This has been a banner year for nonfiction filmmakers revisiting famous crimes, with new documentaries about O.J. Simpson, JonBenét Ramsey, and wrestler Dave Schultz attracting accolades and viewer attention. Next up in this true-crime parade is Netflix’s feature-length documentary, Amanda Knox, which premieres on the streaming service on Sept. 30 following rave reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, the film recounts the world-famous case of Amanda Knox, the American student living abroad in Italy who in 2007 was accused of murdering her roommate, Meredith Kercher, with the alleged assistance of her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. Originally found guilty and sentenced to 26 years, Knox later had her conviction overturned, although the case continued to bounce through the Italian justice system for the next eight years before the country’s Supreme Court ultimately acquitted her in 2015.
It’s worth noting that Amanda Knox doesn’t attempt to readjudicate her trial. Instead, the filmmakers focus on the way her case was tried in the media, with salacious headlines splashed daily in tabloid newspapers and content-hungry cable news networks. Yahoo TV spoke with Blackhurst and McGinn about the darkly comic aspects of this tragic story and what the Amanda Knox case says about journalism in the 21st century.
In researching your past credits, it was interesting to note that you’ve both previously collaborated on a number of comedy shorts for sites like Funny or Die. Did that background throw any participants off as you set about making Amanda Knox?
Brian McGinn: We have a wide variety of interests; I’ve worked in the documentary world before this, and I also make Chef’s Table for Netflix. People tend to want to put folks in a box, but both Rod and I are interested in so many things, and this story was compelling on a number of levels. For us, the throughline in everything we’ve worked on is finding characters and narratives that are exciting and say something about the way we live now or the way society behaves. That was certainly our entry point for Amanda Knox.
And yet, knowing your background, there are moments of humor in the documentary that do stand out, even though you’re tackling a very serious subject. There’s something darkly funny about the way the case unfolded and the stereotypical perceptions the involved parties had of each other.
Rod Blackhurst: A lot of those moments come at points where you can see how this story with a tragedy at its center was turned into entertainment. The way the Amanda Knox case was presented to people was affected by this new era of the 24-hour news cycle, clickbait journalism, and social media. It’s the same thing we see happening today in our presidential election.
McGinn: Once the machine got going and the world latched onto this story, things flew off the rails a little bit. And that inevitably creates these absurd situations and moments that make people laugh. But hopefully, it’s the kind of laughter where you’re looking away from the screen. In the film, there’s contrasting footage of Donald Trump saying we should boycott Italy and the Italians defending their position. There’s a level of lunacy that happens when a tragedy turns into a discussion about whether we should be boycotting a country.
One of the hooks of true-crime documentaries is the expectation that you might see a high-profile crime definitively solved with the revelation of new evidence or testimony. That’s really not the purpose of your film. Do you anticipate any viewers being disappointed that there are no new answers about the crime itself?
Blackhurst: The final ruling [exonerating Amanda] from the Italian Supreme Court is in the film, and we use it to anchor the story and work our way back from there to illuminate the facts as they were presented over the years. We wanted the story to be told by people on opposing sides of the conversation.
McGinn: We’re well aware that there are two very different opinions about what happened in this story. There are probably many more than two! And we’re also aware that there’s a cottage industry of armchair detectives investigating stories like this hoping to get to the bottom of it. Part of the question we’re asking with the film is why are we so fascinated by these true-crime stories. The case has been discussed so much from a legal standpoint, and we were more fascinated by the way media coverage evolved.
Did you personally begin the film with definite ideas about Amanda’s guilt or innocence? How did those evolve over production?
Blackhurst: For us, it was never about trying to play armchair detective. The film is sort of a re-examination of how this happened versus a whodunit. We wanted to take the time to get a sense of the basic facts, rather than the stories we had seen saturate the media market. We truly wanted to understand who these people were. At the end of the day, they’re all human beings and deserve empathy regardless of whether they handled certain situations correctly or not. When we met Amanda and Raffaele, what we saw were real people who were turned into accidental celebrities that were caught up in all these judgments and assessments of them by others. They’ve been turned into characters in some piece of entertainment, and they’re trying to break free of that. But who knows if that will be possible? As a society, we have this strange process of using these people up and spitting them out before moving on to the next case.
Meredith Kercher’s family declined to be interviewed. Were there any other key figures who didn’t want to participate?
McGinn: We wanted to get right to the heart of the story, which meant speaking with as few people who could give a comprehensive account of what happened as possible. We reached out many times to the Kercher family and their legal representatives, and we made sure to have their voices in the film [through news footage]. Their daughter was senselessly taken from them, and after the final verdict, we return to [footage] of her mother, Arline, and you see how the family is still trying to process what happened.
As the film points out, the person who has gotten somewhat lost amid the media’s relentless focus on Amanda is Rudy Guede, who was convicted of the crime and is still in prison. In your research, did you get a sense that he was treated differently by the media or justice system because of his race and status as an immigrant?
Blackhurst: That’s not something we looked into, but there are a number of articles about that. In the same way that Amanda and Raffaele had assessments made about who they were based on their sex and age, people said the same things about Rudy. We did want to speak to him, and his lawyer spoke on his behalf. It was important that we included that interview as it related to the objective facts at hand.
The media is mostly represented in the film by Nick Pisa, who published some of the more damning details about Knox in tabloid outlets like the Daily Mail. Some of his comments suggest he’s not particularly regretful of the role he played in the coverage.
McGinn: Clickbait journalism was really evolving when this case happened, and at the same time, hard news outlets were cutting back on foreign correspondents, so freelance journalists like Nick would work for a number of different organizations. How could any journalist be expected to do any traditional reporting when the news cycle changes so quickly? Even now, there’s a lot of great long-form journalism, but the pervasive media landscape is very interested in the evolution of stories overnight. And as Nick, who is very open and honest in the film, points out, that comes from consumers. We demand it because we like instant gratification in our news.
Blackhurst: One could say that we need to be better about judging the sources where news comes from. But look at the sources that want to talk about where President Obama was born instead of what someone’s policies are. There are major news outlets that are covering things in ways designed to get people clicking [on articles] over and over again. Other places besides the Daily Mail are blurring the lines between what is entertaining clickbait and what’s being presented as hard news.
At the height of the public’s fascination with the case, even the smallest scraps of footage of Knox were being closely analyzed. In the documentary, you shoot her in a way that invites viewers to study her as she appears now. What do you hope they see?
Blackhurst: In the film, Amanda says that people want to look into her eyes to see what they say about her. But her yes aren’t objective evidence! As filmmakers, we wanted to let her and the other subjects talk directly to the audience. This is as close as you’ll get to sitting across from them at a table. Amanda, in particular, has been a cipher for people; they see in her what they want to see based on ideas they’ve already subscribed to.
McGinn: There’s a film technique called the Kuleshov Effect, where you cut between a person’s passive face and three separate images. The idea is that the audience will see their own emotional reaction to those images in the face of the person onscreen. We found that there’s a similar reaction that people have to Amanda; they analyze her behavior based on the way they think a person should behave. For example, her kiss with Raffaele [outside of the crime scene] is probably the most iconic image of the case. In the documentary, we show that image multiple times in different contexts, and there’s also a wide shot of the same moment we acquired from a local cameraman. In that version, you can see the scene packed with police cars and policemen milling around. So it contextualizes the whole thing a little bit more. They’re waiting outside in a situation they’ve never been in before. It brings up this question of: “How would I behave?” And that’s a big part of how people have reacted to this case over the past 10 years.
Amanda Knox premieres Friday, Sept. 30 on Netflix.