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50 Years After ‘In Cold Blood,’ a New Look at the Clutter Family Murders

An interview with Joe Berlinger, director of ‘Cold Blooded’

The 1959 murder of Herbert Clutter and his wife and kids in Holcomb, Kansas by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock was, by itself, rather unextraordinary. Such killings — the extermination of an entire family — don’t happen every day, but they’re not so statistically rare as to warrant the amount of attention paid to this particular case.

The reason we remember the Clutter family’s death by shotgun blast has almost nothing to do with the specifics of the crime, and almost everything to do with the aftermath: Truman Capote descended upon the town and wrote In Cold Blood, a wildly popular (and, in my opinion, fatally flawed) book about the case. This, in turn, would inspire a popular and lauded movie, Capote, about Capote’s and Harper Lee’s adventures working on In Cold Blood.

So, if anything, the murders have taken a backseat to popular culture.

In the two-part documentary Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders, which airs this weekend on Sundance TV, Joe Berlinger — co-director, with the late Bruce Sinofsky, of Brother’s Keeper, about an incident of alleged fratricide, and the Paradise Lost trilogy, about three teenagers falsely accused and convicted of murder — has made his focal point the Clutter family and their horrific end. It’s quite meticulous; Berlinger and his producers interviewed townspeople, law enforcement, and members of the Clutter family. (Worth noting: Contra the trailer, family members have, in fact, talked publicly about the killings; a brother spoke to a Lawrence, Kansas newspaper in 2005, and two sisters talked for the first time more than a decade ago, to students at University of Nebraska.)

Recently, Berlinger and I talked about the the film, the Maysles Brothers and the legacy of true crime.

I went into Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders skeptical because it’s such a famous case. What’s there to say about it, you know? At the outset of the project, what did you think there was to say or report?
I wasn’t sure what we would find, necessarily, so I can’t really say I knew we had stuff to report. But I had a hunch. Over the years, so little of what’s been done has been about the family, or the actual crime. There’s been so much done about Truman Capote and the killers.

This project started because I am obsessed with In Cold Blood, and always was. I read it in high school as an assignment, and it’s the first book that I then reread and reread. Something about it spoke to me very deeply. And with the 50th anniversary of the movie coming up, I felt there was an opportunity to explore it, and my obsession with it. Because I’ve become known as a true crime filmmaker, whatever that means, with all the baggage — negative and positive — that comes along with it. And the book had a fundamental impact on my fascination with crime, which obviously has been a through-line in my work.

In fact, the book deeply influenced the kind of filmmaker I am. In the early days, when we did Brother’s Keeper, the tradition of documentaries in the movie theater was still the exception rather than the rule. There were pockets of innovation: Errol Morris with Thin Blue Line, which was inspiring to me, as it was all about harnessing the re-creation; and Michael Moore was about filmmaker as hero, as muckraker. That was new in documentary. We were standing on the shoulders of the great ’60s vérité filmmakers: Pennebaker, Wiseman, Maysles.

The Maysles were your old bosses.
[Sinofsky and I] learned amazing things from the Maysles, including having the confidence to jump out a window and hope there’s a mattress to catch you. But where I feel we departed from them philosophically — and Brother’s Keeper is an example of it — is the Maysles believed there were no directors. That was the main tenet of the direct cinema philosophy — that you’re capturing an objective reality. But I believe no media is objective, that filmmaking is extremely subjective, even though it can be truthful, and should be truthful when you’re making a documentary. There are certain things you can’t do: You can’t put words into people’s mouths, or overly manipulate chronology. Any filmmaker who says they don’t manipulate chronology is kidding themselves.

But the Maysles believed they were capturing objective reality. We said, Mm. Instead of capital-T Truth, we were going for the emotional truth of a situation, of the human condition. If you’re saying all filmmaking is subjective, then why can’t you embrace all the great qualities of narrative film? That doesn’t mean making things up, of course, but narrative film is very conscious of dramatic structure. Hence [in Brother’s Keeper] the choice of a trial, because a trial has natural dramatic structure to it. And we had an original music score by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, which got us accused of manipulating people’s emotions.

