Before her film debuted at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and before it was made available to millions of homes and devices last week via Netflix, director Kitty Green met with Sundance.org to discuss Casting JonBenet. It’s the second feature for the Australian born filmmaker, following Ukraine Is Not a Brothel, which tracked a group of topless feminist activists in Ukraine whose efforts at social change seemed undermined by the shadowy figures who had orchestrated and funded their rise. But it’s her 8-minute short, The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul (winner of the Short Film Jury Prize: Non-fiction at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival), which served as a take-notice precursor to the new project.
As with The Face of Ukraine, Green’s latest film uses a showbiz casting call as key conceit and organizing principle for an unconventional work of non-fiction, expanded here to include dozens of subjects auditioning to play various characters in the tragic events surrounding the 1996 murder of Colorado child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, with participants both offering personal anecdotes and opinions and performing in stylized re-enactments.
Over the course of a long and engaging meal in Manhattan, Green, who’s also currently an Art of Nonfiction fellow with the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, talked about what led her to this story, her formal approach and methodology, and how she managed to convert interviews with hundreds of performers into something so intimate, raw, and consistently surprising.
How did you come to make films, and documentaries in particular?
I’m Australian, and my parents are both artists, so I was raised around the arts. My mother teaches and my father writes these Marxist essays on dialectical materialism – all day every day, he’s always working on something. I was dragged to art exhibitions when I was really young. I had a video camera from when I was eight, and I made these videos with Barbie dolls and fishing wire, making them into puppets. Then my mother brought me a copy of Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and it was like, “Oh, what I make is cinema. This can be considered a film.” And that got me interested in film a lot more.
My mother makes feminist work about domesticity, with lots of portraits of nude women, and so I was exposed to that very young. I was making films about women and women’s bodies in film school, and then I found an article about a Ukrainian topless protest movement. My mother is Ukrainian, my grandmother is Ukrainian, so I had a connection to the country and culture, and since [Femen’s] style and the things they did were similar to the themes I was exploring with my films, I went over there and started working with them. And that’s how I fell into documentary. I went over there, loved them, and wanted to make a film with them. I never thought I’d be working in documentary. That just kind of happened.
What is it about that Ukraine Is Not a Brothel shoot that got you excited? Other than the people and their story, was it something about the process?
I am a little fussy and I like a lot of control, and documentary crews are smaller. So you can have a hand in everything, which I really like. Also, I was really timid coming straight out of film school. I was a young woman and I felt uncomfortable with larger crews. People generally don’t trust young women yet. We’re still unfamiliar with that idea of young women being in charge. Especially if they’re older. The grips and gaffers, they’re a bit confused by it.
And dealing with that misogyny can create an insecurity.
Definitely it’s an insecurity, or layers of my own insecurity. Where I’m like wow, what are they thinking of me? Do I know what I’m doing? I felt like I had to know 300% more than what the boys knew just to be taken as seriously as the boys. So I made an effort to know all of the tech stuff. I would study up on the sound and the lenses. And on that film I had a small crew and really loved it. But the success of that film—I mean it wasn’t that successful but it did quite well considering I made it for $15,000 dollars—was a confidence booster, allowing me to move onto this film, which had a large crew, allowing me to do the things I wanted to do technically. So I think that’s why I was more comfortable in documentary to start with, and why I’m now moving a bit more into fiction work.
It’s interesting that having more control was the thing that made you more comfortable with documentary, when if you think about it, documentary is about not having much control at all. Somebody else is defining the work by their behavior.
Which is probably why I’ve gotten into hybrid pieces. Because I can structure them, and I can frame them, and they’re set up. Every frame is set. There’s no observational piece. It’s all predetermined. So in that sense it’s still a documentary but I got the control back that I was missing when I moved into documentary, in that you’re off in the middle of nowhere and have to figure out how to make it beautiful. Whereas this one was scripted and structured, and the documentary elements are within those sets, in those settings.
