Amanda Knox found herself in the tabloids yet again this past weekend, when she arrived at the Toronto airport for TIFF, accompanied by her current boyfriend, author Christopher Robinson. Robinson was called out for his Riff Raff-esque appearance: cheetah-print pants, Terry Richardson glasses, and a beard manicured to look like he’d been mauled by a grizzly. But almost a decade after the murder of Knox’s housemate — and Knox’s subsequent arrest and repeated acquittal — the 29-year-old is probably relieved to have the media fixated on what her boyfriend is wearing.
Knox is a media star above all else at this point. In addition to the constant write-ups and countless interviews, last year she published her own memoir, the New York Times best-seller Waiting to Be Heard. But Amanda Knox, which premiered over the weekend at TIFF and arrives on Netflix September 30th, attempts to offer something different. Directors Brian McGinn and Rod Blackhurst step away from the news cycle frenzy to deliver a sober and revealing account of what happened that November night in 2007 when Meredith Kercher was murdered in the Italian town of Perugia. By leaning on exclusive interviews with Knox, her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, and the tabloid journalist Nick Pisa, the directors document the years of litigation, both in court and in the global public square, that followed.
For those who did their best to avoid the seemingly interminable scandal, it is an informative and capable retelling of the incident. And for those who pored over every headline, there’s likely enough new material here to make a viewing worthwhile. Amanda Knox is just the latest in a wave of true crime documentary projects, but unlike Making a Murderer, or Serial, McGinn and Blackhurst aren’t here to exonerate someone who may have been wrongfully convicted. And this isn’t about reexamining an unsolved case, as in HBO's The Jinx — McGinn and Blackhurst told me they weren’t particularly interested in Knox’s guilt or innocence. Instead, Amanda Knox reexamines the case that made perfect tabloid fodder through a more discerning lens to attempt to touch on a larger truth. That would put it in the same general territory as ESPN's acclaimed O.J: Made in America, which transformed a murder trial into an essay on race in America.
The result isn’t as ambitious as O.J.: Made in America, but it is a thoughtful — though at just 92 minutes, constrained — piece of documentary filmmaking. There are ultimately no grand revelations here, and no damning new pieces of evidence. But it offers an opportunity or reflect how, and why, our culture transforms tragedy into tabloids.
A day after the premiere, I sat down with McGinn and Blackhurst to discuss their film.
When did you start working on Amanda Knox?
Rod Blackhurst: We started working on this project in 2011 — Amanda and Raffaele were in the process of their first appeals trial. They were in prison, and Brian and I traveled to Italy to try and learn not only who these people were, but also to get a better sense of what had happened — to understand all the context that was missing from the headlines that we had seen, which had been reduced to clickbait. What we found really quickly was that there was actually a very human story that no one had really taken the time to dive into to at that point.
Brian McGinn: What was originally interesting about the story to us and continues to be interesting today is how does something that begins as a tragedy — a young woman loses her life in a terrible situation — become something that’s driving a news cycle every day with a new headline, a new article, a new revelation, [to the point that] billions of people are paying attention every day? That’s something that we’d never seen explored in a documentary before. That was really interesting because I think that’s happening more and more in our culture: we’re looking for that next story to churn through the system.
This was a story that had been told so many times. What about this case gave you the sense that there was something worthy of a deeper look?
BG: Sure, there are a lot of tabloid stories. But there are very few stories that are covered worldwide. This wasn’t just a sensation in the US — it was a sensation in the UK, in Italy, in Europe, in Singapore. All over the world, people were fascinated by this. And that actually made it a larger story than a traditional lurid tale lifted from the tabloids. It also marked a turning point where hard news and soft news merged together. What is a tabloid story anymore? That’s kind of an interesting question... we see these lines blurring constantly, from the US presidential election, to this story — there’s so many [cases] where it’s hard to tell now.
What was it about this crime that gave it global appeal?
BG: It’s relatively straightforward and Nick Pisa says it in the film: it happens in a beautiful, picturesque Italian town, and all over the world, we have a romantic idea of what Italy is. Then you have people from all over the world. The victim is British, Amanda is American, her boyfriend is Italian — so you have three countries, two of which are [some of the] biggest media-driven countries in the world. So it just became a hail storm. Then it turned into these countries making it a battle between themselves. [Then] people become forgotten, the facts get neglected, and it all turns into a big cloud of mystery.
How did you approach Knox about making this documentary? Was she hesitant?
RB: The hardest job for any documentary filmmaker is to gain the trust of the people that are going to tell you their stories. With Amanda, but also with Mignini and Raffaele, we told them that we were interested in listening to them. And no one, as far as we know, had taken the time to talk to them in that way for a documentary. We let each of them know that we would be there to listen to them when they felt like they needed to talk about their side of the story, or their version of the truth.
What we found was that each of them decided to participate in the story when they felt like they had something extra to say, when they felt like no one had been listening to them, or when they had something on the line. Amanda first spoke to us in January of 2014, right before she was reconvicted. Mignini talked to us in 2015, after the Italian supreme court had absolved Amanda and Raffaele.
