Joshua Zeman produced some highly praised indie films, such as producing The Station Agent, Mysterious Skin, and The Hawk Is Dying, but the credit I’m most enthusiastic about is his small involvement with Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming. Joshua is in Portland screening his first directorial effort (with Barbara Brancaccio), Cropsey, a documentary about the truth in urban legends (to simplify things to an embarrassing degree).
Zeman has been kind enough to answer some of my questions (since I’ve been working while he was answering audience questions).
How has the experience been touring with the film? You’ve been receiving a lot of good press for Cropsey. How has the crowd reaction been?
Its been great. Meeting different folks and experiencing the film through their eyes is an extremely satisfying experience for any filmmaker. Urban legends and legend tripping are universal experiences so a lot of people can relate to the subject matter, and use their own experiences to connect with the film. Of course the reactions have been wonderful, and the crowds have been growing as more and more people hear about the film.You have a lot of experience working various aspects of a film. How did it feel to finally write and direct your own feature? Was there any reason you chose to do a documentary or did that come about organically? Do you prefer working in the documentary or fictional narratives?
I’ve been producing for quite some time, but I originally started out as a screenwriter. for much of the time I was producing, I was also making Cropsey. It just ended up taking a really long time for the film to finish, and get out there in the public eye, over 10 years. I’ve always had a soft spot for documentaries, and with this subject matter it was such a natural fit. I was really into the idea of making something that freak audiences out, considering it was all true.How did yourself and co-director Barbara Brancaccio get together to make this film?
Barb and I were both from Staten Island, but we didn’t know each other growing up. When we first met, our first conversation was about Jennifer and the intersection between the truth and the urban legend of Cropsey. A few days later we took a walk in the woods, and we immediately say the old Willowbrook State School Playground. The slide was all rusty and there was a old tricycle just sitting there in the woods. It was completely freaky. Then about two weeks later the District Attorney announced they were indicting Rand for the disappearance of Holly Ann Hughes, that was when we knew we had to make the doc.What was it that drew you to the subject?
We lived it, there’s no better reason than that. And the fact that I think we were both amazed that there were four children in Staten Island who’s bodies were never found. It felt like there was some unfinished business to do.Does it kill you a little bit inside every time someone mentions The Blair Witch Project in a review or write-up about Cropsey?
Sure, but you get used to it. We actually started the film before Blair Witch, but we weren’t concerned, but that was fake and this is real. Its pretty satisfying to get compared to such a amazing moment in filmmaking.You mentioned to me that you left a lot of questions at the end of the film that can be answered in the Q & A after the screening. What sort of reaction are you hoping to get from those who won’t have you there to answer their questions?I think its part of the continuing experience of the film. I think the experience of docs and films like this require going beyond the theater. In todays world the most exciting projects are the ones that have a life beyond 2 hrs in a dark room. I think its a big of a trap to provide all the answers. And of course the idea of the urban legend is its unprovable, so providing all the answers would take away that feeling of it being a scary tale.Were there any challenges in approaching the subject? How much pre-production research did you have to do? Did you find that the film took on a life of its own as you made it or did you have an story arc planned ahead of time? How much footage did you shoot and did you have to abandon any threads that you would like to have explored?
We shot about 400 hours, mainly because pre-trial motions lasted for more than four years. While that is an incredibly long time to wait, it forced us to do a lot more research outside of just the trial. That’s where the crux of the story really came from. The trial is just the framework, and in the end it didn’t matter if Rand was guilty or innocent. Its a film about storytelling and the stories we tell each other about the crimes that happen in our community. Its also about urban legends and because those can’t be proved or disproved, the truth becomes irrelevant.