Mark DeFriest in Gabriel London's "The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest"

When Gabriel London went to interview Barbie Taylor, the stepsister of Mark DeFriest, as the first person he would speak to for his documentary debut, “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest,” he greeted her with some shocking news – Mark was alive.

Taylor could be easily forgiven for not knowing. Since DeFriest was sentenced to four years in prison in the late 1970s for breaking into the home shared by his late father and stepmother to retrieve tools that were promised to him after his father’s death, he all but vanished into the bowels of the Florida penal system, sent to the state’s most infamous maximum security jail after daring to escape and often succeeding on a number of occasions. While he calls himself James Bond, he has a greater resemblance to the inventive Q, able to craft guns from toothpaste tubes and homemade keys out of soap, due to his extraordinary abilities as a mechanic and engineer.

Yet when London found DeFriest, he was busier making mini-chairs out of the lining of potato chip bags and three-dimensional pop-up cards for his wife Bonnie on the outside, resigned to serving even more time than the 30 years he already spent in the pen. But “The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest” is intent on giving him a presence on the outside, delivering a rip-roaring account of DeFriest’s unbelievable attempts at prison breaks involving everything from putting LSD in his nurses’ coffee pot to using his time in carpentry training program to build two double-barreled zip guns that appropriately enough are told in animated, comic book-esque form, though in the true spirit of the enigmatic DeFriest, that proves to be a cover for a deeply researched and upsetting look at America’s prison-industrial complex and the ways in which the system fails nonviolent criminals.

During the Los Angeles Film Festival where the thrilling doc made its debut over the weekend, London spoke about he learned of DeFriest’s unusual plight, emulating the prisoner’s artwork for the film’s compelling visual style and achieving something that may have seemed even more impossible than one of DeFriest’s escapes by simply getting to talk to him.

Mark DeFriest at 19 in "The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest"How did you learn of Mark’s story?

From the time I was in college 15 years ago, I was really interested in criminal justice stories, [particularly] issues of miscarriage of justice, and I was focused on the issue of prison rape. I actually got a grant out of college to work with Human Rights Watch on the first ever book study on that topic, so‎ I was just immersed in different narratives of prisoners around the country. I was in contact directly with prisoners and organizations and also reading everything I can get my hands on. I found this wild article called “Locked Alone in X Wing,” and it was shocking because it’s described this Draconian world in Florida State Prison that they had designed for the worst of the worst criminals.

As I read through it, they had bios of all these different prisoners and they mentioned a guy named Mark DeFriest, [noting] he’s the only person on X-wing who’s never physically harmed another individual. You’ve got to be really, really screwed end up with murderers, cop killers and rapists in a windowless box above the electric chair. What could you’ve done? He was an escape artist. That was fascinating but had nothing to do with what I was doing with Human Rights Watch. The very next day, I was in touch with a prison rights activist who told me she had 15 years of letters from a guy named Mark DeFriest. When she said the name, I said, “Is that the same guy that that’s on X-wing?” She said, “Yeah, it is.” I said, “Is that an escape artist? [She said,] “He might have mentioned something about that.” I thought, whoa, I’ve got two different sides of the same story. Let me take a little deeper.” That’s how it began.

In Florida now, people do 150% more time for the same crimes that they did 30 years ago and it’s just made the prison system grow and grow and grow and grow. The people that are suffering, the prisoners and the people that are benefiting are the people that run the prisons.

Mark DeFriest sketch "Clown in a Straitjacket" in "The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest"Did Mark’s craftiness contribute to the film’s style or structure? He creates these incredible pop-up cards for his wife and does these vivid sketches.

I felt licensed to do animation in the film that was based on his ability as an illustrator, which grew out of his mechanical ability and his obviously very sharp eye. What really opened the door for us were some of the drawings he did like a really odd but really great drawing of a clown in full makeup in a straitjacket with little clown tears coming down. His wife says she thinks it’s a self-portrait and I thought about that and this whole notion of casting yourself in your animations.

