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Getting the Story: 'At the Death House Door' Picks Up Where 'Chicago Tribune' Leaves Off

By Kathleen Fairweather

Most documentary filmmakers develop a concept, pitch and budget for their films and begin the arduous task of searching for funding and distribution. Not so for Steve James and Peter Gilbert, co-directors of At the Death House Door, which premieres May 29 on IFC Channel.

James, award-winning director of Hoop Dreams and Stevie, and Gilbert, director of award-winning films Vietnam: Long Time Coming and With All Deliberate Speed, were approached by the Chicago Tribune to create a documentary based on Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley’s 2005 investigation into the 1989 execution of 27-year-old inmate Carlos De Luna, who was sent to his death on the basis of misleading “facts” and questionable evidence—while steadfastly proclaiming his innocence.

The result is At The Death House Door, a searing look at the death penalty system in Texas as seen through the eyes of death row chaplain Pastor Carroll Pickett, who ministered to 95 prisoners executed inside the notorious “Walls” prison unit in Huntsville, Texas. Unbeknownst to anyone, including his family, Pickett recorded audio tape accounts of each of his death row experiences.

While De Luna’s story was the original impetus for the film, James and Gilbert veered off to explore that story through the eyes of Pastor Pickett. 

Kathleen Fairweather caught up with James and Gilbert for a look at the creation of At The Death House Door and an exploration of the relationship between the filmmakers and the Chicago Tribune.

IDA: The Chicago Tribune approached you to do a film on Steve Mills  and Maurice Possley's investigation of the Carlos De Luna death penalty case. Did the Tribune come to you with a production and funding offer? When did IFC become involved and to what extent?

Steve James:
The film was made possible by the Tribune, primarily because they told us about Carlos De Luna and Pastor Pickett when they brought the idea initially to us. And perhaps more importantly, Steve Mills made introductions to Pickett and endorsed us, which meant a lot to Pickett. The Tribune also provided very modest initial funding ($6,000) to cover the first shoot, but given our great interest in pursuing the film, we could have figured that out ourselves. IFC came on board right after the first shoot. Even without seeing any footage, they knew they wanted to be a part of this project, so they provided full funding for the film.

Peter Gilbert: The Tribune came to us because they had a relationship already with Kartemquin Films, our filmmaking home in Chicago. There were no strings attached, only that they thought the De Luna investigation was a fascinating idea for a film. When they told us about Reverend Pickett, we were intrigued by the connection he had to De Luna, as well as the job that he had ministering to inmates in the last 12 hours of their lives. On top of that, the deal was sealed when we heard that Pickett would go home and record audio tapes after each execution.

The Trib did not come to us with funding, but they did help cover our costs on the first trip we made with the reporters to Texas. We needed to capture them investigating the story because they were wrapping up their piece. The film was made possible by the Tribune because they helped introduce us to our main subjects and the basic spine of the story. We piggybacked them at the beginning of the process in many ways.  

IDA: Do you think you influenced Mill's and Possley's story, and vice versa?

SJ: Their eight-month-long investigation clearly influenced our story. In the film, Steve and Maury really do the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing Carlos’s innocence. They allowed us to, in essence, stand on their shoulders and use their credibility and hard work so that we would not have to get into all the details of Carlos’ case. We were conscious of not wanting that part of the story to turn into a Dateline or 20/20 crime report.

I think the making of our film gave them a different perspective, perhaps, on how one can tell this story. They are classic investigative journalists—who did what, where, when and how. We were able to tag along with them and focus more on the human fallout from what happened: how their investigation into Carlos brought him back into the lives of Pickett, Carlos’s sister Rose, and even another reporter, Karen Boudrie. And bringing Carlos back into their lives was both vindicating and painful.    