Everything about the making of Brother’s Keeper was about emulating the great qualities of narrative fiction, without being fictional. It was a synthesis of documentary and narrative technique. And where did that come from? My obsession with Capote.

Do you think your faith in his work was misplaced? Problems with In Cold Blood have been reported over the years. The last scene, in the graveyard, was fabricated, and sequences were fudged.
Not really, but it was a cautionary tale. That’s why I always say we still have the responsibility, as journalists, to hew closely to the truth. And film is an approximation of reality to evoke the human experience; it’s not reality itself.

To return to Brother’s Keeper, for a moment: I never saw it as true crime, though I suppose it is.
There’s very prurient true crime, and there’s true crime that has a social justice function to it. And that’s where I’ve gravitated.

Brother’s Keeper was, as a film, purely an aesthetic exercise. I had no social justice thoughts. This was not a film about helping Delbert [Ward] or shining a light on an injustice. And when we went down to make Paradise Lost, we thought we were making a film about guilty teenagers. All the press reports coming out of Arkansas said it’s an open-and-shut case. These guys are guilty.

If you thought they were guilty, why was it interesting to you?
Because, at that time, there had been a rash of teens killing teens. There was a story in the U.K. of two little boys killing James Bulger on the railroad tracks. It was caught on CCTV. I tried to get access and couldn’t make it. Then Sheila Nevins sent us this article about kids killing kids. We were gonna use this terrible crime to paint the portrait of youth in America — who seemed to be running amuck — and be ambiguous about it. But halfway through the filming, we realized these guys were innocent, that something was quite wrong.

We embedded in the community for about eight months before the trial started. The first three months we were primarily spending time with the families of the victims, we had no reason to think we weren’t making a film about these rotten teenagers who did this terrible thing.

In all the coverage of the Clutter case I’ve seen, there hasn’t been much doubt expressed about the guilt of Richard Hickock and Perry Smith. Did it ever occur to you, even for a moment, that maybe they were innocent?
Never. To me, it’s unequivocal that they’re guilty. My way into this has been an analysis of the impact of the crime and the book, and the impact of both on American culture.

But also, books and movies about the Clutter murders have all been at the expense of the victims of the family members. For me, with Cold Blooded, it’s a self-critical thing. Because here I am, 25 years into my career, with most of my work being crime-related. And what happens in true crime is we make literary heroes out of the criminals, at the expense of the family members and victims.

It drives me up the wall.
The Clutter family feels betrayed by Capote. Look, I revere the book, but I also have to be self-reflective and think about all the things I’ve done in the true crime genre, my contributions to it, and in particular how the victim is often neglected.

One of the most painful experiences I had related to Paradise Lost is, when we first went down there, we spent most of the time with the families of the victims. And we said a lot of things, truthful at the time, to get access. Other families should hear what you’ve gone through, so that might prevent this from happening again. Earlier identification of kids who might have this propensity. We want to make a film that helps other people. That was basically the message, and it was a truthful message at the time.

Halfway through the filming we realized, Oh my god, it’s not about these rotten kids, it’s about their innocence. And we weren’t sure how to handle it, so we decided we’re not going to discuss what our thoughts were during the making of the film. It was a very conscious decision, because we felt that would get very complicated. Shortly before the film came out, we told the victims’ families what the film was about and what our perspectives were, and they were aghast. The victims’ family members cursed our names, hated us. It was very painful, and we tried to explain, Look, we understand your anger, we understand your pain, but we think they got the wrong guys. I understand, and I’ve always been very sympathetic to them hating us. Closure is a funny word — you can’t really say closure when your child has been murdered. But the healing process is dependent upon knowing who did it, and knowing justice has been served.

It was a long edit. We shot Paradise Lost in ’93 and ’94, and the film didn’t come out until ’96. So two years later, after they’re starting to move on and sort of be healed…

You and Bruce picked at the scab.
We ripped it open. They were very upset with us for years. Over time, and by the second film, two of the three families came to our point of view and agreed that the wrong guys were in prison. But even after the third film came out, one of the families to this day hates us, thinks we manipulated the situation, thinks the West Memphis Three are guilty, and that we were part of this scheme to get murderers out of prison.

