THEDIRECTOR'SCHAIR
Ryan Katzenbach's column deals with the "behind the scenes" aspects of making a documentary.

 

THE UNIVERSAL ORDER OF A DVD RELEASE

We're approaching a day that, throughout these years of research, writing and filming, I have often if it would ever come --- a day when we release our film to the world.

It's been a long and tedious journey for the most part -- a journey I certainly never thought would have taken this long when I penned the pre-shoot script of Shattered during the fall of 2005. I honestly believed that we'd be a year or two shooting this, and while I anticipated some surprises, I never knew what was in store. A week or two ago I ran across a draft of the PreShoot script while I was cleaning off a bookshelf. An hour or two later, as I finished reading it, I shook my head and laughed. This preliminary script looks nothing like the finished film.

The first interview for Shattered was shot with Ric Osuna in Las Vegas in January 2006. His interview was the opening salvo for the film, and at that time, it was thought that Ric's book and his account would serve as the guiding narrative for the film. Additionally, a month or two later, we shot Geraldine's extensively detailed and long narrative. Like Ric's account, I thought that Geraldine would also serve as a primary guide through the story. Little did I know that the story would take on such an enormous chorus of voices that would tell the DeFeo story like never before.

Then came an interview with one of the jurors -- and not just any juror, but one of the two holdouts in the case that eventually succumbed to a "guilty" decision. Her story was beyond gripping, fascinating to hear. Her interview was followed by the medical examiner....a detective....a private investigator....another detective....several reporters who were on the scene and covered the story....and on, and on, and on. Once the participants started to emerge, it seemed like they would never stop. It felt like history was stepping right off the pages of time, taking my hand, and leading me through the dark corridors and recesses of truth that had never seen sunlight before. In between interviews, we filmed reenactment sequences that, most of the time, looked nothing like what had originally been anticipated because each contributor had changed the scope of the story even more.

I came to realize at some point that this film was not MY story. It was not going to be MY narrative or, honestly, my conclusions. Instead, as a writer, director and producer of the piece, I was ITS student as Shattered Hopes became its own living, breathing and often, thinking, being. The facts...the evidence...the testimony...the pictures....would all emerge at just the right times and if on que until the total picture had been formed. When you watch the film, in most cases, you will be taking the same journey I took. Your journey is 6-hours, mine was 6 years.

Industry friends, peers and even our own crew have had much to say about the project during the journey. A lot of our actors didn't understand the scenes and the continuity of making a film that took so long to finish. My co-producers didn't understand the content and how it all fit together even as they blindly carried the torch in support of the efforts. As the film stretched from 4-hours and 2-parts to 6 hours and 3-parts, there seemed to be a further "cooling" in the ranks toward my leadership and decisions. After all, who the hell makes a documentary 6-hours long? "Has that ever been done before?" I would often be asked. "Had they ever flown an airplane before the Wright Brothers? Had they ever split the atom before Einstein and Fermi figured out how to do it?" I would answer. Obviously, a documentary that is 6 hours long isn't nearly as epic as either of these historical things -- but just because something hasn't been done before, are we to accept that it can't be done? Are we to accept that it won't work?

During this time, there was an ever-lurking (and very private) doubt in the back of my mind that it would really work largely because a very small part of me was listening to the naysayers. I had tried a very experimental approach to the story early on, and though it seemed like a great idea on paper, it didn't pan in the end with the very first rough cut of the film. So, satisfied for myself that it wouldn't work, I adjusted, reinvented, and moved on. It's all part of being an artist. And this original narrative approach that I had taken that didn't work gave way to Ed Asner's attachment to the project as a conventional narrator. One idea hadn't worked...but the addition of Asner, everyone agreed, was an even better compliment to the film. One door closes, another opens to something even better.

As the editing went on throughout 2009 and 2010, and each of the 3-parts began to come together faster and faster, my doubts were evaporating. Each installment, though they shared a common look and feel, became its own creature. Each had a unique pace, specific direction, and an array of conversation that brought forth the story of what had happened to the DeFeo family in an easy to digest volume. What I realized was that I had shot 3-documentaries over the course of the years that had passed.

So as I entered 2010 and we discussed a release for the fall of that year, there was a feeling that had settled in that we had a great trilogy underway and there was little more we could add. Thus...we were done. In the summer we began construction of the house for the last visuals we needed, and everything was coming together.

But, this film, let there be no doubt, as its own living creature, was ultimately the one that was in power and would make its own decisions as to when it would be released.

In 2009, EP Diana Maiocco had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Thankfully, it had been diagnosed in an early state and she underwent chemo and treatment and, with a huge sigh of relief, she came through it cancer-free. Sometime around the middle of 2010, Diana became acquainted with Gail Bleckman who was working on a pilot for a series on cancer survivors. The two met and became friends with Diana participating in Gail's pilot. This was, while unknown at the time, to become a huge twist of fate where Shattered was concerned.

