Interview: John Kastner, dir. LIFE WITH MURDER

– John Kastner joined me for a great conversation after introducing his staggering documentary LIFE WITH MURDER for the last time at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. We discussed at great length his thematic interests, the evolution of documentary, and the complex human conflicts at the heart of his film.

GLENN HEATH JR.: I wanted to begin talking about how you got into making documentaries and what specifically drew you to making non-fiction films.

JOHN KASTNER: I was a professional actor from the time I was 8 years old and that’s all I ever wanted to be. I wanted to be Sir. Laurence Olivier. I was doing a lot of acting and when I was 18, I got a call asking if I would be interested in substituting in an associate producer’s job in television for Screen Gems. I did this for three months as a lark and the guy I worked with was a very big American producer who decided I was a producer/director and not an actor. I wasn’t that interested but I drifted into it. I did every kind of television – quiz shows, children’s shows, comedies. I was in front of the camera, hosting, acting, and directing, writing. Then the best thing of all I got hired by the Current Affairs department of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation doing documentaries and discovered the drama of the real life was in many ways was even better than the drama I had spent my life doing as an actor.

GHJ: How did you first get involved with LIFE WITH MURDER and your subjects, The Jenkins Family? What dramatic elements interested you as a filmmaker?

JK: I’ve done a lot of films about criminals over the past 25 years and I’m fascinated with the personal relationships of criminals, with their families, girlfriends, and so on. I made a film in the mid 1980’s called THE LIFER AND THR LADY, one called PRISON MOTHER, PRISON DAUGHTER, and one called ROMANCE WITH THE RAPIST. I was in the middle of making a film at the same prison that LIFE WAS MURDER was set, in the same unit, with the same prison guard. That one was called MONSTER IN THE FAMILY and it was the opposite of LIFE WITH MURDER. It’s about a guy who gets no support from his family and his mother leads a national campaign against him. While I was making this film, Mason Jenkins was in the same unit and appeared in a little cameo role. I got to know him but wasn’t interested in his story because at that time his case was under appeal and you couldn’t discuss it anyways. But I got to know him and his parents, and then I heard rumblings through the grape vine that Mason was telling people he knew more about what had happened the night his sister was murdered. So I began talking with him in early 2008, and I said to him, listen why don’t we do a film about this. I had known him and the family since 2005 so all the relationships had been set up. It was one of those remarkable things where we rolled from one story on to the next.

GHJ: How did your relationships with Bill (Jenkins), Leslie, and Mason develop over the course of the production?

JK: Well, in a film like this the relationships are everything. The interviews are the most important thing. And you hope for “actuality”, you hope you’re around when something spontaneous happens. But the backbone for me is getting great interview material, and by that I mean you re-interview the subjects many times and get past their walls, so that they can eventually open up and discuss things with you they wouldn’t with anybody else. And this takes a lot of time.  On one weekend I would visit the family in Chatham and on the next I would visit Mason at the prison, and I did this for over a year. Initially the parents said yes, yes we’ll cooperate but really they were saying almost nothing. I quickly discovered they were living in a sort of cocoon. None of them had discussed the crime with anybody else, in 12 years, not since the murder (in 1998). They had not discussed with Mason if he had really done it, if he had really murdered his sister Jennifer. Nor had they discussed the details of the night in question. They accepted the fact that he said he was innocent and was going to appeal his conviction and when I came in to the story nobody really wanted tot talk about any of it. I came into their lives at the right time. After ten years of living with this doubt. So it took a long time to develop this connection and convince them this story was an important one to tell.

GHJ: Many documentaries tend to simplify information as the story progresses, to convey a clear ideology for the audience. Your film does the opposite. It starts a crime story, exploring the crime and the ramifications on the parents, and then it evolves in something far more complex. Could you discuss the process you took toward structuring the story?

JK: Yes, the film resembles a fiction film. It’s what’s called a narrative-style documentary. It has a protagonist facing a conflict – the parents deciding what to do. Do we break ties with our son or do we stick with him? And it follows a dramatic arc, builds to a climax, and at the end of the film there’s been a change in all of the characters. This comes out of my background in drama. I look at the world this way, everything as a drama, only a real life drama. It’s structured very much like a thriller. You withhold certain pieces of information and then you spring them on the audience at a certain point and it comes as a shock to the audience. Also, much of the information came to us during the production, so how we came upon them mirrors this sort of “murder mystery” structure. The film evolved as it went a long, almost like a detective’s investigation.  You start off thinking about the character’s one way, and as the story unfolds you begin to change your whole idea about them.

GHJ: During some key moments in the film you construct these eerie long takes that are very cinematic. They act as transitional moments in the film. What was your aesthetic reasoning behind these shots?

JK: It’s a cinematic aesthetic decision we made. Actually the shot you’re speaking of was the most expensive shot in the film. The challenge was that the Jenkins’ house was very ordinary looking suburban house, and we’re trying to give a little bit more drama to the night of the murder. And it creates this menace, this uncertainty. This shot starts at the exterior of the top of a tree and the camera slowly comes down creeping into the window, and what you’re hearing under than is the 911 call from Bill.  We had access to any number of crime scene photos, but to me that would have been cheap and sensationalistic. This was a subtler way to get this feeling across. Your imagination fills in the blanks. It was a cinematic experiment that worked quite well.

GHJ: LIFE WITH MURDER isn’t so much about solving the crime, but revealing the layers of the characters involved, the motivation beneath the surface. How did this thematic element play a role throughout the production?

JK: I’m an old actor, and I’m interested in character psychology and emotion. I’m also a journalist, so the facts are important to me as well. But in a story like this the facts are secondary. The movie has a pace and energy and it stems from the characters in the movie. It is a character-driven film, and there are certain revelations that happen in the course of the narrative and how do they impact on Brian and Leslie. They are learning the details of the murder for the first time, and it becomes an amazing character study of these two people. The story is inherently dramatic and then becomes multilayered tale of these two people faced with decisions regarding their life together and Mason, their son.

GHJ: Documentary films have had resurgence in popularity in the last decade for many reasons, most notably the extreme stylization of the genre. LIFE WITH MURDER is so different from those types of films. The power in your film comes from this devastating silence within the interviews and conversations, the gaps in between the facts of the story. Why is this restrained approach important to you as a filmmaker?

JK: It was a necessary part of the process, because the film was so inherently powerful. We had to build in breathing spaces for the viewer. You couldn’t barrel from one incredible revelation to the next without some space in between. We tried to build in breaks, partly accomplished by music, and shots of the Chatham, and scenes in the prison. These are spaces for the viewer to catch their breath.

GHJ: There’s a flipside to that as well. These moments also allow the viewer to reflect on what they’ve just seen. It’s a break in a narrative sense, but it almost makes things more chilling, because you’re left with the silence.

JK: That’s very interesting. I call those breaks “sinking in” time. You need time to absorb something incredibly powerful, especially in a film like LIFE WITH MURDER. You can’t be rushed in to new developments without thinking about it first.

– I’d like the thank Mr. Kastner for taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down and discuss his film at length.

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