Awards Daily TV talks to powerhouse producing and directing duo Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato as they take on the Menendez brothers in a new Lifetime film.
Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato have been producing and directing partners for over twenty years. Since creating World of Wonder Productions in 1991, they produce such shows as Ru-Paul’s Drag Race and Million Dollar Listing. Their documentary work includes Party Monster which they later made into a feature film, Inside Deep Throat, and the critically acclaimed Mapplethorpe:Look at the Pictures.
This month, Bailey and Barbato tackle the Menendez brothers for Lifetime. Menendez: Blood Brothers examines a new and interesting perspective on the story of Lyle and Erik Menendez. The Menendez brothers, of course, became infamous in the early 1990s as two brothers who killed their parents while they watched TV one night at their home in Beverly Hills.
The brothers’ story and subsequent trial gripped the country. In a conversation with Bailey and Barbato, we talk about taking on the case which still captures the public’s curiosity.
What made you want to take this project on?
Fenton Bailey: Randy and I were gripped by the story when it happened and over the years. The Menendez brothers were kind of hot, and it just seemed like such an interesting story. We’re always attracted to subjects that are over-exposed but yet under revealed.
I just remember thinking, “Are they really these cold-blooded murderers?” It just seemed weird. It was a crazy time in L.A. with the riots and Rodney King. At the time, we didn’t do anything about it because life goes on. With the anniversary coming up, it’s been 25 years. I thought this was such a juicy and interesting story.
Randy Barbato: I also think as filmmakers, most of our work is making documentaries. We did Party Monster the documentary and then the scripted film. We just felt it was time to be doing more scripted stuff. All of our stuff is about similar over-exposed but under-revealed stories. We’re attracted to the same kinds of story, but it’s all storytelling. With this film, the idea of working with Abdi Nazemian who’s this amazing screenwriter and with this incredible cast, all the pieces fell into place for us to be able to transfer our sensibilities in all the work we’ve done in documentary into a great script, a cool cast, and an amazing story. We hope people will get to see it and be open to the ideas that are explored in it.
It’s not necessarily the popular notion. We’re not trying to defend their horrific actions, we’re just trying to take a different look at what might have inspired those actions.
We’re so obsessed with true crime. I remember when this happened. As you said, it’s been 25 years, and we’re still obsessed. What is our obsession with true crime?
Fenton: I think it’s the similar thing that fascinates people about O.J. Simpson. I wonder if it’s true crime or was it this intersection of crime and popular culture as well. It wasn’t just true crime, it was money and glamor, right?
Fenton: We moved here in 1994. The crime happened in 1989. The brothers were still being trialed in 1993, and that ended in a deadlock. The second trial happened, and they weren’t actually convicted until 1996. During that time, there were all these other things happening, and it did feel as if what was happening in L.A. was where it was at in terms of culture.
You could ask, “Where is it at right now?” I guess it’s in D.C. right now. This confluence of things and all these layers, I think the Menendez story contained many of those layers. It was glamor and it was sex too because the abuse was on one hand deeply shocking and deeply weird. We hadn’t heard of that before. Even the battered woman defense was relatively new. The judge said, “You’re trying to use the battered woman defense. How can you use it when your client is a man. You can’t use that defense if you’re a man.”
It seems absurd now, but back then it didn’t seem so absurd because people didn’t believe you could be a battered man.
That’s insane. I was watching it, and thinking we’re watching this in 2017.
You shot this in Canada and did a very good job of making it look like Beverly Hills. Talk about the shooting of this.
Fenton: There are two answers to that.
Randy: Well, we’ve always brought a starving kitty sensibility to all of our projects. We grew up in the East Village and in a D.I.Y. culture, so we had to be incredibly resourceful. We shot in Vancouver.
Fenton: 19 days.
Randy: 19 days. It rained every single day.
Fenton: On the day of our exteriors it snowed
Oh my goodness. Talk about a challenge.
Fenton: It didn’t rain for half of one day.
Randy: It didn’t shoot for half that day, and we’re just resourceful so shooting Beverly Hills in –
Fenton: -the summer, in Vancouver in the winter.
Randy: It was tricky but we had an incredible cast and crew that helped us get around it. The other thing is that it’s a pretty ambitious script for 19 days. We averaged around forty setups a day. We moved at the speed of lightning and that was exhausting. [Laughs]
On the subject of casting. It’s amazing. Courtney Love is fantastic as Kitty, but everyone is so perfectly cast. Talk about your casting process and how you got everybody on board.
Randy: Courtney Love was all of our first choices.
Fenton: She had to be Kitty. You wouldn’t necessarily think of Courtney Love rockstar as Beverly Hills housewife. She knows that whole world so well, not of it. When we sat down to talk to her about the role, she completely got it instantly and intuitively understood it. She brings this incredible vulnerability to a very tough role.
She’s playing this mother who is by turn suicidal and alcoholic and enabling. It’s a very difficult role to pull off and not have the audience hate you. I think she really revealed the psychology of someone who is trapped in an abusive situation and is not really able to protect her kids or extricate herself from it.
Randy: It was incredible working with her because she could articulate precisely what she was trying to achieve. She was a workhorse. Props to Lifetime who were as committed as we were to really getting a stellar A-List cast. It’s a big part for Myko Olivier who was also our first choice. I think all of us knew we had a special script and really wanted to get the most stellar cast because we felt we had a chance to compete. It was a special project and we weren’t going to settle for anything less than the cast that we ended up with.
