The Truth behind the Headlines

INTERVIEW. Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst explore our cultural fascination with true crime in a film about the notorious trial of Amanda Knox, who was initially found guilty of stabbing her roommate to death in 2007. "Amanda Knox" is backed by Danish producer Mette Heide, whose experience making films about sensitive stories made her the perfect match for the project, the American director duo says. Toronto Film Festival 2016

"Amanda Knox says in the film that she thinks people love monsters. That we want to know who the bad guys are, and that it's not us," says Rod Blackhurst, one of the two directors behind "Amanda Knox."

Why was so much of the coverage clouded by personal opinions and impressions, instead of focused on understanding the facts?

As the central character in what has been dubbed the "Trial of the Century," Knox would know better than anyone the effects of our fascination with true crime. Twice convicted and twice acquitted by Italian courts of the killing of her British roommate Meredith Kercher in 2007, Knox and her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito became the subject of global speculation, as non-stop media attention fed the public's fascination through every twist and turn of the nearly decade-long case.

In a world that remains strongly divided on the legal findings, Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn go beyond guilt or innocence to shed new light on the individuals who lived at the heart of the events and circumstances of the past nine years.

Getting to the Facts

The directors first met Knox in 2011 after she and Sollecito were acquitted in their first appeals trial.

"We had spent the last month of that trial in Perugia researching the story and the people involved, as well as considering our eventual narrative and thematic approaches to our documentary," Blackhurst says. "When Amanda returned home to Seattle, she decided that she wanted to focus on writing a book about her experiences, and it wasn't until the end of 2013 that Amanda said she was ready to tell her story in a feature-length documentary."

Different elements of the case drew the two directors as individuals to the story. For Blackhurst, it was the sense that we, as observers from afar, didn't have any of the objective facts and truths behind the sensational headlines.

"Why was so much of the coverage and attention on all the individuals involved clouded by personal opinions and impressions instead of focused on understanding the facts?" he asks.

For McGinn, it also started with his fascination with the sheer amount of attention, even mania, directed at the case and in particular at Knox.

"What was it about this story that could get so many people so passionate? At its heart, the basics form a terrible tragedy: a young woman loses her life far too early and three other young people [Knox, Sollecito and Rudy Guede, still in prison, ed.] are tried for murder. And yet, the trials had become entertainment. I thought there was a human narrative there that hadn't been explored in a documentary, and I thought it would be interesting to investigate this intersection between the international news phenomenon and the normal people whose lives had been upended," McGinn says.

Amanda Knox Photo: Rod Blackhurst

Access to Key People and New Material

The directors aren't the first to explore the murder of Meredith Kercher and the subsequent court case against Knox and Sollecito on screen. The trial inspired, for instance, the TV documentary "A Long Way from Home" as well as the television feature "Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy."

Still, their goal was to offer a fresh perspective by focusing their documentary entirely on first-person accounts told by the individuals at the heart of the story.

"We were fortunate enough to get them all on camera – the defendants Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, the main prosecutor Giuliano Mignini and finally Nick Pisa, a journalist for the Daily Mail who was one of the first reporters on the scene. There have been several other television documentaries made about these people, but they all took outside perspectives. We wanted to make a film that looked at the story from the inside out. We wanted to make a story about what it felt like for all of these individuals to be caught up in headlines that came to define their lives and hear from them directly, in their own words," Blackhurst says.

"We also got access to a lot of new material," McGinn adds. "Material like phone and prison recordings, home video footage that Knox shot of the victim Meredith Kercher and photos of Sollecito and Knox, taken during their week-long romance, that had never been seen before and that offer an illuminating perspective on what happened behind the scenes. In that sense, I hope people come away from the film having a better understanding of the case itself.

"Beyond that, I think the film takes a much deeper look at the reasons why we love true crime stories so much, at the way our media has, in response to our demands, commodified tragedy," McGinn says. "I hope that's something people will be thinking about as well."

The Allure of True Crime

Taking the subject further, McGinn reflects on why true crime stories, either on screen or in the media at large, are so fascinating for us to engage in:

"I like to call it the commodification of tragedy, our interest in these true crime stories," he says. "There's definitely an element of a fear we all have – that unspeakable acts of violence could be committed against us or our loved ones. That's a part of human nature.

"But there's also a huge societal and cultural shift that's driving our fascination with true crime. Social media has become more and more prevalent, and today it's much easier for the public to take a side in every debate. Previously, the stage was limited to commentators on TV or on radio. Now, everyone has a voice and they want to make sure we all know it! Also, everyone can play detective. It's a bizarre element of our new cultural landscape and one that I think has made true crime stories more and more popular."

"Stories like Amanda Knox's appeal to our base fears," Blackhurst adds. "But past that, we can see globally that people are interested in these stories because they engage with them based on how they feel. More often than not, the cases themselves, the media coverage, and the way people talk about them are seen as entertainment. Our hope is that our film can start a larger conversation about whether or not society and culture is more interested in entertainment than information and fact."

Amanda Knox Photo: Rod Blackhurst

A Steady Hand Throughout

"Amanda Knox" is produced by Danish producer Mette Heide. Heide and her company Plus Pictures were also on board McGinn's prize-winning film from 2012, "The Record Breaker," about the multi Guinness World Record holder Ashrita Furman.

"Beyond Brian's positive experience of working with Mette, we wanted to team up with a European producer because of the global nature of the story. The Danes, through the support of the Danish Film Institute, encourage and foster a creative environment that supports filmmakers as they begin to pursue new work. That, combined with Mette's experience making films about sensitive stories, made her the perfect producer for the project," Blackhurst says.

"Mette and I segued right from 'The Record Breaker' into 'Amanda Knox,'" McGinn says. "She is a steady hand and a very generous collaborator and we were lucky to have her guidance through such a long and intense filmmaking process."

"Now, with Netflix on board, it's extremely exciting to have a worldwide launch for a film about a story that has attracted such widespread international attention."


More about the film

"Amanda Knox" is produced by Mette Heide for Plus Pictures, known for such films as Leslee Udwin's Peabody-winning "India's Daughter," Lauren Greenfield's Sundance winner "The Queen of Versailles" and Brian McGinn's "The Record Breaker."

"Amanda Knox" is making its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival (8-18 September) in the TIFF Docs section and is scheduled for a subsequent Netflix release.