They Call Us Monsters is Ben Lear’s first film as director, but he’s not new to the business. Yes, Ben is the son of trailblazing TV producer-writer Norman Lear of All in the Family and Good Times fame (and you can read more about their relationship and how proud they are of each other in this lovely LA Times profile), but he’s also been an accomplished musician who studied music composition at NYU, where for his senior thesis he wrote and performed a folk-opera with a 20 piece orchestra and light show.
“Though his abilities as a filmmaker are entirely distinctive, Lear shares his father’s gift for bringing dimension and context to people widely deemed by society as monstrosities,” wrote Matt Fagerholm on RogerEbert.com.
So how’d Lear end up going to prison, as it were, to make They Call Us Monsters? The film goes behind the walls of the Compound, a high-security facility in Los Angeles for violent juvenile criminals, focusing on three young men incarcerated for violent crimes who get the opportunity to learn screenwriting from a filmmaker (Gabe Cowan). Ben sits on the advisory board of InsideOUT Writers and the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, teaching a weekly writing class within the Compound and mentoring former juvenile offenders upon reentry.
Lear talked to us about what brought him to this project, about going back and forth between loving the boys and then completely questioning that love, and about an acting class the boys took that is not in the film. They Call Us Monsters premieres on PBS Monday, May 22 at 10pm [check local listings].
Why did you make this film?
Four years ago I sat in on a writing class in a juvenile hall for kids being tried as adults. At the time, I had never met anyone incarcerated, in a gang, or facing a murder charge. These kids checked off all three. And yet, they were kind and inquisitive, thoughtful and articulate. It was impossible to reconcile their age and demeanor with their accused crimes. And I found that fascinating. I decided I wanted to share this experience with a wider audience, introduce people to this population that, otherwise, would remain hidden forever. And the timing felt right, considering this was the first time in twenty years we, as a society, have begun to reconsider whether or not a juvenile should be incarcerated for life with no chance to parole.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making They Call Us Monsters?
The biggest challenge in making this film took place in the editing room—weaving the many narratives of the film together while maintaining a balanced approach to our subjects. Juan, Jarad and Antonio are certainly kids, but they’ve also committed heinous crimes. If we strayed too far from the reality of those crimes, the film would lose its credibility.
The challenge was to craft an authentic journey for the audience—from loving these boys to learning about their crimes, being horrified and questioning that original love, to immediately being reminded what you loved about them in the first place and then reminded again why you questioned that love… That back and forth journey is the honest experience of getting to know these boys.
How did you gain the trust of those three boys at the center of They Call Us Monsters?
I was 24 when I started making this film, not much older than Juan, Jarad, and Antonio. We were all “coming of age” in our own ways (granted my stakes weren’t as high – I wasn’t facing life in prison). When we started spending time together, we connected over that for sure. We also had a similar sense of humor. We laughed a lot. I made sure never to bullshit them. I was always straight up about my intentions with the film, making sure they understood their role—as ambassadors for thousands of kids in their situation. From the beginning, they took a lot of pride in that responsibility. And I think it gave them the confidence to step up and really engage in the process.
Was there anything you wished you could’ve included in the film that didn’t make the cut?
The main thing would have been a scene getting to know the victim of Juan’s crime. Unfortunately, though, no one showed up in court to support him. I would go to Juan’s hearings and he—the perpetrator—would have family and advocates present supporting him but his victim—now deceased—had no one. It encapsulated the problem of the victim all too often missing from the conversation.
On a much, much lighter note, another scene I would have loved to include was the day Juan, Jarad, and Antonio took a Meisner-style acting class. They practiced “repetition” exercises with each other and the teacher, forcing them to talk about “what they see and what they feel.” At first, Jarad fully rejected the exercise. He couldn’t take it seriously and he refused to talk about his feelings. By the end, though, he was totally into it, going back and forth, connecting with Juan, Antonio, and the teacher. The scene showed Jarad’s entire journey in five minutes.
Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?
My favorite scene in the film is the swimming sequence. A swimming pool is a surreal thing in the context of a prison. It poses so many questions. Do they deserve to go swimming? What about their victims? But it’s also quite literally the last place they will get to act like kids (likely for the rest of their lives if they go to adult prison). I didn’t get that until I saw them swim. Immediately, they all turned into 8-year-olds, splashing each other, tossing each other around. The epitome of that innocence most never got to experience as children.
What’s a commonly asked question by audiences that you’d anticipate our audience will wonder as well?
This will make sense when you watch the film: yes, in California, you are allowed to interrogate a juvenile without a parent or lawyer present. And yes, you’re free to use any ruses and manipulative tactics you would on an adult.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
My greatest influences for this film were Hoop Dreams, Salesman, Rich Hill and The Act of Killing. Each film uses this partially-verite style where the filmmakers embrace their presence in the footage. They knew that presence would alter the reality of the situation and so they went with it. Telling stories that, in my opinion, were much richer as a result.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
I am writing my first feature film. It takes place in prison and focuses on the other end of the spectrum—aging and dying behind bars.
Do you have any updates on the main characters in your film you can share with our audience?
I will [just] say that they are all doing really well, considering the circumstances…
[Editor’s note: You can read updates from Juan and Jarad on our site as well.]