What It's Really Like to Make a True Crime Show: Set Secrets and Real-Life Dangers

What it's really like to make a true crime series.

By Seija Rankin Jul 18, 2017 3:00 PMTags
True Crime Week, GONECourtesy: Robert Richman; E! Illustration

In 1991 in the town of Munnsville, NY (population 499), 65-year-old William Ward was found dead in his home. Munnsville is a rural farming community hours away from any traditional idea of civilization (that would be Syracuse). William wasn't a young man and he had been ill for some time, so his death didn't spark any serious investigation. Add to that the fact that he lived in a tiny house with his three brothers, who were as close to social outcasts as a family in a town of less than 500 people can be, and it's no surprise that the authorities from the big city didn't come running. 

But then the autopsy showed signs that Ward may not have died of completely natural causes. And then his brother, Delbert, with whom he shared a bed, was arrested on suspicion of murder. And then Delbert, who along with his other three brothers was nearly illiterate, signed away his rights with a formal confession to the crime. And then the rest of the country started to take notice. 

It was here that Joe Berlinger and his filmmaking team stepped in and began to investigate the case with their cameras in tow. The result was Brother's Keeper, what can be semi-formally pronounced as the first true crime documentary—in the modern sense of the word. This was before Court TV came (and went) and it was the very first time that the unfolding of a complicated murder trial captured a nation. It's been over 25 years since the Ward Brothers' story played out on the big screen and the true crime genre has only become more and more of an obsession. (In fact, obsession would be the understatement of the year. It would be like saying that Dean Strang is okay-looking for a lawyer from Wisconsin. Or that Adnan Syed is a little forgetful when it comes to details.)

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Berlinger himself has grown in that period of time to be the genre's foremost expert—and an Academy Award nominee. His resumé includes heavy-hitting documentaries like Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru but his bread and butter remains true crime. He has directed dozens of films and television series that follow real life cases like the wrongful murder conviction of the West Memphis Three, the Whitey Bulger story and a man who sits on Oklahoma's death row despite an outpouring of claims to his innocence.

Beginning this Sunday he'll be bringing to Spike the mysterious deaths and disappearances of six women in a small rust belt town, with Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio. To pick his brain about making a true crime story is to truly see inside the belly of the beast: Learning about the highs and lows of investigating real life murders isn't for the faint of heart, but neither is the consuming of these programs. 

The first step in any true crime series, before filming or interviewing or those now-infamous Serial-style jail calls (This is a Global Tel Link prepaid call from...) is the discovery of the case. For Berlinger it begins with something as simple as reading the newspaper. In the case of the Spike series it was an article on Huffington Post—these days he knows the signs of a compelling mystery, and he's primed to pick out stories that reek of social injustice.

"I read an article about the mothers of the murder victims and how they were feeling like the system wasn't paying any attention to them," he told E! News. "Their daughters were prostitutes and had drug issues and they felt they weren't getting any justice just because their daughters pursued a certain lifestyle. They saw a reluctance of the police force to pay attention to the plight of their daughters going missing."

Back in the early 90's, inspiration came in a slightly more analog way. After Berlinger made headlines for Brother's Keeper, HBO came calling by way of a newspaper article that would become the Emmy-winning trilogy Paradise Lost.

"It was just a small AP wire service that The New York Times picked up," he explains. "It said three devil-worshiping teens had killed three eight-year-old boys in the woods in a Satanic ritual, that there was a confession and that it was an open-and-shut case." But by that point what could only be described as the director's Spidey senses, for lack of a better term, were tingling. They headed down to Arkansas to investigate what they thought would be "A film about teenagers so twisted that they could take children out into the woods and sacrifice them to the devil." 

One of the reasons that Berlinger believes that true crime programs are so compelling is that they are the perfect narrative device. A murder trial has, as he puts it, all the elements of drama: A beginning, a middle and an end. Following a mysterious crime has all the trappings of binge-worthiness, but there are countless steps a filmmaker has to go through to get to the point of, well, bingeability. It starts with research. As soon as Joe and his team catch wind of a potential case the first thing they do is on-the-ground investigations. Consider it an analysis of sorts, to see if there is enough there to even make a movie or television show—the director notes that, prolific as his IMDb page is, there have been times when he has looked into cases or trials and then realized that he wouldn't be able to get the access (to victim's families or the perpetrators) he needed and scrapped the project. 

But sometimes that initial research can prove the exact opposite: That there is so much more to the crime that is just begging to be uncovered. In the case of Gone, Joe and his team traveled to rural Chillicothe, Ohio to investigate what was rumored to be a serial killer targeting young women in the community. They quickly realized that the theory they were searching for was, as he put it, "completely bogus," and that there were other forces at work in the town. He likens what happens next to the practices of war journalists, and in a way it's very similar: They embed in the community to investigate the crimes from the ground up. And that is because of the three most pivotal words in the making of a true crime series: Access. Is Everything.

Without access to the most important players in a crime, to the victim's families or to the suspects or to the detectives charged with investigating the murder, there is no true crime show. But it's also the hardest part. "The physical rolling the cameras and then bringing the stuff back and then editing: That's the easy part," jokes Berlinger. 

His team typically spends months at a time embedded in the local community, first with the victim's parents and loved ones and then slowly branching out to get to know the rest of the parties involved. After decades in the business he has it down to a near-science. 

