Sunday, March 13, 2011

Of Dolls and Murder - Filmmaking Notes

If you want to know a bit more about Of Dolls and Murder, read on.

Filmmaker Notes

Director Susan Marks

From the moment I first saw the Nutshells of Unexplained Death I was hooked, for life. These intricate, and dare I say beautiful, dollhouse crime scenes were like nothing I’d ever seen. I wanted to chase down the brilliance behind these miniature crime scenes, tell that story and share it with audiences that would fully appreciate the Nutshells for their art, creepy quotient, and deeper connection to the pursuit of justice.

Making a motion picture film about dollhouses that are anything but in motion was problematic. But through the immense talent and skill of cinematographer Matt Ehling, co-producer John Kurtis Dehn, who also serves as sound recordist, editor and composer, and finally, post-sound engineer Carly Zuckweiler, I knew I had the perfect filmmaking team to put a little bit of life back in these dioramas of death.

Early on we realized that the Nutshells, small as they are, reflect real-life scenarios that play out again and again, every day. So, we took our cues from the miniatures and expanded the scope of the film to include true crime.

Our three-year filmmaking journey was fascinating. Every encounter at the morgue, medical examiners office, police station, museum, college, crime lab, crime scene, and yes, the Body Farm, left us in awe. The people we met along the way showed such generous and fierce devoted to the pursuit of justice that it was an honor to be in their presence and to learn from them. In particular, we are deeply indebted to Jerry Dziecichowicz, Dr. David Fowler and Eleanor Thomas of the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, as well as Detectives Rob Ross, Bob Dohony and Sean Jones from the Baltimore Police Department.

One of the things that impressed us the most was the deep respect everyone has for Frances Glessner Lee, the creator of the Nutshells. We, in turn, were captivated by her story and chased it down to the best of our ability, yet she remains somewhat of an enigma to us. We have more questions about her than answers. But this hasn’t deterred us; we are still chasing her genius.

I’m often asked how we got John Waters as our narrator, and I can’t help but think luck had a little something to do with it. Both John and the Nutshells reside in Baltimore where he was introduced to them a number of years ago by Judge Elsbeth Bothe. John became an instant fan and this eventually led him to answering our call, so to speak. Needless to say, we were thrilled that he agreed to be in our film. He is simply perfect for the part. Again, lucky for us because we never considered anyone else.

Throughout this whole process of making Of Dolls and Murder, John has been so supportive and wonderful. And at the risk of sounding like a schoolgirl with a crush, I think he may be the most brilliant person I’ve ever met. Imagine if he and Frances could have met. It would have been nothing short of extraordinary.

While we were in the early phases of production on Of Dolls and Murder many fans of the television show CSI asked me if I was aware that the seventh season of CSI had a story arc about a miniature serial killer. Indeed I was aware and I knew the inspiration came from the Nutshells Studies of Unexplained Death.

The producer and showrunner of CSI, Naren Shankar happily sat down with us to talk about the 7th season, the CSI effect, Nutshells, Frances Glessner Lee, and forensics. Besides being eloquent and charming, we were so impressed with Naren’s background. While he played it down, we were aware that he is a true scientist with several degrees in science including a Ph. D. in applied physics from Cornell. After our interview with him, my co-producer and I joked that Naren was some sort of science superhero and then we realized that the crime scene investigators portrayed on CSI are precisely that.

Deep in the edit process we found that we were missing something, some voice to help us link together various organic topics within the film, and that’s when we looked to Dr. Katherine Ramsland. Not only is she a Frances Glessner Lee and Nutshell scholar, but she’s also written numerous books on forensics and crime scene investigation, including The CSI Effect. She teaches criminal justice classes at DeSales University and was gracious enough to invite us to film her student processing a mock crime scene. But this wasn’t any ordinary mock crime scene! It was a life-sized replica of one of the Nutshell Studies cases, “Attic.” The similarities were uncanny and Katherine’s interview proved invaluable to us.

