Director Kitty Green talks to Awards Daily about bringing the groundbreaking and controversial Casting JonBenet documentary to fruition.
Casting JonBenet polarizes audiences and critics since premiering last week. The documentary, which revisits the infamous, unsolved murder of 6 year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, does not take the typical route when analyzing what happened that night in 1996. Director Kitty Green decided against used archival footage and traditional talking heads. She wanted to explore the emotions behind the other people affected by JonBenet’s death. Casting JonBenet features people talking directly to the camera, but they are mixing in their own feelings and thoughts of the case to create a much more complicated tapestry.
The most interesting thing about this documentary is that it doesn’t prominently feature anyone personally connected with the actual murder case. Green instead gathered actors (both semi-professional and amateur) to portray parents John and Patsy Ramsey. It’s experimental and strange but captivating.
“My interest is really more about human beings and how they connect more so than about actors or the process of acting. We dealt with actors and non-actors on the film. I was more intrigued by a community living in the shadow of a crime and how they connected with it personally. That was more of the drive of the film. We don’t have beauty child beauty pageants like that in Australia, so I was fascinated by it when the case first came about. We do get US media back in Australia, so I was definitely aware of it. Being Australian probably makes me more intrigued by the whole thing. I think people were more curious to talk to me because of that. ”
Before Green tackled this very American murder case, she used the same techniques with her short film The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul. The 8-minute short won the Short Film Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015.
“With a short, it’s very bare bones. There’s no cinematic sequences. For Casting Oksana Baiul, there was a beautiful image of her crying after she won the gold medal at the Olympics. She’s emotional and happy. I found out the girls were so open to ideas. We really used the same techniques for Casting JonBenet that we did on the short film, but we just needed to broaden it to a larger scale. We just expanded it. A feature film really allows us to do that to tell such a layered story in more depth.”
Green gets her actors to talk very openly in front of the camera in Casting JonBenet. I was personally taken aback by the amount of details her actors share. Since Green did casting calls near Boulder, Colorado (her and her crew traveled there on 3 separate occasions) almost everyone had a connection and recollection to the murder and the frenzy that it caused.
“I was surprised by everybody’s response to be honest. I was amazed by people’s reactions and their candor. What interested me was hearing what the community felt as a whole. These people still have to deal with not knowing. They still have more questions. Every day was a surprise on set. Every time someone opened their mouth, I was surprised. There were some really crazy theories being shared. What I noticed was how many people were quick to judge—especially of Patsy Ramsay. In the tabloid media, she was crucified. People could be very judgmental over her decision in entering JonBenet into the pageant circuit but also for her basic decisions on child rearing or how she raised her kids. It was fascinating to see the parallels between the media and the community. If you notice in the film, no one points their finger at the father. No one thought to really blame him. Nothing at John. Why are we so quick to judge? Why the obsession with judging or blaming someone’s way of raising their child?”
Accessibility is something that Green had in mind while making the film. One of the darkest moments is when she introduces actors auditioning for the role of John Mark Karr, the disgraced schoolteacher who falsely confessed to being involved in JonBenet’s death. Green didn’t think that many people would be jumping at the chance to play this man, but the results are really creepy. It’s so convincing that some viewers might forget that they are watching an actor.
“We really approached it so everyone would be able to watch it—even if they didn’t know anything. We really planned it out. It was fascinating to see who was going to show up for John Mark Karr. Not a lot of people were really dying to play a pedophile. That was an interesting day on set. It was definitely a dark and unsettling day for sure. There was one actor whose level of research was, to be honest, terrifying.”
The most striking visual comes at the very end of the film. Men and women have been paired up reading scenes as John and Patsy Ramsey for the entire film, but the finale is a strangely gentle and sad. All of the actors are on the set of the Ramsey household at one time acting out different scenarios and different levels of intensity. We will never fully know or understand what happened in that house that night.
“I’m most proud of the final sequence. It really allowed the community to express themselves in a way. They made all their own choices in that scene. There were 73 people really connecting on that set, and I thought it came together well. It was difficult because we had 20 actors working all at the same time with the camera moving across the entire set.”
The tragic thing about JonBenet Ramsey’s death is that it is still unsolved. At least with the O.J. Simpson case (the other hugely documented subject from the 90’s), there was an actual trial. Green has seen all of the recent specials and documentaries that deal with JonBenet’s murder (“I sort of have to watch everything in order to keep up,” she admits), but she laments that she doesn’t think we will ever know the truth.
“I’m hoping to close the book on JonBenet Ramsey. I don’t think we are ever going to know. It will remain unsolved, and I hope we won’t have to explore this anymore. How do we move forward from this? That’s something I wanted to ask. How do we keep going after something like this happened?”
Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet currently streams on Netflix.