“They really care about cinema”: Matt Ruskin talks Amazon, Crown Heights and Jeff Sessions
Josh Slater-Williams | On 04, Jun 2017
Crown Heights was one of the most buzzed-about films to get picked up by Amazon at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s hardly surprising, given the horrific case of real-life injustice at the centre of its story. Colin Warner (played in the film by Lakeith Stanfield), a Trinidadian, New York-based man, was convicted in the early 1980s for a murder he had absolutely no part in, with almost nothing in the way of evidence, even with the actual guilty party apprehended and also sentenced. Warner got 15 years to life, and was only released after 21 years thanks to the efforts of his friend on the outside, Carl King (played in the film by former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha), who devoted his life to exposing the shoddiness of the initial case that sent Warner away.
Although Crown Heights is currently in search of a UK theatrical distributor, it’s screening at Sundance London this weekend. We sit down with Matt Ruskin – who wrote, directed and co-produced the film – to discuss bringing a 21-year spanning story to the screen, how his subjects feel about the finished film, his experience with Amazon, and the orange elephant in the room that is the Trump administration.
Unlike a lot of true crime stories, Crown Heights avoids any sort of framing device, with the narrative being told in a linear fashion. Could you explain that creative choice?
When I was writing the script, that was a big question: how to deal with the fact that the story spanned 20-plus years. I think there’s certainly a version of the film where it’s rooted in a present tense retelling. The thing that I really wanted to try and hang on to was this sense of shock and confusion that Colin felt when he was arrested. And so it felt like any framing device would take that away; we would lose that. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice, but in the interest of trying to experience this with him, we tried to approach it in a linear fashion.
That approach definitely makes sense
There was a lot of debate about that, and second guessing.
Before or after shooting?
[Laughing] After. It’s way easier to second guess before, because it’s a much easier change to make.
Could you describe juggling the writer, director and producer responsibilities for the film?
It was really out of necessity. I think of myself as a director first and foremost. I love writing; I really respect and admire great writers. But I couldn’t hire anyone to write this script, I wasn’t in that position. I did a lot of the things out of necessity. Writing it was great because I worked really closely with Colin and Carl and some of the lawyers, and even some of the witnesses. This research aspect of it was really interesting and engaging, because these people are still around. In terms of producing, it was really, again, out of necessity, until I was able to bring a couple of producing partners in.
“When I first heard the story, it was really relevant. When I started writing the script, it felt even more relevant.”
How did you go about gaining Colin Warner and Carl King’s trust to tell their story?
It was a process. They had initially optioned their story to a couple of big studios, and then the studios never did anything with it. They never even had a script written. So by the time I came around, I was this humble, hungry filmmaker based out of Brooklyn, and that was a really welcome change, but still they were a little sceptical. They wanted to get to know me, and it was really the better part of a year where I would just call them up and was really persistent about wanting to tell their story. I think, eventually, because I just wouldn’t go away, they thought ‘this guy might be really committed so we should give him a chance’.
Do you know what Colin and Carl think of the completed film?
They were both really happy. I think for Carl, the friend, it was much easier; he was really happy with the film. I think for Colin, it brought up a lot of difficult memories. If you try and tell somebody’s story in 90 minutes, particularly somebody who was wrongfully incarcerated for 21 years, it has to feel like a cartoon [to them] in some way, shape or form. So there must be an element of it where it just feels so different from what you experienced. But I think at the other side of the spectrum there were aspects of it that were very difficult for him, that just brought him back. It must be such an odd experience to watch a 90-minute film that’s supposed to be your life, 21 years of your life. But I think he feels like the film got it right and I think that he is really happy with the results.
The film was presumably shot before last year’s US Presidential election
Before we even knew he was running for President.
Regarding Trump’s cabinet, do you think Crown Heights, with its addressing of institutional racism regarding imprisonment, plays any differently with Jeff Sessions now in the role of Attorney General?
Yeah, I guess what I would say is that when I first heard the story [of Colin Warner] six years ago, it was really relevant. And then, when I started writing the script, it felt even more relevant. And today, I never imagined that it would feel even this dire and increasingly relevant. So, yeah, unfortunately it feels like, particularly with Jeff Sessions, that a bad situation just got a lot worse, and that whatever sort of small progress that was made or being discussed in terms of, at the very least, less harsh drug sentencing – which is a slightly different topic, but this guy is turning the clock back on all of that stuff… so it’s really awful.
Would you say that the film felt potent when you were making it but now feels like something of a statement?
Yeah, I think that’s true. All of us are trying to figure out what the hell is going on in our country, and my hope is that this is limited to four years and that it’s just like a backlash; that ultimately the trend and the tides are heading in the right direction. I don’t know that for sure, but that’s my hope. And sure, any film that deals with these relevant social and political issues is just that much more of a statement. I think that’s really a great way to put it.
“It’s great that companies are still investing in [the theatrical] model.”
Could you discuss your experience with Amazon Studios acquiring the film at Sundance?
Yeah, they’re great. A lot of the guys that work at Amazon now are sort of legends from the independent film world in the States, and in particular New York. They really care about cinema, and although they have this huge online platform, they’re doing traditional theatrical windows now. So our film will have a traditional theatrical release where it’ll only be in theatres before it hits the VOD services. And I think it’s great that companies are still investing in that model, especially for smaller films that aren’t full of star power and things like that. I think they’re great, and they care about films and they care about filmmakers. Even a little movie like ours gets a lot of attention. We couldn’t be happier with them.
Crown Heights is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.