Interview: Matthew Pond & Kirk Marcolina – The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne
When Matthew Pond was looking for a subject to possibly make a documentary about, he stumbled upon the story of a jewel thief in her 70s. Doris Payne, an African-American who grew up in a poor segregated mining town, spent over four decades of her life traveling the world and stealing things in order to make a living. Pond joined up with his friend Kirk Marcolina and started filming Doris after she was released from prison.
Over the next three years Pond and Marcolina followed Doris as she told stories about her days stealing diamonds and jewels around the world while facing yet another charge for stealing. This time Doris denies the charges completely, claiming someone else committed it and that her past has turned her into a scapegoat. The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne alternates between the trial (if found guilty, Doris would face up to 5 years in prison) and Doris’ life story. On the day of the film’s world premiere, directors Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina sat down with Way Too Indie and discussed some of the doc’s major themes along with what it was like to get to know Doris.
You found out about Doris’ story when you were reading articles online. What specifically interested you in her story? What made you decide to pursue making it as a documentary feature?
Matthew Pond: I went to film school later in life, landed in Los Angeles and was looking for a project. I read about [Doris’ story] and it struck me as the perfect marriage of story and character, which are two big elements in any film. I drove down to Orange County and went to visit her, and we continued seeing each other on a weekly basis for a couple of months. Then she was released and Kirk and I started filming her shortly thereafter.
Kirk, when did you join on the project?
Kirk Marcolina: After Matthew read the newspaper article we had lunch together and he said “Wouldn’t it be a great idea for a doc?” I said definitely, but there’s no way we’re going to get the rights to it. I think it takes a lot of courage to actually go into the jail and meet Doris like Matthew did. I don’t think I could have and so he did it. [Matthew laughs] I actually do think that because before meeting Doris I was never in a jail in my life. I never met a criminal in my life.
MP: Then you went a number of times.
KM: Yeah, and now I’m like “Yeah I’m going to the jail.” So yes, we talked about it early on.
So did you start filming with her right after she got out of jail?
And how long were you communicating with her before you started filming?
MP: It was about three or four months I think.
When you approached her was she apprehensive? Was she interested?
MP: She was interested. She’s very charming and greeted me with a big smile, but she was a little guarded nonetheless. It took some coaxing.
Your documentary has a very light-hearted tone where Doris tells these very entertaining stories about her crimes, but there’s also a dark side as well. She has a strained relationship with her kids, specifically her daughter, and she doesn’t really have anything to show after her years of stealing. Were you trying to find a way to balance the two tones while making the film?
KM: I think Doris has many different layers to her character, and we wanted to portray all of who Doris is. We wanted to show the joyous, fun person who reminisces about her past and really lives in her day to day life in a positive way, but also show her manipulative side. She can be very charming one moment, and the next moment she could be stealing a diamond or setting you up as an alibi. We tried to show a complete picture of her.
MP: We made a conscious decision at the beginning not to take any moral stance on who she is, what she’s done and the choices that she’s made. I think we tried to present her life and story within a larger historical context that takes into account the fact that she’s black and she was born in the segregated south. We really just tried to present the information to an audience and let them make their own decisions.
Did Doris get charged with the crime that frames the documentary while you were filming?
MP: It’s a little complicated. We filmed her for a year after she was released from jail. It’s a little complicated [to explain] but the train was already in motion for that trial, and that started about a year after we started filming. And that’s obviously the through-line to the film.
So how did your original plans for the documentary change once the trial factored into everything?
MP: We started off making a pitch tape, so we thought that we’ll film a little bit and do some interviews. We thought it was a great story, and we’ll get some funding and pre-sales and make the film. And then things just kept happening. Doris was going to her preliminary hearing and the main trial, so it was like…
KM: We couldn’t stop.
MP: It was make or break. We have to film it or lose it, so we ended up with the finished film.
Two of the more interesting parts of the film were when Doris throws the two of you into her story by stealing in front of you and using the two of you as an alibi for the probation officer.
MP: Kirk was adamant that we put that in right from the get-go.
KM: We didn’t set out to make a film that we’re a part of. We really didn’t want to be a part of the film. We wanted to be objective observers.
MP: We did not want that style of film. That style of film works well for Michael Moore and other people who have their voice of God narration or their own narration, but she embroiled us into the story and made us part of the alibi. At that point it was part of the story so we felt like we should [put it into the film].
It feels like you were forced to get in front of the camera.
KM: Right, and we thought it also showed her character, her personality and how she manipulates people better than anything else we had shot. That’s one of the reasons why we put it in as well.
You were given files about Doris’ history by the FBI while making the film. How long did it take you to go through them, and did you find anything that you didn’t know beforehand?
MP: It literally took me months. Every weekend I had a laptop and I had the PDF files. I would flip between that and close it and go to work on the documentary.
KM: Thousands of pages.
