CRIME: The Animated Series Hits Toronto
Documentarian, director, visual artist, and author Alix Lambert has yet another new project making its way around the world. CRIME: The Animated Series — directed in partnership with award-winning animator Sam Chou — debuted as part of MOCAtv in Los Angeles back in July (here’s Filmmaker’s post about that event).
One of these animated tales, CRIME: Joe Loya — The Beirut Bandit, is playing the Toronto International Film Festival this week (click here for dates and times) and is sure to have audiences talking about just more than it being the shortest film to screen at TIFF. In the two-minute short, former bank robber-turned-author of The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, playwright, and filmmaker Joe Loya recalls the first time he robbed a bank. The short marks one more way that Loya gets his history out while Lambert gets one more means of exhibiting the fascinating and often heartbreaking true stories that she first chronicled in her book Crime. Chou, meanwhile, had the chance to apply his considerable talents well outside the realm of the G-rated work that has been his bread-and-butter for more than a decade.
The trio gathered via phone to discuss how they came together and what their hopes are for this film, its series, and further collaboration.
Filmmaker: Is this the beginning of a longer festival life for this particular episode?
Lambert: We would like it to be. We’ve submitted it to other festivals, so we’ll see what happens.
Chou: I think we’re going to try to send it to as many festivals as possible.
Filmmaker: Was the MOCAtv screening in LA the first time the three of you had been together in person?
Lambert: Joe and I have known each other for years and spent time together. But that was the first time that Sam and I had met in person even though we’d been working together for two years.
Chou: It was also the first time I met Joe.
Loya: I love that night! It was fantastic. In my 17 years of being out of prison, that ranks as one of the top five best nights of my new incarnation, my new life. That was beautiful, man.
Chou: We were ranked above him getting out of jail!
Filmmaker: Walk me through the timeline for this collaboration. You indicated that it started to mesh two years ago, and I know that Joe was part of the book. Fill me in on more of how you came together for this series.
Lambert: I met Joe through a friend who had a big collection of prison memoirs. I’d made a documentary on the Russian prison system and was working on a U.S. prison project, and he said, “You should read this book and I think you should meet Joe — you’d like him.” I think our first phone conversation was like two hours. (Laughs) So that worked out well. He’s got good stories!
Filmmaker: He’s got good stories and he’s a great storyteller. The two don’t always go together.
Lambert: That’s true.
Filmmaker: How did Sam enter the picture?
Chou: I messaged Alix over Vimeo. I picked up her book Crime and read Joe’s story. I picked up the book and decided to write them because I was so impressed with Alix and Joe. Alix and I started a conversation; Joe and I also started a conversation and we helped each other out. Alix and I developed CRIME: The Animated Series. When I found out that all of her interviews exist in audio form that was kind of the starting point of everything.
Filmmaker: Speaking of that original audio interview with Joe, how did you decide on this particular moment of Joe’s incredibly dense and rich story? As we just agreed, he’s such a good storyteller that the original interview is just packed with gems.
Chou: It is!
Filmmaker: So why this particular moment for the short film?
Lambert: Sam and I would like to tell much more of Joe’s story, and so the question is, how do you introduce it? What’s the best way to introduce him if you’re going to continue to tell his story? I think the short is saying, “Here’s a character and here’s an introduction to him.”
Chou: His story is amazing — his growing up, the way he tells it, everything — I think it’s about the third page when he actually gets into the actual bank robbing. We needed something that encapsulated him. To be honest, how many people do you know who have robbed a bank before? That alone is pretty powerful and pretty interesting, and so we knew we had to do something with that first time.