PG: I do not think we influenced their work at all. If anything, I learned an incredible amount from them. We are not journalists; we are filmmakers. Watching how they piece information together and keep themselves in check and balance was a pure pleasure to experience and film. It showed me how important their work is in a free society—what a balance it provides—and what a service they have done throughout the years committing themselves to investigating wrongful convictions and the justice system as a whole. If we influenced anything for them, it was that they were kind enough to open up to us about why they do the work they do. They were very important in our understanding the Texas legal system, and they gave us great insight into Rev. Pickett and the job that he performed for the State and the inmates. As filmmakers, we are allowed to have a much freer approach to subject matter and storytelling then Steve and Maury. They have journalistic rules that they abide by for all the right reasons. But their honesty and insights were very important to the film. How De Luna affected them is essential to our belief that every execution of an inmate causes a ripple that affects so many people.
IDA: Doc subjects are created from a filmmaker's interest piqued by news and media articles, but do you find it atypical that a news conglomerate would approach you to make a documentary based on their own news story? Is the Tribune getting into the doc business? Have you been approached by a newspaper or media outlet in the past?

SJ: I think it is unusual and one has to be careful about how to proceed in these situations. The history here is that Kartemquin is doing another film inspired by a series that appeared in the paper and that relationship led to this project. Like many newspapers these days, I think the Tribune is interested in where news and journalism is headed in the Internet age. Helping their stories find other audiences or means of expression is part of that. But it was clear to everyone that this would be our film and we’d have complete creative control. It’s one of the reasons we did not want to have the Tribune play a major role as funder for the film. In fact, both Mills and Possley early on were pushing for less of them and the Tribune story in the film. I think it is an interesting question as to how we would have handled—and how the Tribune would have reacted—if the film had taken a critical view of their investigation. Fortunately, Steve and Maury’s work was above reproach.  

PG: Media outlets such as CNN, NBC, CBS, etc. have been doing a certain type of documentary for years. I worked on CBS Reports many years ago. The difference was that the media outlet or conglomerate had editorial control. In this case, Steve and I had control of the film. I think as newspapers go through the difficult time of surviving the next generation of Internet technology and bloggers, they are looking for ways to expand their brand and keep it relevant. So I believe that this was an experiment that they embarked on with us.  

IDA: Do you see media partnerships becoming a trend among your peers?  

SJ: I frankly don’t know. But I think that documentary filmmakers always have to be savvy about where to find funding and partners who can help them get their films made. It’s really an age-old process of figuring out how to hook potential funders by tailoring proposals for your film to what the funder wants to hear, then going off and making the film you feel compelled to make.

PG: In some way media partnerships have always been there, but in a different form. Documentary filmmakers have been getting their ideas from newspaper articles for years. It was just the old model was that we would go to them, and now they are approaching us. I doubt it will be a trend, but it will be a model that some filmmakers may look to as one way to proceed.

IDA: Do you think this will blur the lines between news shows and documentaries? How do you keep journalism separate from the art form of the documentary?

I don’t have any worries about blurring lines with At the Death House Door because the film is so clearly not a journalistic treatment of Pastor Pickett, Carlos De Luna or anyone else in the film. But really, I don’t worry much about the differences between a journalistic treatment of a subject and the more artistic approach of documentaries. I mostly care about whether a film has intelligent things to say about the world around us, gives me access to worlds I’m not privy to in my daily life, and emotionally engages me. Good journalism can do that too, and bad documentaries can fail to. The standard difference people like to fall back on between journalism and documentaries is that the latter has a point of view while the former attempts some ideal of objectivity. But I find that mostly an oversimplification. Maybe we need to start talking about documentaries in genre terms: the essay (Michael Moore films), the journalistic (No End in Sight), the vérité (Love and Diane), the biography (Devil and Daniel Johnston), the personal (My Architect), the comedy (American Movie), and on and on...

PG: This has been an ongoing issue since Murrow. Good journalism by its nature is separate from the art form of documentary; we work under different rules and expectations. We have different reasons for why we do the work we do. For Steve and I, we are looking for interesting stories and subjects who through their lives can allow us to look at the bigger picture of a story. We use Rev. Pickett's journey from death penalty advocate to his anti-death penalty stance of today to show how complicated an issue like the death penalty is. The toll it takes on this one man and the people around him and Carlos is a way to look at the issue—no experts, no pundits.

Former International Documentary editor Kathleen Fairweather is now residing in Austin, Texas. Her goal is to visit all 150 music venues and survive the triple digit summers. She may be reached at