Since her murder on Christmas Day 1996, JonBenet Ramsey has inspired the world’s fascination — this 6-year-old beauty queen with the demanding mother Patsy and businessman father John whose death remains unsolved. In the two decades since, myriad books and TV movies have sprung up to chronicle the case — not to mention an endless array of gossipy tabloid speculation about who may have killed her and why.
But just when you thought you didn’t need one more film about this hideous crime, here comes Australian documentarian Kitty Green’s riveting Casting JonBenet, which approaches the material from a fresh and provocative perspective. Rather than rehashing rumors, she traveled to JonBenet’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado, holding a series of open casting calls for locals to audition for roles in a very unconventional movie. Green wasn’t interested in making a tawdry Lifetime thriller: Casting JonBenet consists mostly of on-camera interviews with semi-professional actors and average Coloradans who wanted to try out for parts in Green’s nonexistent “movie” — particularly, the roles of Patsy and John. She hit record and then let them talk.
Casting JonBenet doesn’t pretend to reveal the truth of what happened to JonBenet, but it’s a fascinating psychological experiment in human behavior. Everyone we meet in the movie has his or her own theory of what happened, and many of them have personal stories that relate to the Ramsey family tragedy. One man tells of an experience of waking up one morning next to his girlfriend, discovering that she’d died in her sleep. Another on-camera subject reveals that, since his last interview session with Green a few months earlier, he’s been diagnosed with cancer. A third spends part of his interview, for no good reason, explaining his job as a sex educator. We don’t learn much about JonBenet’s murder, but we discover a lot about Green’s subjects, who have lived in the shadow of her killing and seem to have internalized it in deep, profound ways.
MEL recently spoke to Green about Casting JonBenet, which starts streaming on Netflix today. “It felt like some sort of strange community theatre project by the end of it,” Green said, noting that she “auditioned” 72 people for the documentary. During our chat, she talked about how opinions on the case split across gender lines, why the film made her feel like a therapist, and what it’s like to hear the darkest secrets of total strangers.
Casting JonBenet isn’t a conventional documentary or thriller. How much did you tell the participants before you interviewed them?
We needed them to be very honest with us, so we had to be very honest with them. Before they sat down, I gave them a 15-minute spiel about how I envisioned the film would come together — which would mean that the casting material would be used in the film, that multiple people would be playing the same role and that we’d be doing a series of reenactments on a studio soundstage. I think something like 99 percent of them were happy to step down that rabbit hole with us.
Did you have expectations about the people auditioning or how’d they feel about the JonBenet case?
I’ve read every book and watched every TV special about the case — there are hundreds of them. But I still wanted to go in with an open mind, and I wanted the community to give me their impressions of what happened. The press is quite critical of Patsy Ramsey, and I thought the community were as well — there were parallels between what I’ve read in the media and what we heard from locals.
For me, though, the most interesting thing was how organically they connected their own emotional and personal experiences to this case. They would sit down and immediately tell me, “Well, Patsy Ramsey must have done it, because my mother has bipolar disorder and Patsy must have had bipolar disorder, because I saw this-or-that in her behavior.” I didn’t really have to push or prod them to get emotional content out of them.
The women in the movie seem to be mixed about Patsy, while the men are very admiring of John, talking about how impressive he was as a businessman. Was there a split along gender lines?
Oh, for sure. All of my documentaries have been about women and their representation in the media. I think I was initially drawn to this case because of the way the press treated Patsy Ramsey as well as the imagery of JonBenet herself. And immediately, you can see that the men respect John and feel like they understand him [and think] that he’s a good guy. But the women are so critical of Patsy. So that [gender split] presented itself right away.
Casting JonBenet seems to suggest that we’re much more demanding of moms than we are of dads in our society. There’s this consistent judgment being made about Patsy in the film — basically, people disapproved of the way she raised her daughter.
That was my impression of how the community views the case. The other thing was that Patsy was from the South. The beauty pageant system isn’t a big thing in Colorado — it’s more of a Southern tradition. So, the communities in Colorado were critical of how she chose to raise JonBenet via the pageants and their glitz and glamour. I was struck by that, and I tried to include it in the film.
Also, I wanted to show how women are often quite critical of each other. At one point, a friend of mine watched [the documentary] and said, “It’s getting kind of gossipy.” And I was like, “That’s exactly what we were trying to hit — that these women do gossip and they kind of pull Patsy down for her behavior or her parenting skills.” I was fascinated by all of that — maybe because I’m Australian and it’s all foreign to me, the system of pageants.
But the movie also seems to argue that people are quick to judge others based on their biases and impressions. Everybody in Casting JonBenet has formed their opinions on what they’ve heard or read — not from any facts they have themselves. This seems to be a dangerous and inaccurate way to evaluate others.
Yeah, we were looking at “What do you do with an unsolved crime?” We have a crime that likely won’t be solved any time in the near future. How does a community come to terms with uncertainty, ambiguity and doubt? And what do they use to move forward or make sense of something they just don’t have to the answer to?
Maybe that explains why so many of the people in the film unburden themselves on camera — almost as if the interview was a kind of therapy.
They’ve been living in the shadow of this crime for 20 years, and they cannot escape it. JonBenet Ramsey is still on the cover of tabloid magazines. I think, for a lot of them, it was cathartic to talk about their connections to this case, what they’ve thought all along, what they’ve been holding onto and how it connects to their own lives.
Do you think of the types of films you do as psychological/sociological experiments?
I mean, that’s part of any documentary — the best examine the human condition. [Casting JonBenet] is not a whodunit, I was just generally interested in people’s experiences. I went to film school, and I love the control you have in fiction filmmaking. I like building sets and being able to plan shots and things like that. But the thing that’s so powerful about documentary is how raw, real and heartbreaking it can be — and how emotional and human it is.
Did you feel that you needed to protect any of your subjects? They really expose themselves in the movie. People cry and reveal their darkest secrets to you, a total stranger.
Yeah, I was very careful. I care a lot about these people, and I got to know them very well. I kind of have a personal relationship with all 72 cast members — I do a lot of emailing and phone calls. [Laughs] I looked after them as best I could, but ultimately, we were creating a film and the emotional trajectory was the most important thing. There has to be heartbreaking moments — but there needs to be moments of lightness, because the audience needs to exhale. So getting that balance right without taking advantage of anybody was important to me.
I’m specifically wondering about the guy who comes in to audition to play a cop and describes himself as a sex educator; soon, however, he’s showing you different toys. How did you meet him?
He arrived in a leather cop uniform and sat down and was just himself. The most amazing thing about him was that he didn’t want to talk about JonBenet Ramsey — he wanted to talk about kink, so I let him. And that’s who we ended up going with. That was the most amazing thing about this idea of open casting calls — you never know who is going to walk in next.
Yeah, but he actually had some insights into the claims that JonBenet Ramsey had been sexually assaulted — insights that other people wouldn’t have because of his interests. Did he say why he wanted to audition?
I’m not sure. Two hundred people came down to talk to us, and all of their motives were different. I think he wanted to show off his sex toys. [Laughs] I’m not sure what his motivations were that day. But I think he enjoyed it.