Gail, planning to move to Los Angeles needed to close down her residence on Long Island and make final preparations for her transcontinental move. Gail had decided that she needed, for the sake of her career, to be more at the epicenter of entertainment which is, of course, Hollywood. Before going back to Long Island in the summer of 2010, Gail had discussed joining our production crew, and Diana and I felt that she could be of assistance to us since she was heading back to Long Island.

Over time, and as the film had progressed, I had made several attempts at obtaining documentation from the Suffolk County Police Department. In the times I requested specific documentation via a FOIL request, it was always denied stating that "they didn't have it." Well, I had always felt that they DID have it but were refusing to grant my request.

I am not a religious person, but I do embrace spirtuality. I believe in reincarnation, karma, and that there is a giant "Universal Order" to things. Little did I realize, as we went into the summer of 2010, that the Universe was about to move the pieces on the chessboard.

Diana's cancer had not only made her stronger for the ordeal, but it had served to bring Gail to the table. Without it, as Diana and I have discussed, she likely would not have met Gail. And Gail was the right person to deal with Suffolk County Police. She is an often-pushy, plainspoken native New Yorker who is spirited and tenacious. SCPD would quickly realize that she was not going away anytime soon, and certainly not empty handed, after she landed on their doorstep for the first time. Gail and I would have many "strategy" discussions as to movement within the County departments, and in the end it all paid off.

We never approached or sought Gail....Gail, it feels, was sent to us. It feels, in retrospect, like the Universe said 'hey, you have a great film with a 'period' at the end of it. Instead of a period, we're going to replace that with a 'punctuation' mark.' How else would it just come to be that one day Gail show's up and she just happens to need to leave for Long Island and can stay until the job is done? Tell me that isn't divine intervention?

We had sent Gail to the SCPD to uncover some very specific crime scene photos. Instead, after 7 months, which would ultimately push the movie's release out, she returned to California with a volume of material that stunned us. Stunning is to put it mildly. Within the documents, many forensic points made in our film were confirmed. There were many revelations made as a result of the documents, and all of them supported Shattered's thesis. Once again, the Universal order of things had prevailed and brought the story home in what feels like the last great reveal. With that, we can now release Shattered Hopes and our work is done.

Does the film work as a 3-part documentary? Ultimately, each of you get to make that decision. If I did my job, it will work well and leave you wanting more after viewing Part I: From Horror To Homicide.

At the September 26th screening, which ironically fell on Butch DeFeo's 60th birthday, we received a lot of positive feedback, the majority of which included statements of "I can't wait to see Parts II and III!" During the screening, I was seated next to Jon Southwell who plays Big Ronnie DeFeo in the film. At one point, Southwell taps me and points my attention to the front row. In the audience, there were three people, in a row, leaning forward with their hands to their chin. I recognized the look instantly, as had Southwell. Studying their faces, they had 'that' look. The look of someone lost in the moment....someone who has been completely pulled into the film, pulled into a story. Southwell whispers "it looks like you've done it, dude." I certainly hope so. And I will add that it felt pretty good to have some of our actors who were in attendance approach after the screening and say "WOW! I get it now! I see what we've done and I had no idea!"

Within the next 60 days, Part I is going to debut on DVD. The Universe has given us its nod, it feels, and essentially said 'go for it. This is the moment you've been waiting for for a long time.'

There has been a lot of discussion as to whether the film should be released in one box-set release or in installments. I've personally favored the installment idea for a very long time because, I feel, it paces the story and doesn't overwhelm. It gives a viewer the chance to digest each part, perhaps a few times, before the next one releases. Additionally, it's going to take a lot of time to sort all the materials that need to be included in the Bonus Materials which will become a part of a box set. While the film itself will be ready by the previously anticipated January 20th release date, I question whether all the bonus materials will be. My feeling is to go ahead and set the film, itself, free. Once it's released, then we can turn our focus to the bonus features and concentrate on a follow-up box set that will truly knock your socks off as to its content.

In these years of making this film, I have taken a considerable beating from my critics who have already determined that this film (even though they haven't seen it) will be a disastrous flop. It has been asserted, over and over, that I am not a filmmaker; that my views will be biased; that I am only doing this to profit off the backs of the DeFeo family. Well, everyone is entitled to an opinion.

So, that brings me to another reason for a release in installments: if you hate the first DVD, then you're out $15 as opposed to a $50 box set. I hope my wonderful critics find that to be "fair" since, according to them, this is going to be so bad that we won't sell any copies of any installment past Part I.

Having stated that, I don't believe this is going to be the case. I think and hope that anyone who is a student of this case will enjoy the accounts of the DeFeo family that have never been told before. To the casual true-crime enthusiast, I think you'll be introduced to a story that can only be described as mesmerizing.

Time will tell.

Ad astra per aspera.

-Ryan Katzenbach - October 9, 2011.

ryan@amityvillefilm.com


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The True Story of the Amityville Murders

 

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