Relating to, and emphasizing with, a person who has been convicted of murder aren’t feelings many people can truly understand. But when that person has wrongfully been accused of such a heinous crime, and was unjustly sent to prison for almost a decade, just so prosecutors can garner and maintain a conviction on the highly publicized case, it’s understandable that people can emotionally identify with them. Director-producer Andrew Jenks powerfully crafted a sympathetic view of Ryan Ferguson, the subject of his new crime documentary, ‘Dream/Killer,’ while showcasing what he has had to endure after being wrongfully convicted. The helmer also emotionally emphasized how the family of his alleged victim are also still suffering, as they don’t know who actually took their loved one from them.
‘Dream/Killer’ shows how in 2005, the 20-year-old Ryan was convicted in Columbia, Missouri, and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 2001 murder of sports editor Kent Heitholt, a crime he did not commit. Ryan’s father, Bill, then embarked on 10-year campaign to prove his son’s innocence. Through various interviews, people close to the case show whether or not they also believe in Ryan’s innocence, including the questionable District Attorney Kevin Crane, the highly-confused witness Chuck Erickson and the high-powered Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner.
While serving nine-and-a-half years of his sentence, Ryan provides a candid and intimate look at his life. Footage from the Ferguson family archive is interspersed with archival footage from when Ryan was initially arrested and questioned by detectives, as well as his court hearings and trial. Between Bill and Zellner’s tireless efforts to prove Ryan’s innocence, his conviction was finally vacated on November 5, 2013, and he was released.
Jenks generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview about ‘Dream/Killer’ at the Smyth Hotel in New York City, the morning after the documentary had its world premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Among other things, the director and producer discussed how he became interested in helming the documentary after he spoke with Chip Rosenbloom and Dylan Ratigan, who also served as producers, about Ryan’s case, and Jenks realized Ryan was innocent; how Ryan’s case proves that anyone, no matter what their race and social and economic backgrounds are, can be wrongfully placed in jail, and how eyewitness accounts alone can send a person to prison, even if there isn’t any physical evidence that proves their guilt; and how he was honored the movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Fetival, as he lives in New York, and was able to bring his friends and family to the documentary’s screenings.
ShockYa (SY): The subject of’‘Dream/Killer’ showcases how Ryan Ferguson was arrested and convicted of the 2001 murder of sports editor Kent Heitholt, who was found strangled in the parking lot of the Columbia Daily Tribune in Columbia, Missouri. With many people believing Ryan was wrongfully convicted, why did you feel it was important to direct a documentary about his case, and showcase the problems that plagued his trial?
Andrew Jenks (AJ): I was speaking with Chip Rosenbloom and Dylan Ratigan, who are producers, about different projects. Chip has ties to Missouri, and he told me the story about Ryan Ferguson, and the controversy of him being in prison. So I started to look into the case and met Ryan. I started talking to him two or three times a day, and quickly realized he was innocent. So once I heard the story and got to know Ryan, I started to feel almost obligated to make a documentary about him and what was going on.
SY: Besides speaking with Ryan and his family, what type of research did you do into the case on your own before you began filming?
AJ: Well Sam Lee, who edited the film, did an unbelievable amount of research. She really dove into the specifics of the case. She watched every trial and court hearing, and read through the transcripts. I had been documenting the case for about two years, and she was able to come in and take a step back, and really look through everything. That process proves that you really need a team to make a film like this work. I had gotten really close with Ryan by the time we started editing the film. So Sam did an incredible job of being able to shape the movie.
SY: Speaking of the editing, what was that process like-how did you determine which interviews and clips to include in the documentary?
AJ: Well, it started by getting to know Ryan, particularly as this person behind bars. As we began filming the movie, we thought we were going to use it to humanize, and get to know, a young man who’s been behind bars for nearly a decade, and try to understand how he still had this incredible outlook on life. He spent most of his time in prison reading, exercising and learning, and there’s no sense of self-pity.
Then when Ryan was released, we started to think that maybe this is a movie about something else. So we pivoted the film, and thought maybe it would be told through Bill’s eyes. That was something I talked about with the two or three guys we were filming with in Missouri. It was something that Sam the editor again really forced, and said that was the right approach to take. So I had a great team of people around me, who helped me figure out what the film’s narrative should be.
SY: Speaking of Bill, how closely did you work with him to determine which of his efforts to help overturn Ryan’s conviction be featured in the documentary?
AJ: Well, it seems obvious, but Bill and Ryan both taught me the importance of looking at the facts. It’s so easy to have a visceral reaction to someone who’s on the stand, or is convicted of murder. It’s also easy to judge them by looking at their appearance and how they’re reacting to certain situations. You look at Ryan during that first court case, and seeing if he was reacting to certain parts.
Since I’ve always been more of an emotional person, I was always looking at those elements. Bill really taught me the importance of getting rid of that emotional element, and instead focus on the facts of this case. He’s really that superhero dad that you can’t write in a script. The persistence, diligence and ability to believe that there would be a way to figure this out is inspiring, and makes you feel totally in awe.
SY: In ‘Dream/Killer,’ you featured several interviews with people who are convinced of Ryan’s innocence, including the family’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner. How did you secure the interviews, and determine what you wanted to discuss with the people featured in the documentary?
AJ: I think we knew early on that we were documenting people who were experts. In terms of Kathleen, she’s the authoritative voice on wrongful convictions. I like to call her America’s lawyer, and she’s someone we knew we had to learn from. We had a three-hour dinner early on, so that we could pick her mind and better understand the judicial system. Then when we interviewed her, we tried to soak everything in. You could read things and watch different documentaries about the subject. But being able to sit down with her, and better understand the dynamics of the case, and the system at large, was a tremendous privilege.
