A few years back I caught wind of a peculiar little documentary called “Cropsey.” It debuted at Tribeca and kicked around in some small regional fests but eventually climbed it’s way into the bigger festival circuit and found placement at the Chicago International Film Festival, Fantastic Fest, Woodstock and Starz Denver. Traveling in these circles as I do, I started to hear word that “Cropsey” was not only too freaky to be true, it also touched upon urban legends in a way no other documentary or TV show had done before. I was intrigued.
I sought out a copy of the film and after many emails I finally procured one. I popped it in and was really kind of taken aback by one of my favorite features of great documentaries: showing you an amazing story you’ve never heard of in a clever way. I really loved the film and was sold.
The film is ostensibly about the “Cropsey” urban legend that’s been floating around Staten Island kids for years. The story, which was likely spawned by kids but likely perpetuated by adults to keep kids safe, revolves around an old, dilapidated mental institution said to be haunted by an escaped mental patient named Cropsey. He would come out late at night and snatch kids off the streets and murder them without any remorse. While the area did have it’s share of missing children, none were ever found. Then the legend seemed to come to life as a murdered child was found and a creepy local “Boo Radley” type figure named Andre Rand was arrested. What followed was a sensationalized trial that took the area by storm and, luckily for us, filmmakers Josh Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio were there to capture it all.
Zeman and Brancaccio grew up around the legend and were also present in 1987 when a bizarre string of kids being murdered and kidnapped occurred to seemingly bring the “Cropsey” legend to life. What results is an extremely cool and creepy documentary that covers urban myth, the legal system and the power of community and gossip. Zeman and Brancaccio are like a 2-person Scooby-Doo team (without the dog) seeking out clues and facts and while they don’t always find them, what they do discover is nearly every bit as troubling as the real-life murder/kidnappings. So of course I jumped at the opportunity to interview director Josh Zeman.
Tell us about how this movie started for you in a kind of “timeline” sense. The film spans a few decades so how did you guys approach it?
That was probably one of the hardest parts of the process – constructing the narrative around 5 disappearances that spanned over 30 years. We knew we would use the upcoming trial for one of the children as the essential narrative framework because it’s the WHY NOW of this story. The WHY NOW brings all these events that have happened in the past into the perspective of current day and makes the story relevant once again.
The trial also provided us with a natural dramatic framework with which to tell the story. Every trial has a beginning middle and end, so the object was to weave these disappearances through the current trial so the info was being doled out in a dramatic fashion. It took a lot of fiddling, and was very complicated with so many different kids, and time periods. We also knew we had to tell the story of Jennifer first, the only child that was actually found and the last, because it was her discovery that led to Rand being arrested. So we were going in reverse order with all the kids disappearing, starting with the last instead of the first, but also weaving the trial in and all the other kids.
You grew up around the Cropsey legend, so was some kind of film always in the back of your minds or did it just kind of hit you one day?
The story was always there, but it was the perspective that hit us one day. When I first met Barb, we discovered we were both from Staten Island, but didn’t know each other growing up. We immediately started sharing stories about our hometown and realized we both were profoundly affected by the urban legend of Cropsey and the real story of Jennifer Schweiger’s tragic disappearance. It was like all the kids from Stephen King’s “It” getting together to share their stories. About a week later, we took a walk through the woods and discovered the old Willowbrook Playground hidden in the woods. It was really disturbing that all these clues to the past were still so visible, and also so amazingly creepy. About a week later the district attorney announced he was indicting Rand for the disappearance of Holly Ann Hughes, whose body to this day has never been found. That was a sign to us that we needed to start filming.
My guess is that the copious amounts of research that went into the film was probably the biggest pain in the ass or took the most time. Am I right or was another part more difficult? What was the most fun thing about making the film?
The research was a pain in the ass, but it was also the most satisfying. We had to wait literally years for the trial to start – in fact it was one of the longest pre-trial motions in all of New York City history. That frustration led us to go out and film, but it was there in the research where we found the real essence of the film. It was when we started digging that we found out – Holy Shit – there’s so much more to this story than anyone ever knew. It was like it has been buried for all this time, just waiting for someone to come in dig it all up again.
By the time the trial came about, we had become the local experts, and so we were really about to craft the story while we were making the film, rather then getting into the editing room and asking – what the hell do we have? Honestly the most fun was going in and seeing all the old photos and shifting through the dusty files. It was amazing the stuff we were seeing.
