Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, Scenes of a Crime
The 2011 winner of the Filmmaker-sponsored Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You IFP Gotham Award, Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh’s Scenes of a Crime is a powerful social justice documentary that uses its feature-length format as its most powerful argument for the innocence of Adrian Thomas, a New York man currently inprisoned for the shaking death of his infant son. Over the course of the film’s 88 minutes, we go beyond the soundbite, watching long stretches of Thomas’s interview by two detectives — a grilling that resulted in a confession that specialists in police interrogation believe was coerced. Scenes of a Crime is the engrossing flipside to prime time crime shows, which inevitably end with tearful, cathartic mea culpas. Here, filmmakers Hadaegh and Babcock structure their film as a compelling, character-based mystery, dramatically revealing how, and why, people may say things about themselves and their actions they don’t actually believe. In addition to the Thomas footage, Hadaegh and Backcock talk to the detectives, experts on both sides, medical specialists, jury members, and, finally, outside of the interrogation room, Thomas himself. While they clearly have an opinion, the filmmakers present both sides of the argument against Thomas, allowing the viewer space to imagine him or herself as one those 12 people who decided Thomas’s fate.
Scenes of A Crime is the second feature by the Los Angeles-based filmmaking team. Their first, 2003’s A Certain Kind of Death, looked at the fate of those who die without next of kin. This new film, which opens Friday at New York’s Cinema Village and April 13 at L.A.’s Laemmle’s Music Hall, is an entirely independent production, financed by the filmmakers after their years working in TV documentary. In addition to the Gotham Award, the film won the Grand Jury Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize at the DOC NYC Festival in the Viewfinders section. I spoke to them last November, as the film screened at our “Best Film Not Playing…” MoMA series, about the movie but also moviemaking as a couple.
Filmmaker: Tell me your background. How did you start making films together?
Hadaegh: Well, we’re a couple. Our first project we did together was A Certain Kind of Death. It really was a positive experience for both of us. We have a genuine respect for each other’s views, so when we explore ideas, it’s really important for both of us to like it as much. Then, we each go into it with a different angle. We complement each other. And because we’re not rich, we’re not trust-fund kids, and we really use our own money to make these independent projects, our rule is: show me something new. We went through a process of pitching high-end ideas [to documentary financiers]. About a year-and-a-half goes by, and we had developed this project, had the permission of everybody we wanted to participate, and we didn’t want to wait anymore. We were eager to do something that meant something to us. By the time we got all the pieces of the puzzle together, we had no funding, there was no support from anyone but ourselves so we said, “Let’s jump in and do it.” That was about two years ago.
Filmmaker: Were you making work individually before you met or did you start making work after you met?
Babcock: We didn’t know each other earlier. We each went to different film schools but each of us had been trying to do independent work. I was more focused on documentary. Blue had been involved with experimental film. We actually met as projectionists at L.A. County Museum of Art and formed a connection.
Hadaegh: I was showing one of my short 30-minute experimental films at Film Forum in L.A. I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, but by the time we met, he had seen some of my works through Film Forum. So, [turning to Grover] you had a good way of approaching me to talk about works and my film. That was very nice.
Babcock: The nice way to say it is “research.” The other word is “stalking.” [Laughs.] Anyway, we formed a connection when we met at that job. I think we were both mutually frustrated with trying to get projects done on the side. We were both doing certain things for certain places, mainly low-level cable TV, and we basically took some time off to throw ourselves into that first project, A Certain Kind of Death. And then we’ve continued to work together professionally doing no-namey type of stuff when we need to. And, again, [Scenes of a Crime] was born out of frustration as a way to put our imprint back on a film.
Hadaegh: Our day job is doing docs for cable television, and, honestly, sometimes you pitch an idea and by the time you make it, it’s nothing like what you pitched. You don’t recognize yourself in it anymore.
Filmmaker: How does your working partnership divide?
Hadaegh: We do everything ourselves. We really do, even with this project. Normally if we can shoot, we shoot ourselves. When we do the interviews, it’s extremely important for us to do the compositions and set-ups. We take our time to talk about it and set it up. Whoever is not doing the interview does the sound, so we’re constantly engaged with all the different elements. And then editing, we actually love. We had a dear friend who was our editor, but we could only have him for two months [for Scenes of a Crime] because he was connected to another project. So once he left, we took over the project.
Babcock: [Editor] Bob [De Maio] is an extremely gifted storyteller. We all deliberated about a structure for [the film], and it’s that structure you see in the film. He jumped in with both feet while we were working on graphics and doing certain logistical things to stay on schedule, and then when he left, we continued to sand the edges and made a few shifts. At that point in the edit room, it was a three-way collaboration. But as a matter of practice, we both do everything.
Filmmaker: Blue, what would you say are the differences in approach between you and Grover?
Hadaegh: The difference between Grover and me is that I’m more patient with the camera and I don’t mind seeing things happen before my eyes. And I love composition. I can say Grover has a better sensibility about television (Laughs). He has a faster mode of getting into things, and he has a better sensibility about the audience. I think the audience is more into “remote-control speed” – they want to get into it in 15 minutes, and once they’re in, they’re in. I’m more patient. And sometimes when we’re shooting, especially with documentaries, he gets worried about missing things while I’m thinking about composition. But we now know that it’s better to be patient with your subject or with your camera, with your frame, even, if that means that you lose certain other opportunities around you.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the beginnings of this project. How did Scenes of a Crime develop?