SY: ‘Dream/Killer’ shows Ryan’s conviction was vacated after further exploration into the case. But his conviction wasn’t the product of racism or socio-economic status. He was, in fact, what many people would consider an All-American, relatable guy with a lot of potential. Do you feel that was an important element to focus on in the film?
AJ: That was a huge part of the movie for me, and what I wanted to get across. The idea is that if you were to watch this movie, and afterward look at the people sitting next to you, those two people could say you committed a murder. There could be no DNA or physical evidence of any sort, but eyewitness accounts are all it takes to get you convicted. I think if this can happen to someone like Ryan, who’s a good looking, articulate, all-American Caucasian guy, it can clearly happen to anyone. Kathleen put it in a great way-she said, “I could frame Mother Teresa if I wanted to.”
We’re at a weird point where we have all this information available these days, as we have all of this incredible technology. Yet the judicial system, in of itself, is broken at its core. We’re incentivising prosecutors to just win cases, whether or not they disregard the truth.
SY; Speaking of the fact that the judicial system emphasizes eyewitness accounts over physical evidence, do you feel that aspect needs to be reexamined, so that people won’t be wrongfully convicted anymore?
AJ: I don’t know of any other job where there’s no accountability. Prosecutors have complete immunity from what they say and do in trials. So they can fabricate evidence and twist police reports. They’re almost in a way, well, I don’t want to say encouraged to do so, but there’s nothing that says they’ll be punished if they do that. In a strange sense, it’s almost as if they’re able to do all of this, and the repercussions are nothing. So I think it would be a good starting point to find ways that they’ll be held accountable for the actions they take, especially when it comes out afterward that they manipulated so much evidence.
SY: One of the most interesting aspects you included in the film was how Bill and the rest of Ryan’s family and supporters created the social media campaign, including on Facebook, to raise awareness about the case around the world. Why did you feel that was also an important aspect to include in the documentary?
AJ: Well, the movie is about an hour and 50 minutes, so there was a point where we were thinking, maybe the social media component should be left on the cutting room floor. We also thought there are already so many great characters, we might not have time to include the social media aspect. But since there are so many ups and downs in the case and Ryan’s narrative, we ultimately couldn’t ignore this component.
It’s such a big part of the story, as Bill tracked down a few key eyewitnesses online. That was a critical part of how they got to the bottom of this case. Bill went on the journey across the country, and was also able to spread awareness on social media.
I also think it’s important that they continue to use social media to get the word out on other cases. I think we live in a day and age where it would be silly not to use websites like Twitter and Facebook to our advantage, in terms of making sure we get the right information across. They’re also important in helping solve cases, and get people like Ryan released.
SY: How did Ryan’s case gaining attention on social media, as well as on such newsmagazine shows as ’48 Hours’ and ‘Dateline,’ influence the way you approached it in the documentary?
AJ: I think there’s a lot of credit to be given to ’48 Hours,’ which was the first outlet to cover the case, and understand what was going on, on a national level. I think those types of programs can bring about a great deal of attention to stories like Ryan’s. Not to tell them what to do, but I also think it’s important that these shows continue to look into cases that maybe aren’t as TV-friendly.
Ryan’s a very photogenic guy, and is someone people want to capture and put on TV. I think that he would agree that it’s important for national broadcast television to continue to look for other cases where they don’t have this good-looking 28-year-old. Shining a light on all different kinds of people across the board is important.
Conservative estimates state that three to five percent of inmates in prison were wrongfully convicted. That’s more than 100,000 people, which is a lot, and they need help to get out.
There certainly is no happy ending. At the end of the film, you see Ryan’s not in a particularly good place in life. He’s trying to figure out what he’s going to do. In addition to that, there’s still a murderer on the loose. This is still an on-going case.
SY: This is still an on-going case, like you mentioned in the film, and you encourage anyone who has additional information that could help find the true perpetrator to contact the police. Do you hope the documentary can help bring closure for everyone who was involved?
AJ: Yes, of course-that would be the best solution. Anytime you can make a movie that could help solve a case, or any of the families who are connected to the case, is the ultimate goal. If that were to happen with this case, that would be really special.
SY: Besides directing ‘Dream/Killer,’ you also served as one of the producers on the film. Why did you also decide to produce the documentary?
AJ: When I watch the movie, it looks like quite a few people worked on it. But in fact it was only a team of four people who went on this two-and-a-half year journey of following, and getting to know, Ryan, his family and the case. So I would say everyone was a producer on the film. We had Daniel Zinn, Brendan Crane, Chris Mirigliani and Brian Lindenbaum serves as producers, in addition to Chip and Dylan, who I mentioned earlier. Mike Edmund was our cinematographer, who was also really helpful.
I think everyone was producing to some extent, as we would always have three or four people out filming. Everyone was really coming together and playing different parts.
SY: Also speaking of the cinematography, what was the process of working with Mike Edmund on how you wanted to frame each shot?
AJ: Mike did an incredible job of making Columbia, Missouri its own character in the film. We have tons of archival footage, including of Bill when he was in his 20s and was traveling around the world with Leslie, his wife. We also have the interrogation and trial footage, which wasn’t necessarily shot for a movie.
Mike also did an incredible job of saying up all night and going to all the spots in town that you would typically need to be a local to know. He would extensively shoot the city. Without his talent and persistence, the movie wouldn’t have been the same.
SY: What does it mean to you that the film had its world premiere here at the Tribeca Film Festival?
AJ: Well, I live here, so this is the best of the best for me. On a very selfish level, I couldn’t have asked for anything more because I get to have my friends and family here. I had another film play here maybe seven years ago. But that film was different, as it was a sport documentary, and wasn’t as serious in tone. So having this documentary premiere here was a dream come true.
Written by: Karen Benardello