Tribeca 2017: Erik Nelson on A Gray State
Originating as a concept trailer tapping into an increasingly burgeoning pocket of anti-police-state paranoia, David Crowley’s A Gray State was a film that warned of big government (FEMA = bad) taking over its innocent citizens to enslave and execute them. Like The Purge but with more guillotines and public massacres, Crowley’s footage depicted a low-budget world of state-led slaughter in the streets taking place to control those it sought to protect. A rebellion would be imminent, the story implies, and its tagline, “by consent or conquest,” sounds as much like generic action movie marketing as it does a patriotic call-to-arms. To doubters, the film would appear ridiculous. To those with a penchant for conspiracy theories, it was a sign of things to come.
Before embarking on Gray State and a career in film, Crowley was a bright-eyed soldier who served in the Middle East after 9/11. Developing an increasing distrust in people who blindly “followed a flag,” Crowley’s views of the world grew ever the more disenfranchised after his tour, and he sought, upon arrival back home to Minneapolis after being stop-loss, to draw attention to an impending war against the technocrats. Before the film version of Gray State could be completed however, Crowley murdered his wife and daughter in cold blood, with the Islamic proclamation “Allahu Akbar” sprawled over his living room walls written in his wife’s blood.
Erik Nelson’s new documentary, A Gray State, seeks less to explain why David committed this act than to examine the phenomenon that surrounded it. Working with an incredible amount of footage Crowley personally recorded himself (his Los Angeles meetings with potential investors show just how manipulative and deceptive he could be), Nelson’s Gray State is a film about those who suffered from David’s actions and those who seek to doubt and question them. As the film premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival, I spoke with Nelson about working with Crowley’s archival material, respecting the wishes of the subjects’ families, and including the presence of a popular conservative radio host.
Filmmaker: Both the concept trailer for Gray State and the homicide/suicide of the Crowley family made national news, but what was your entry point into the story?
Nelson: Well, it didn’t really make national news, and if it did, it was a very short tale. It might have been reported on but it vanished pretty quickly. Like any filmmaker, I had been seeking a story, wondering what my next project would be. I sought out a story, questioning how it would be possible to top Grizzly Man [Nelson has served as producer on numerous Werner Herzog’s films] as far as coming across archival footage that documents a descent into madness, to be honest with you. When I went on YouTube and saw what David had uploaded while he was alive (and how much material there was and what it showed), I knew that there was a lot more than met the eye. If he put that stuff up, what was the stuff he had that he didn’t put up? That’s how this film began.
Filmmaker: Much of the film is home video footage/journal entries David Crowley composed throughout the production of Gray State, and because of this, Crowley is credited as co-cinematographer on your film. How many hours of Crowley-shot footage did you work through?
Nelson: Literally hundreds of hours and, I believe, 13,000 stills dating back to his high school days. There were student films, selfie movies, and family videos filmed very carefully in a 16X9 ratio, almost with an eye for composition. There was a massive amount of material.
Filmmaker: I’m reminded of the extended EPK interview that David conducts for Gray State that explains a lot about his psyche. Did that serve as a guide in creating your narrative?
Nelson: It’s interesting you mention that because we came to that interview quite late in the process. We didn’t find it until we were well into editing, and that was something of a Rosetta Stone for us. We knew we still had things to cover – what David felt about being stop-loss in Afghanistan, what he felt about the Middle East, what his perceptions of Gray State were – and all of a sudden we find this three-hour interview that’s shot with two cameras in much the same aspect ratio we had already shot our interviews. It explained in explicit detail everything that had been going on. You talk about a discovery…
Filmmaker: Did finding that interview so late in the process serve to guide your narrative?
Nelson: Well, it served the narrative that was already happening. I approached the film very novelistically, putting it together in an order that seemed to make sense. I knew what the non-submersible units were, to use a Stanley Kubrick term. I knew the things that we had to use, that were very potent, and roughly where they would chronologically need to go and we started moving through it. When we found that three-hour interview, we popped the relevant quotes into where they were needed to reinforce the story.
Filmmaker: And your film makes clear that reexamining Crowley’s home video footage invites an eerie foreshadowing indicating of the doom up ahead, especially when it pertains to the words of his daughter, Raniya. In blocking out your story, were you cautious of how presenting some of the more personal archival material may appear in retrospect?
Nelson: Constantly. It was a constant monitoring of “Is this appropriate? Why is it appropriate? What’s the point to showing this? Is there a point to showing this?” We were always trying to be incredibly protective of Raniya, but she is a part of this story. This was a very, very hard film to live with and conceive.
Filmmaker: If we dare try to identify some auteurist traits in Crowley’s films, massacres abound in his work, specifically of people shot execution-style in both Crowley’s high school projects and Gray State. It shows that these harshly visceral images were in Crowley’s mind long before he served in Iraq. What did you derive from Crowley’s early work as a teenager?
Nelson: Excellent catch. You’re the first person who’s seen the film to point out that we also see the execution-style shooting in his high school films. We caught that too, and why it’s there is to make that point of the desensitization of violence. David grew up playing violent video games, watching Black Hawk Down and playing paintball. One of the most significant lines in the film is when his friend says, “We decided to stop playing it and to actually be it.” This speaks to a huge dysfunction in America where the culture of violence desensitizes people so they think they can go from playing a video game to doing it for real.