What about retaining that core of documentary was essential for Casting JonBenet?
I love people and their stories. And I like honesty and truth and I like hearing what people have to say about any topic. I’m intrigued and want to give everyone the floor, want to give everyone a chance to speak.
But in terms of the fictional elements and your retaining a sense of control, you are getting these people to talk about their stories and lives in a very particular spot. Addressing a certain topic, in a certain space, being shot in a certain way.
In a certain costume.
In terms of human behavior, there must be something intriguing about that. Beyond the topic itself – getting people in a controlled space and having them try to be themselves, or to be honest.
It’s so clear to me how those pieces fit into the narrative. I knew what I needed from every scene. And I knew what I wanted to say. And I knew where I wanted to go with each character. So it was about testing the boundaries and seeing how far these people could take me on the journey of their own stories. Whether they would trust me with their own stories.
How did they come to trust you with their own stories? Because it’s such a heightened place to be, in an audition setting. Were they actually auditioning?
Yes, they’re auditioning – they’re auditioning to be in the fictional reenactment scenes, because we still needed to cast those. But they know what [movie] they’re in. They knew there would be more than one [per character], and they went into that knowingly.
There’s another layer of vulnerability there, in that there’s one thing to be interviewed for a documentary, and another to be interviewed for a documentary where you’re being theoretically scrutinized.
I had to explain it all to them, which was really difficult, because there’s no film like our film. I couldn’t point to another filmmaker and say, “Hey, watch this.” I made sure I sat them down before every interview and explained to them about the process and how I saw the film coming together so that they had a clear idea of what we were doing. And if they didn’t want to be involved they didn’t have to be. And I think that established trust straight away: This is what I’m doing; this is how it’s going to be done. It was an experiment, and I think they were happy to be a part of it. You know, jump down the rabbit hole with us.
As actors, they were so excited to have an hour to talk about their performance. You don’t get that kind of attention in a casting phase. One line and you’re out. Whereas here they really got to delve into the character, their thoughts on the character, where they were coming from. It’s often part of an actor’s process, working directly with past experiences, and we tapped into that. It was the kind of the conceit of the film – that people draw from their own experiences to act out a scene, to play a character. But any casting agent would tell you that’s not what a casting call is.
Let’s talk about where you shot it and where people were coming from, because that’s a really important part of the film.
Boulder is where JonBenet Ramsey is from but it’s a tiny city, so we did the surrounding areas as well. The biggest studio spaces are in Denver, so a lot of the film was shot there, which is about a 30-minute drive. But most of the people were from Boulder or the surrounding areas, and we were specifically looking for people that were related to the crime in some way.
We were interested in how people individually interpret the JonBenet Ramsey case, and in how events in their own life shaped their opinions of the case. So for us it was more important if they had an emotional connection to the case. Because at the end of the day, if they’re coming from a place that’s real and human and raw, their performance is going to be a great performance. We didn’t have to push them that hard to get them there.
The case serves as a Rorschach test for all of these people, and the film in turn serves as a Rorschach for the audience. What they think says as much about them, and what we think about them says as much about us, as the facts of the case itself.
There are so many different directions you can take it. I’m reluctant to talk about what this film is about because anything you say is slightly reductive. It’s kind of an intellectual exercise, but at the end of the day it’s the raw power of these people’s stories, their honesty and integrity, that gets the viewer through the film.
How many people did you interview, and how many wound up in the film?
Nearly 200, and there are 75 in the film.
That’s a lot of people to work with, hundreds of backstories and theories to entertain.
Yeah, but I could sit down with any of those people for hours. I’m really fascinated by anybody and everybody. So I would block off maybe an hour to an hour and a half for each person, and for a few of them we called them back for what became the end-third of the film, which takes place in something like an interrogation room. It was like a callback session for the people I felt wanted to go there, people who were the most emotionally invested in the case.
Yet you’re getting people who are clearly telling their stories, rather than being interrogated.
