The success of any co-production lies in a shared vision. For "Real Justice,"
we had a good understanding with our partners from Britain's Lion Television
that we wanted to reveal the criminal justice system through a close-up look at
its daily workings. This approach would go far, we believed, in breaking
through the stereotypes created by tv's legal dramas or the media's coverage of
high-profile trials like O.J. Simpson's.|
It was unusual that our co-production was cemented even before we shot a frame
of footage. And the choice of Boston turned out to be lucky for it allowed
Lion TV producer Ben Gale to set up shop in the Boston offices of Ben
Loeterman Productions, Inc. (BLPI), allowing the two Bens to consult and screen
rushes together on a daily basis.
The programs we were creating -- Lion's 10 half-hours for the BBC, and BLPI's
two-part series for PBS's FRONTLINE -- would draw from the same material to
create very different films. For British viewers, more than half the interest
would come from cameras going inside a courtroom-- something that's still not
possible in England. But for U.S. viewers, courtroom footage is old hat, the
fodder of local newscasts, so FRONTLINE would have to do much more than simply
show the process at work.
The filming covered the various units within Suffolk County District Attorney
Ralph Martin's office and followed cases from each unit. In Massachusetts, as
in most states, minor crimes, from drug cases to car theft to petty larceny,
end up in a lower court --District Court-- where sentences tend not to exceed
three years. Serious and violent crimes, from sexual assault to murder, end up
in upper court --Superior Court--where sentencing ranges up to life without
This dichotomy in the handling of minor and serious crimes gave us an
organizing principle for the material Whereas the BBC programs by nature would
be more episodic and span the range of crimes being prosecuted, FRONTLINE
would focus on the criminal justice process, which is distinct at the two
different court levels.
So in Part 1 of "Real Justice" we focused on District Court. Of the 50,000
cases filed in Massachusetts each year, 48,000 are brought to District Court,
the factory floor of the criminal justice system. Here, the volume of cases is
phenomenal, and the pressure to dispense with them enormous. Cases are cranked
through the system. Most are decided within a matter of weeks.
Superior Court cases, however, take months and involve the kind of preparation
and posturing we tend to associate with `criminal justice'-- lots of police
investigation and expert witnesses. For defendants here, the stakes are high
because the potential sentence is severe. As a result, filming a Superior
Court case held out both the promise of heightened drama and the pitfalls of
endless delays and lack of resolution. The seriousness of Superior Court cases
became the basis of Part II of "Real Justice," which looks at how pleas are
bartered when so much is at stake.
Filming took up many months and consumed thousands of hours of videotape.
Terrific material went by the wayside. There was a case that worked great for
the BBC version-- a teenager accused and wrongly imprisoned years ago for a
drive-by shooting of a young boy. We filmed the final stages of hearings and
his subsequent release to a cheering crowd. But the case was atypical and we felt it didn't belong. Another case revolved around a
tremendously charismatic assistant D.A. who prosecuted a murder trial. It made
a great half-hour for the BBC, but the trial unfolds without revealing much of
how the system works, and therefore landed on FRONTLINE's cutting room
On the other hand, concentrating the way we did gave us the chance to go deeper
into the stories we chose. Part 1, District Court, is seen largely through the
eyes of supervising assistant district attorney Viktor Theiss and
defense attorney Lisa Medeiros. I had met Vik and filmed with Lisa, and
had seen enough footage from their cases to know a compelling film could be
woven from a 'day in their lives.' And in fact, the first half of Part 1 was
filmed in a single day. Adding bits and pieces that filled out their
personalities and caseloads produced a cut that at first seemed way overlong
--until FRONTLINE's executive producers saw it and said, "It plays! Keep it
at that length!"
Part II entailed harder choices, because the details of the cases in Superior
Court would have to drive the film, rather than the flurry of cases and
activity in Part 1. The choices and permutations of how to edit the material
seemed infinite. But in the end we settled on just three cases that seemed to
highlight the tough choices presented and the struggle to achieve that most
elusive concept: justice.
In one case, two brothers are accused of murdering a neighbor in a local bar.
There were a dozen witnesses, but all claimed not to have seen the murder. The
prosecutor, Dennis Collins, was frustrated because the events took place in
South Boston, a neighborhood known for its `code of silence,' where people are
suspicious of cops and fearful, most of all, of being called a rat. The only
case Collins could build against the brothers is circumstantial, which perhaps
added to their willingness to take their chances with a jury rather than accept
the D.A.'s offer of a plea bargain. But once the jury's out, anything could
In the second case, a 15-year-old is accused of manslaughter in the death of a
2-year-old neighbor's child he was babysitting. The defendant's and victim's
families are good friends. The 2-year-old's mother feels guilty that her own
actions may speak to the jury, and the public, of neglect. On the one hand,
she wants a harsh punishment for the boy who caused her toddler's death. On
the other hand... It adds up to a complicated plea that prosecutor Josh Wall
decides to offer the young man.
In the third case, Lisa Medeiros returns as the attorney for a woman accused of
beating her children. The case is complicated by accusations of prior abuse
and the question of whether physical discipline (with a belt) is a matter of
cultural heritage and not even appropriate for review by a court. After
protracted wranglings that last almost a year, Lisa and prosecutor Eileen
Murphy agree on what both feel is a lenient but reasonable outcome. But the
defendant has her doubts and feels the lawyers are railroading her.
The thread that weaves these three individual stories together is how the plea
bargain comes to be offered and whether the defendants choose to take it. The
outcomes represent the range of possibilities when people are forced to roll
the dice with heavy jail time at stake.
Once we knew that our material could play without narration, we nevertheless
needed a technique to fill in crucial background for our audience. We settled
on a combination of two approaches. For Part 1, we used occasional written
captions to fill in the gaps. In a film so focused on process, little more was
needed. For Part II, in addition to captions--and especially where it was
critical to understand the prosecutor's motivation--we added another element.
I met with prosecutors Dennis Collins and Josh Wall and asked them to tell me
what was going through their minds as their cases unfolded. We recorded their
answers on audio and wove them in as voice-over commentary. By getting them to
speak in the present tense, the effect is that we're learning their true
feelings at the end of a long day.
It was that sense of intimacy that came to be one of this project's strongest
attributes. We were lucky. Often, international co-productions mean that
producers from different cultures (especially Britain and America, where
language gives a false sense of sameness) bring such different expectations
that the project inevitably bogs down or breaks down. In this case, we had a
shared vision and enough time together to make sure it worked. Ben Gale and
his team used small digital cameras that allowed the producers to also be
camera operators. It was exciting and broke new ground, and has made me
determined to shoot at least part of my next project on digital. As technology
makes it increasingly possible to blur the lines of job titles and roles, there
will be increasing opportunities (and pressures) to make films for FRONTLINE
that allow us to shoot as we research. The trick will be to find subjects that
are appropriate for this approach, without compromising journalistic standards
or the art of filmmaking.
what's it like elsewhere? |
viktor theiss |
lisa medeiros |
behind the scenes
stats & facts |
video excerpt |
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