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.
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