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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

“They Called Him Mostly Harmless” Preview: Director/EP Patricia Gillespie Talks Identity and Humanity in Her New True Crime Doc 

“They Called Him Mostly Harmless” Preview: Director/EP Patricia Gillespie Talks Identity and Humanity in Her New True Crime Doc

In the digital age it is almost impossible to completely disappear from the grid. With the ubiquity of the internet in our digital world, it’s pretty challenging not to leave an impression — even if you don’t have social media. Yet, that’s what the man known by his trail name of ‘Mostly Harmless’ managed to do. Not only did he have almost no digital presence, but he didn’t even carry a cell phone on him when he started his journey on the Appalachian Trail.

If you’re a hiker or a nature lover (or you’re familiar with Wild — the book or the film) you’re probably already familiar with trail hiking. There are so many reasons people decide to hike, but eventually if you’re out there enough and meet enough people you get a trail name. But you don’t pick your name; you’re given a name by a fellow hiker based on an experience on the trail. Our ‘Mostly Harmless’ started off as ‘Denim’ because he made the rookie mistake of starting his hike in jeans. So when did he become ‘Mostly Harmless’ and why? Why did he carry such a large pack? Why didn’t he tell anyone his real name? Why did he die the way he did? Who was this man?

TRAILER:

I had a chance to speak exclusively to executive producer and director Patricia Gillespie about the mystery surrounding ‘Mostly Harmless.’ While there are facets of this story that still remain unknown, perhaps the bigger question is how and why this man remained such a mystery, even in death.

TV GOODNESS: How did this story come to your attention and were there any specific details that made you think, yes, I have to make this film?

Patricia Gillespie: “By the time I came on the film, the case had been solved and I had heard things about it. I’m not actually a super online person myself, but I had been exposed to it because it was so viral.

Photo Credit: Max

Then my colleague, who was a producer on the film, Ethan Goldman, was somebody I had known for years and years and years since I was a little pup in the industry. We had always wanted to work together on something. He said, ‘I’m starting this film, set up with Max, and I wonder if you might like to direct it.’

I read the whole story in Wired, and my jaw hit the floor because it wasn’t just this taut mystery at the core, which is certainly there. It was this thing sub-dermally — under the story about identity in the digital age and how we live our lives online and the myth-making that happens there, the black and white thinking that happens there. I just thought it was such a fertile ground to examine what it’s like to be a citizen of the world in the digital age.”

TV GOODNESS: Christie Harris and Natasha Teasley are such interesting characters. You did a great job with every single person you picked to interview, but specifically for them, why did you want to include them and what was your process?

Patricia Gillespie: “At the beginning of this, the only prompt really was make a film about ‘Mostly Harmless.’ There were tons of sleuths and tons of podcasters and tons of people who covered the case.

My fellow EP, Eric Cook, had done some pre-interviews with everybody and he left me the great big long list. I started calling and spoke to Christie and Natasha. It’s an ensemble piece and everybody has their character in it they connect to. To me, [Christie and Natasha] were the soul of the film. I just thought they were leaders. I thought they were badasses and they’re people that we don’t see on screen a lot. But I know those women. I feel in many ways exactly like those women. And I wanted to center them and their work.

Christie Harris. Photo credit: MAX

What they did fundamentally, both of them, was so generous. These are working class women who in many ways have been, I think, disempowered in their lives, that are sometimes treated poorly by the world around them for reasons that shouldn’t be. They come home from these jobs that they bust their butts at all day, that maybe they’re not paid fairly, maybe they’re not treated well and they’re pillars in their family, they’re holding their families down together.

And then they’re like, you know what? ‘I’m going to donate my time to help another family I don’t even know, find some closure. Maybe I won’t even ever get to meet these people or know who they are.’ I just thought there was an altruism and a heroism, just something really beautiful there that I thought was worth exploring and showing.