I understand how they feel; it’s just not true. But back to your first question, of why I did this…

You were reckoning with your own inspiration?
I guess. And meditating on what true crime has wrought, good and bad.

There’s a lot of prurient observing of the trainwreck. There is a lot of true crime that has no social value or social justice component to it; it’s just wallowing in the experiences of terrible crime. What we forget when we do that is it’s not just a story; there’s someone on the other end for whom this is a tragedy, for whom this is painful.

In making Cold Blooded, were you not worried about reopening old wounds of the Clutter family?
For the family, the wound never goes away. With each passing generation, I hope the wound is a little more diminished. But this idea of closure for victims of crime is, I think, mythical. If you’re a victim of crime — particularly one like this, which inspired books and movies — it’s always with you.

We wanted the family to participate in the show so they would not feel assaulted by yet another media project. We wanted their perspective, to allow them to set the record straight, and to air their disappointment in how Capote treated the family. With the passage of time, my awareness of the price the victims have to pay has grown. And so it was important for me to have the Clutter family participate precisely so they wouldn’t feel bludgeoned again.

Not to say, by the way, that my work is better than Capote’s — because I revere Capote. But that’s why, for me, having a social justice aspect to the stories I choose is really important. Because I think the flaw of In Cold Blood and what it wrought was a fascination with crime, a humanization of the criminals. From a literary standpoint, when you overly humanize criminals — to the point where they’re literary heroes and they take priority over their victims — you’re doing a disservice. The Clutter family always felt they were a side note.

What were the toughest interviews to conduct?
I actually don’t think the interviews were the hardest part. I’ve done so many interviews about so many tough subjects — this was relatively light, to be honest with you. What was difficult, because it’s a past-tense story, was somewhat pandering to the clichés of the genre, i.e., the re-creations. This is one of the first times I’ve done re-creations.

Did you do re-creations because you had to?
I would say I wasn’t forced to do it, but the conventions of this kind of television — with a past-tense story and plenty of archival footage — means that spending four hours with just archival and interviews would be a little wearying. I felt, creatively, we needed recreations. But, of course, it’s a little hypocritical. I have a very self-aware sense of slight hypocrisy, if I’m making a commentary on exploitation, that we’re using re-creations to tell that story. But part of the fascination with this story has been the crime, and unless we bring that crime to life, it’s hard to make other things resonate in the show. So, for me, stylistically doing something that is in some ways antithetical to what I do as a filmmaker — and also somewhat hypocritical to the larger thesis of the show — was difficult.

The interviews were a piece of cake, compared to some of the things I’ve done, because the wound was an old wound. What’s hard is going in and sitting down, like on Paradise Lost, with families who had just lost their 8-year-olds to what they thought was a devil-worshiping Satanic ritual.

Part of what is satisfying about Cold Blooded is actually seeing and hearing from people that we’ve only read about. It’s epitomized, I think, by the footage at the end of Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend, and the monument for her he had built.
It’s still deeply impactful. He’s lived with this for decades.

I don’t know if you noticed this, but he would only give us audio interviews. He didn’t even want to be on camera. Then, at the very end, it’s the only time we ever see him, when he’s showing us the memorial and polishing it. That’s when he finally says, “Okay, I’ll be on camera.” But he didn’t even want to be, so it was an audio-only interview that you hear throughout.

I assume there was some negotiation involved with the Clutter descendents, who don’t really appear on camera, either. Just from behind. But I assume you did ask them.
Correct. They had no interest. And they had no interest in giving their names, either. But they were very generous with some of their archival material — personal documents that related to their side of things. We had access to personal memoirs and photographs and letters that haven’t been seen by anybody, because the Clutters have never participated before.

What was the reaction to the film by the Clutters? Do they believe that now, perhaps, this moment in their family’s history can finally be laid to rest? That they can be left alone?
Were they ambivalent about it? Yes. Did it take a long time to convince them to participate? Yes. When I showed them the program — which is something I almost never do with my work — was that a painful experience for them? Yes. Did they walk out of the room when recreations were playing? Yes. Did they love every aspect of the show? No. But were they happy that they participated? I think the answer is yes. They weren’t high-fiving, but I think they’re happy with it.

There’s no easy answer to the question.