MP: I indexed the whole thing. I don’t know…it was probably months of full-time work.
KM: It literally was a stack. It was on PDFs but if you printed it all out it was a stack of paper. We were hanging out with Doris for about a year and we actually got these FBI papers after the principal photography was done. We were never sure interviewing her. We thought “Was she making this up? It sounds too good to be true.”
MP: By definition she’s a liar and a thief.
KM: Most of her stories were backed up by the FBI file.
MP: We were amazed. And, in addition, there were escapes. She told us about two escapes. She escaped from custody four times which she didn’t share with us initially.
KM: At least four times.
Personally did you sympathize with Doris and feel bad for her during the trial?
MP: We certainly felt bad that she, at 80, might be facing a 5 year sentence.
KM: Certainly. I feel like there has to be some sort of punishment if she’s guilty, but it felt like a very harsh sentence. Also, and this is a bigger issue, society is paying a lot to keep her in jail. Is that really the best use of taxpayer money to keep this little old lady who, sure she steals diamonds, but what do you do with somebody like Doris? Because there’s really no good answer. It’s a feel-good crime story in a way.
MP: There’s no drugs, there’s no violence.
It feels like a victimless crime.
MP: That’s how she sees it in her mind.
KM: They have insurance, they’re gonna get paid, they’re actually gonna make more money than they could have sold the thing for.
So when did you decide to start doing the re-enactments? How did you go about nailing down the look?
MP: We wanted to make some overly stylized looks and we wanted to capture some of the glamour of the 70s because we only had 3 stills [to work with]. Apart from the FBI archive we didn’t have a lot to deal with in terms of imagery for the film. We brought someone else on board because we were overwhelmed at that point with other obligations, and it also helped from a practical point of view because there were sound edits that required some visual coverage.
KM: Doris likes to talk in long, long, long sentences. That’s not the best way to tell a story necessarily so we had to shorten what she said to make it more interesting. To do that there has to be a lot of edits.
MP: We certainly filmed some verité things, but we didn’t want it to be dominated by talking heads. We hoped the re-creations gave people a sense of the time and place she was in and just mixed it up a little bit visually.
Do you have any buyers or people looking into distribution?
MP: We finished the film two weeks ago, and it was a mad dash to the end. Our time and energy has really been poured into getting the film here, but since it’s been on the Hot Docs website we’ve been inundated by broadcasters and sales agents. In fact we have two distribution deals that have been offered to us so we’re just going to see. We have a whole stack of meetings [coming up] and we’re just going to see how it’s received at the screenings. Hopefully we’ll find a home for it somewhere.
KM: And just so you know, this was a completely independent film that was made on Matthew’s and my credit cards.
You were finishing the film across the world, with one of you in the States and one of you in Australia. In a general sense, do you think the existence of things like Vimeo, Dropbox, etc. makes it possible or easier for more films and documentaries to get made?
KM: With me moving to Sydney, and it’s unfortunate for the film’s sake, we couldn’t have done it without those technologies. Matthew and I were on Skype every day for hours. We would look at stuff together, and it really allowed us to collaborate even though we weren’t in the same city. It would have been better if I was still in LA but this was the best we could do. It literally would not have been possible without things like Vimeo and Dropbox.
MP: We had additional editors in Paris, in Cincinnati, graphics people in New York and Philadelphia. You were living in Sydney, and I was in LA.
KM: So literally it was a global post-production process.
I wanted to get some of your thoughts on the major themes in your documentary and how they developed throughout the course of filming, the biggest one being how Doris’ story is like a warped version of the American dream.
MP: Totally, and that was a conscious effort. We used that concept in terms of telling her story.
So you knew coming in that you wanted to look at it as a story about the American dream?
MP: We asked every interviewee [in the film] about the American dream, does Doris fit that and in some ways she does. In fact Eunetta (one of the people interviewed in the film) summed it up nicely. She said “She pursued it with a vengeance, but it came back to bite her because she was reminded every step of the way that she’s a woman and a black woman.” So she lived two sides of the American dream I think.
Watching the film it’s very difficult to condemn her. She’s committing a crime, but it has that crime movie sheen to it so it feels exciting.
KM: And she’s a little old lady!
MP: One of the things that really interested us is that, within that crime genre, it doesn’t fit the typical Hollywood narrative. Catch Me If You Can, a similar story based on a true guy who’s a criminal and then redeems himself and repents for his sins and goes to work for the FBI. Doris is only sorry that she got caught. For us the defiance that represents is kind of compelling and fascinating, particularly when you look at it in a larger historical context when you factor in race and class.
KM: Growing up she was certainly a smart girl who knew she wanted to see the world. She says in the movie that she wanted to be a ballerina but she was told at a very early age that a black girl cannot be a ballerina. She could have pursued other options, but to her this was the way she got to fulfill her American dream. She got to go around the world, and she wouldn’t have gotten the chance to do that had she done pretty much anything else.