I feel like Mark was doing that. A lot of the character drawings that he does are very much his internal conversation. When he was going through that period of really terrible sexual abuse, he was cast himself as a female character but it was a warrior princess. I‎n a sense, there was a role that he had taken on, but like a superhero, it was a disguise. It was an escape. It wasn’t a resignation. It wasn’t as people may have interpreted some of his behavior in prison to be in the past. He was repurposing it and much like a superhero who had been wounded, he had taken the wound and made it into a strength. I thought that gave me license to go through and actually do some animation that would bring back to life his great, almost heroic exploits as an escape artist.

You seemed to accrue a wealth of archival material, including some crazy industrial films that seem as though they’re promoting the Florida Penal system as if it were a resort. What was it like to have that discovery?

That was so exciting to discover that the Florida archives that are held in Tallahassee had a video section with all of these great industrials that had been commissioned, some of them in 16mm film and others in old video, of the two big actual locations where Mark escaped from. When I found the industrial that was called “Expanding our Correctional Horizons,” I just was blown away because it was gorgeous footage. It followed everybody’s journey into the prison system and had some really great, strange shots of [areas like] the fence lines and everything moody and atmospheric. Mark escaped from that facility, the Appalachian Correctional Institute, so we had footage that actually was from that very same place in the very same era when he was there.

Then the other video we found was of the Florida State Hospital, which was funny because they were like, “Here, we have the vocational training program,” and they mentioned this wood shop class that happens to be completely part of our story because Mark made his zip guns to escape from Florida State Hospital there. That was great just in a meta, overall ironic sense, because the fact that that video was called “Expanding Our Correctional Horizons” is pretty sick [when it’s really the] idea of expanding the prison system, which is manifest in the last 30 years in this country. Prison should be a shrinking industry just by its nature, but the idea that there’s this video where they proudly declare they’re expanding it really speaks volumes.

How much access did you actually have to Mark over the years?

I had unfettered access through letters, then eventually he was also able to call. I would go to visit sometimes in various prisons where he’s been held. Sometimes, it’s behind glass and other times it’s been contact visits in a visit room. Ultimately, when we were really in production on the film, there was the possibility of actually going in with some of the people who were working with Mark in the story. The first access [of that kind I had to film] was with Dr. Berlin, one of the characters in the film and the second time I went in was with John Middleton, the lawyer. The third time I went in with cameras, we actually had a two-day interview where we were much more free to do what we wanted and choose a location in the prison that fit. We were able to do that master interview and that was really just nice to go in through the front door with the Department of Corrections, who facilitated our visit. Florida approved it and it made it possible.

The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriestThis covers a pretty long span of time. Was there a point you knew it was a feature?

I decided when I could access to Mark through the phone and that I would do the animations that eventually, I could create a feature from it. I also always held out in my mind that I would find a way into the prison to meet him. Now that I’ve made the film, I know that it was essential. But I did have a sense [from the beginning] because I had moved from Los Angeles to New York and I was really looking to switch the gears on this film. I had written various drafts of a screenplay about his life, but I’d found that it was really putting a cart before the horse since his story had never been told as an [in-depth] article or as a documentary film. I should be the one to tell that true story because I had all these disparate pieces that nobody else had to be that person and I had a history as a documentary filmmaker. I thought it would take me two or three years, but it took like six.

Since you started making the film in 2007, the issue of sentencing for nonviolent offenses has occasionally been in the media spotlight with films such as “The House I Live In.” Did knowing what else was out there change what you ultimately wanted to do with the film?

Absolutely, and without giving away what happens in the film, I would say that one of things that happened with the story that was pretty incredible is that research catalyzed change. [In other words,] the process of making the film created some of the story that you see in the film. I think most filmmakers would tell you, “It’s very impossible to be a fly on the wall.” In this case, it goes beyond impossible.

When you hold somebody for that long in prison, people fall away. They’re not there anymore and you forget. There were people who really just thought he was dead. When they realized that he wasn’t, that he’d just been disappeared, I was able to recover pieces of his history. When I found the doctor who had been responsible for his being sent to prison so many years ago, he couldn’t believe that Mark was still there. He figured that if Mark was actually competent, he would have gotten out long before, so he felt like he should reenter the narrative and when that happened, I just realized, man, this is going to take off. Now, I have not just the history of Houdini, but I have a live story of Mark DeFriest and whether or not he will be a person who gets a chance to be redeemed in our society.

“The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest” will open in Los Angeles on March 6th at the Music Hall.