Interview: Robert May on Sifting Out the Secrets Behind “Kids for Cash”

"The Fog of War" producer-turned-director talks about documenting a penal system scandal in his own backyard....Read More
Judge Mark Ciavarella in Robert May's "Kids for Cash"

When I catch myself telling Robert May that I enjoyed his first feature as a director before realizing that’s not quite the best way to compliment “Kids for Cash,” he’s quick to flash a sympathetic smile since it’s not the first time that’s happened.

“We’ve had audiences say, “We really enjoyed it,” and then it’s like they’re embarrassed to say ‘enjoy,’ but they’re entertained by it, so that’s good,” says May, a producer on such films as “The Station Agent” and “The Fog of War” before making his directorial debut here. “They’re moved, and they’re compelled to want to know more.”

For even the residents of Luzerne County in Pennsylvania who experienced a whirlwind of press attention when scandal broke out in 2008, there’s bound to be something more to be gleaned from May’s “Kids for Cash,” which chronicles the case of Judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan who were alleged to have received kickbacks for incarcerating minors in order to populate a newly built juvenile detention center in the area for profit. In fact, the reason May made the film was because he was living nearby, continually shocked at whatever new revelation about the case would pop up on the local news.

Yet for as many twists and turns that happened in the trial of Ciavarella and Conahan which make the film akin to a John Grisham pageturner, “Kids for Cash” is equally akin to Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In,” taking the long view about prisoners at a younger age whose lives are destroyed, often over the most minor of infractions, in order to satisfy a carnivorous penal system. Whether or not the judges’ decisions were made out of greed or unduly strict attitudes towards sentencing, May chronicles the aftermath of the harsh penalties they hand down as it ripples throughout the community, the families of the minors and eventually the lives of the judges themselves.

During a recent visit to Los Angeles, May regaled in having a chance to finally talk about the film, which he kept close to the vest for the past five years, developing it in such a way that would give equal weight to all parties involved, ‎and how he understood his own kids better after making it.

Charlie Balasavage in "Kids for Cash"What’s it been like to go on the road with this film? I imagine you get a really emotional response from it.

We do. And the film took nearly five years to make, so during that period of time, it was all under the cloak of secrecy because we didn’t want anybody to know we’re making the movie. Even when we did research screenings around the country, everybody’s signing non-disclosure agreements. Whereas some films would go on a long-term propagation of what it is, we said, “You can’t talk about it” until we were done, which was October.

People react like we thought because we did so many research screenings. But now that people talk about it, it feels good after spending five years of your life on one story to be finally at this point where we can talk about the fact that these judges were in the movie without anybody knowing about it, including their lawyers. It’s good for the kids and families, too, because they trusted us without knowing what was going to happen or who else was is in the movie.

This might constitute a spoiler, but you were not only able to speak to the judges and reveal them in such a way that gives them equal weight to make this an evenhanded piece. Was finding such a chronology difficult to figure out?

It was extraordinarily difficult because it was always about we were always going to surprise the audience with the judge. But what’s the right time? 10 minutes in? 20 minutes in? 30 minutes in? In the course of our screenings, probably the most work we did was adjust to where the judges enter the story because we knew that would change everything. The construct of the film was to set it up cinematically, settling in on this little village with these kids [with the undercurrent of] what is that? What does all this mean? Where is this going? Then blasting the audience with the endgame of what was happening with these kids. Everybody thought [Judge Ciavarella] was doing a good thing, because, after all, he’s preaching to the school assembly in the opening of the film. He was elected — this is what the community went through, too. Then, pow! What happened? We loved him, now we hate him, and it was almost like we didn’t want to hear from him. What could he possibly say? He’s tried and convicted already, in some regard.

We already knew that was the public reaction, so we thought, “Well, let’s bring him there [in the film],” and we brought him in in black because we wanted to set a demarcation point. One year before the trial, he started talking to us, and [where we decided to introduce him in the film] has been effective because audiences say [about the first part of the film], “Well, this is interesting,” and it seems a little familiar because it’s the way that the story construct is put together and then it’s like, “Wait a second!” Who knows if it’s ever right, but it’s as right as we can get it.

Amanda Lorah in "Kids for Cash"Was this a different experience for you than on some of your other films as a producer? First, you’re interacting with people where the emotions must be so raw.

It was. I didn’t go [into the interviews] with any judgment at all. I didn’t judge the judges or the kids and their families. I just had a very relaxed relationship with all of them, and I think they knew that. Everybody else was judging the kids and the judges. So we created an atmosphere for the interviews in a way that the world would go away, even for our crew. We had two cameras and we blocked off the area so that the kids or families or judges, would lose themselves in the interview, and then the emotions start to pour out.

For instance, Amanda [Lorah, one of the kids] had never talked about her story, even to her family, or to a psychologist. She talked to us the first time, and we were all affected by that. How can you not be? This is all real, raw emotion, and we would sometimes have 14-hour call days, with 12 hours introduction between setups, and about three to six hours a day interviewing. But three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, and sometimes we [would go meet] the kids in the morning to the judge in the afternoon. I would get home and literally feel like somebody wrung me out like a sponge because I didn’t have an ounce of anything left in me.