BG: We’d spent enough time with everyone that they knew we weren’t going for the salacious angle. Because if we’d been doing that, we could’ve done that from the beginning. That was a relative rarity, and I think everyone appreciated that. And also, it’s [been] nine years since the story started and there’s a little bit of distance. That meant that people felt like they were ready to talk about it. It also meant that they had perspective on it that they did not necessarily have in the moment.
Was her guilt a question that you were interested in pursuing?
RB: That seemed to be how a lot of the media wanted to approach the story, and that had already been done. In wanting to make a human story, that was never on our minds. The Italian supreme court came to their conclusion in 2015 that absolved [Knox and Raffaele]. That freed us up to anchor the end of the film in that, and look back at who they were as people.
BG: Most true crime films are trying to uncover whodunit. For us, it was more interesting to try to discover the personalities of the people, to have them reveal themselves to us, and to try to figure out how these puzzle pieces came together to create the story. Sitting down with them, we came in with no judgements. We had no idea what they were going to say going into any of these [interviews].
RB: What you realize is that they’re all real people. None of these people asked to be in this position. Meredith Kercher’s family did not ask to have to give press conferences, or respond to repeated questions about how they feel based on the different [trial] outcomes over the years. Amanda didn’t ask to be seen as someone who could go on Dancing with the Stars. And you realize quickly that these are just normal people, like anyone else.
What surprised you most about Amanda?
BG: Perspective — that bird’s-eye view. That’s not something I think you’d expect from someone who has been at the heart of a story like this, who has been in prison for four years, who has become an international household name. I don’t think we necessarily expected the she would draw connections to a larger view of how people handle these situations. Clearly she had spent a lot of time about the case and everything that had happened.
The true crime doc is a burgeoning genre. What are the ingredients for a successful one?
BG: Well, they’re all so different.
RB: Take the OJ Simpson series. That was one of the first stories that took place gavel to gavel on television, where everyone could tune in every day and watch the latest and greatest. Or you have Making a Murder, which is about an unknown case where people can discover some truth about something they knew nothing about.
But what we have is this story that people think they knew something about but in reality, they really don’t know what was behind all those headlines. We like to think of our film as a character study about the human experience. It’s not a forensics film, it’s not a whodunit, it’s not a trial film. A lot of these stories lose track of the humanity, and lose track of who these people were. Ultimately, you have a tragedy where everyone has lost something. Of course, the Kercher family has lost their daughter and they’ve seen this story commodified and turned into entertainment. We hope that Amanda Knox has a unique place in all of these films that are out there.
BG: I think that tracking the media element is a bit different. By working backwards from the decision in structuring the film, it allowed us to draw out, almost like a sin curve, where did the media blow up this part of the story, and where did this part of the story not get covered. So you can stretch it and pull it, and figure out how this got handled. The people that followed the story had very strong opinions along the way, and you can see how people react to various moments. Hopefully that raises questions about how we come to the decisions we come to with these stories and where that all starts.
Having seen gone deep behind the scenes of this tabloid tale, does it make you reconsider how you look at similar stories?
RB: There are people who want to know the objective facts that exist behind a lurid headline.
BG: I definitely work really hard now to control my gut reaction — sure that’s what I’m feeling as a result of what I’m reading, but why? Maybe that’s just additional cynicism, and maybe that was a growing-up process for us: learning about how this stuff comes to life.
Which really touches on the nature of these stories. We gravitate toward them because they make us feel something intense.
BG: Totally. We, as people, want all of these stories. It’s not like there’s this media beast that’s creating these things and we’re just pawns in the game. We’re driving all this because we’re so fascinated by it. It’s a human desire. In these true crime stories there’s this notion that, Oh my goodness I hope I never get caught in that scenario. Looking at it from a distance, you have this attraction to these scenarios because they play at your innermost fears. You could never imagine losing your daughter, having your life taken, being caught in something you didn’t do, or [realizing that] someone that’s a good person turns out to be a bad person. They’re all Hitchcock-ian fears.
This latest wave of true crime stories started with Serial, which, as you said, was based on a little-known crime. But now we’re moving on to OJ, Amanda Knox — later this month, CNN is releasing a six-part documentary series that rehashes the JonBenét Ramsey murder. How do we make sure that we’re looking at the right crimes and not just rehashing tabloid tales. Do we need to establish a rubric for cases that warrant a serious investigation?
BG: The movies that you’re talking about are very different. Making a Murderer is a series where there’s a discovery of new facts and evidence. It’s not focused on the analysis of what’s already happened. Same thing with Serial — that becomes a sort of first-person narrative as Sarah Koenig goes on this exploration. A lot of times the true crime stories that are looking at cultural phenomenons fall into a different camp than documentaries that are almost investigatory in nature. That OJ Simpson documentary, which was amazing, was looking through such a wider lens. Lumping all these [projects] together… it’s just a label. They’re all individual.