Making Issue Films Doesn’t Have to Feel Dirty: Nick Berardini on Making Killing Them Safely
The term “issue” in the context of filmmaking can cause a lot of consternation for aspiring filmmakers. It can feel dirty just saying it out loud. When I first began making my debut feature, Killing Them Safely, I was at times apologetic for the subject matter. Early on, one of my producers would get in the habit of telling others it was “a film about TASERs,” and I would cringe. “It’s not a film about TASERs,” I often corrected him, “It’s a film about TASER International. There’s a big difference.” At times I felt like I was being a bit hyper-vigilant, but that clarification felt essential to me. I knew that if I could steer the conversation toward the men at the company, and not the product they were selling, I could avoid getting into the derivative discussions that accompany a lot of issue-driven films.
Very clearly, Killing Them Safely (formerly Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle) is of social relevance and done in the public interest. I would even say that it’s an important film (even though I’m careful about saying that), one that you should see, one that quite literally has life and death stakes. Issue-driven filmmaking can be an important part of adding evidence to some of society’s most important discussions. And, these days, the “socio-political” documentary can unfortunately be accompanied by the baggage of previously successful films in the same genre. If it walks like an issue film and talks like an issue film, it’s an issue film. I’m not saying something new, but I’m saying it anyway: the commercial success of many of these films have long driven filmmakers, distributors, and audiences to craft and discuss them in the structure of documents. Ultimately, as filmmakers, we’re having to ask ourselves the existential question of “documentary journalism”: are we making a film or an argument?
Understanding the expectations of issue-filmmaking starts with the difficulty of getting any documentary funded. If you’re reading Filmmaker Magazine, I probably don’t need to tell you that getting your first feature financed is a fight to the death. Investing in an independent film is usually pretty stupid, and investing in a documentary directed by a rookie filmmaker is pretty much the height of stupidity. At the end of the day, we’re still making products, and the numbers show us that most of these products end up becoming a money-sucking abyss.
While grant funding is an essential part of the documentary space, it’s extremely competitive, so it’s hard to count on foundational support. Just like with investors, inexperienced filmmakers have difficulty getting grants because the organizations that support you want to be sure you won’t screw up and waste their money. A number of the grants set aside specifically for first-time filmmakers are rightfully geared toward women and minorities. It certainly was hard for me to make a film, but it was much easier to do as a white dude in his twenties, so, duh.
Crowdfunding sites were not an option for my film. I have my own reservations about using crowdfunding to finance a production, as there is a lot of abuse of people’s hard-earned cash that can ruin it for the genuine projects. More importantly, though, we would have had to promote the hell out of my vision for the film. If you’re going to make a documentary about a controversial corporation with a history of suing its critics, best not to poke it on the internet before you have the resources to defend a lawsuit. This is not a film about an industry; it’s a film about one company, and specifically three executives at that company, so in many ways, it’s personal. Therefore, secrecy was a big priority.
Eventually, I was one of the few fortunate filmmakers to get a fully financed budget, though it didn’t start that way. Producers Brock Williams, Jamie Gonçalves and I finished production in the fall of 2012 on just $20,000 we scratched together through family and friends. Jamie and Brock were also first time doc producers, but are extremely resourceful. They worked tirelessly to help shape the vision of the film, and make sure we could finish it, despite the fact that we were all very, very poor. I made $4,200 working odd jobs that entire year, so desperation doesn’t quite do our situation justice. However, we knew we had an asset that was potentially valuable. On paper, it was the perfect expose: company becomes wildly successful selling product, product kills people, company denies involvement, customer believes company, turns out company lied. We cut together a seven minute teaser that did a good job accentuating the commercial value, and it caught the attention of Oscar-winning producer Glen Zipper (Undefeated). By the summer of 2013, momentum was on our side. We had a deal in place with a production company who would not only fund our post-production budget and pay us to live, but access to a real producer who could help us navigate the tough distribution terrain.
Before fully realizing a structure that made sense for my film, I blew through the budget for two extremely talented editors. We kept trying to do the things that fit the paradigm of traditional issue filmmaking; highlight the victims, provide context to the information, build a case. It was maddening for me because I didn’t have the experience to see the obvious math problem in front of me. My editors and I were also trying to make a film that was genuine in understanding the point of view of the very thing we were critiquing. Issue films need a good villain to spark the outrage, and, as is most often the case in reality, good guys and bad guys are not so easily defined. The more that you try to understand the psychology of the behavior as opposed to simply analyzing the evidence, the more you humanize it. So, I took my most emotionally powerful victim, a woman I am still incredibly close to, and cut her out of most of the film. It was a radical decision at the time because it would force the audience to first engage with the seemingly unlikable characters at TASER International in an effort to understand them.
The idea was dangerous, and not immediately welcomed. Glen Zipper had worked his ass off to keep investors off my back and allow me the space I needed to find the film’s voice, but this seemed to cross the line. We got on the phone, and he said, “You took the one sympathetic character, and you essentially cut her out of the film.” From his perspective, I’m sure I had all the symptoms of an inexperienced filmmaker gone mad. For the first time, I could sense the panic, and our production deal was in jeopardy.
The story obviously has a happy ending. With a bit more massaging in the edit, Glen could see what I was working toward. Part of why I’m so fond of working with him as a collaborator is that he never used his authority to explicitly give orders. It will take a while to determine if the film is a commercial success, but choosing to prioritize the point of view of the antagonists was a big financial risk.
Here’s where we run into the catch-22 of a commercial, issue-driven documentary: the information is what creates a call to action, which in turn is what makes your film valuable. To inspire the audience, you must feed them a powerful emotion, usually anger, that stews when we watch sympathetic victims recount miscarriages of justice. By the end, the audience has an expectation that, as the filmmaker, you’ve become an expert, so you have to offer one or multiple different solutions to complete the lesson. Yet, cinema is not well suited for such discourse, because the audience is still finite. With the inherent competition for revenue that exists in the movie business, reliance on the urgency of information creates a dangerous need to escalate the filmmaker’s thesis in order to stand out from the crowd. When you have to prove that your information is not just important, but the most important, a filmmaker can unintentionally dehumanize his or her characters by only being interested in the evidence they can provide.
My final editor on the film was Robert Greene, and he has a really great take on some of the destructive tendencies of editing to the information. One of the first things he told me was, “Issue films are edited for the moment. They are edited out of fear of losing your audience, which inherently closes them off because you’re subjugating your film to the issue, and you don’t have the space to think and feel. But, understanding human behavior is a more important truth to explore than the information you might be able to find in a newspaper.”
I believe in terms of my film, he’s absolutely right. So much of the information in Killing Them Safely could already be found in some published form, be it newspaper articles or court filings. If this was a film about TASERs, and what we should do about them, it should have been made ten years ago when Alex Berenson for The New York Times and Robert Anglen for The Arizona Republic were hot on the company’s trail. The truth is, this is a film about how the victors write their version of history. Somewhat ironically, it is a film about our naive human desire to simplify the world in order to justify our point of view; how we are all guilty of projecting, and in many instances believing, only the best version of ourselves. I had nearly two years of editing with a conventional format, and in reality, that film was totally reductive and useless. It irresponsibly oversimplified the complicated nature of the human beings on all sides. By burying my thesis deep in the psychology of the characters, I feel I can push the viewers past the expectation that I would tell them how to feel, and drive them toward introspection.