Loya: I had no choice in what they chose. They could have chosen any of the stories from childhood, from prison, from bank robberies — those are basically the three main sections. But they chose this one and I thought it was very smart to choose this one because: one, it’s a bank robbery and it shows the approach to it, the mentality, what gets you there; and two, it also it really demonstrates the way I can talk about crime with some humor and a real intelligence about everything, including about when I’m going to get arrested how I think I’m going to dupe them because of my whiteness, my private schooling and stuff. (Laughs)
So, the level of observation, the way I laugh at myself and mock my ignorance and my hubris, but also the way I brutally lay out the crime and the terror that I created in somebody, it’s all there. So is the comic effect of the back-and-forth, the tug-of-war with the note. That crime was a really good way to introduce me, especially if you want to get anyone interested in my story to make more of it. (Laughs)
It’s actually a shrewd way to get somebody to say, “I wanna see more of this story!” People I know who saw it when it was online [it has since been removed from the MOCAtv YouTube Channel in order to screen at TIFF] said, “I would watch a whole movie this way!” People who had read my book said, “I could watch your story that way, the entire way.” So I think it was very smart to pick that, on my end. I had nothing to do with picking it, but I think it was a shrewd move to pick that moment.
Chou: The humor aspect was a big thing. I really enjoyed that. The little tug-of-war and the whiteness. There was part that I was aching over taking out when Joe is in his getaway car and was talking about stopping off at Wal-Mart and getting a case of Dr. Pepper.
Loya: K-Mart. On the way to Mexico, I was going to get me a carton of Dr. Pepper, yeah.
Chou: There were so many good moments and I had to edit that part down just to get it to three minutes. But that part was so funny and it broke my heart that we took it out. Maybe if we continue we’ll put that part back in.
Filmmaker: Was that shrewdness all part of the plan? Did you say, “We can use this to raise more production funding and pay for further development to flesh this out later?”
Chou: Yeah, Alix and I talked about that quite often. “This is just a starting point.” Alix has tons of ideas and we want this to exist in a bigger form, in a bigger venue, than just the Internet. Like we want to bring it to TV… We want this to be more grandiose.
Lambert: I’m not so concerned about where it’s seen, whether it’s Internet or TV, I would just like to tell a bigger story and have the chance to expand not just Joe’s story, but all of these characters, who have much longer stories with a lot of facets to them. It would be nice to have the support to reach a bigger audience and have a bigger, extended story to it.
Filmmaker: Alix, your book on crime is incredibly rich, and it’s not just the quantity of the stories that are told and the detail within each of those stories, there is also so much meaning and originality and so much of that “truth is stranger than fiction” kind of value within each of them.
Lambert: And even in the book you’re hearing just a fraction of them. The book was edited. My original edit of that book was 700 pages.
Loya: That is the Alexandria library of crime stories, let’s just put it that way.
Lambert: Even that, when you have the unedited audio, you have opportunity to do something different than is even in the book or is in the movie or is in the play, so that’s an exciting new medium to work with.
Filmmaker: And you used that original recording of Joe? You didn’t have him re-voice it?
Lambert: We did have him re-voice it and then we decided to use the original.
Loya: I couldn’t replicate it.
Chou: It was a good try, Joe, and the sound quality was a lot better, but there’s a candidness in your original recording that’s much more genuine and natural.
Loya: I could not replicate the improvisation.
Chou: It’s hard. That’s an art form in itself.
Lambert: I just think that people accept the kind of janky audio quality of some of the interviews. Nobody’s complained about that. I think the authenticity of the voice trumps the quality of the audio. Obviously, now that I’m thinking toward using these, I’m doing a better job recording. Some of them are recorded on the fly or not thinking about future use. Obviously, better quality is better, but in the case of Joe, we just like the original.
Loya: It’s almost incidental because you can read the interview [Lambert’s original interview with Loya for her Crime book can be read here]. But you can hear the energy in my voice, which is more important, and then once you’ve read it, it might not have the impact it was supposed to have. But as long as you can hear the energy of what I was saying, I thought that was most important.
I told that story almost 10 years ago or more, I don’t remember exactly when, and I tell the stories differently now with even much more humor to them because I’m so far removed from them. So we could get a whole new sit-down for the next go-around if you wanted to.
Lambert: We could, but there’s something that I like about that telling of the story, that it had been told less back then. I have to add that hearing the way that Joe told the story while I was watching the short was something that I don’t think I had heard in my years of knowing him. The quality of his voice was really compelling and I think it did add to the depiction of it overall. I didn’t hear the Joe I know now; I heard a Joe closer to the crime.