What motivated these women and the stories of what motivated them was so fascinating. That you can get shit on by the world and then still reach down inside yourself and be like, ‘You know what I’m going to do in the face of that? I’m going to be good. I’m going to do something good.’

Natasha Teasley. Photo Credit: MAX

And, of course there’s complications and there’s drama. There are two women in leadership positions, so of course the world pits them against one another. But the thing that underpins it is a desire for excellence, a desire for agency, and a core decency in both of them.

What’s fascinating is how many similarities they have. The internet obscures their similarities and distances us from one another. I thought that was just right under the surface in their story, and I was interested in capturing it.”

TV GOODNESS: You did a great job. They were fascinating.

Patricia Gillespie: “Thank you. I hope the world embraces them the way I intended. I mean, I’m just here as a set of eyes and ears and I’m trying to tell the truth and tell it straight and kindly, but I hope that the world embraces them. I think these are two women that really deserve a warm embrace.”

TV GOODNESS: We shall see.

Patricia Gillespie: “Yeah. If people are mean, I’m going to be in the comments section.” [Laughs.]

TV GOODNESS: I loved that there are moments in the film that seem like outtakes that you chose to keep in. Why did you make that choice?

Patricia Gillespie: “Look, I’m certainly not the first person to do that, but I think there’s something about sleuth culture, true crime culture that has this air of being observed or even sometimes [performative]. Not to say that any of these people were performing; I think everybody was very genuine with me.

But the truth gets so obscured in the media formats and digital formats. And fundamentally what I’m making is going to go on MAX and be in a digital format. So I wanted to peek out from behind the curtain and say this was curated too. At the end of the day, I feel like I told the story very faithfully, very true. But I did edit it. I did only speak to the people I spoke to, and it’s not a function of me being a schlocky journalist, but it is just a function of my medium. I can do my best to tell the whole story. I think we did a good job as a team doing that. But I’m still in the digital world too. I’m still painting a sketch of how I see these people, and it was a way of confessing that.”

TV GOODNESS: It was so interesting.

Patricia Gillespie: “It’s also intimate, right? I just really, I love people. I love these people and it’s just a way to see them. My favorite one is with Kelly Fairbanks and she just sort of giggles right before we do the interview. I’m like, ‘God, she’s just gorgeous. She’s a gorgeous human being.’ And it’s nice to be able to show people that real genuine stuff.”

TV GOODNESS: In a way this case was solved, but there still is mystery. What do you hope people will take away from the film?

Patricia Gillespie: “Two things. In the most straightforward way, I hope people will become more aware of the issue of Does and the fact that this ‘Mostly Harmless’ case provides a roadmap for how these cases are solved. It has a lot to do with exposure. It has a lot to do with you spending $0 in two seconds sharing that flyer. I didn’t know that before I made this film, and now that I know it, I’m more likely to share the flyer. So I would like them to see that roadmap.

I trust my audiences enough to make the leap that ‘Mostly Harmless’ got a lot of this attention not by happenstance, but because he was a relatively good looking, relatively young white guy in a mysterious circumstance that you could read a lot into. Not everybody who is an unidentified person has a family looking for them and loved ones who need closure. [Not every unidentified person] has that baked in virality potential, right?

‘Mostly Harmless’ aka Vance Rodriguez. Photo Credit: MAX

There’s a lot of unconscious bias in society, people whose missing person flyers we aren’t sharing because of these preconceived notions we have. We as regular citizens with an internet connection can actually do something about that for no money and very little time. So I hope people take that away.

I also hope that people really reconsider how they look at the digital space. We have this idea that the digital space is not real life. It is, we’re online too much for it not to be real life. It’s absolutely real life. We spend a lot of our lives online and legitimate harm or legitimate good can come of that. And it really is up to us to decide how we’re going to behave and use our time there. I think we could be a hell of a lot kinder to each other, and I think we could learn to hold a lot more complexity than we currently do on the internet.”

Edited for space and content.

They Called Him Mostly Harmless premiered Thursday, February 8th on MAX.

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