Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart Director Jeremiah Zagar on his HBO Documentary [Exclusive Interview + Preview]
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
You might think you knowÂ the story of Pamela Smart, but you don’t. Director Jeremiah Zagar examines how the media’s coverageÂ (and often biased approach) changed the course of this woman’s life. Did Pamela Smart get a fair trial? Does she belong in jail, even now? Watch and decide for yourself.
Synopsis, from HBO:
The riveting documentary takes a new look at a story everyone thought they knew and examines how one womanâ€™s trial became a nationâ€™s entertainment as the first fully televised court case. An Official Selection of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the film explores how the mediaâ€™s coverage of the story may have influenced the trial and sentencing of Pamela Smart, a New Hampshire woman who at 22 years old was accused of plotting the 1990 murder of her husband.
I spoke exclusively to director Jeremiah Zagar about how he became interested in Pamela Smart’s story, what surprised him about making the film and what he’d like people to take away from it.
TV GOODNESS: When did you decide you wanted to tackle this topic and how did you decide on your approach?
Jeremiah Zagar:Â “Lori Cheatle, who is a producer of the film, had been working on it for a year prior to me joining the film. I had just finished a movie called In a Dream, which was also broadcast on HBO and went out theatrically. Lori asked me to cut a trailer because that was my job at the time, I was an editor. I was cutting a fundraising trailer for the film, so I got to see the wealth of archival that Lori had amassed over that year. She, in the meantime, went to see In a Dream andÂ loved it and asked me to direct the film. Then we went to prison and met Pamela Smart and she was funny and smart and just totally different than any of the footage in the archival of the interviews and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s a film there about this person that nobody knows, that nobody’s ever seen before,’ and I agreed to direct the film. But the truth is I was unable to capture that because once you put a camera on Pamela Smart she becomes something else. She becomes very wooden and cold and difficult and very hard to relate to. So the movie then became about how the camera changed her trial and her future. That was the jumping off point, but I think there’s a lot of other small nuances that made the film I eventually made.”
TV GOODNESS: Pamela Smart is portrayed a certain way in the media, so we all have these preconceived ideas of who she is. What I love about your film is that you’re trying to show us that she isn’t that way. Did that process surprise you during the making of the film?
Jeremiah:Â “Yeah, there’s one moment in the film where I think you get to see Pamela for who she is and it’s in a writer’s workshop that Eve Ensler conducted. She’s just unaware of the camera, the cameras were with her long enough that she was allowed to become unaware. I’s a beautiful moment and you see and you feel for her in a way that’s different from the way that she was presented in the media and transformed. When you interview her in prison you would like it to be that way, but you’re going through an incredibly difficult process to get access. There’s a guard there at all times and she’s been strip searched and had to spread her ass cheeks before you get the chance to talk to her so it’s innately uncomfortable from the onset. Then she’s been really raked over the coals by the media for the last twenty-three years, so she’s like a deer in headlights, like someone who’s incredibly, incredibly frightened. After making the film, part of me is frightened. The media is a frightening creature. As someone who’s part of it, who knows that, I’m aware that it’s a frightening creature. It’s scary doing interviews. Who knows how my words will be transformed or changed or cut down. It’s just part of the process.”
TV GOODNESS: I like that this trial is billed as the birth of reality TV because it seems like every moment of this woman’s life from the trial on is broadcast or interpreted. Can you talk a little bit about that? It’s so interesting.
Jeremiah:Â “Yeah. I think the Pamela Smart that we know is a simplified trope that we created because it fits into a story we’ve been telling ourselves for centuries. It’s the Adam and Eve story. It’s The Scarlet Letter. It’s the older woman who seduces the younger man, this evil succubus who lures us to that place and I think the truth is something that’s much, much different than that, much more gray. I think Pam was probably pretty naive sexually, rather than experienced and she was sort of a dork as we talked about in the film, not like this Nicole Kidman sex goddess [from the film To Die For], but that story that became her, that Lady MacBeth story, it works and people fell in love with it. People need something to demonize. We need an evil creature amongst us and once we turned her into that, once she became a disease that could infect the rest of New Hampshire it was easy to find her guilty and then consider that she was guilty for the rest of her life. There’s two crimes that have been committed against Pam Smart. One is that she got an incredibly unfair trial and an incredibly disproportionate sentence, but the other is that her story has been stolen from her. Her name has been taken from her. In some ways this film is just an attempt to give her back that name, to give her back a place where she can tell her story, her side of it.”
TV GOODNESS: I think you do a great job of showing us how unfair her trial was. You talk to people today, like the lawyers and the reporters and they still don’t seem to understand that she didn’t get a fair trial. What can you say about that?
Jeremiah:Â “I think that’s because no one’s ever looked at it. Once you start looking at something from a different perspective, if everybody’s looking one way you should probably be looking the other way because they’re missing something. That’s something that a photographer friend of mine taught me a long, long time ago and it’s something that I think dictates all the work that I do. If everybody’s looking in one direction, why aren’t they looking in that other direction? No one has looked over these last twenty-three years at this trial specifically and broken it down bit by bit the way we do in this film. I think that’s what makes it new and that’s what makes it interesting. It was a phenomenon. It’s as if everybody was filming the wedding and what was really interesting were the wedding photographers, you know what i mean? The watchers in this trial transformed the history of the event and that to me is a fascinating thing.”
TV GOODNESS: I completely agree. If people only take one thing away from watching theÂ film, what do you hope it is?
Jeremiah:Â “I hope that viewers don’t take an answer away from the film, but take questions away, that it unlocks questions for them, that they question their justice system. There’s a moment in the film where one of the jurors says, ‘The system did what the system does,’ and he’s talking about Pam Smart. I think that’s a very sad way to look at our system in America. I think our systems are a precious thing that demand to be questioned. Our constitution and our political system, our justice system they are malleable and they are not always right. They can be bastardized and transformed and destroyed if we don’t constantly question them. Is this fair? Is this just? Is this right? That’s what I’d like people to take away from it.”
Edited for space and content.
Captivated: The Trials of Pamela SmartÂ premieres Monday, August 18th at 9/8c on HBO
Director Jeremiah Zagar:
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