Sunday, February 3, 2013
Interview with Joshua Zeman: Co-Director/Producer of Cropsey
Available on VOD July 2
Cropsey Legend Official Site
Last month we had the pleasure of introducing the effectively chilling documentary Cropsey. It’s a film that through archived footage, interviews, and hands on investigation, explores the roots of an urban legend in the Staten Island area. In the 70’s and 80’s the community of Staten Island was plagued by a rash of seemingly unrelated missing child cases. Signs pointed to real-life boogeyman Andre Rand, a man with a history of terrible crimes who may or may not be connected to the missing children. Convicted without much hard evidence, the film coincides with Rand’s parole hearing in 2008.
I corresponded briefly with Josh Zeman, part of the filmmaking team (including Barbara Brancaccio) responsible for compiling the information about the case and presenting it in this documentary. The finished product is one that left me and many other viewers quite unsettled. Here’s the transcript of our communication:
ATHO: Hi Josh. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions for our readers (and indulging my own). Since a lot of the content is wrapped up in legalities, I’ll understand if you can’t comment on certain things. (Questions begin here) We helped introduce one of the screenings here in the Boston area and the number one question before screening was whether or not Cropsey was part of the “shaky cam” trend ushered in by mega hits like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Clearly it is a documentary, but were you at all pressured to market Cropsey like one of these films that are supposedly “based on true events”, but are actually totally fabricated?
JZ: It’s funny you mentioned that because we had already started the film before that trend started. We were actually worried that the "hook" of those films was going to detract from the seriousness of CROPSEY. In a way, I guess it has given audiences reference points, and maybe increased attention to be compared to those films, but it also takes away a little of what we were trying to accomplish. The film in about Legend-tripping, which is usually when as a kid you and your friends go to the haunted house, prison, mental institution or woods in your community, someplace that has a urban legend or "history" and you try and see how long you can stay in there without being scared. Sometimes it’s on a dare, sometimes it’s with a girlfriend. We were trying to exemplify and mimic that feeling because when searching for Jennifer that's what a lot of the searchers did, just in this case as adults. Even when we were going through the buildings we were scared just like when we were kids. It was important to convey that sense of fear in an effort to show how the community felt about Andre Rand.
ATHO: Judging by the film, it seemed the community in Staten Island was generally eager to provide as much info as possible to help you and Barbara along. Did it really feel like as much a community effort piecing it all together as the footage portrayed? Did you receive any resistance (or even threats) from your questioning of any of the parties involved considering the contentious subject?
JZ: It was an absolute community effort. It took residents, 5000 strong to go out and find jennifer after the police has been looking for weeks. It was also the community went out and started to create all these adult urban legends, about Satan Worshippers, Child Slavery rings, or Groups of mentally disabled homeless roaming the woods. Very little of the story was gleamed from a law enforcement perspective, because as you seen when it comes to the trail there was very little evidence Rand was convicted by the residents, eyewitnesses actually, an not physical evidence.
ATHO: We’re you familiar with Rand and his case(s) before beginning work on the film, or was this something you more or less began to uncover as you got it going? Did you intend all along for this to be a piece on Rand?
JZ: Everyone had heard of Rand on the island. He was the homeless guy living in the woods. At first we shield away from making it about Rand, because for us the story wasn't necessary about him. It was about storytelling, and the stories the community told themselves. In some respects, Rand himself didn't matter. He was a scapegoat (we're not saying he didn't commit the crimes, but that he was a scapegoat for many of the islands issues.) so it didn't really matter about him. But then as we dipped into Rand's backstory and the fact that his mother worked in the mental institution the question of why became so compelling we couldn't not tell that part as well. In a lot of ways we didn't want to unmask the monster.
ATHO: One of the overall points of the film, in my opinion, is that the existence of a boogeyman (or scapegoat) allows us to compartmentalize and possibly even contain all these elements of “evil” running loose in the world? Meaning, it’s much easier to be able to point to this person and/or place, and say definitively that it’s “wicked” or “bad”, rather than accept the fact that anyone can perform a terrifying crime, and often right under our very noses. Otherwise, it would be maddening, right?
JZ: That's completely correct. Rand was the embodiment of all societal ills found in Staten Island, sure he was scapegoated, but demonizing him was something different. As a society we can't contextualize crimes against children so as a result, we end up defining the act in the realms of good versus evil. Allegedly Rand hurt children, which as parents we really can't fathom, both as individuals and as a society, so it must be more than just an act, a crime. It’s beyond our comprehension, so therefore it must be something bigger....it enters into the realm of the supernatural.
(Potential Spoiler) ATHO: I don’t want to spoil anything, but there is a moment where one of the detectives (Saez) is being questioned about a possible link to Satanic cults, and he is clearly uncomfortable discussing it. Is there more to that story than lead on in the film. Is it something you can briefly talk about? (note: I’ll warn of a possible spoiler here before posting)
JZ: Frank Saez is one of the most knowledgeable detectives when it comes to the missing children cold cases in New York City, and he was very instrumental in bringing the Etan Patz case to trial. It is believed that Etan was taken by an individual and passed along to a cult of sorts, so he's very sensitive to the idea that a cult could be behind the disappearance of a child. I don't think however we're talking about "devil worshipping cults" per se, but more as cults that engage in pedophilia. It just so happens that of one of the cults mentioned in the film, The Church of the Process, the former leader lives in Staten Island, so the proximity of that cult definitely put the police in high alert as to the possibility that one could be behind the disappearance of these kids.
ATHO: In retrospect, was there anything on screen that you felt should have been cut from the final version of the film? Concurrently, is there anything left out because maybe you and Barbara deemed it inappropriate or second guessed yourselves? I guess what I’m asking is: Any regrets?
JZ: I wish there could have been a few more scenes tying in collective consciousness of urban legends to what was happening specially in Staten Island, the similarities were amazing the Rand narrative followed the general urban legend scripts to a T.
ATHO: There is an increasing feeling of dread as the story descends into the terrifying underbelly of Staten Island, the history of Willowbrook, and these possible connections to Staten Island being a “dumping ground” for unwanted things and people. What was your goal in editing all this information together? The film does a good job of presenting in an unbiased manner, but did you ever feel like everything was progressing toward a particular agenda?
JZ: The agenda was to show all the agendas in a sense. In the end I think, the last thread, the messiah complex was the most "real" or at least was the one the cops felt was the most legitimate. It also tied back in nicely with Staten Island being a dumping ground, and the residents having to reap what the urban politics of the city sowed. It also brings Willowbrook full circle to the so I think it was apropo to end with that one.
ATHO: What are your future plans for Cropsey? Will it be receiving a wider release as far as you know? Will this be an ongoing investigation for you guys? I can imagine it’d be hard to distance yourself from all this once you’ve been immersed for so long
JZ: I don't think we'll ever be done with Crospey. We come out on VOD July 2nd, so please look for us, and then DVD for Halloween.
ATHO: Josh, I appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to answer these questions.