Filmmaker: Was it always your intention to conduct numerous interviews in the studio where David actually shot some of Gray State? I imagine it would feel even more somber now.
Nelson: Well, I knew exactly why we were shooting there. David’s team had worked there and it was near his home and it put the people we were talking with in the right perspective. I don’t know. It would create a moment. I also knew it would help visually tie my new interviews with the footage David shot inside the same studio. And to be quite honest with you, it was a great place to shoot in Minneapolis that I had control over.
Filmmaker: Control over?
Nelson: Production control. If you’re doing a documentary, you want to be where the action is and many of the interviews were shot in different locations. So what we did was shoot the interviews [in the studio] in order. On the first day of shooting, we conducted the in-studio interviews with David’s father, his brother, his best friend, and his creative partner. That’s also when we tried out the idea of video playback, where we would show our interviewees footage of Gray State in-camera [and get their reaction]. We built this platform where I could prop my seventeen-inch laptop up with speakers to show them the video, and we took it everywhere with us. That would become a motif for the film. When we show this video to people, what will they do when they see it? Would it work as a narrative device? And regarding David’s father reading his son’s journal entries through the film, I knew we needed to develop a kind of narrative chronology, and it seemed like having the father read the journal would give us all the reference points we needed. Unlike my films with Werner Herzog, where you have the world’s most articulate and charismatic narrator taking you through the story, there is no narrator here.
Filmmaker: Given the tragic circumstances, was the family of David’s wife, Komel Crowley, willing to participate?
Nelson: They were definitely included. We did a lengthy interview with her father and sister, and they were part of the film for quite a long bit of time. I made it clear though that I wasn’t going to use the footage without their blessing, and after a number of screenings, for their own reasons, they said that it was just too soon, too close, good luck, and God bless. They would appreciate it if we took them out of the film, and so I did. What was great about their involvement was that we had a balance for the film. We tried to make sure that Komel was never lost in David’s shadow, and we wanted to make sure she was portrayed as the victim that she was. I always explicitly had her family’s opinions in the back of my head.
When they left the film, we did new interviews with friends who knew Komel during that [tragic period] in her life, and that described immediately what was going on in the moment. The film benefitted from the participation of Komel’s family too, but I had to respect their wishes not to be included in the final product.
Filmmaker: Were there test screenings held for everyone you featured? Did they each have to give their approval after seeing the film?
Nelson: I just felt responsible for the telling of this story and I would be morally deficient if I didn’t allow them to have input and feel comfortable about it. I didn’t want to ambush them with something and say, “you signed the release so take it or leave it.” I wanted them to be comfortable with it, and I promised I would do the best I could to fill in the gaps between interviews and come up with more of an explanation as to what could have happened. I did the best I could to show and present it truthfully, so showing it to them was important. We shot a sequence that we may use as a supplement down the line where we filmed a new interview with the family and participants after the first screening of the film. There was a kind of therapy going on with everyone on this project, trying to confront this horrific situation and work through the questions using this film as a method of dealing with it. The first thing I ever told the family was that there was no road map for what we were about to do. It was very much a process of letting the families work through this unspeakable tragedy and deal with it through the process of [making] this project.
Filmmaker: Alex Jones is featured in the film, and Infowars was one of Crowley’s favorite websites/programs as he was knee-deep in his distrust of the American government. Your film premieres in a month where Jones’ lawyer is claiming his client is a performance artist playing a character. What are your take on Jones and similar media that looks to promote fear/rebellion in the American people?
Nelson: Well, you reap what you sow.
Filmmaker: Do you have an opinion on that kind of “shock jock” media?
Nelson: Everyone has an opinion on it, and I’ve known about Alex Jones for quite some time. I think I’ve been on his shit list for a film I did for National Geographic about debunking the truthers. That put me on his radar. I’m proud to be on Alex Jones’ enemies list, if that’s such a list being drawn. I think his work speaks for itself and you can look at it as you want. We put him in the film because he was important to David, as part of David’s Gray State’s worldview and marketing plans. Alex Jones, as he calls himself now “a performer,” does articulate the conspiracist worldview very well and professionally, and he’s used in the film for that reason.
Filmmaker: Your film repeatedly takes note that while Crowley’s crime is clear, the intentions that lead to it are not. This isn’t a murder mystery whodunit. No matter how much archival footage you’ve been supplied with, will the murder ever make sense? And how much of that is irrelevant to the story you were telling?
Nelson: This was always presented as more of a “whydunit” rather than a “whodunit.” The ambiguity of this is how could this horrendous crime ever be explained, justified or made sense of? There would never be a moment of “Oh, I understand! He did it for this reason. This makes perfect sense.” It’s as inexplicable and horrendous a crime as you could ever imagine. There’s never going to be a “why?” There’s going to be an understanding of the tectonic forces that were driving it, but to do something like this is beyond comprehension. We’re not claiming, like a lot of documentaries do, that we’re going to make this all tidy and explain it away. We’re not going to find the mystery and solve it or leave you with a conclusion that you can sink your teeth into and have a definitive ending. This is more of a character study, a thriller, a psychological horror story, or it’s, as I’ve described to others who’ve asked what the film is about, Grizzly Man meets The Shining.