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Screen Edge 2014: close to home

Robert May found the subject matter for Kids for Cash on his doorstep when a local news story turned into a national news story, and then an international one. The subject material, of both the story and May’s film, is sensational.

Two juvenile court judges were accused of taking payments for incarcerating kids, the payments coming from the owners of the institutions to which those kids were sent. 3,000 kids and almost US$3 million were involved.

Before Kids for Cash Robert May had produced a number of features, both drama and documentary. The Station Agent brought Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) to the world’s attention.

Robert May

Kids for Cash director Robert May

May’s first documentary project was with this year’s Screen Edge keynote speaker Steve James. May was an Executive Producer on James’ Stevie, which won a Grand Jury Prize at IDFA. It won a Cinematography award at Sundance for Peter Gilbert, who also shot James’Hoop Dreams and more recently Annie Goldson’sBrother Number One. May and James subsequently produced Deborah Scranton’sThe War Tapes, a winner at Tribeca.

Kids for Cash was May’s first feature as a director.

In May’s experience, a producer of documentary was more involved in the creative process than a drama producer usually was. May never thought directing would be as different from producing as it turned out to be. The arguments with a director he used have as a producer he was now having with himself, and he thought at times he was going mad. “It was beyond overwhelming.”

In the same way, he did not anticipate that a two-year project would stretch out to five years, or that presenting the villains’ side of the story as well as the victims’ would create the difficulties with juxtaposition and balance that it did.

Originally May saw himself producing a film on the kids-for-cash scandal in his home town in Pennsylvania. But it was the Kartemquin people – Steve James, Errol Morris and Gordon Quinn – who persuaded him that because of the strength of his passion for the story, he should direct it. Quinn and James remained onboard throughout as consultants, mentors and note-givers.

Kids for Cash is a character-driven story. May likes to challenge the way audiences think about things. That led to his wanting to dig further into the story. The media had covered it really well, but only from one angle. He wanted to know the other side.

“I’m nosey. I’m really curious about people.” He wass especially fascinated by villains, he said, but in committing to making this film there was a significant risk factor. If the designated ‘villain’ refused to be interviewed for the film, then there would be no real story.

Both judges at the centre of the story agreed to be interviewed, on the condition that no-one (including their lawyers) were told. Sharing their stories was a cathartic experience for the judges, one of whom thanked May after every interview.

On the record
May reckoned he learned about interviewing from watching the directors on the films he produced, particularly Morris and James. On Kids for Cash, he carefully constructed an intimate environment so that he was the focus for his interview subjects.

Screens masked the rest of the crew. May had all his questions off by heart, so that there was no need to ever break eye contact. Whether interviewing an adult or child, he would start by asking about a person’s early life, taking as long and as many questions as necessary to get them as relaxed as possible, before bringing up the important questions. The aim was to make the interview as much like an ordinary conversation between two people as it could be. There were no pre-interviews; there was no discussion of the case during the setup; and there was no ‘trapping’ of anyone.

Moderator Leanne Pooley asked what he considered the most important aspect of the interview craft.

May responded, “Trust.”

He explained that no subject was ever going to spill their innermost stuff if they didn’t have faith and confidence in the interviewer.

The trust continued into post-production. May and his colleagues felt obliged to show the finished film to their subjects before release. They didn’t offer final cut, but were open to correcting errors.

One initially extremely reluctant subject said after filming was complete, after three and a half years and seven or eight interviews, “I feel so much better for doing this. Thank you for listening.”

Kids for Cash

Kids for Cash

The father of one of the victims shared that it was the first time he’d ever heard his daughter talk about her experiences; she herself said, “Participating in this film saved my life. I had seriously contemplated suicide.”

When asked if the experience of directing had changed the way he would produce, Robert reasserted the importance of passion for a project: a producer must share the vision of the director. “Producing as a job for hire really sucks.”

That said, he sounded a note of warning regarding “issue films”. Too often such films were merely singing to the choir; it was essential for activist film-makers to find ways to connect with audiences beyond the already converted.

Robert May believes in the good old three-act structure, having a beginning, middle and end, although – as the old saw goes – not necessarily in that order. With a doco one was rarely filmed the beginning as it happened, and was often filming in the middle with no idea how the story would end – or if there would even be a complete story.

On the money
In May’s experience, docos don’t generally make money. The Fog of War, the May-produced doco about Robert McNamara, did make money after it was sold to Sony, but that was an exception.

Leanne Pooley pointed out that her own Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls (NZ’s highest-grossing doco) made 250% of its budget at the box office. After exhibitors took their 50%, distributors their cut and the P&A expenses were paid, no-one at the back end made anything.

Nevertheless, neither Pooley nor May were up for a change of job. As May said, “When you get film-making under your skin, it’s a disease. You can’t get it out.”

* * *

Kids for Cash screens in the Wellington leg of the Documentary Edge Festival on Wednesday 11 June at 8.15pm and on Sunday 15 June at 3.45pm. The festival screens at The Roxy, Park Road, Miramar.

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