How did the project come about, first of all?
It didn't have any sort of point of departure or any event or so. In a way it was a subject [that was] dormant in me for a long time and almost forgotten but somehow there. And out of the blue I knew I had to do this. But there was no particular case that intrigued me to go into it. It's very hard to explain how it happens – films always come at me like uninvited guests or like the burglars in the middle of the night. All of a sudden they are there and you haven't even invited them.
Why this film now, in that case? Was there something that sparked it into life?
Well, I was fascinated by the senselessness of the crime, that it's really hard for me to comprehend. If you had a bank robbery that goes awry then you still would understand it with our horizon of experience, but in this case it's kind of incomprehensible. So there's something frightening and it's not so unique because you see these things happening in civilisations like in the United States or in West Europe or in Japan or whatever. If you go, for example, to Ethiopia, the crimes would be of a different nature, I guess, so it has to do with our kind of civilisation.
"Films always come at me like uninvited guests or like the burglars in the middle of the night"
Why did you decide to make the point at the beginning of the film that you're against capital punishment?
Well, because I am against capital punishment! However, the film is not an issue film, it's not an activist film – that's the last thing I would like to do, to – and you have to understand, I'm not an American citizen, I'm only a guest in the country. And in the four films that I made on Death Row inmates, which are showing on television on Channel Four, I say it very clearly in the opening, that I respectfully disagree with the practice of capital punishment. And of course I am – there's not even an argument that I have, but it's the past of Germany, with the barbarism of the Nazi time with excessive amounts of capital punishment, euthanasia parallel to it and then a genocide of six million, so end of story.
There's nobody among my peers in Germany who would be an advocate of capital punishment - it's unthinkable. At the same time, I would be the last one, coming with that background, to tell the Americans how to handle their criminal justice. Or would I go to Pakistan to tell them how to deal with it, or China or Nigeria or Indonesia, I think has it. And India still has it. All the very, very populous nations in the world have it. Russia actually abandoned it last year, which is one of the very fine achievements of Vladimir Putin, who is completely underrated, in my opinion (laughs), whatever [others may think of him]...
The subtitle of the film is A TALE Of Death, A TALE Of Life and it talks about the lives of the people who are left in the mess that surrounds the horrific crime at the centre of the film. How do you feel about the other interviewees, who are left with the feelings and emotions and have to go on?
It's not just who have to go on, for example the young woman who married Burkett, one of the perpetrators. And it's very mysterious, because there seems to be an urgency of life, which is now a chapter in the film. And it was never really planned – only when I saw my footage, during editing, it emerged from the footage there was something, it was not just about capital punishment and retribution for senseless murders, which is death, death, death. All of a sudden something mysterious emerges, the urgency of life. And life is so urgent that a woman who marries the murderer and during the ceremony of marriage they have a bullet-proof wall of glass between them and they only have a telephone receiver and see each other through the glass and they marry. Now that they are legally married they are allowed to sit at the same table and they can touch hands. But of course there is a guard sitting right with them at the same table.
Did you feel she was a bit crazy?
Very hard to understand for me, but again, the urgency of life, now, what happens? There's something mysterious about it, about this urgency of life. She's only allowed to touch his hand, so how does she become pregnant? There's a mystery. And yet a child was born. Actually, during the time of filming, she was pregnant. Just when I was in editing she gave birth to a boy.
And the cycle continues?
Not necessarily. I wouldn't be so fatalistic. I think Melissa Burkett is kind of strange and hard to comprehend but at the same time solidly with her feet on the ground and she had an upbringing with a Mormon family, a very closely-knit family, family values quite strong and visible in every day life. I don't think the cycle is going to continue with this child. Hopefully. And it doesn't look like it. You see if she were on drugs and she had no job and if she were “white trash”, then I would question it and I would say, “For God's sake, it may be the next generation of somebody who will lead a catastrophic life”. So we don't know, but I think the boy is going to thrive.
"All of a sudden something mysterious emerges from the footage - the urgency of life"
Did you intend to make part of the film devoted to the town? Because I love the way it's edited, I love the way it segues into stories like the guy who got stabbed in the ribs and went back to work.
A screwdriver fifteen inches long through his entire chest! (laughs)
Did you intend to tell those stories as well?
Yes, I wanted to understand the environment, I wanted to understand something about Texas - which in principle, I like – I'm not into Texas bashing. And this young man is totally heroic. You hear how his friend throws a knife at his feet, the most legitimate case of self-defence and he doesn't pick up the knife. And also what I find very heroic is how he learns to read and write in prison as a grown-up young man. It's a phenomenal achievement. And I really like the young man, I mean, you can tell how I connect to him and how he shows his tattoo, 'Bailey' his girlfriend, he has a child with her and just, really – he has a lot of humour by the way, as well. The environment and the dark side of Conroe, Texas, which is north of Houston, was very fascinating for me.
