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May 2, 2010

Joshua Zeman on process, guilt and the creation of legend.

by Annabelle Butterworth

One half of the directorial duo responsible for the fantastically creepy documentary Cropsey, gives us an insight into the film making process…

1. Did you have an aim, or a specific point of view you wanted to get across when you decided to make Cropsey? If so, did this change at all when you began filming?

We had always wanted to tell the story of these events that affected us growing up on Staten Island as residents of a community…the facts behind jennifer’s disappearance, and then the discovery that other kids that had gone missing before her, and of course Rand’s connection. A very cut and dry, but engaging whodunit about our hometown. However, it was also important for us to tell this story in the context of the fiction that pervaded these cases, the local legends, the folklore, the whispered rumors that taint any crime – because this is where we connected with the story emotionally. We wanted to frame these crimes in the context of a ghost story because that’s how we rationalized them as children growing up. On top of that, I think we wanted to show how the two, the fact and the fiction, overlap in any crime, especially in a small town like Staten Island. As we were editing, we slowly began to pull out the fiction, but by the end of the film, we threw caution to the wind and decided to put it back in. The response has been interesting from both sides. Some people think it really adds a creepiness, and other people think it takes away from the crime story. Personally I love it. Its like the opening scene in Blue Velvet….Who knows what evil lurks beneath the surface of suburbia.

2. When you began your investigations did you believe Andre Rand to be guilty of the crimes he was accused of? How did you feel at the end of filming?

Its interesting. Barbara and I had different opinions about Rand, whether he was guilty or not. During the course of the filming, we both changed our opinions. I think that helped us remain neutral, or at least consistent in our portrayal of Rand.

3. You were exchanging letters with Rand during filming, was there any further correspondence between you after the last rather frightening letter we see towards the end of the film?

Yes, in fact there have been quite a few correspondences with him after the case. In one letter he was quite angry that we had missed some important “facts” about the case. Once the film comes out theatrically, I hope the District Attorney and the Prison Warden allow us to show him the film. I’d like to get his opinion.

4. Have you had any feedback from residents of Staten Island? How do they feel about how the film turned out?

A good question. I think people really liked the film, and the portrayal of Staten Island – warts and all. There’s no doubt that we are a bit harsh about the Island, but I feel it’s justified, and more importantly we have license to do so – after all we spent 20 years of our lives, growing up there. It’s not easy to forget that you lived next to the largest garbage dump in the world at one time! As for the people portrayed in the film, I think dealing with these missing children was one of the most intense experiences of their lives, so I think they were happy to finally see someone telling their story.

5. The most unsettling thing about the film to me was the footage from the children’s psychiatric unit as it brings to light all that we, as a society, try to cover up- anything that is not beautiful or ‘normal’, and it seems as though Rand’s experience with this under-belly has been a large factor in shaping him into the person he is. What would you like, if anything, viewers to take away from experiencing this reality?

That footage is by far one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. And it was proof, at that time, that as New Yorkers, we failed in adequately caring for the mentally ill. We knew better, but it was easier and better for the community as a whole, if we dumped these people in Staten island, and threw away the key. Yet, we reap what we sew, and it seems to me that Rand, if you presume he was guilty, was the physical embodiment of fate coming back to take our children. Unfortunately, Staten Islanders  had to endure the tragedy of those decisions made by politicians generations before them.  I’m really fascinated by urban politics, and it makes total sense in the context of history that, as a major and overcrowded urban centre, you ship your mentally ill to the “country” – Staten Island was the country at one point. The Island also had one of the largest sanitariums in the world and where they cured Tuberculosis. Before that, one half of the island was a walled quarantine for immigrants coming over from Europe before Ellis Island. And as mentioned previously, it was one of the largest dumps on the world. Now one might say its overkill for one place to become such a ground zero for dumping, but that’s the past. The problem I have is when politicians try to gloss over the past with asphalt and strip malls as they have done today. You have to adequately recognize the past before you can move on, or the mistakes will only be repeated. Its like Poltergeist, where the developers removed the headstones, but never removed the bodies.

6. Do you think your film will add to the legend of Cropsey or diminish it’s impact?

Haha. We went back on Halloween night to one of the abandoned buildings just for kicks, and met some kids who told us a new urban legend – one that involved a documentary called CROPSEY, and all this “stuff” that went on in these buildings that they never knew about. One of their friends had gotten a “bootleg” copy of the film and so although they hadn’t seen the film, they had come here to check it out – to legend trip.

That’s happened to us quite a bit. It’s the same urban legend, all we did was add another chapter to make it more contemporary, more believable. Or maybe all we did was make the monster seem more real.

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