"The key to getting access is really investing the time in building relationships and spending time with people even without cameras," he says. "I can't tell you how many times we've gone into communities to cover these stories and kept the cameras in the car and just tried to build a rapport with people. We always try to convince even the antagonists that it's better to be on camera than to make us put up a card saying so-and-so wouldn't talk to us. 

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That strategy has worked to an incredible degree. During the filming of Paradise Lost, Joe and his partner Bruce Sinofsky spent the majority of their first three embedded months with the parents of the boys who were tortured and killed, but they slowly began to get the feeling that the accused teenagers could potentially be innocent. That led them to negotiate access to the teens as they sat in county jail awaiting trial where they conducted interviews and become convinced that they were, basically, framed. 

In the series about the missing girls in Ohio, which premieres this Saturday at 9/8 Central (on Spike of course), their dedicated time allowed them to interview a side that is often less than willing. "We got a lot of access even to the Chillicothe Police Department, who I think overall wasn't happy that while they're doing an investigation there's a filmmaker doing an investigation," explains Berlinger. "Police departments are usually leery of that kind of thing, but I think my years of experience in patiently trying to win people over helped."

There are obstacles that pop up in the making of true crime that not even a multi-decade veteran could predict. 

"I think the hardest part is dealing with the unknown," says Berlinger. "With Spike it's the most out-on-a-limb I've ever gone because all we had were victims. We didn't know who the perpetrator was, there was no trial. The body count in fact increased as the series was unfolding, more victims turned up while we were making the series. The end point was open, and possibly infinite." 

So how does he deal with that? You plan to have no plan. "I like to film stories in the present tense—in a sense I jump out a window and I hope there's a mattress on the other side to catch me," he explains. "You film these crimes as they're unfolding, so if you have a plan you run the risk of missing the real story." 

There are other more serious risks as well. Berlinger admits that over his two-plus decades of filming murder cases and investigations—which will see him tackling the mysterious death of Mississippi teen Jessica Chambers, who was doused with gasoline and set on fire, for a new series on Oxygen, which is re-branding itself as the new network for crime fans—he has often felt in danger. He professes an admittedly naive belief that as a reporter he won't be targeted for retaliation by anyone involved in the crimes he's digging into—they're there to do a job without a bias, after all. But he says there are times that have felt...iffy.

"When you're talking about these gruesome crimes, potential serial killers on the loose, you're sometimes put in situations where you don't know who the bad guys are," he says. "You always have to look over your shoulder. It just comes to the territory." 

One of the more iffy instances of his career came during the investigation and filming of Paradise Lost. They had formed a deep relationship with the parents of the three torture and murder victims after months of embedment and the stepfather of one of the young boys decided to give the filmmakers a gift as a token of his gratitude for hearing his story: That token was a knife. For those who haven't seen the film, one of the many murder weapons in that case was in fact a knife. When Berlinger and his partner opened up the gift they noticed blood in the hinges. We'll pause for the goosebumps to subside. 

"You're faced with a serious moral dilemma," he explains. "Do we turn this knife over? That would potentially destroy our relationship with this father. We had no proof this was a murder weapon. But a knife as a gift was strange in and of itself so we had a moral responsibility to turn it in."

The results of the knife on the blood eventually turned up inconclusive—it should be noted that this was the early 90's and DNA tests were very primitive at that point—but they were satisfied with their choice to involve the authorities: "Our civic responsibility outweighed any damage it would do to our project—justice and the solving of a crime is more important than a film." 

That talkative conscience is, in fact, what brought Joe into this genre in the first place. He embarked on a career that is equal parts entertainment and public service: He is motivated by what he describes as a calling to expose abuses in the criminal justice system. Fans see that theme run through all of his projects, whether it's someone wrongly accused of a crime or a group of victims overlooked by police simply because of their life choices. The point of his films and television series are to make an impact on top of providing a fascinating piece of pop culture and he extols that there's nothing wrong with setting out to make a change. 

"In my most recent series for Investigation Discovery, Killing Richard Glossip, we believe there is an innocent man on death row," says Berlinger. "And I want the show to have an impact on that case."

Anyone who has read the dozens of think-pieces about the potential biases in programs like Making a Murderer and Serial is well aware that there's a strong temptation to set out to paint a trial or crime in one very specific light. It's clear to listeners that Sarah Koenig desperately wants to believe that Adnan Syed is innocent and that the women behind Making a Murderer decided that Steven Avery had been framed from the very beginning, but there's an inherent flaw in the philosophy that being a good advocate for social justice means simply covering the side of the story that proves your point. 

Berlinger prefers to treat the audience like a jury, covering all sides of a story and trusting them to wade through it and come to their own conclusion. In Paradise Lost he chose to show plenty of negative information about Damien Echols, one of the accused killers, which could lead some to believe that he's guilty—but he insists that part of the story is necessary, if for nothing else than to help viewers understand how Echols' own community came to rush to judgement about his guilt. He finds that fairness actually breeds more passion. 


"Most of the audience of Paradise Lost was so emotionally engaged by being allowed to come to the conclusion themselves," he explains. "They not only watched a TV show, but when they turned it off tens of thousands of people agitated for these perfect strangers to be released from prison." 

The movement was called Free the West Memphis Three and Berlinger holds it up as a testament to the true power of true crime. He has received plenty of praise and awards over the years for being the catalyst for the release of the three wrongly-accused prisoners, but he is quick to point out that it was a group effort (and the perfect example of true crime gone right). 

"I have always said it's the people who were inspired by these films, who then decided to take action, that got these men out of prison."