I think they were open and honest with me because the situation was such that it was a comfortable room and environment. We hid everybody else behind this wall so when they came into the room it was just me and a tiny camera. It wasn’t like this terrifying audition that they must get right. I didn’t have the interrotron or whatever Errol Morris’s system. I’ll get that for the next one. [Laughs.]
It’s different from other documentaries where you develop relationships with maybe a few people. Are you in touch with these 200 people still?
Oh yeah. And they all have my personal email address. Which is crazy, but it was important to me that we had a direct line of communication. If I was standoffish in any way I think they would smell that. I wanted them to feel that it was an ensemble production and that we were all in it together. Because they really make the film – it’s their film. The film doesn’t feel very personal to me. It feels like a collection of people’s thoughts, which is a lovely thing.
You really don’t feel that it’s a personal film?
It is personal, but I have this distance to it, to this American story. I was obsessed with the case when I kid. When I was 12, I think she was 6, which is when she died. Whatever American television we got, she would be on. Then I was skiing in Japan when I was 20, and the guy on the ski lift says, “I’m from Boulder, Colorado.” And I was like, “Oh, JonBenet Ramsey!” And he was like, “That’s the only thing you know about Boulder, Colorado?”
So he was telling me about the Rocky Mountains and everything else, yet I was still like, “But who killed JonBenet Ramsey?” He had this theory about a drug ring going around in Boulder, and I was like, “Wow, everyone who lives in that town must have a theory about what happened to that kid.” The gossip stuff is often more interesting than what actually happened.
My mom had this theory that a guy who ran the pizza shop down the road from my own house had killed someone in the early ‘80s. And so whenever we were at the pizza shop she’d look at him funny. He had no idea that we thought that. I always loved that dynamic.
So you weren’t hell-bent on getting to the bottom of this case.
That’s really not my interest. I mean, if you’re somebody who’s interested in that, there are a million other documentaries about JonBenet Ramsey you can watch. Go crazy. But that’s not what we were trying to do.
So where does this lead? Is this a singular work, is it the beginning of a methodology for you?
The idea of going into a straight fiction or a straight doc to me… both seem a little boring to me by comparison. We were working on so many different levels, so part of me feels like I can’t go into documentary and I can’t go into fiction. I almost have to stay in this space, where I’m dealing with both. But I also don’t want to make the movie over and over again. So it’s about finding another way through, finding another way to construct a film.
This is a conceptual film, but it’s also a very emotional film. I would imagine it’s not easy to find a conceptual approach that can also lead to this emotionally rich place. And if you’re not looking to work within a genre framework, it can be hard to find the right alchemy. Do you have a moral or thematic preoccupation that’s pushing you forward?
A lot of my films are about women in pain. I think that’s generally where I’m at. Especially regarding the representation of women in the media and how they are perceived. That fits into everything I’ve made. And I think probably on some level they are all about rape. And the sexualization of women. I guess that goes through everything I do. I started by making stylistic experimental films about women, then built sets and did a similar thing in film school.
And then I moved into documentary and didn’t have as much freedom, but I liked the emotional truth of it. So JonBenet is probably a combination of those two things. With the next one I will probably push the fictional elements even further, to expand the documentary form, to take more risks, and to have more fun. And I want to explore issues that matter to me. I have brought an agenda into this.
You think of it as an agenda?
A little bit. I like to bury it in there. With a lot of documentaries it’s written all over the walls. It’s very obvious. I’m trying to bury it a bit, and put it in a prettier package. You’re actually getting the same kind of messages, but it’s in a better wrapper.
It doesn’t even feel like you’re hiding an agenda in this story – it feels native to these people’s faces and bodies.
Well that’s the idea. We don’t want to spoon-feed your medicine. We want you to not even understand you’re taking it.
The fact that there’s one voice in the film that we really don’t hear from is very telling.
The six year-old girl? She sort of floats above it. We use her sparingly, because when she shows up she has a lot of power. It’s just so loaded. So many people project so much onto this tiny child.