I think all people, whatever story it is, even if it’s just “the Christmas when Dad knocked over the Christmas tree”, start noticing over the years unconsciously where they’re getting a reaction and they tell their story differently. I know that I do it with stories that I tell over and over. They become more and more like storytelling. And I think there’s something that is nice about hearing a less rehearsed story.
Filmmaker: Sam, was this the first time that you had used both a sound recording and also the depiction of that interview in Alix’s book as your inspiration and also as an animation guide?
Chou: Yeah. Whenever we get audio, we actually animate to existing audio; that’s what animation is in my head. It’s a lot of aspects — you have the audio, you have the music, you have the visuals — and usually the animation cut is inspired by the audio, and usually the audio is inspired by a script. But in this case it’s not a script, it’s actually a real story. So I didn’t feel it was something brand new, but I felt the inspiration was brand new — it was a story I had never told before and that I’d been wanting to tell for a while. Ever since reading Joe’s story, images were popping into my head. And yes, the pictures did inspire a lot of the imagery and we actually took some of Joe’s photos when he was younger and tried to imagine him 20 years ago. I wish I would’ve put sunglasses on your face, Joe. That’s one thing I regret right now. But that’s what we tried to do — take Joe’s photos and re-imagine him in an animated world.
Filmmaker: Moving into territory that Joe has dealt with throughout his life; Alix, maybe you have, too, through reactions to your book. A topic that is almost compulsory every time something like this comes out is the marriage of art and criminality. What do you say to critics who ask why you couldn’t create art about something that isn’t violent or didn’t cause harm?
Lambert: That’s what my entire book is addressing, the intersection between art and crime, the complexities there, why that is something I think is valuable. So, I chose crime for a specific reason, but it’s complex—I wrote a 500-page book on it! (Laughs) I think the world of criminality, which includes not just criminals but victims and police officers and lawyers and an entire world up to those people who are on the fringes like Joe Becerra, reflects who we are in a 9-to-5 way and in a dramatic way that people will listen to more. And I think that if you can present that in a way where people will maybe think about it in a little more contemplative, less sensational way and ask, “What can we do? How can this be? This is a systemic thing; we are all part of this. This is not a ‘let’s go see how cool the bank robber is.’” I understand that there’s a coolness to Joe, but I also think that he speaks very well about the complicated layers of what that is.
Loya: And I’m going to say something complicated about what that is right now. I think that question is meant by critics to put folks on the defensive that should not be on the defensive. We should be on the offensive because the truth of the matter is that if you read the Bible or any moral book that states that morality and “good” is their province, trying to acculturate people to behave well, and you go to the first ten chapters of Genesis, you have Lot fleeing with his daughters and you have incest and patricide, you have fratricide, you have people having sex with beasts — you’ve got all sorts of crazy shit going on. You’ve got crime galore! And nobody says, “What the fuck, man? Can’t you tell moral stories that are good for people, that don’t have so much fucking crime in them?”
We don’t know morality unless we know crime. Transgression is the only way that we know how to share any stories about morality. So to frame the question — and here I’m talking to critics who would ask this question of us — back to them, I say, “What the fuck are you talking about? Everything that we know, everything I teach my daughter about what is good, will only make sense when I’m explaining to her what is bad. The only way we know good is to know bad!”
Lambert: It’s a question that isn’t very thought out by the person posing it.
Loya: Yeah. They’re super lazy in understanding anything about the complexities of how we understand right or wrong. And I say that to create art, to create anything, that deals with transgression, is already in the province of us better understanding how human beings can be better and how we struggle with whatever our lesser angels or our darknesses or our compulsions or whatever you want to call them are.
Lambert: When you see Columbine and Time and Newsweek magazine running covers that say “Monster” and “Evil” on them, that’s a way to wash our hands and dismiss any culpability in that crime.
Loya: Yes. It’s ridiculous.
Lambert: And I think when you do that, you are turning away from any kind of solution or resolution or positive impact. And that’s how I think crime gets treated in society: “Oh, that’s just a bad seed. That’s just a monster. That doesn’t have anything to do with me.” And that’s wrong. It has to do with all of us.