Babcock: We were making an active effort to develop what I call “top-drawer docs.” Some people say non-fiction is hard to do [in the current reality TV glut]. Well, I have a different standpoint. There’s plenty of non-fiction, right? There’s a lot being made but a lot of it is not really very interesting once you get the rhythm of it. So we decided to take some time to get out of that really fast-paced type of stuff and try to find some quality ideas. We just let our minds expand and maybe out of some lingering awareness from other obliquely law enforcement-related projects, we [wondered], “Why do people confess?” We’ve all heard stories about false confessions and those triggered us to find out what really happens in an interrogation. It was one of several ideas we were developing, and when we came across this case, which was so richly documented, well, we have this test: when we look at each other and we say, “Are you gonna be able to live with yourself if you don’t make it?” We felt the subject of this film was contained enough that we could execute the film with the resources [we had] and that we would truly regret if we didn’t.
Hadaegh: We always work backwards. We know how much money we have because we’re a couple. We know when we run out of money, that’s it. So, you work backwards. You [say], “Okay I have six months before I have to have money to pay rent and eat and have to look for jobs.” And then you make your schedule backwards. That’s why we were extremely eager to jump into it once all the elements came together because there was just enough money for us to do the production and live. It’s always a risk but, it’s weird, with us, it’s the only time we’re happy—when we’re making [a film]. It really is. Other people are concerned about other things, especially if they’re a couple. We are the happiest when we’re actively involved with a project that means something to both of us.
Filmmaker: So it’s not like one person’s bringing home the bacon so the other can be more focused on the art?
Hadaegh: No, the sad thing when you come home is that there is no bacon (Laughs). Honestly, when you’re working ten to 12 hours, the saddest thing about being a couple and making projects [together] is that you come home, it’s 11:00 PM and there’s no food in the house. Or when one person gets sick, the other one immediately gets sick (Laughs). But no, even if we’re doing work for hire, we do it together. It just works better that way.
Babcock: It’s bi-polar. When you’re up, you’re up. When you’re down, you’re down.
Filmmaker: You made this without initial funding?
Hadaegh: We got no funding. This is [all financed by] us until this moment.
Filmmaker: Was that your expectation going into the film? Or did you expect to get financing, or, perhaps, grants?
Babcock: By being experienced as producers we knew how to keep the hard expenses as small as possible. But there were still going to be substantial expenses. We knew that crime and punishment/law and order/ justice documentaries have a place in the top-drawer [documentary] world. We had a belief that we could bring the quality we thought was inherent in the story across and take [the film] to market, and that’s taking longer than we thought.
Hadaegh: We didn’t know how many law and justice projects were coming out this year. One of these days we’ll make something HBO would love to buy but this wasn’t our year. And it looks like even PBS was [already] funding projects related to our topic of justice and law.
Filmmaker: So what sort of creative editorial choices did make as you processed your footage? Is the understanding of your subject that you reach by the end of the movie the one you had at the beginning of production, or was it one you reached by making the movie?
Babcock: I don’t want be too coy about it, but I’ll say this: I think that, as with our earlier documentary, I we had a very clear sense going in, almost structurally, of what experience we’d be delivering to the audience. Without overstating it, it was important to us to have a very clear understanding of what the audience’s experience would be. We wanted to play with the energy that the audience would be investing in the story in terms of where the tension was, what their suppositions were, and where they thought they were headed. And even if they got somewhere they anticipated, that there would be new details that would continue to punch them around a little bit and take them to a point of full awareness and, to some extent, emotional investment, tension, and release — all those kind of dramatic clichés. We wanted to pull those strings as hard as we could, because, especially with documentaries about significant topics, it’s important to find a way to get people involved on more than an intellectual level. This is not one of those films that was constantly unfolding in front of us. We actually had a very full sense of the case going of what was at stake and, formally and stylistically, how we wanted to structure it.
Hadaegh: We went into it very disciplined about telling the story from different angles. If you actually think about the subject matter, it really comes down to different ways of seeing — different ways of looking at the same thing. Obviously the jurors looked at this whole 10-hour video interrogation and walked away with it one way. And then you have these experts who break down the video [and reveal] other ways of looking at it. So even though we went into it knowing how the story was going to develop and had our own personal view of what really happened, we were keen to tell it from different sides and let the audience come in and put the puzzle together.
Filmmaker: Have the police officers in the film seen the movie?
Hadaegh: We invited everybody to every screening. They know about the film. We couldn’t send them DVDs because we’re independent producers and it only takes one DVD to find its way on internet and then you will never sell your project. So we have been inviting them. I think they’ve been sending people from their department but we have not seen them at any of the screenings. When we were in New York a couple weeks ago, the defense made an effort to come and see it for the first time. But I don’t know if they’ve seen it either.
Filmmaker: What’s happened to Adrian following the completion of the film?
Hadaegh: He’s in jail, and he had his first round of appeals last week. It’s amazing how everybody we see in the film is still extremely emotionally involved with the project. [Just last week, subsequent to this interview, Adrian Thomas's appeal was denied.]
Babcock: It’s as though it happened yesterday for them, and it’s feeling that way to us. I think that’s something I always forget about, somehow, but when you make documentaries, unlike a lot of narrative [features], these people stick around. So if it’s something that is very hot and meaningful and emotional for them, they stay in your life in a substantial way. It’s something I always forget and then after we’re done I remember that these [people] are going to be with me for a long time.