You mentioned Death Row starting on Channel 4 [a series of 4 films, interviewing four separate death row prisoners]. Can you talk about how that came about in conjunction with Into The Abyss?
Originally I planned to do Into The Abyss but there would be a variety of death row inmates all in one film and it immediately became complicated and the case of Perry and Burkett immediately emerged without much planning as something so powerful and so intense that it had to stay a separate, unique story, a big tapestry of a Gothic America (laughs) The big Gothic Americana! And since I had contact with other death row inmates, I immediately decided, 'No, they should be shorter films', very precise portraits of these inmates and there should be much shorter films. Of course, here in the United Kingdom, they are 47 minutes long. And I made four.
So in terms of sequence order then, had you already filmed Into The Abyss and then moved onto the others?
It came - it overlapped and it also overlapped with my editing of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. And it overlapped with other events, I was acting in a film, playing a villain and I ran my own rogue film school and I started a big installation for the Biennale, for the Whitney Museum, which is called Hearsay of the Soul. So there were quite a few things overlapping but for me it was very easy to keep things separate, for me it was always clear [that] Into The Abyss is such a huge story that it should be just one film, there was not even an attempt to mix other things in it.
Why do you think film is such a good platform to explore this subject?
Because cinema or film has a strange quality – it allows us to look deep into the heart of men. And when I say men, I mean of course also women. It has a strange quality of illuminating something that's deep inside of us. And I'm not only speaking of documentaries, it's the same procedure with feature films, same thing. So why it is like that, I don't know, I can only say yes, it allows us looking [meaning “to look”, I think] into the abyss.
"Cinema has a strange quality of illuminating something that's deep inside of us"
You say that this film isn't intended to sway people one way or the other about capital punishment...
I think it's subversive enough to...
I was going to ask, do you think it's possible to change people's minds [with a film like this]?
It's probably possible only to change basic perspectives. Films otherwise are pretty powerless, we shouldn't overrate – you see, capital punishment has to be dealt [with] in different platforms. Microphones are the right tool, I guess. Speakers, Parliamentarians, rallies of many, many people, so that’s going to bring some change, and of course my attitude towards capital punishment is clear, I make it clear in the film without making a big fuss about it and I do believe there’s something very clearly subversive about it – a state, under no circumstances, should be in a capacity to kill anyone off with no reason whatsoever – the only exception would be warfare, but there are pacifists who would even exclude warfare from the possibilities of the state. There shouldn’t be euthanasia, there shouldn’t be genocide, there shouldn’t be capital punishment, and women shouldn’t be order to have abortions, for example. A state must not be in a capacity to kill anyone, period.
Linking back to Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, you said you were editing that while filming this, is there a similarity between the two films in terms of looking into the soul of humanity – was that a conscious choice?
No, no, certainly not. It dawned on me later on that Into The Abyss could have been the title of many of my films. I had a controversy about the title, there were voices who wanted to have the title – The Red Camaro [laughs] and I said, “No, we are not advertising a car, what does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not evocative at all. This is not going to be the title, I reserve the natural right to give it the appropriate title.” And all of a sudden, it dawned on me that it should be Into The Abyss, which has been accepted by everyone now. At least a dozen of my films could have been called Into The Abyss.
"A state must not be in a capacity to kill anyone, period"
There is also the subtitle – A Tale of Death, A TALE OF LIFE
Yes, it’s almost biblical! It came in as a reflection of what I found in the footage – it’s not simply a tale of death, it’s very much a tale of life as well. It’s a discovery; the footage came forcefully at me, and at my editor. We realised it was about life and the urgency of life; we had to deal with it because it was in the footage - it was never planned, you see sometimes, mysteriously footage of a film has qualities in it that you slowly uncover.
You say upfront in the beginning of the film that you’re not pleading for their particular cases, but was there a sense that they thought it could be a possibility - that something they said on film would be heard by people involved in their case? Had they seen The Thin Blue Line for example?
The Thin Blue Line was an issue film, where the only purpose was to get this man off death row because he was apparently innocent – very legitimate, and a very fine film, I really like Errol Morris’ film, but that is a very different movie. In my case there was no reason to try to exonerate anyone, the film doesn’t make any deal about guilt or innocence and in writing I told everyone that this film will not serve as a platform to prove innocence, for that they had very good lawyers, and other ways to do it - support groups, the innocence project.