And finally, I have to say a few words about the music in our film. The soundtrack was far from an afterthought; my co-producer, John Kurtis Dehn and I talked about it constantly. We are both inspired by Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack for Twin Peaks, and we hoped that our soundtrack could resonate in a similar way.

Fortunately, John is also a talented musician and songwriter, creating much of the Of Dolls and Murder soundtrack.

We also worked with other musicians and singers such as Grant Dawson and Joseph Carl to create haunting melodies for the score. When we happened upon a haunting song by Jefferson Rabb from the website for the book, Strange Piece of Paradise (Terri Jentz, author) we thought it was perfect for our film. Both Jefferson and Terri graciously granted us permission to use song. Once again, we considered ourselves lucky and awed by the generosity of the individuals we’ve met encountered while working on this film.

If it sounds like working on Of Dolls and Murder was too good to be true, it might be. Maybe I’ll wake up and find out it was all just a wonderfully creepy dream. And yes, there is an Of Dolls and Murder II in the works!

Filmmaker Notes

Producer John Kurtis Dehn

When Susan Marks first approached me to co-produce a documentary about antique dollhouses and bloody doll corpses, I have to admit I had some reservations. Part of my hesitancy may have been that as a boy, I was never really raised to appreciate dolls and dollhouses. When I would play with dolls (or action figures as I called them) it usually involved some kind of warfare, but I never went so far as to decorate them in fake blood. Also, I was concerned that these miniature dioramas and the woman who created them might not be strong enough to sustain an entire film. I eventually agreed to be part of the project, mostly on faith in Susan’s instincts, and it wasn’t until I saw the dollhouses for myself, that I came to appreciate their power. I also had no idea where these miniatures would lead us.

I can’t imagine beginning a documentary project and knowing how it’s going to end. The things you learn along the way are bound to determine where your film goes, and that was certainly the case with Of Dolls and Murder. Seeing the Nutshells for the first time, I was taken in by their sublime beauty and intricacy. The detail and construction inspires awe and the dolls themselves, curiosity. We knew right away, that we had to try to make a beautiful looking film. Susan brought Matt Ehling into the project as Director of Photography and he did an amazing job, capturing some truly beautiful images. Matt’s experience as a documentary filmmaker was also a huge help to us and he chimed in as cheerleader whenever Susan and I showed any hint of doubt about what we were doing.

Susan’s beautiful photography of the Nutshells played a crucial role in our film as well. Because of the tiny scale of the dioramas, and the cramped quarters where they were displayed, we were limited as to the angles we could get at with our large video camera. Many of the detail shots that are used in the film are actually still photos that Susan was able capture.

The 2nd big discovery that ultimately shaped Of Dolls and Murder, was the men and women who work at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore and homicide detectives, Rob Ross, Bob Dohony and Sean Jones. We were profoundly moved by their dedication to their work, their respect for Frances Glessner Lee, and their generosity towards us.

The time we spend with these people, taught us that our film needed to be empathetic as opposed to sensationalistic, and that instead of going for gore or shock value, it needed to be a human film. Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. David Fowler says in the film that, “behind every single person that comes in here there is usually a group of friends, family, who have now suffered a significant loss. And so it’s not just one victim, the victim is in fact a group of people.”

The doctors, the autopsy technicians, the lab techs and the detectives that we came to know, have that sense of purpose of giving voice to all of the victims–all of them. As filmmakers we started to feel a responsibility as well, that we couldn’t be careless, and that we had an obligation to treat our film with the same seriousness and sense of purpose.

Lastly, having the chance to shape the soundtrack of the film was a big thrill. Susan had a strong sense of what she was looking for, which also matched my sensibilities. Again, empathy for the victims and the haunting beauty of the Nutshells were guideposts.

I’m very proud of our film. I feel extremely fortunate to have made many friends along the way and to have worked with such wonderful and talented people in the process.

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