The 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher and the media frenzy that surrounded the trial of her roommate, Amanda Knox, held the attention of the public through what in the digital age amounts to eons, as nearly a decade of trials, books, and movies explored the case in a seemingly never-ending media parade. Knox, then a Myspace-friendly college student, was portrayed by the press and the prosecution as a sex-crazed siren — “Foxy Knoxy” — and the narrative that surrounded her was powerful enough to land her and then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito in Italian prison for murder, despite the speciousness of the physical evidence connecting the couple to the case.
Now, nearly a decade after the death of Kercher, after trial and appeal and trial and appeal, filmmakers Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn have released the documentary Amanda Knox. The movie is Blackhurst and McGinn’s account of the case in total, from Amanda Knox’s perspective and with her involvement, as well as the involvement of Sollecito, the Umbrian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, and several other key players in the case. Knox appears in the documentary in interviews, in her home, and in archival footage, but she remains a mystery as the doc explores the vapid nature of sensational media.
With their film debuting on Netflix this week, Blackhurst and McGinn had their own meet-the-press with MTV News, sitting down to talk about getting access to America’s most-wanted exoneree, the role of race in the trial (and its absence in their film), and exactly what it is that sells in media and in documentary filmmaking.
When in the process of Amanda’s trial did you come on board?
Brian McGinn: We started working on this in the summer of 2011. We had seen the way this story and case had been presented in the headlines for about four years, and we were interested in how something that was a tragedy at its core had become this sensationalized news story or this piece of entertainment. We wanted to make a first-person narrative about what it was like to get caught in these twists and turns of a story and case.
Rod Blackhurst: Hundreds of articles, hundreds of hours of news coverage, a Lifetime movie — all of these things and yet it didn’t feel like people really understood the story. The story speaks to this fascination we all have with these macabre tales, and we thought that was our chance to shine the light back on all of us, including ourselves. And this was in 2011. Since then there’s been Serial, Making a Murderer, The Chase — all the things that we now think of as the iconic true-crime stories.
How did you as filmmakers deal with a story that’s so sensationalistic while also dealing with issues of complicity, and issues of not removing yourself from the narrative and maintaining your own role in it?
Blackhurst: We were trying to take away those sensational elements that have been applied to the story. We wanted to look beneath that and look at the people, and say, “Well, the way that it’s been reported has been through X lens and the way that someone is talking about it is through the Y lens, but who are the real people that exist beneath that?” We know, of course, that we’re putting this story back in front of people, but we’re hoping what we’re showing you is a human story about what it’s like to be caught up in these events and circumstances. We’re hoping people will find some empathy for these people, regardless of how you feel about the story itself. We hope people can see them all as individuals, as human beings.
McGinn: When you’re making a story about something like this, you have a responsibility as a filmmaker to add to the conversation, otherwise all you’re doing is stirring up feelings. There were many times when we either didn’t think we were going to make a film, or weren’t sure the film we were making was saying something important — we wouldn’t have continued making it otherwise. I hope the movie touches on a lot of these ideas about how we consume narratives and how we form the belief systems that lead our day-to-day lives.
Were there any people that you struggled to get to interview? What was your process in terms of tracking people down?
Blackhurst: We approached everyone directly, and we started with the people right at the heart of the story: Giuliano Mignini, Amanda Knox, and Raffaele Sollecito.
McGinn: We also tried to talk to Patrick Lumumba and Rudy Guede and the Kercher family. [Lumumba, Guede, and the Kerchers are figures in archival footage of the trial, but there are no interviews with them in the film. Guede was jailed for Kercher’s murder independent of the Knox trial.]
McGinn: We first approached Amanda in 2011. At the time, she had no interest in doing a documentary, so we moved on. Rod and I were both working on other things. And then at the end of 2013, Amanda got back in touch with us and said she had changed her mind. She was facing the appellate level in Florence — another trial, another verdict, that ended up being a guilty verdict — and she wanted to tell her story.
We tried for a while to get the Italian side, prosecutor Giuliano Mignini’s side, of the story. He agreed after the final court verdict in 2015. And then over the course of this entire process we tried getting in touch with the Kercher family. We were in touch with Patrick Lumumba, we were in touch with Rudy Guede, but we were unfortunately unable to get in touch with the Kercher family. We reached out to them multiple times, including to their legal representation in Italy, and never heard back. Lumumba was studying in Poland when we wanted to interview him and Guede was represented by his attorney, Walter Biscotti. But we would certainly love to talk to any of those three people and make a follow-up piece if they were to change their minds. But in general the approach was to say what we wanted to and let people come back to us. We were not making a nightly news piece, so we had to rely on the people who wanted to speak to us and make sure we had enough pieces and enough components to tell the whole story. For each of those people who were unable to get to sit with us and do interviews, we made sure that we’re including their voices in archival material.
One of the things I remember from the trial was the way the American press racialized the story, in that Amanda was a young white woman, while other figures like Patrick and Rudy were foreign black men. But that didn’t really factor into the film. What’s your take on the role that race played in this trial? How did you decide to include or not include race in the film that you made?
