Door' when I interviewed its subject, Pastor Carroll Pickett, who served 15 years as the death house chaplain to the infamous "Walls" prison unit in Huntsville. The film was the 1st-time direction collaboration between award-winning directors Steve James ("Hoop Dreams") and Peter Gilbert ("Vietnam: Long Time Coming"). James was nice enough to answer some of my questions about the film.

How did you first hear about Pastor Carroll Pickett?

Steve James: Gordon Quinn at our film company Kartemquin was approached by The Chicago Tribune because they thought we would be interested in doing a film focused entirely on the investigation of the Carlos De Luna case by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley. Gordon knew that Peter and I would be interested in the subject and set up a meeting with the reporters. In the course of telling us about De Luna, they also mentioned Pastor Carroll Pickett who had been haunted by the memory of De Luna, and recorded these feelings in an amazing audio tape about the execution right afterwards. When they revealed he'd recorded audio tapes about all 95 executions he'd ministered to, we were hooked. We decided from the get-go, that we wanted Rev. Pickett's journey to be our main story, and bring us to why De Luna was so important to him.

What was your original intention for the film and how did it evolve?

SJ: See answer above... As stated, the original intention of the Tribune was to have us do a film about Carlos De Luna, but its hard to do a film about a man who was not famous or led a well-documented life, and who was executed 17 years before. With the mention of Pickett, it was clear that we had a unique and potentially powerful story to tell about a man's past and also who he is today. This is one time when the original conception of what the film could be was pretty much on target for what the film ultimately became. But that doesn't mean that the film-making process did not evolve. We didn't anticipate guard Fred Allen, nor Carlos' sister Rose, nor Carroll's family and the significance they would all play in the film. Nor did we anticipate just how closed and "well armored" Carroll was as a person and how this film would ultimately - in his words - prove to be "the therapy he never got."

What films inspired you to create documentaries? What documentaries most influenced your approach?

SJ: I was initially influenced by fiction films - one director in particular whose work was always characterized by complex portrayals of his subjects. That director was the great Jean Renoir, director of such classics as 'The Rules of the Game' and 'Grand Illusion'. But I was also affected by less celebrated films of his like "Toni" and "The Crime of Mister Lange." Renoir was the ultimate humanist filmmaker, a great observer of the human condition. Documentary influences were the films of Barbara Kopple, particularly Harlan County, U.S.A., 35 Up by Michael Apted, and The Times of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein.

Why is the Carlos DeLuna story so central to the film? How important to the question of the death penalty is the issue of possible innocence of some of the condemned?

SJ: We certainly could have made the entire film about Carroll Pickett, and some people have suggested we should have. I think including De Luna as a significant part of the film allowed us to delve deeper into the life of one of the 95 men Pickett was with. And it allowed us to do so with the single most important inmate in Pickett's life. Carlos had the greatest impact on Pickett because he was young, and vulnerable, and innocent. One can't overstate the importance of how flawed the system is when it executes the innocent, but Pickett grew to believe that executing the guilty is wrong as well. Carlos' story also allows us to see the ripple effect of one execution on the lives of so many people - Pastor Pickett, Carlos' family, and even a reporter who was looking for a scoop but ended up with a real relationship and profound regrets.

What is the most important contribution a death row pastor can make?

SJ: I think Pastor Pickett's greatest contribution to the inmates was to be there for the men and help them navigate one of the most difficult and unimaginable acts one can face. There's real value in that regardless of one's position on the death penalty. I think Pickett's greater societal contribution has been to speak honestly and painfully about that time, and how he slowly changed from supporter of the death penalty to activist against it.

Why include scenes from his home life?

SJ: We initially intended to deal with his failed marriage because it was the catalyst which sent him to work at the prison in the first place. We did not expect the scenes with his kids when they happened. We were as surprised as the audience is watching the film, to learn that the family to that day had never really talked about the work he did. And we were shocked to learn that they didn't even know of the existence of the tapes. Those scenes reveal something about how closed Carroll was and still remains, and how much he and his family avoided dealing with this job he had. One great result of that filming and the film itself, is that the family is much closer than they've ever been.

How have you responded to the advocates for the death penalty who criticize the film?

SJ: Most supporters of the death penalty who criticize the film think we should have shown family victims speaking out against the convicts who were put to death. They want a kind of "journalistic balance." That's a fair criticism, I guess. But we felt that Pickett himself represented that point of view powerfully when he spoke about wanting to see Cuevas die for his role in the prison siege which killed members of Pickett's church. His own long journey from being pro-death penalty to anti-death penalty was the primary story of this film. So this film has a clear point of view, but we tried not to ram it down people's throats and we also tried to show sensitivity to the anger people feel when loved ones are murdered.

Why is the US the only major developed nation that still has the death penalty?

SJ: I don't feel equipped to answer this question, but suspect it has something to do with our unique history and national identity which is still governed by notions of "frontier justice" and "eye-for-an-eye" beliefs. America has always been a "gun culture" and where there's guns, there's violence and murder. Our collective fascination with violence and retribution probably have something to do with our attitudes towards the death penalty.

The good news is that the death penalty seems to be in retreat around the country. Outside of Texas, Virginia and a few other states, there aren't many states executing people these days. I am hopeful that we as a nation will continue to head in that direction.

Is there one theme or story that draws you to a project?

SJ: I find that I inevitably am drawn to people who's lives are at some significant turning point, whether its two young black kids trying to make a basketball dream come true for themselves and their families in Hoop Dreams, or my former advocate "little brother" facing prison in "Stevie," or immigrants making the courageous step of coming to America in "The New Americans"... Or Pastor Pickett's extraordinary journey that we tell in this film. All these stories are about people who are not famous but who's lives have something larger to say about the world we live in.

(source: Blog at Belief Net

Another article about the piece you may want to read:

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