Shattered Hopes began to congeal in the fall of 2001 when Ryan Katzenbach met author Ric Osuna. Osuna, at the time, was penning a new volume on the DeFeo murders, The Night The DeFeos Died. Katzenbach was running the newsroom of a small, central California upstart newspaper that was, at that moment, focusing on a special Halloween insert. "We wanted a piece that combined local haunts and ghost stories with a piece that integrated some national interest pop culture as well. Amityville came to mind, and I thought it would be fun to revisit the story," recalled Katzenbach.
Ryan Katzenbach had seen 1979's The Amityville Horror movie as a young, impressionable kid and had maintained a minor interest in the story over the years. "It was the idea that the house was haunted that really pulled me into the movie. But as I got older, I pretty much decided that it was all a story. I guess your childhood illusions melt away as you get older and you become more of a skeptic. I read articles here and there that were written about the story, but I had never really considered it more than a topical interest," said Katzenbach.
However, that changed when Katzenbach met Osuna.
"Ric had the most logical things to say about the crime, and he really spoke to the most basic, lingering question that I had about the whole case...why were six members of a family murdered, in the dead of night, in a relatively small house, with a high powered and very loud hunting rifle, yet no one got out of bed? That just never made sense to me, and not accepting that some demonic force silenced the victims, it really needed to be examined."
Katzenbach felt that Osuna presented a more rational answer to the DeFeo homicides through his research.
"Like Ric, I felt like the murders had been long-glazed over. It was like 'hey, here's a story about a haunted house and the people who lived in that haunted house [George & Kathleen Lutz]' The DeFeo family was sort of lost in the Hollywood commercialization," said Katzenbach. "I thought the murders were the most intriguing element of the whole story. Ric had discovered a lot of testimony, transcripts and evidence that really indicated that a closer look was warranted."
Ric Osuna's book hit the market in 2002 and it remains in print today. The book is available through Amazon.
Katzenbach, in addition to his writing and journalism roots, also had one foot in publishing and Hollywood. Katzenbach's KatcoMedia, up until that time, had been a very small publisher of niche-nonfiction paperback books before its departure to film. The firm had published a book on the funeral of entertainment icon Elvis Presley in the late 1990's which had landed Katzenbach a development deal as a producer on a film adaptation of the book. The project spent several years in development with Twentieth Century Fox before it went into turnaround and the studio relinquished rights to the property back to Katzenbach.
"I was pretty excited about that first development deal, but then there are a lot of who actually believe the bullshit Hollywood tells us newbies. If you ask 100 writers or producers who have been through their first development deal, 97 of them will have negative things to say about the process and most people who get development deals seldom get anything made. Hollywood has this way of suckering you in, promising you the world, and then delivers jack while tying your project up forever."
Just the same, Katzenbach had optioned, by 2002, Osuna's book and set about penning a screenplay that would tell the untold DeFeo story. By the end of 2002, Katzenbach and Osuna had turned down one network offer only to find a new home for their project at Sony Television Pictures in the early part of 2003 with veteran TV-movie-of-the-week producer Bernard Sofronski. Sofronski, a successful, established producer, had just made a film adaptaion of the Mark Fuhrman book Murder In Greenwich for the USA Network. USA was salivating for another commercial success and immediately green-lit the idea for Osuna and Katzenbach's true crime Amityville project.
"We went into development, and once again, I went in with high hopes. We were extremely optimistic, based on feedback from the network that we were really going to make this film. And then, suddenly, two years into this, there is this shift where the network suddenly says 'hey, wait, this is a really, really dark piece. We don't know if we want anything this dark.' I was like 'are you kidding me? Did you think you it was Mary Poppins?'" The film eventually went back into turnaround, but Sony continued to pay the option fees. Katzenbach believes it was for the purpose of freezing his film as Sony acquired MGM Studios that was actively working on The Amityville Horror 2005 remake at that time.
|ABOVE, RYAN KATZENBACH SHOOTS A SCENE DEPICTING THE FIRST TIME THAT GERALDINE GATES MET THE DEFEO FAMILY DURING A POOL PARTY AT THEIR HOME IN AMITYVILLE. VETERAN ACTOR EDWARD ASNER LOANED RYAN HIS BACKYARD AND SWIMMING POOL FOR THE SHOOT.
By now, Katzenbach was growing very antsy. "I just wanted to make something. I wanted to feel that creative process that goes into shooting a film, that goes into directing, producing, editing, problem solving. "
At this time, even as Osuna and Katzenbach found yet another development deal on the horizon with another network, Katzenbach was burning out on the process. "I was just tired of it. I was sitting back and watching movies like The Dukes of Hazzard get greenlit and I just decided that Hollywood wasn't going to ever take a serious project serious. They are just too afraid to say no to a bad project and too terrified to say yes to a good one. I just decided that if I was going to participate in the filmmaking process, I would just have to go do it myself. Besides, given the technology advances in cameras and editing, you don't even need Hollywood anymore to be a successful filmmaker. Hollywood is a dying oligarchy, a business model of a time lost past that no longer works. " Katzenbach said.
As a result, Osuna and Katzenbach backed away from the table when the option expired with Sony. It was in August 2005, while in Las Vegas, that Ryan Katzenbach had revived an old idea over dinner during a visit with Ric Osuna.
"Early on, even when we thought the movie was going to get made, Ric and I had discussed producing a documentary based upon his research and mine, and we had always been excited about the idea, yet non-committal at the same time. I felt the DeFeo story would be a great vehicle for a first film, and I was also very committed to telling the true story behind what had happened at 112 Ocean Avenue," recalled Katzenbach.