You’ve got a pretty impressive list of films you’ve produced but this is the first film you’ve directed and it’s a doc. What were some of the tough lessons you learned while filming this and, if possible, throw out a good nugget of advice to documentary filmmakers who might just be starting out.
Literally this film took me 10 years and we’ve had some major up and downs. There are so many reasons to quit, to give up, but you can’t… why? Because you’re gonna hate yourself if you do. Never, Never, Never quit. If you have that unfinished film hanging around your neck its going to suck the life out of you.
As well, there was a time that Joe Roth ended up seeing our fundraising trailer, and decided he wanted to use our “locations” for the film “Freedomland” which he was directing. “Freedomland” was in part based on similar events in “Cropsey.” At the time we thought we were done – here was this big studio film that was going to come in and tell our story. Well, that never happened and the film ended up getting panned. In the end, we had nothing to fear but our own success. There are always going to be a million stories that are similar to yours, some good and some bad – just be true to your own narrative and there’s a good chance, both films can exist side by side, or the one with the most heart wins.
Has Andre Rand seen the film and if so, what did he think? Are you still in contact with him these days?
Rand hasn’t seen the film, but I can’t wait to show it to him. We’re trying to get permission to screen it for him to get his perspective. As far as contact, he’s written to us a few times, but nothing very extensive.
You guys had a really solid festival run, what was your favorite experience? For the filmmakers reading this, what are (at least) 2 key pieces of advice you learned on the festival circuit? Kind of “do’s and don’ts.”
My favorite experience was, by far, playing at Fantastic Fest. And it’s interesting, we really thought we would live and die on the Tribeca premiere, but it was the secondary festival, Fantastic Fest, that really pushed us over the edge.
In the bigger festivals it’s sometimes all about stars, glitz and glamour or having a film that fits in a prescribed mold. We weren’t that film. Hell, we were a horror doc, you don’t get much quirkier that that. And if it’s too out of the box, people are going to have a hard time appreciating for what it is… or even writing about it. At a place like Fantastic Fest, audiences were just into the film for what it was, and the fans were great.
I think that’s where we really discovered who our audience was. So there’s a lot to learn about your audience. You might have a good idea of whom they are, but not always. It can change, so make sure you allow for that to happen. And make sure, if you can’t pay for a publicist, you spend time creating your own team.
Now that the film has had it’s run and all the great first wave of press, you get to kind of do it all over again with he DVD release. What was it like finding a distributor for the film? Were you inundated with inquiries or did you have to get out there and find some companies who might be interested?
Ugh, we probably premiered during the worst possible acquisition season for distributing films in the past 20 years. Literally it felt as if the industry was going to implode. Nobody knew if they were going to have jobs on Monday morning much less be willing to take a chance on buying a film. It took us a long time to figure out what to do, but again, you can’t quit. And who knows the reasons why a film isn’t picked up. Sometimes it is a reflection on the quality of the film and sometimes it’s forces outside of your control. While the film may not resonate with some as it does with others, we knew there was a market place for it, so we just kept pounding till something came along and it did.
As the distribution decision started to wind down, what were some key elements you wanted and/or needed in order to jump aboard with a company? With on-demand, digital streaming and all sorts of digital outlets so new and kind of up in the air, what were some things that you were sold on in terms of the company you went with.
Well, after getting some very slim offers, we decided to distribute it ourselves. We ended up finding some good partners and were able to split the rights ourselves. Selling TV was the first critical step because it allowed us to finance our own theatrical. Then its was about finding partners who could exploit VOD while we did our concurrent theatrical. Then came the rest of the rights – Netflix etc. But be careful – splitting rights is very tricky, and some companies have mandates to acquire certain rights for reasons other than the obvious. Distribution is changing so fast, its a very difficult to keep up with what digital rights companies are willing to let go and what ones are deal breakers. Obviously the rights that make the most money for the distributor with the least amount of effort are the most valuable.
Then again there are a lot of new markets opening up. So if you plan to self-distribute, get a lot of advice often and early, and please, don’t get only get your advice from paid consultants or other distributors, take a fellow filmmaker out to lunch, buy him a hot meal and I’m sure, he or she will tell you everything.
Tell us where people can see “Cropsey.”
The film can be ordered on our website, and through Breaking Glass. Otherwise Amazon and Netflix. And please, if you’re a fan, join our Facebook site. Its really important to us to connect with our audience and keep the dialogue open. And if you have seen the film, you’re going to love the DVD extras and commentary. There’s so much more to the story, we could have made another film.