Q&A: Filmmaker Sheldon Renan talks “THE KILLING OF AMERICA”!Movies/TV,News Jerry Smith
In a time where it feels like our nation is turmoil and violence is at an obvious high, it’s scary to sit down and watch it all transpire. While it may seem as if things are happening for the first time in history, the long-lost and newly found and released (thanks to Severin) documentary, THE KILLING OF AMERICA, shows us that we’ve always been violent and there has always been a bloodlust across our nation. It’s scarier than any hockey mask-wearing slasher and it’s not only an important film but one which initiates a discussion about where we should go from here on out and what we should do about it. FANGO spoke with one of the film’s directors, Sheldon Renan about the film and what shocking effects it had on those involved in the making of the film.
FANGO: Creating such a brutally honest and realistic documentary must have been such an undertaking. When approaching it, did you realize what you had signed up for?
SHELDON RENAN: When I agreed to direct THE KILLING OF AMERICA, I didn’t realize what I was getting into – the degree to which I would end up actually witnessing violence and death. It didn’t take long find myself way way outside my comfort zone. That started the day I began my research at the LA County Medical Examiner. I was given total access to their historical evidence files – including many close-up Polaroids of gruesome death scenes – such as a head split open by a self-administered shotgun blast. These were deeply disturbing. And the first day of actual filming we shot autopsies. They had six tables going, side by side — six bodies being opened up, faces peeled back, brains and organs removed and weighed.
FANGO: It has a very “fly on the wall” approach to it all, which at multiple times, makes you feel like you’re there in the middle of the carnage. I’m curious what roadblocks you might have ran into during the making of the film?
RENAN: For one thing, it was dangerous! The first time I went on a ride-along with the LAPD, the sergeant I was riding with told me it was OK if I was armed. (I wasn’t.) At one point, I and the crew were pinned down by gunfire. Eventually my film crew requested bulletproof vests. And the opening helicopter sequence – shooting air to air above LA — the Police Helicopter got mixed up and turned directly into us. Fortunately my pilot that day was Harry Haus, who flew the stunts for BLUE THUNDER and RAMBO. He managed to get us out of the way just in time.
We had a lot of trouble getting access to some of the footage, especially footage of a KKK shoot-out. A southern TV station had incredible footage, but they didn’t want anybody to see it. It took months, going back to them again and again, until somebody said yes.
But the most difficult roadblocks were feelings of the production team. Len Schrader was fearless in his willingness to explore violence and the emotional trajectory of serial killers. But the rest of us were more ambivalent about what we were seeing, filming and editing. Lee Percy (our editor) and I ended up with something like PTSD. I was deeply depressed for months after the film was completed.
FANGO: It’s a film that is still very relevant today; in a lot of ways, even more so. When making it, did you realize how important of a film you were making?
RENAN: I often felt it was important to get the story right, but I was shocked by the full impact of the completed film. So was everybody else. Until now THE KILLING OF AMERICA was basically unseen in America, not reviewed, not discussed. I couldn’t watch it without remembering all the associated violence and emotional wreckage. I never realized how good it was until I saw it with a paying audience at the True/False Film Festival this spring. It looked like it had been finished last week! The writing is great, and so is Chuck Riley’s narration. The editing is brilliant. The film is unforgettable. But while it raises consciousness and questions, it does not provide answers.
FANGO: Severin [Films] seems to really want to get this out there and in front of many people, all of these years later, how does it feel to have a brand new audience see the very important doc?
RENAN: In retrospect, it is clear that KILLING OF AMERICA is an important film. So I want people to see it. And Severin has done an incredible job of bringing together all the original elements – so you can now get the real experience. I have to tell you it was a difficult journey to take. And it took a lot of very talented people working together to make it work. (Four members of the production team were later nominated for Academy Awards – although not for their work on KILLING OF AMERICA.) But the main credit, I think, goes to the late Len Schrader who basically conceived it, wrote it, and as producer, shaped its final form – and to Mataichiro Yamamoto, his producing partner.
THE KILLING OF AMERICA is now on Blu-ray from Severin Films.