I loved how there’s a shot with Courtney as Kitty, and Jose is getting out of bed. She doesn’t say anything, but you see the pain and torture. That scene was so perfectly captured.
Fenton: It’s a real tribute to Courtney because people so often say, “Why didn’t she do anything? Why didn’t she leave?” From the outside, especially then, the idea that people could be stuck in this abusive cycle was just very alien to people, and we didn’t understand it. I still think that today, people don’t completely understand it. People say, “Just leave,” and it’s not so easy. It’s more complicated.
We were originally going to call it A Family Affair because I feel in a way, that’s what the film is about. It’s about the dynamic, however dysfunctional, of this family that did also love each other.
Randy: It was a pretty brutal shooting schedule and like Fenton said earlier. It was cold and rainy and not ideal, but the cast worked so hard and became so close. We were just so fortunate with the cast and crew, together, it took a village. People seemed to feel like we were making something a little different than your movie of the week.
You’ve been working together for so long now and must have it sussed, but how do you divide your directing duties?
Fenton: I know. We’re totally the wrong people to ask that question. [Laughs] It’s sort of organic really. We somehow figure it out.
Randy: I’m from New Jersey, so I can be loud and bossy. Fenton and I are getting up a couple of hours before hand and going through the day, figuring it out, and it is really organic. Also, with all the pre-production, we’re pretty involved with shaping the stories.
Fenton: Originally, it was going to be a documentary with reenactments, and then it gradually evolved into a fully scripted project. We had a very clear vision for the outline from the beginning. By the time we got to set, we knew all the different things we were trying to get out in the time we had.
I want to talk about the prison scenes. Usually, prisons are like hell. They’re dark and just not well lit. In your scenes, you light them differently.
Fenton: I’m so glad you noticed that because the whole idea is that prison is full of light for Erik. The irony is that he is free of the situation is was in even though now he’s in prison. We didn’t necessarily want a gloomy and gothic prison.
The end shot was great. That barrel shot you use.
Fenton: There are a few things. In real life, it was the last thing we shot. It was a tropical deluge.
Randy: It was raining.
Fenton: It had rained all the time. For the final day, it rained the hardest. I had never seen it rain that hard ever. But then you know, it was perfect, and it was amazing how fate sometimes helps you out. Myko was amazing, and it was like the cherry on top of this perfect performance. He brought such raw emotion to it.
I don’t think there was a dry eye on set watching him in that moment. It felt right that, after all is said and done, I felt it would be the final way to grab you. You’ve been on this journey with him and he just looks straight at you.
It was striking.
Fenton: Right? We have such great performances from everyone Nico (Tortorella), Courtney, Myko, and Benito (Martinez). Meredith Scott Lynn was great. Myko just got that character.
Randy: Hopefully, people will look at the film and take these performances seriously. I feel they’re contenders.
You have so much going on at World of Wonder. What I want to know is if we’ll be seeing more scripted series from you?
Randy: Yes, we are working on a few things, and two of them are scripted projects. That’s something where World of Wonder is definitely leaning in on scripted as we continue doing non-scripted and documentary.
Fenton: It’s all storytelling. Whether it’s scripted or not, it’s all storytelling. I often feel the differences between the two are less than the similarities.
How did you manage to condense it all into 90 minutes? I wanted more.
Fenton: I think one way you condense it is you only have 19 days to shoot. [Laugh] In the other respect, it’s really about distilling this story down. It really is an epic story, and I agree with you that you want more. By focusing on Erik’s journey and experience, it became manageable. It was important for an audience that may not be empathetically disposed to their story. It felt the right length to give a complete story in that period.
It’s not the last word on that story by any means, but it is a succinct new perspective. Having said that, it’s not like we were making stuff up, we approached it with “What if they were telling the truth? Let’s look at it from that angle.” The more we got into it, it just seemed that they well could have been telling the truth. There’s that cliche, that often the simplest explanation is the truth. It ended up being the simplest explanation.
We spoke with a lot of people who had indirect experience whether they were therapists or direct experiences with vs of incestuous sexual abuse, and it was extraordinary how what they said, completely independent of the Menendez brothers, was similar to what we had discovered. The same patterns of what they were saying came up and we recognized those patterns, that made us think, what if they were telling the truth?
It was good to have a span of years from the actual crime and all the coverage that happened. There’s a lot of heat but not a lot of light. The benefit of a cooling-off period was helpful in bringing a new perspective.
You did such a great job of making me want to research and think that?
Fenton: One thing that you should Google is Dominick Dunne’s Vanity Fair reporting. He was this famous writer who had a vested interest because tragically his own daughter was murdered. That’s how he became a crime journalist reporter. What was interesting was that he condemned the boys consistently. A new biography reveals that actually during the trial, he thought they were telling the truth. Even though he was convinced that they were lying when they testified. He thought, “What if I got it wrong?” That’s not in our film as there wasn’t room for it.
It’s an example of how I feel that often in these cases, consensus mindset over runs all other considerations, and it just becomes simple stereotypes of good and evil. I felt very possibly that the true story of what happened got overlooked by this tsunami of coverage that was just repeating the same things.
Can you imagine this trial taking place now?
Fenton: Truth still has a hard time coming out. Even with everything. It was good to have a span of years from the actual crime and all the coverage that happened. There’s a lot of heat but not a lot of light. The benefit of a cooling-off period was helpful in bringing a new perspective.
Menendez: Blood Brothers airs on Lifetime Sunday, June 11, at 8pm ET.