Berlinger · San Quentin · Schwarzenegger

Plus: Does the world need a movie about the New Zealand mosque attacks?

Are we still talking about The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, really? The Netflix series on the disappearance of Elisa Lam dropped on February 10, 2021 and it really seems like everyone who was down to watch the show has watched it already. (In other words, the slender yarn isn’t the type of series that will end up being “rediscovered” and praised some point down the line, in my opinion and that of my esteemed Best Evidence partner.)

And yet, here’s documentarian Joe Berlinger still mulling the series in last week’s pages of The Hollywood Reporter. I’m not sure what the news hook for the piece was, but here we are. The part of the interview I found most interesting was Berlinger reacting to responses to the series:

I thought the critical response was very mixed, like right down the middle. I was a little surprised because I thought the show was a very smart and clever dissection of the very genre that I’m operating in: It’s kind of a meditation on the nature of true-crime obsession, and most critics didn’t see that. But in terms of popular reaction, it was overwhelmingly positive and shocking how popular it was.

I’m never a fan of folks who defensively respond to criticism with “well, you just didn’t get it, then,” and people who say “‘the critics’ hated it but ‘the people’ loved it” rarely seem to be operating with a full set of data.

Many critics said they felt the show was unethical and exploitative, in fact, which seems less like not “seeing” what Berlinger was trying to do, than seeing it and taking issue with it.

And Berlinger doesn’t help with that perception, telling THR that “So first and foremost, I always want people to watch the show and be provoked and think and quote-unquote ‘enjoy’ what’s being presented,” before hastily adding that “Obviously, when you’re talking about the death of a real person, ‘enjoyment’ of the show is in quotation marks.” There’s a “have your cake and eat it too”-ness to how he approaches this problematic-to-many series that suggests that maybe he needs to head back to the operating table for a refresher on how to cleverly dissect a genre. — EB


The editor of San Quentin’s newspaper is adjusting to life on the outside. The San Quentin News is a newspaper written for and by inmates of the infamous prison, a publication that was founded in the 1930s, shut down for 20 years, and revived in 2008. (There’s a great book about the paper’s history called Prison Truth: The Story of the San Quentin News, which was published last year to largely positive reviews.)

These days, the paper is shipped to all 35 of California’s state prisons, its editorial staff assisted by a board of professional journalists. Its most recent editor, Richard “Bonaru” Richardson, took over the paper in 2017 after editor Arnulfo Garcia was released, and now it’s his turn to pass the baton: last month, Richardson was released on parole in May after 23 years in prison, NBC Bay Area reports.

Now he’s living in transitional housing in Oakland, CA, and is trying to figure out what to do next. Here’s an idea: Why doesn’t a local or national news org bring Richardson onto their staff? Surely, whatever logistical/editorial issues he navigated as editor of a prison newspaper make your standard newsroom bullshit seem like soap bubbles to pop in the wind.

Given the abundant lip service publications have given to increased representation and diversity of staff in the past year or so, this is one way to truly put your money where your mouth is, I’ll say to any news outlets that are reading. I’ll note that NBC writes that Richardson has placed “a blank, white dry-erase board above the computer” in his halfway house bedroom; my assumption is that it’ll soon be filled with a list of offers from publications eager to add him to their mastheads. — EB


Today in The Staircase casting news…I am almost feeling tricked/manipulated at this point, AND YET I KEEP FALLING FOR IT. It seems like every day we get a new scrap of casting for the Colin Firth/Toni Collette/everyone else starrer about the eight-episode adaptation of the Michael Peterson case.

And today’s new name is a doozy: According to Deadline, it’s Patrick Schwarzenegger, the son of Terminator/former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’ll doubtlessly use his experiences as the son of a well-known figure in his work on the show, as he’s been cast as Todd Peterson, Michael’s son.

In the doc version of The Staircase, Todd was a vocal supporter of his pop, and reportedly told the police that he believed that Kathleen Peterson’s death was due to her alcohol use. (Kathleen was Todd’s stepmom; his mother is Patricia Sue Peterson, Michael’s first wife.)