What made you want to do something on this?

My producing partner and I were developing a story on greed and power and kids. Fictional story, at the time. My offices are in New York, but we were actually in Pennsylvania and we were doing a story retreat when this scandal hit in January 2009. I actually do live in the county that it happened in — Luzerne County. I have a home there. I knew who the judge is, I probably voted for him, but I didn’t know them personally. I was shocked, and I thought, “This is our story.”

We had spent a couple of years in the script stages developing this other story, and when something was unfolding in front of us, it was hard to believe. Power, greed, kids, money — it’s like, “What?” But we were never going to make a movie unless we could get access to the judges, because it would have been a one-dimensional story [in that way], too. We got more than we bargained for.

It caused a media frenzy locally. Where did you see the opportunity to do something different?

We’re in an interesting market there, though, because there are three newspapers — and most of most small communities have one, if any. These newspapers were very competitive with each other, and there’s also three networks are represented there, too, so it’s a pretty strong media market. But they’re all covering the same story the same way —  these judges are evil and. as soon as “Kids for Cash” became the phrase, that was it. You couldn’t get anything else through the noise. When [Judge] Ciavarella initially tried to, in his mind, set the record straight, no one would listen. He could say whatever he wanted, but it still came back to him. But I think it’s what actually gave us the opportunity to interview these judges in the first place because they knew you decide what you believe, but there’s always two sides to a story, and no one was interested enough to really [delve] deeply.

Was there a moment when you knew you had a film?

I refer to this film as a nonfiction film versus a documentary, and the difference is this: first of all, most people don’t like to see a documentary. There are people who do, but a lot of people don’t because they feel like they’re going to learn something and it’s going to be documenting all this, blah, blah, blah. Much like a nonfiction book, there’s an arc to this and what interests me is narrative-driven, so I’ll call it nonfiction.

The problem is when you’re following stories that are still developing, you don’t know where they’re going to end, and you don’t know whether you’re going to have a movie. We didn’t know, and that’s always the risk. But eventually, I realized that we have a movie here because the legal side of these judges’ stories was starting to move all over the place. They pled guilty, then the guilty plea was rejected, then one pled guilty, then the other one says he’s going to go to trial. Then the guy that pleads guilty decides he’s just going to tell other stuff that the other judges have agreed they were never going to [tell], so this is a betrayal.  If you were writing a script, you would write it with various plot points and twists and turns and partway through, we realized, “We have an animal on our hands.” At that point, we thought we had the elements of a movie, we just had to figure out how to put it together.

As the film describes early, these cases are sealed because they involved minors, so was it difficult to figure out what that story was before going into the interviews?

We were able to get the details of each of the cases, so we understood what was going on. But that’s because we were making the movie and we had people who were willing to give us access. Otherwise, you’d never know any of these details. So if you heard a kid was a juvenile delinquent, what would you think? You’d think, “A bad kid. Don’t let them around my kid.” But the fact is that most kids that are arrested in the US — 95% of them — are for non-violent crimes in the first place — for dumb things.

Kids do dumb things, and we used to be okay with that because we used to think, “Well, that’s going to develop character.” But post-Columbine, [the thinking is] “Oh, dumb things could turn into severe, violent crimes.” Sure they can, but when you paint with a really wide brush like that, you have to really be careful. So instead of helping a kid, we just actually do more harm than good, because society didn’t know it was happening. We want zero tolerance for other people’s kids, but not for our kids because we think our kids would never get into that kind of trouble and they were naive. Or, if they did, his intentions or her intentions [weren’t] for this outcome. But your kid, I don’t know about your kid. That’s the problem, and we pull away the curtain [to show], guess what? Your kid can get arrested pretty damn easily, and if your kid’s a juvenile delinquent, you lose all custody and control of your kid, and it’s tough to get it back because in the system today, there’s this thing called indefinite probation and a kid can be held until they’re 21 years of age in just about anywhere in the country.

I believed in zero tolerance before this whole movie, and I have two kids. [I’d say] “There are consequences of your actions, and I’m not going to tolerate this or that,” and they’d just look at me. Then when they do something wrong, I’m like, “Did you not hear what I said?” Then you find out – the neuroscience supports this – their brains are fully developed [as children]. They’re not going to necessarily understand what you’re saying. And it goes to the frontal lobe of the brain, which I had no idea, and the frontal lobe of the brain develops less. That’s what controls risk-taking ability, judgment, and logic. That was an “A-ha!” moment. No wonder.

“Kids for Cash” opens on February 28th in New York at the Village 7 and the Empire 25, in Chicago at the River East 21, in Atlanta at the Phipps Plaza 14 and in Miami at the Aventura 24. It will open in Los Angeles at the Noho 7 and in other cities on March 7th. A full list of theaters can be found here.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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