Principal photography started on the project the following January 2006.
"I had this grand vision, an illusion that we'd be done in a year or so. Hey, it's just some re-enactments, some interviews, nothing big. But, it turns out it was much larger than I anticipated," Katzenbach said.
The film, he says, turned out to be more difficult than a feature. It was the fusion of, essentially, two films in one. "On one token, you have a feature film of sorts. It's the retelling of the story ala reenactments. So for all practical purposes, I basically wrote a feature script. I wrote a script based upon Ric's book. Then I sat out to verify that information with as many different interview sources as possible, so you find yourself trying to tie the reenactment sequences together in a cohesive fashion to tell the story in the most fluid manner possible, intercut with interviewees who must also be cut together in a manner that progressively pushes the story along. It was really a challenge at times, and a lot of times the interviewees revealed things that weren't part of Ric's book, so it caused me to constantly go back and re-write, add more re-enactments and really expand the focus."
As a result, filming took nearly 4-years with Katzenbach criss-crossing the country to conduct interviews and research. In the time since the project began, the research has expanded tremendously. "I think we really took Ric Osuna's book and really expanded his revelations and research ten-fold, testing his ideas and theories to find out that he had it right...there had to have been more than one person involved in the crime."
Ric Osuna's book, in large part, drew from the testimony of Geraldine Gates, a woman who was allegedly married to Ronald DeFeo Jr., at the time he participated in the murder of his family. Osuna also drew basis from a November 2000 interview with Ronald DeFeo behind the walls of Greenhaven Correctional Facility in upstate New York. In that interview, DeFeo described the events of November 13, 1974, stating that he, his sister and two friends participated in the murders. Geraldine Gates has become a controversial character in recent years with many skeptics claiming DeFeo was never married and that Gates is seeking fame or fortune from a fabricated story of their marriage. Since the interview, in which Gates accompanied Osuna to the prison, DeFeo has recanted the very story he confirmed to Ric Osuna about the couple's marriage and the child they allegedly have together. He unsuccessfully sued Gates, Katzenbach and Osuna in both New York state and federal courts alleging fraud, defamation, libel, violations of the Whistleblower act and abuses of the various laws governing United States nuclear secrets. Katzenbach says "he really needs to fire his jailhouse attorney."
Former Amityville house-owner George Lutz also sued Ric Osuna during the development process alleging all sorts of copyright and trademark violations. Katzenbach and Osuna defeated Lutz in Nevada district court on a motion for summary judgment. "I think Lutz was hellbent on stopping Ric's book and Ric's assertions that Lutzes' story was a fabrication. What is most interesting about the suit against Ric is that Lutz, at no time, alleged defamation or libel against Ric or his book. At no time did Lutz state that Ric had it wrong in the book and that the Amityville Horror story wasn't a fabrication."
Katzenbach gathered, in all, over four hours of taped interviews from Geraldine Gates and, in total, more than 95 hours of taped testimony from many of the participants that were involved in the story.
The 95-hours of footage also presented more than a few issues for Katzenbach who has served as the project's principal editor in addition to his writing, directing and producing of the film. "You have so much material and you want to use it all, yet you have to trim it down and trim...and trim to get it to fit. And you leave a lot behind and you have to stick to the bare facts, the bare testimony that really pushes the story along. It's painful to leave such interesting information, if but ancillary to the story, on the cutting room floor," Katzenbach said.
"I found people who hadn't previously talked in public forum about the DeFeo murders, and they were a welcome addition to the project," said Katzenbach. "The film just kept morphing, changing, evolving over time with each new fact we upturned. For about five trips to New York, I would proclaim that "this is my last trip back there" and then someone else would surface that I wanted to interview. I finally just decided to quit saying 'this is my last trip' knowing that I would likely be flying to New York right up to the time the film was being edited. Katzenbach flew to New York in September 2009 to complete interviews and then again in October when he realized he had a few more he wanted.
Says Katzenbach of the project, overall, "I knew, like James Cameron, when he did Titanic in 1997 that if you were going to take on a subject that had already been done, then you had better have something new to say or, otherwise, what is the point? Amityville has been done repeatedly, but I felt like we could go the extra mile in terms of the research as well as visually. The approach, like Titanic, was to really plant the viewer back in time and make the experience as viscereal as possible."
The film also draws on crime scene photography from the actual DeFeo crime scene. "We showed one of the jurors some edited clips, and she was really disturbed by them emotionally. When I asked her "is it too much?" she said that it was very overwhelming to see the carnage. But then, she said, 'Ryan, you really do have to show this stuff because you need to make people understand how horrible the crime was. Don't deviate from that....just do it."
Katzenbach says that his intent is not necessarily to sway the viewer into believing that DeFeo committed the crime with other parties present. "I don't have an agenda one way or the other other than to say that when you add the facts up, it doesn't make a lot of sense that one person could commit such a crime and no one got out of bed. To quote Dr. Howard Adelman, the forensic pathologist who worked the case, Adelman said "I don't think we really know what happened that night." And I don't think we do in terms of the really finite details. I question if Butch [Ronald DeFeo Jr.] really knows what took place that night. I think, however, after you see the film, you will have a better idea of what didn't happen that night......DeFeo didn't act alone. In the end, though, it's really up to the viewer to weigh the testimony and the evidence we're presenting and decide for themselves."
Shattered Hopes: The True Story of the Amityville Murders, at completion, will be 4-hours in running time. The film is divided into two two-hour portions.