Imagine the basic premise of The Blair Witch Project—young moviemakers on a quest to unravel a bogeyman of their past—but then imagine that it all really happened. Such was the discovery of first-time documentarians Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, whose shared memory of “Cropsey,” an escaped mental patient who supposedly lived beneath the local mental hospital and snatched up unsuspecting kids at night, ignited a nonfiction feature that would take them deeper into the truth of the kidnapping and murder of a 13-year-old girl on Staten Island than either of them could have predicted.
Winning awards at festivals around the country, Cropsey is currently in theaters, on VOD and will screen on Investigation Discovery later this year. MM caught up with Zeman—an experienced producer but first-time director on the project—as the film continued its cross-country roll-out.
Jennifer Wood (MM): How did the idea to make Cropsey come about?
Joshua Zeman (JZ): When I first met Barb and realized she was from Staten Island, we immediately started talking about how we remembered the tragic story of Jennifer Schweiger and the Crospey urban legend that centered around the Willowbrook State School. A week later we went on a hike through the woods of Staten Island that bordered Willowbrook. On the trail, we found a rusted tricycle, and then came across the old Willowbrook playground all rusted. There was even a merry-go-round with a tree growing up through the middle, and then the food trays strewn about the woods just under the leaves, as you see in the film. We were shocked; it was literally the land that time forgot. A few weeks later the DA decided to indict Andre Rand for the disappearance of Holly Ann Hughes, and so we felt that was a sign that we needed to make this film.
MM: You’re no stranger to moviemaking, but this is the first project you’ve directed. Was it the personal nature of the project that made you want to sit in the director’s chair?
JZ: Yes. I had been a screenwriter as well, so this story was one I felt was both dramatic and engaging because it was so real. At the same time, growing up in Staten Island, I felt it was our story and that the personal connection really gave the film gravitas. I don’t think it would have worked as well without the personal connection. Of course we could have not actually had us on screen, but again that was a lot of the get for me—it’s was about watching these junior detectives.
MM: What was the research process like for you guys on this project? Did you each take on different aspects of the pre-production?
JZ: The research was, to say the least, intense. Literally there were hundreds of articles about these kids, which we were looking at not only from the perspective of a filmmaker, but also from that of an investigator. We were trying to piece together the clues others may have missed. We were also trying to reconstruct narratives that were decades old. The pre-trial motions were four years long, which was frustrating, but forced us to really research outside of the facts of the case. We sat down with so many people, hearing their stories, and that’s when we decided, for the purposes of this story, it didn’t matter what the facts were—this was a film about storytelling.
MM: We see a couple instances in the film—with Rand’s sister and the family he stayed with—where you guys seem to have a knack for getting people who don’t initially want to cooperate to speak with you. Particularly given the nature of a project like this, what’s the secret to making your interview subjects feel comfortable?
JZ: Again, this was a function of our relationship to the case. I think we came at it as participants rather than journalists. We were so engrossed in the story because we had lived it, and I think people felt that in speaking to us. Also, with the time we had spent with the case, people couldn’t deny our dedication to getting the truth. Lastly I think this was a big event for people, one that hadn’t been properly excised by the press due to its lack of coverage. In some ways people felt cheated that they never got to tell their side of the story, so it was therapy for all.
MM: How do you go about balancing the informational aspects of the movie with the need to make it entertaining? With the popularity of so many crime shows—both fictional and real-life—how do you go about establishing this as something different? Sustaining the audience’s engagement for 90 minutes?
JZ: Good question. It was a tough balance for us, and a real struggle to get right (I don’t even know if we “got” it right), but we knew that we were dealing with subject matter that could very easily be TV fodder. It was almost a natural fit, but we took that as a challenge. I don’t watch TV, just movies, so I had a vague idea of what would make it TV fodder and it was our goal to elevate that. I think the personal nature helped do that, as well as our inclusion of the urban legends. I think it’s when those informational aspects are put up against the subjectivity of our personal experiences and the fiction of storytelling does the truth take on a different persona. That’s where the entertainment comes in.
MM: Why do you think so many different audiences—from around the world—are responding to it in such a positive way? At the end of the day, what do you hope audiences take away from the film?
JZ: The idea of urban legends are truly universal. Inevitably, whenever we talk to someone about the film, they say, “Oh I had this urban legend growing up.” It’s part of who we are as individuals living in the context of community. Everyone has these stories growing up, so I think the film resonates in that collective consciousness way. I was always excited that we were taking a real story and re-telling it in a narrative way, using more narrative storytelling conventions. There’s a big trend of the reverse, films that purport themselves to be true when they are obviously not (faux documentaries) and ultimately, while being scared, there’s still a bit of an inherent let down. So I think people are surprised by the “reverse Blair Witch style” of Cropsey.
MM: What’s up next for you guys?
JZ: I think we are both fascinated by the shifting nature of “true crime,” which is a misnomer to me, only because I don’t think you ever get the truth behind a crime. I want to continue playing with real stories and their inherent narrative structures. There are a lot of great crime stories in New York City and beyond that we only know the vaguest details of.