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"Better This World," Behind the Camera

The makers of a hot new doc on domestic-terror prosecutions talk about our surveillance culture, Brandon Darby conspiracy theories, and how they got the FBI talking.

| Sun Aug. 21, 2011 2:15 PM EDT

MJ: You used a voice actor to read Darby's testimony and FBI notes. How did that come about?

KDV: We knew we wanted his voice in the film and we wanted some way to make him present and so we decided to use archival footage. But we also wanted him commenting on the same events that McKay and Crowder are commenting on, and so we felt that a voice actor would be sort of the best bet.

KG: Fortunately for us, Darby was the media spokesperson for Common Ground, so we were able to license a couple of interviews that we felt really brought him alive as a character in a way that you could see how Brad and David would fall for him—you could feel his charisma. Later on, we don't have footage of him, and so, to continue the story we counted on court transcripts and letters and testimony. The voice actor, who's another documentary director, actually, did a terrific job.

MJ: You also reenacted certain scenes. Can you talk about that decision?

"I wanted…people to think about their own sense of morality: What is government overreach? What is entrapment? Did these kids go too far?"

KDV: None of our verité scenes was re-created. The only times where things are reenacted is when you have, you know, a talking head reflecting on an event and then sort of impressionistic visuals to kind of give you a feeling for it. You know, a handful of people reflecting back and you sort of see a blurry group of men and a table, or the van ride to Minneapolis with the stylized and impressionistic visions of people in the van.

KG: And we only used reenactments with things that happened prior to when we started shooting in 2009.

MJ: It seems like either you were trailing these guys constantly or you got incredibly lucky with a couple of things.

KDV: We were trailing these guys constantly. [Laughs.] And we got really, really lucky.

KG: The other thing people wonder about is how do people let down their guard that much in front of the camera, but if you think about how their kids are facing seven years or thirty years and they're trying to make a decision about whether to roll the dice on these crazy odds or go to prison. Once they trusted us, the things they were dealing with were so much more immediate and dramatic than the fact that a camera was there that it wasn't that difficult to capture the drama. It was kind of like fish in a barrel.

MJ: The film is in part an indictment of Brandon Darby, but in a bigger sense it's an indictment of the federal justice system. Was that the goal?

KDV: To me the main goal was to make a film that revealed the complexities behind these headlines about domestic terrorists. You rarely get to peel away the layers of the onion and understand what's going on here and how much gray there is. I wanted to lay out the full story and really allow people to think about their own sense of morality: What is government overreach? What is entrapment? Did these kids go too far? And come away with some things to think about, so the next time you see a domestic-terrorism headline maybe you'll read a little deeper and wonder what all was involved in it.

International audiences "were shocked that David could be facing up to 30 years for what some people think of as a thought crime."

MJ: I guess I was specifically referring to how the federal system is weighed against people who opt to go to trial.

KG: This case did give you an opportunity to think about the lengths of sentences in the United States. We don't say it in our film, but sentences are 5 to 12 times as long for comparable crimes in the US as they are in other western industrialized countries. When we showed the film, for example, at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York for a pretty international audience, people were shocked that David could be facing up to 30 years for what some people think of as a thought crime. Darby is a pretty easy villain, so it was important to us to make sure that, for those who do think there is a problem here, that it gets laid at the feet of government rather than Brandon Darby specifically. Because I think David says in our trailer that it's terrible to be a pawn in somebody else's game. And in certain respects, I see Darby as a pawn in a much bigger game.

KDV: One thing that we did care a lot about was the sort of collateral damage that happens to the families. It's not just the individuals that are having to go through these excruciating decisions and facing this monster government and feeling powerless, but it's also their parents and their siblings.

MJ: When we talked to Darby, he claimed Crowder and McKay were lying about looking to him as a kind of mentor. Darby says he struggled to maintain their respect, and that they thought he was past his prime. Do you think it's possible that neither side is lying—that both sides fully embrace their own perspective?

KDV: From spending a lot of time hearing Brad and David talk about their complex feelings about Brandon, it's hard to believe that he didn't have a pretty powerful impact on them. Even the prosecutor says on tape that there's no dispute that he was a mentor figure.

MJ: So what feedback have you heard from your various characters?

KG: Brad's been on the festival circuit with us. He likes the film and feels like it accurately portrays his experience, more or less. Which is of course a huge relief when you go to your premiere. We had ours at South by Southwest, in Austin, and many of our characters were there, and both David's and Brad's families came.

MJ: This was the first time they had seen it?

KDV: Except for Brad, whom we gave a private screening.

KG: So anyway, the response was entirely positive, I would say, and cathartic. There were family members who were furious at David and Brad, and they had not been able to hear the full story. When David was incarcerated, as he still is, he couldn't talk openly about all these things on the phone. And so his sister, for example, who held a lot of sadness and hostility about his actions, felt like she understood the circumstances in a different way. That's just one example.

After the doc came out, Darby sent the filmmakers a text: "Congrats. I don't agree, but congrats."

KDV: And David showed it in prison. He watched it with 20 other prisoners, and he said that all the prisoners were crying. Even though it was a very unique story to him, there were elements of it that felt familiar to all of them, and that felt very gratifying for us. He really felt like we captured the complexities, and we didn't shy away from the mistakes that David and Brad made. But we also allowed for enough of the story to come out that people could really experience it in a way that he wished they were able to in trial.

KG: We don't know if Brandon's seen it yet. He did send a text to Kelly that said, "Congrats. I don't agree, but congrats." We've just heard secondhand the FBI and prosecutors' perspectives, and I'm curious to hear their perspectives.

MJ: Over the closing credits, you have audio of Darby talking to radio host G. Gordon Liddy, and Darby is characterizing the likes of Crowder and McKay in much the same language a federal prosecutor might use. Why did you choose to end on that particular note?

KDV: In the beginning you hear these very provocative local newscasts, and then at the end you hear these very sort of exaggerated of retellings of a story, and I think it's important to sometimes showcase that so you can feel the difference between a complex story that you just lived through and the way the mainstream media sort of spits it back out at you. And then, it was important to show Brandon Darby's trajectory and where he ended up.

MJ: Not that it's a big surprise to see the media parroting the narrative of the authorities.

KDV: I think, each time you see it more blatantly, it hopefully has some sort of larger impact in terms of how the general public thinks about the media it's getting.

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