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Not Our Son

Articles - Directing

In August of 1991, a Seattle
man named Paul Keller started going out after work and setting
fires. Within six months he had burned more than 77 buildings,
killing three elderly people and becoming the country’s most
prolific serial arsonist. He was arrested, pled guilty and was
sentenced to 99 years in prison. What fascinated the public most
about the case was that Keller was not anyone’s picture of an
arsonist—he was an advertising executive and a family man
who sang in his church choir.

Burned-out boy doctor Neil Patrick Harris
and Gerald McRainey in Not Our Son.

Sounds like a made-for-TV movie? Dozens of film
companies thought so. The Keller family was descended upon en masse,
as were members of the Arson Task force and other people central
to the story. When the dust had cleared, it was two Seattle producers
with minimal movie experience who won both the rights to the story
and the means to produce it, striking a blow against the heavy
guns of New York and L.A.. The resulting CBS Movie of the Week, Not
Our Son
, stars Neil Patrick Harris (of Doogie Howser, M.D. fame)
and aired January 31, 1995 at 9:00 p.m. I interviewed co-producer
Brian Halquist during the final editing phase.

George Wing (MM): How did you get
started as a producer?

Brian Halquist: I used to manage a
health club. I had always wanted to do documentaries, but didn’t
have the money or equipment. In 1989 I saw a newspaper article
about two kids who killed a man at a marina in Steilacoom. So
I called the attorneys, the family of the victim and the kids’
families and was surprised to learn that no media people were
talking to them. I took the story to KBTC at Bates Technical
College, a tiny PBS affiliate in Tacoma. They liked it, but all
they had was 3/4 inch gear and students for crew. So we chronicled
the whole process from the initial 911 call to the sentencing
of the boys. It took about 18 months. It ended up winning several
awards and becoming the only KBTC-produced show to air nationally
on PBS.

After that, I sent “A Current Affair” a copy of
the documentary and got to know one of the producers over the phone.
I would call up with story ideas once in a while, and I called
about this kid in Everett, Jim King, who had killed someone when
he was 13. There was a sexual abuse angle to the story, and “A
Current Affair” bid on it. I did the piece for them and ended up
getting a contract as a field producer. I did that for almost two
years. Peter Brennan was the executive producer, and it was like
producer school for me. I got to work with highly skilled crews
from L.A. and New York, and was lucky enough to get a lot of exclusive
stories. After a couple years I decided it was time to move on.

MM: How did you wind up doing the
Paul Keller story for CBS?

BH: The fascinating thing about the
Keller story was, who would have thought a successful, well-paid
advertising executive from a Christian family would have this
double life. He was singing in the church choir by day and at
night he was going out and smoking weed and drinking beer and
setting people’s homes on fire while they slept.

When the fires started, I knew there was going to
be a story. After Keller was arrested, I spoke to his lawyer, who
I happened to know. He told me that Paul wanted to talk. By this
time, of course, he and his family had about 100 media requests.
But I managed to meet them and I promised to be fair and objective.
They wanted to make a statement because they’re a good Christian
family. So they agreed to talk to me. I called my coproducer, Michael
Lienau, who I met field-producing for “Inside Edition.” We agreed
to partner up on a documentary. We spent three months making Portrait
of a Serial Arsonist: The Paul Keller Story
. We made a
deal with a Seattle station, KING, whereby they could use our interviews
for newscasts if they aired our documentary.

All along we knew this was a made for TV movie.
It was a great story about a family in crisis. We had an agent
in L.A. but we hated the runaround -you never know who you’re talking
to and their stories change every day. So a crime writer friend
of mine introduced me to his agents, Mary Alice Kaier and Anna
Cottle of Cine/Lit Representation in Seattle. We liked them, they
had good connections and more importantly they were local. They
have some other true crime clients such as Ann Rule, who wrote The
Stranger Beside Me
about Ted Bundy.

George Keller agreed to give us his family’s film
rights, and our agents secured the rights of other parties like
the Arson Task Force people, to make a complete package. This was
in early June, and by July they had 40 companies, including Hearst
Entertainment, Tri-Star, Multimedia – name the top 20 production
companies, they were bidding on it. Mary Alice and Anna wanted
to get us the best deal without selling us out. The whole idea
was to advance our careers. A couple of companies would allow Michael
and I to co-produce, and of those we picked Multimedia. That’s
how we were able to co-produce an MOW [movie-of-theweek].

Director Brian Halquist and host Grant Goodeve.

MM: Was this your first experience
with fiction filmmaking?

BH: It’s not fiction, it’s based on

MM: I mean, something dramatized.

BH: I had done re-creations at “A Current
Affair”, but never a movie.

MM: What was the production like?

BH: The whole MOW process is interesting because
it’s wait, wait, wait, then you get a “go” and it’s hurry up. Believe
it or not, the original air date was January 15 with principal
photography ending December 18. The pace is a lot different than
feature filmmaking.

MM: Why did you shoot in Vancouver?

BH: Everyone wanted to shoot the movie here
in Seattle. But the reality is, your dollar goes a lot farther
in Canada and they’re really equipped. There were at least eight
other movies shooting, you couldn’t drive down the street without
seeing trailers. Robin Williams was doing his new $80 million picture
up there. Vancouver is the Hollywood of the North.

MM: Do you consider yourself more
of a journalist or filmmaker?

BH: I call what I do “immersion journalism.” You
are immersed in a story over a period of time, and although you
may not become a part of it, you live it along with the people
who are.

MM: Suppose I want to break into
your field and someone in my community commits a notorious
crime, what should I do?

BH: Call me. No, seriously, approach
the people and take the plunge. You just gotta-do it. When I
started all I had was a legal pad and a pen and a telephone at
my kitchen table.

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