Perry, eight days before execution, still had hopes that there would be last moment clemency by the governor, and Perry, at that time, still had an ongoing appeal. I did not want to insist on the amount of guilt - there are two confessions by Perry, one actually taped, so detailed that only the perpetrator could have had that knowledge. Besides when the two young teenagers were subsequently murdered after the mother was murdered, there was a young woman present that witnessed it, and on, and on… so I didn’t want to make them look too bad ahead of facing the appeal panel.
I was more curious as to whether, though you stated that it wasn’t that sort of film, whether they would try to influence the film in what they said?
I allowed both of them to proclaim their innocence and they did, they both claim the other one to be the responsible one, and claim they had nothing to do with it. I allowed both of them, whether it’s credible or not is up to you, but I give them this voice, without making it the central point of the film.
What did you want the audience to get out of the film when you made it?
I can’t really tell because I’m not making films to find a specific reaction. I’m a storyteller, it’s a very disturbing, very disquieting story, it has deep insight into our darkest nature. At the same time, elevate crime TV to a completely different level, which I thought, in the United States should be necessary –crime TV is hugely popular among audiences and much of it is very, very cheap tabloid stuff. I don’t have a programme that I want to implant into an audience.
"It’s a very disturbing, very disquieting story, it has deep insight into our darkest nature"
Why did you make the film, then, if you didn’t have an audience as a motivation?
I knew that this would find audiences, of course I knew, I make films for audiences, as I said - giving you insight into something that we don’t normally see – with great storytelling and a great cast of characters, it’s a movie – I’m a movie maker.
Did you have any affection or compassion towards Perry?
No, as I said to him, two minutes into our conversation, “You had a difficult childhood, it doesn’t exonerate you and it does not mean that I have to like you.”
But you respect him as a human being?
Yes, of course, I tell him, “I respect you as a human being” and they all knew that. And I told them, “Everybody describes you as monsters, you are not monsters, the crimes are monstrous, the perpetrators are always human beings and they remain human beings, a human being shouldn’t be executed, period.” I mean Perry, looks like a lost kid…
Yes, I thought he looked like a 12 year-old…
In a way, yes, it’s totally astonishing - at times he could be in the same company as the actor from East of Eden…James Dean – a good-looking, lost kid, and yet I’ve seen many dangerous people in my life, I mean in real life, and I’ve been in very dangerous situations, but according to my instincts, this young man was the most dangerous I’ve ever seen. It seems to contradict a good-looking, lost kid.
What did you see that made you feel that?
Well if you’re planning with your buddy, to steal a car from a lady, and their plan was to stay overnight with her son and steal the keys at night - no plan beyond that – other than vaguely that they may go to California with the car. They see that this lady is at home alone, baking cookies, and Perry comes up with the idea that it would be so much easier to kill her and then take off with the car –this kind of spontaneous, senseless violence is something that’s so scary about him.
I must say, I have no real clear argument but knowing the case file in detail – 1,500 pages, crime scene photos and videos, and having read the transcripts of court procedures – which is another 1,000 pages – it gets scarier and scarier…and the film covers only a small amount of that.
Being so close and knowing so much about the case, was it difficult ensuring the film stayed on the fence?
Not really, no, in the film you have exactly 50 minutes - 60 if the guards are nice with you – so you have to function immediately, you have to immediately find the right voice, you have to perform, you have to deliver, there’s no thinking. For example, I had 25 minutes with the Chaplain and he came to the set, tapping at his wristwatch going, “Quick, quick, I have to be in the death chamber in 30 minutes!” And he speaks like a superficial, phony TV preacher about the beauty of creation at the golf course, and sometimes how a squirrel or a deer looks at him, and a merciful God, and all of sudden I stop him and ask him, “Tell me about an encounter with a squirrel” and all of a sudden he comes apart, and you look deep into the heart of that man. There’s something where you have very limited time and because of this pressure – this one opportunity to do it for the film. There’s hardly any footage left, everything that I filmed is basically in the film, you don’t make many plans, you see it when you watch the footage back and it all sinks in.
Almost letting the film make itself?
No, no, I’m too organised, and too conceptually clear about what I’m doing, but things take their own course and you have to be reactive enough to do that, and sometimes things came at the editor and me with such intensity that – I’ve said it before and you won’t be the last to hear this – we both started smoking again!
INTO THE ABYSS: A TALE OF DEATH, A TALE OF LIFE
IS RELEASED 30TH MARCH IN CINEMAS & ON DEMAND
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Interview: Emma Hurwitz
Images: Revolver Group