'American Murder' director discusses Chris Watts and the Watts family murders: 'This is a man who is a stranger to the truth'
From the beginning, the new Netflix documentary, American Murder: The Family Next Door, was never going to be a typical true crime documentary. In telling the tragic story of Shanann Watts — who was murdered along with her two daughters and unborn child by her husband, Chris Watts, in 2018 — director Jenny Popplewell made the bold creative choice to let Shanann herself guide the narrative by using footage and text messages she posted on Facebook or had stored on her phone. That’s how the U.K. based filmmaker first experienced the story herself, visiting Watts’s social media presence after news of the Colorado murders filtered across the Atlantic.
“I went straight to Shanann's Facebook page, and she's still alive on there and feels like everybody else, you know?” Popplewell tells Yahoo Entertainment. “That just stuck with me. I decided that rather than our film telling people what to think, we could just show them.”
Premiering on Netflix on Sept. 30, American Murder shows viewers not only material that Shanann filmed or wrote herself, but also footage from police body-cams, interrogation rooms, news reports and even a neighbors’ security camera. “We couldn’t have made this film two or three years ago,” Popplewell says. “Everything was captured on camera in some kind of recording device.”
Much of the private footage that the director incorporates into the film was made publicly available by police, although she still made a point of seeking the cooperation of Shanann Watts’s family. Among the never-before-seen material the family allowed included in the film is video footage from Shanann and Chris’s wedding, as well as a moving letter than Shanann wrote to her husband weeks before he killed her. “That letter corrected the narrative by showing she wanted to make their relationship work. There was no room left for him to say that she was making things difficult for him, and he felt this was the only way out. I felt like it exonerated her.”
Popplewell makes it clear that the film’s ultimate intention is not to re-try the case, but instead offer confirmation that Chris Watts and Chris Watts alone is responsible for the deaths of his family. Despite pleading guilty to the crimes, Watts — who is currently serving five life sentences — has offered varying accounts about his motives and Shanann’s own behavior; during his first confession, which is presented in American Murder, he claimed that she murdered their daughters after he asked for a separation. “This is a man who is a stranger to the truth so I'm not looking to him to give us any facts in the film,” Popplewell says emphatically. “He's someone we just watch tell lie after lie after lie.”
Yahoo Entertainment: How much of this documentary was, for you, a way to comment on how our lives today are documented on social media and elsewhere?
Jenny Popplewell: The film does provide a sense of how we have a camera in our hand everywhere we go, and every moment is captured for home video. But what it’s not so much about is how we perhaps lead a fake life online. If you look back at Shanann’s Facebook page, she doesn’t mention Chris or how wonderful he is after he starts detaching from her. Her last public mention of him is the pregnancy announcement, and that was the last time they were happy. After that, he begins his affair and her posts become very sporadic and withdrawn.
So I don’t think she’s guilty of oversharing and saying everything’s great when it wasn’t. I know that’s what people think she did. I think she was happy; I’ve looked back through years of her personal archive, and there were lots of happy family events with her and Chris. Their weekends revolved around the children, and they were really engaged and happy in those videos. It all changed when he committed adultery [with Nichol Kessinger]. That’s something she’s completely blindsided by, and desperately spends five weeks trying to understand while she’s pregnant with their child.
That’s the story I wanted to show: We’re not here to solve the crime, because no one will understand why Chris did this. He doesn’t know why he did this. We know what the trigger was: It was an affair that got too much for him, and he made a ridiculous choice to get rid of one life for another. I can’t explain that, but what I can do is tell Shanann’s story, and the lead up to her heartbreak is so relatable to so many people. She’s so relatable, and I hope people sympathize with her and stop the victim blaming.
To that point, you touch on the way some people online sought to blame Shannan, but it’s not a major topic. Was that something you deliberately wanted to avoid delving into too much?
Yes, I didn't think that they deserved any more screen time. I felt like that would play to their egos if I showed their faces or their social media handles — almost like I'm suggesting they had a point, you know? It's nonsense, and we deal with it quite quickly when Frank [Rzucek, Shanann’s father] does his press conference where he says, “Leave her alone. Leave the family alone and stop abusing them.” I just think it’s so tragic that people know that [blaming] is out there. She didn’t deserve that. The trolls represent society, and that’s what we do to female victims of violent crime. If she had been trafficked or raped, we would have been discussing how much she had to drink, what she was wearing, how did she know the perpetrator and why she didn’t try to leave.
Is that trolling enabled by social media?
Shanann’s open social media page made her a huge target; I haven't seen any victims of a crime targeted as much as she was. There are definitely people who are genuinely interested in true crime and in this case specifically, and they wanted to talk about it online. And that’s absolutely fine; it’s an interesting subject. But some of them go down that road where they tear apart a victim’s behavior thinking they’ll find the answer. People have questioned her parenting style, and what kind of car she drives — they’re picking her apart. But as I show in the film it was always about what was going on with Chris. She’s the one blaming herself, but it was nothing that she was doing. I wanted to address the trolling in the film, but I also didn’t want anyone to start going down that rabbit hole. It’s just a very poor side of human nature.
