Podcast producers and documentary filmmakers are all eagerly looking to create the next Serial and How to Make a Murderer. But creating the next classic true-crime documentary requires some key approaches and components. We spoke with Trey Borzillieri, the co-director, producer, and narrator of Netflix’s Evil Genius, a documentary series about a man who robbed a bank with a bomb collar around his neck, for tips on what aspiring filmmakers can do to make a true-crime project excel.
Craft Something Audiences Can Participate In
“When it comes to true crime documentaries, I think what people find so desirable about them is that they can view them and participate in a mystery,” Borzillieri says. Filmmakers can evoke that kind of mystery by presenting their story not just as a conclusive point-of-view, but by allowing for uncertainties and debate. In other words, ensure audiences don’t get a passive viewing experience. “The audience can have almost a participatory experience in just viewing.”
Borzillieri thinks of it as a journey, a belief he draws in part from a formative viewing of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost about The West Memphis Three, who were accused of murdering three young boys in a Satanic ritual. “I hadn’t seen a film like that,” says Borzillieri. “That was the gateway to me being able to think about stories and to find a story where you could create a documentary that would take someone on that journey.”
That’s something he’s proceeded to do with the projects he’s produced, including The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer and Hunting Hitler, which he calls “bread crumb investigations” and defines as “taking one lead at a time, examining it and following the new information to the next chapter of the investigation.”
Evil Genius co-director, producer, and narrator Trey Borzillieri
Don’t Be Afraid of an Unconventional Approach
“The traditional approach for a documentarian is that the story has been already fleshed out,” says Borzillieri. “You’re Monday-morning quarterbacking. In essence, you’re documenting what has happened.” But the true-crime producer and director is unafraid of non-traditional, or different, approaches. With Evil Genius, he followed a form of storytelling that’s become more popular of late: looking at cases that have never been solved. Borzillieri had no idea where any of it would go when he began his journey making Evil Genius. “That’s just not a reasonable way to approach a documentary, because there were years where no one knew if there would be any closure,” he says. “It was my naivety that sort of allowed me to step in this at a time when most documentarians wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.”
But unconventional approaches can lead to compelling possibilities that create compelling work. Borzillieri does it with the work he produces as well, like with The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer. “The Zodiac Killer story usually begins in San Francisco, but from my point of view, the Riverside connection within the Zodiac case deserved more attention. It was a new and different starting point from which to examine the case,” the producer says.
Still from The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer
Wait for the Right Story, Not Any Story
In the current true-crime gold rush, it can be tempting for filmmakers to seize on any story that seems to have sensationalist potential. But a story isn’t necessarily a great story, and the latter is worth waiting for. That’s especially true given how much competition there is right now in true-crime storytelling — to say nothing of the fact that you want to ensure that your energy is well used on any project you take on.
Picking the right one isn’t unlike love at first sight. When the right story comes along, you’ll feel it. “Go with your gut when it comes to choosing stories to produce,” advises Borzillieri. Ever since seeing Paradise Lost, Borzillieri was waiting for a story to tell of his own. It wasn’t until August 28, 2003, when he saw news reports about Brian Wells’ bomb-collared robbery of a bank and subsequent death that he knew he had found it. “I was looking for a story and instantly I knew that this could be a documentary. How I was going to make that happen, I didn’t know. But I knew I had found the story,” he says. But remember that getting there will require patience, diligence, and work. “It takes a good amount of time to find and research the golden ones,” Borzillieri says.
Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, one of the main subjects in Evil Genius
Research, Research, Research
Speaking of research, if you want to create a true-crime documentary, you’re going to have to do a lot of it. Especially if your story has no resolution. You may not know the ending, but you need to know every other little morsel of what you can find out. You have to know every aspect of the story to best equip yourself to tell it. “Whether I’m producing or directing, my goal is to tell the story in the most fulfilling way for the audience,” Borzillieri says. “The true-crime audience is sophisticated. They’re in it for the journey, and are aware the devil is in the details.”
For years, Borzillieri made numerous trips to Erie, where the crime of Evil Genius occurred, to conduct interviews, get access to archival materials, talk to reporters, familiarize himself with the area, and learn how it impacted the locals. That exhaustive diligence is something that extended to post-production, too. When it comes to depicting true-crime events on screen, you don’t always get all the materials you’d like or need. “Many times in post-production, you find a need for more footage than you’ve shot,” says the producer and director.
A clip from Evil Genius featuring footage from Pond5
Evil Genius filled in those gaps with inventive graphics by illustrator John Morena, as well as footage from the Pond5 crime collection. “We wanted tasteful, high-quality clips that could easily blend in among interviews, archival footage, and original cinematic shots,” Borzillieri says. “Pond5 is a resource I’ve used on many productions, and the Pond5 collection has so much to choose from for true crime.”
All of the research culminated in a key thought for Borzillieri: “Thinking back on it, what comes to the top of mind for me is the idea of ‘no stone left unturned.’ That became a mantra for me.”
Channel Your Inner Detective
The best true-crime documentaries don’t just present the hard-to-believe circumstances involved; they seek to understand (and present) the deeper questions. Unearthing those questions requires not just research skills, but detective ones. Chances are that won’t be a chore, but something you can tap into to propel yourself through a project with enthusiasm. “That passion for the story and the passion to chase the ‘why’ and finally figure out this puzzle proved to be great fuel,” says Borzillieri. “Going further and trying to understand why this happened was a real motivator.”
Putting on your detective cap will also help ensure that you follow your own inclinations through a case, rather than existing ones. In fact, pretending they don’t exist can be helpful. For Borzillieri, a gag order prohibiting law enforcement from speaking to him proved to be a blessing. “I didn’t have to take the storyline that was perhaps being fed by the investigators or the media,” he explains. “I could follow my own path.”
But to go back to an earlier point, don’t feel compelled to find an answer. Detective skills may be required, but not at the expense of suppressing your filmmaker instincts. “Setting off on that goal, if it was to get the answer, I think it would’ve been too hard,” says Borzillieri. “I think because the goal was to make a documentary, that’s an absolutely tangible goal, and there were certain things that I needed to do to achieve that goal. I didn’t have any motive other than to get the whole story and try to tell the story from as many different angles as I could.”
Do that yourself, and you’ll also have a great true-crime documentary on your hands.
Top image from Evil Genius courtesy of Netflix