McGinn: The way that the story was being positioned was what really interested us. The people we spoke to told us about their experiences and how it felt for them in the moment. [Race] was the way the story was being generated [in the press] because it lured people in. It appealed to the public’s emotions or to their fears, and the way they felt about the race issue was being positioned in the same way as the appeal to people’s gender biases. So we wanted to understand what it felt like for these people to have those ideas applied to them. And certainly, had any of those people [Rudy Guede or Patrick Lumumba] participated in the film in that way, I’m sure they could have spoken about how that impacted them as human beings. Giuliano Mignini talks about being seen as evil on the street — well, that might be based on some bias that somebody has toward the judicial system or a person in authority. It all depends on how you want to access the story and access these people, and then you have to be aware of all the things that are clouding or blurring your lens.
Were there any topics when you were talking to people that were off-limits?
McGinn: No. We asked everyone to sign up for the movie with no conditions. It’s important to note that no money changed hands as well. That’s part of the reason why, for many years, we didn’t really think the movie would get made. It took a long time for people to trust us, and part of trusting filmmakers to tell your story is that you’re willing to talk openly and that nothing is off-limits. We would never make a film where there were conditions.
Blackhurst: The only condition was that they would have to give 100 percent of themselves to us. Because if the participants regret participating, then you won’t have something that reveals some greater truth about human condition or allow some other perspective. You need people to want to be there so they can talk at length and want to continue talking to you. The more someone talks, the more they reveal about themselves and the more they reveal about the way something has affected them.
Was it ever difficult to keep journalistic distance when you were telling a story with people whose lives are still tangled in the case and who are very much involved emotionally?
McGinn: Yeah, which I think is hard any time you’re telling a true story. It’s hard any time people are sitting down and looking at you across a camera and saying, “I believe that you guys will tell my story faithfully.” That’s getting to the core principle of being a journalist or a documentarian where people trust you with their stories. We were not out to get answers to “gotcha” questions; we were hoping that over these long conversations people would reveal themselves to us. Of course, you can never really know if someone is fully revealing himself to you or not, so all we can go by is our own gut feelings.
How did you guys go about getting the behind-the-scenes images of the murder?
McGinn: It took about five years, because it took years and years to get access to the people. We were tracking down local camera people in Umbria who had filmed for television but had never sold some of this freelance material. We had these people going up in their attics and getting these tapes and sending these tapes to us in New York. And then we had two of our Italian contacts working to get us access to these court files that no one had seen after the Supreme Court of Cassation made their final ruling. We spent nine months going back and forth with the Italian court system trying to figure out how we could get permission. We called the Italian Supreme Court and the Florence Court and then put those two phones together and had them talk to each other.
I remember the day when we actually got access to the court files. Rod was in Italy and he sent an image to our edit room of all the court files in this big filing cabinet. In one box there were all these files, and the rock that had supposedly been thrown through the window at 7 Via Della Pergola. And then in a cardboard sheath was either the weapon that they considered the murder weapon or a replica of it. We had essentially just gotten access to this entire treasure trove of stuff that no one had ever seen or heard before. I think that was the biggest breakthrough moment for us in making the film because, until this point, we only had these interviews that looked back at events that happened five, six, and seven years ago. Everyone had formed their story to be how they want it to be, but now we had all of this stuff from the actual moment.
Blackhurst: Brian’s talking about creating context too. We don’t do that just with pieces of evidence or those photographs or those recordings that no one’s heard before. It’s also with the piece of video footage that maybe the nightly news isn’t looking for. Some of this footage existed in people’s attics and the backside of a hard drive. We were also interested in hearing what had been cut out. Maybe the footage had just been presented as a visual image — like the moment where they’re bringing Meredith’s body out of the house, for example — but we wanted to hear the conversations that were not being accompanied on the visual. It was a truly Herculean effort to find all of these elements; they were all there, it just took time.
Amanda’s story is one that exists outside of the everyday systemic issues like prison injustice, mass incarceration, or for-profit prisons. Do you feel this story interacts at all with those everyday issues?
McGinn: The entry point for us was really the sensationalism and the fact that this story had become an international front-page news sensation. While I think that there’s some very interesting elements of imprisonment and the justice system, those were more subtextual for us. The question for us was more about how we as a culture process these things and what fascinates us so much. It’s that kind of everyday material that says something about things that titillate society and the things that make us passionate.
[Titillating things] like Amanda as a femme fatale.
McGinn: Yeah, that stuff basically. For better or worse, it becomes what people talk about. We were really trying to shine a light on that actual phenomenon, which means that some of those other issues fall away a little bit.
Blackhurst: In the same way, we haven’t seen The 13th or Making a Murderer. People talk about Making a Murderer as a piece about injustice. We hope that people watch Amanda Knox and have a conversation about whether we’re more interested in information or entertainment, and that people are interested in examining the way we consume narratives. The power of narrative sort of defines something forever and ever.
McGinn: In that way, it’s probably not a true-crime film at all. That’s just the entry point for examining those themes. The way we as a world consume stories — and sometimes people — is a phenomenon that we’re seeing much more of now. The idea of celebrity is becoming more and more appealing to people. With the rise of the reality show, everyone thinks they can be a celebrity, or that it would be a positive to be a celebrity, or that everyone who’s in the news is a celebrity, and I think that there are a lot of people who don’t choose to be on the front page, and yet they’re still there.