One of the key sequences in the movie is Chris’s polygraph, which he fails and that leads to his eventual confession. It’s interesting how the police repeatedly tell him he doesn’t have to take the test, and even that it would be foolish to do it if he had anything to do with her death. Why do you think he agreed to go through with it anyway?
I think he was just thinking, "What would an innocent person do right now?" I also think he was of the opinion, “No body no crime. They're not going to find any body so this is just my word versus theirs.” And then he believed he could cheat the polygraph. There's a moment in the footage where he says yes and no to confuse it! So I think he was trying to give dodgy results and fake it. But he’s also said in other interviews that when he was walking in that day, he felt he wouldn’t walk out. He knew it was just a matter of time, but couldn’t admit it, just like he couldn’t admit his affair to Shanann.
He was there for hours and hours, and was often lying and giving them nothing. There were all these red flags for them, and they just needed him to admit that she didn’t leave the house. But because he continues for hours not giving them anything beyond, “It’s a mystery to you and it’s a mystery to me,” they start offering him a way to confess in stages. You know, “Maybe she did something and you had to do something.” They're trying to offer him the chance to say this was a spontaneous act. And eventually he does take that lead, because it’s easier for him than to admit what he really did. Once they had that, they just chip away at it and break away all the other lies he’s been telling. He ended up taking a plea deal, because they wanted him on the record to tell what actually happened and never went to trial.
There’s a lot of conversation in the country right now about policing. Based on what you observed, did it make you more confident in the way police operate?
Well, I wasn't going to go down this route, but they're a white family. The guns were never pulled on Chris, and Chris is never in fear of his life when the police enter his house. Even when he can see that it's not looking good for him, he's not worried that his life is in danger. That said, I felt that the Frederick police department worked well. They solved the case in three days, and that's really commendable. There are many cases that go on for months and months, and people are never recovered or there's never enough evidence. They tied this up very quickly. What I do think about the case is that Chris never had to pay with his life.
As someone observing America from overseas, were there any quirks of the justice system that you were surprised by?
We don't have the death penalty here [in England], but then that wasn't a situation there, either. They spoke to Shanann’s family, and they decided they didn't want the death penalty because they’re very religious. They said that he didn't have the right to take their daughter’s life, and they certainly don't have the right to take his life. They wanted him to obviously serve time for the crimes he committed, and he will play with that for the rest of his life. So I think the justice system for this situation worked. It was speedy and justice was served, and then the family could move on and grieve.
One thing that’s not addressed in the film is the family’s financial difficulties. Was that again something you left out deliberately?
I’m telling Shanann’s story, so if it wasn’t an issue or concern for her, then I didn’t cover it. I let her lead the way. Had she written about it in a letter or in the hundreds of text messages that she sent, then it would have been in the film. I know [the difficulties] were based in medical bills, and that’s again something else we don’t have in the U.K. because of the National Health Service.
There have been multiple stories in America of law enforcement protecting male abusers, especially in cases when they are also police officers. Do you hope the film counters that?
I didn’t know that was the case — that’s quite shocking. Over here in the U.K., it’s not because law enforcement prevents you from leaving, it’s just very, very difficult to leave an abusive relationship. You often do have children or a family to keep together and you think you'll get past it and that was the last time. I would like to think that anyone watching this realizes that Chris never raised his voice or his hand to Shanann until that last moment, and then this is where it went. I would say that if someone has ever put their hands around your neck in an argument, your chances of being killed by that person are massively increased. We can't pass off this behavior as one of those things, like “Boys will be boys.” Women are more likely to be killed by their intimate partners, and it’s a sad fact that it needs to be on us to protect ourselves. I think seeing the mild-natured Chris and what he’s capable of is maybe a warning that we don’t really know what our loved one is capable of.
Did you try to speak to Nichol Kessinger?
I didn't approach her because I don't know how to find her. Nobody does. I did reach out hoping to be able to inform her that the film is going out, but I haven't been successful. I haven't blamed her for it; I don't think she is in any way involved in it, and I think she's only guilty of having an affair. I don't think she's going to love the film coming out, but I hope she appreciates that we didn't come gunning for her as maybe some other people had in the past. In the future is she going to tell her own story? Maybe, I don't know. She may never want to speak of it again. She may decide she wants to tell her story, but I just thought I'd be the person to tell Shanann’s.
Chris Watts has collaborated on various books from prison. Are you at all curious in his version of the story?
I have no interest at all in what Chris Watts has to say; he’s changed his story so many times. I don't even know that the story that he detailed in his confession is correct. Nobody lays there while you strangle them, especially if they're pregnant. It's human nature that you would fight back. So there's something about his description that's incorrect and the police did pick it up, but he is a dishonest and not credible source. From the moment he appears on our body-cam footage in the film, there are so many lies tied up in [his story]. I doubt that he’s capable of telling us the truth.
American Murder: The Family Next Door is currently streaming on Netflix.
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