Loya: It has to do with all of us. That’s the one thing I learned when I wrote my book and was on a book tour. People come up to you all the time talking about how much they could relate to my transgression. Not because they ever actually did it, but because how many people wanted to fucking rob a bank! They were identifying with me; my story gave them an access point to understand a narrative that was not theirs because they were not criminals. In fact, what was most surprising was that 75-year-old women would come up to me and say that shit. It blew my mind!
So, what these stories do, what her book does, and what anyone who’s dealing with this is doing is to say that crime bumps up against us in a bunch of different ways. We house it in our own spirits all day long to various degrees. So let’s have a serious conversation about it, let’s look at all the ways in which people are implicate in it, and let’s make it a muddy place where we can rub, because that’s ultimately what crime is about. It’s muddy fucking business.
Lambert: And that’s where we’re going anyway, so let’s have a conversation about it.
Chou: I come from a different angle. I agree with Joe and Alix, but I’ve also been in animation for 15 years, so I’ve been doing very friendly stuff for the last 10 years of my life. And it wasn’t until Crime and the documentary I did recently about the Barefoot Bandit that this came up. To me, these are the most engaging stories that I’ve done in all my career. It’s these real stories of life… As I said, I directed Tony the Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop —
Lambert: Let’s be frank and unfettered: Tony the Tiger is a criminal. (Laughs)
Loya: He’s a straight-up thief!
Chou: My point is that these stories actually rang the most true out of all the stories I’ve done. I’m not going to name the features or the shorts I worked on, but I felt these ones the most.
Filmmaker: Who do you hope will see this series? Who’s the audience you’re trying to reach?
Lambert: Rich people who want to give away their money. (Laughs)
Filmmaker: One thing to think about is that animation brings in different audiences who didn’t want to or weren’t able to connect to the story before.
Lambert: Yes. I think there’s an audience for that. I know have friends who I respect and adore and are just like, “I can’t watch violent stuff; I can’t watch this.” And I think animation is a way to kind of engage an audience in a story that they might not otherwise be able to watch or think about.
Filmmaker: What else can you say about how this collaboration maybe turned over a new leaf for you or your art or for this particular story that you have been telling for so long?
Lambert: It’s a pleasure to work with Sam and Joe. I like to explore new ways to tell stories. I don’t have anything to add. (Laughs)
Chou: Me writing Alix and me writing Joe was something I don’t normally do and all this good came out of it. Alix is my friend and Joe is my friend now and we have something that’s bigger than ourselves now, something larger than us that’s going to live on beyond our lives. And I’m going to do that more often; I’m going to reach out to people I admire more often just for a chance meeting, because I think this turned out really well and I’m a big fan of Alix and Joe and I couldn’t be happier in all of this.
Loya: I’ve been telling my story for years — in op-eds, 750-word essays, magazine essays, a book, and a one-man show; I’m putting my character in some of my scripts, a play… I’ve been able to tell my story in a bunch of different formats and I had not yet seen this as a possibility.
I talk to a lot of people who want to reach out to kids to hear my story and I used to talk to youngsters, but I got tired of talking to them because they would ask me afterwards what kind of gun did I use and how much money did I make. At-risk kids were more interested in that part of my story. And it became exhausting to me; I was like, “Ay, you knuckleheads — I wanna talk to you guys who are tired of crime, not the ones who are just getting into it!”
But when I saw this, I thought, “You know what? This is a good story to show them because it does show the crime stuff, but then if it has the dramatization of what happens in prison, the trauma, the solitary confinement, the loneliness, and then the abuse leading up to it, the whole story could reach an audience that I don’t necessarily need to talk in front of, but that can see and be informed and inspired by how they could overcome stuff.
It allowed me to see another way to tell my story. I’ve already been big into collaboration the past couple of years, but this is another collaboration that I felt blessed to be part of. I love anything I can do with Alix; our friendship is wonderful and I’m glad that we’ve
added Sam to the friendship. And I think that there’s more to be done, together in this project but also in other stuff. So I’m looking
forward to the future. I know it’s a cheesy way to end it, but I had to say it.