According to 2005’s Written in Blood: A True Story of Murder and A Deadly 16-Year Old Secret That Tore a Family Apart, Todd told investigators, “They both drink heavily…If you want my opinion, they were probably shit-faced and she fell.”

Via Instagram, Schwarzenegger says of his new gig (sic throughout), “I was OBSESSED with this documentary last year [ed note: it came out in 2004] & so excited to be part of the mini series now & bring Todd Peterson to life … If you haven’t seen It- go watch It. It’s a wild murder investigation thriller that blew my mind.” In addition to Firth and Collette, Schwarzenegger joins Rosemarie DeWitt, Juliette Binoche, Parker Posey, Sophie Turner and Odessa Young in the show, as well as whoever we hear about tomorrow. — EB


New Zealanders are reportedly angry about a Rose Byrne-starring film about the Christchurch attacks. Less than a week after Deadline reported that Byrne would play New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in They Are Us, a movie about the 2019 attacks on New Zealand’s Muslim community, the publication reported that a producer has departed the production after backlash about the project.

According to producer Philippa Campbell, she pulled out of the movie — which will be written and directed by New Zealander Andrew Niccol — when she realized how strong local sentiment was against the film. According to the Associated Press, family members of some of the 51 victims of the shooting have come out against the movie, which will recount “the response of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to a gunman’s slaughter of Muslim worshippers.” Others have objected to the plan to center a white woman in a narrative about the deaths of scores of Muslims, with author Tina Ngata tweeting, “The slaughter of 51 Muslim New Zealanders is NOT the backdrop to a fkg film about white woman strength. COME ON.”

Now Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel is saying that the film production won’t be welcome in the city, telling RNZ that “I'm absolutely appalled at this sense of entitlement from Film Nation to even think they could be telling a story, let alone this story, which is certainly not the story of what happened here … I'm just so outraged that they even think that this is an appropriate thing to do.”

A Change.org petition calling on the film’s producers to shut the project down has garnered nearly 70K signatures as of this writing (and will doubtlessly exceed that before you get this newsletter). According to the petition, though Deadline reported that “The script was developed in consultation with several members of the mosques affected by the tragedy,” “many members of the Christchurch Muslim community have no knowledge of the film.” (As Deadline often reports straight from the press release, that’s not that surprising.)

According to Campbell, the departing producer, “I now agree that the events of 15 March 2019 are too raw for film at this time and do not wish to be involved with a project that is causing such distress” but said that she was initially attracted to the project based on “research interviews undertaken by producer Ayman Jamal with members of the Muslim community in Christchurch.”

Even Ardern, the supposed hero of They Are Us, appears to be backing away from the project. “In my view, which is a personal view, it feels very soon and very raw for New Zealand,” she told TVNZ. “And while there are so many stories that should be told at some point, I don’t consider mine to be one of them.” — EB


Buried in this longread on alleged workplace misconduct at podcast producer HiStudios is an intriguing detail on Billy McFarland’s podcast. Way back in the fall of 2020, we talked about this show: called Dumpster Fyre, the podcast from the Fyre Fest producer was intended to allow McFarland to “set the record straight” via recordings made from prison.

A week later, the show was already in trouble, as McFarland was sent to solitary confinement for reasons unconfirmed by prison officials, but according to McFarland’s lawyer, “We believe the investigation stems from his participation in the podcast and the photographs that were taken and utilized in the trailer, which were all properly taken … We don’t believe he’s violated any rule or regulation, and there can’t possibly be anything else. He’s been a model prisoner there.”

The story sort of died after that, and the show retreated to the back of my mind. But according to The Verge, as HiStudios fell apart, so did most of its shows, with true-crime podcasts like Crimelines and Dark Topic showing themselves the door.

But the loss of Dumpster Fyre might have been the biggest blow to HiStudios. Per The Verge, it was expected to be “one of the network’s biggest releases,” but it hasn’t released an episode since December 9, 2020. That’s when the show released a one-minute update saying that the combination of COVID-19 production issues and McFarland’s expected ongoing stint in solitary “has led us to postpone Dumpster Fyre until early 2021.” But given the subsequent issues at its production company, which reporter Ashley Carman details here, we might not ever get another episode of this (already forgotten) show. — EB


Wednesday on Best Evidence: Dumbo?!


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