Darius McCollum in "Off the Rails"

Long before Adam Irving met Darius McCollum in person, he wrote over a hundred letters to get to know the person who would become the subject of his first feature, “Off the Rails.” He was a little more reluctant to let McCollum, who was in prison for at least the 30th time related to impersonating a subway conductor, get to know him.

“I guess I didn’t fully trust him, just in the sense that he is in prison, and I didn’t want information like my address circulating at Rikers,” recalls Irving. “So my letters started off very cautious and very factual, like I would ask him specific questions that were unemotional and I wouldn’t talk about myself. But then our letters became more intimate… When I met him in person, I was just blown away by how normal and calm he was. It was if I just was having coffee with an old friend.”

That disarming quality is on full display in “Off the Rails,” Irving’s riveting and compassionate portrait of McCollum, a man whose Asperger’s syndrome leads him to take solace in the highly regimented New York transit system. Memorizing train schedules at age eight and befriending conductors by 12, McCollum was 15 when an E train operator, eager to see his girlfriend, let him take the controls of his first Metro, beginning a ride that would illicitly see him at the helm of over 500 trains over 30 years and land him in and out of prison. Yet as “Off the Rails” lays out in compelling fashion, one could say that McCollum’s the one who has been railroaded, failed by a porous social fabric where every safeguard, whether it be the public education system in which he was stabbed or the unforgiving legal system, actually played a role in denying him a chance at a quality life, finding it easier to incarcerate or shun him because of his condition rather than attempting to understand how it affects his behavior.

Irving leaves no questions about why McCollum’s obsession with trains persists or why he continues to get in trouble for it, but in telling such a complicated story in such breezy terms that one is likely to feel as if they’re standing at the edge of a subway stop as the train passes by, there are plenty of questions around how the first-time feature director, who plied his craft on reality TV shoots, pulled off such an engaging film, which has picked up a number of awards on the festival circuit since premiering at Full Frame in April and the story attracted the attention of Julia Roberts to adapt into a narrative feature. On the eve of “Off the Rails”’ release in Los Angeles and New York, Irving spoke about how he put himself in the right position to make his first feature-length documentary, getting into locations that would seem impossible to film, and working with a subject he largely had no physical access to.

Darius McCollum in "Off the Rails"How did this come about?

I was looking for ideas for my first documentary, and I was reading about Foamers, people that get so excited about trains, they foam at the mouth when they see one. Naturally, I discovered Darius’ story on Wikipedia because he’s an example of a Foamer, – someone who’s so obsessed by trains that he’s taken it to the extreme of getting arrested for his passion, and the first line [on Wikipedia] just read like a logline of a movie – you couldn’t make this up. So I stayed up until four in the morning researching Darius to make sure that no one else had done a documentary on him. When I was confident that there wasn’t, I proceeded to contact his lawyer and people that knew him and then eventually Darius in person to get his permission [to make a film].

You wouldn’t notice because of how you’re able to show the places Darius has been and all that he’s done, but is it difficult to make a film where your subject is in prison for much of the time you’re making it?

Yeah, that was something I struggled with, along with my editor was what do we show onscreen when Darius is talking. It can also be confusing when the story he’s telling is in the past, and I can see why some people find the order [of the film] confusing because you can see him talking and you don’t know if he’s in a studio or if he’s in a jail cell at certain times where the story he’s telling is in the past or the present [respectively]. So we really struggled with how do we tell this story? Do we just tell it in order or do we go back and forth? What I wanted from very early on was for the audience to see what is Darius like when he’s in the real world, so I wanted to open the film with him giving a tour of how he takes the trains and the buses, [where he’s] actually standing in front of a bus, saying “You don’t need keys, you just push a button. There’s no security guards here. Anyone can do it.” And that way, once he goes to jail, the viewers aren’t antsy, waiting a whole hour to see what he’s like when he finally gets out of jail and he’s in New York at the end of the movie, so [it was like] why don’t we give a little taste of what he’s like [upfront].

I wanted the visuals to be very strong and memorable. I used to do photography – I still do – and I shot the film myself, so having it be more than talking heads and B-roll – having animation and reenactments [instead], was important. I didn’t have the luxury of being able to shoot verite, fly on the wall stuff because Darius is almost always in jail and it would take me three months on average just to get permission to film him in jail each time.

Darius McCollum in "Off the Rails"You do get in though, which is doubly impressive since it’s prisons and train stations and depots are usually very difficult to get permission to shoot in. Did you know what you were getting yourself into?

I did, and that’s why not everything was filmed as literally as you might think. A lot of stuff on the subway tracks – the reenactments when Darius is a kid – I actually filmed in a subway station in Toronto that I rented out and made it look like New York. I’m from Toronto and they have a subway system that doesn’t look anything like New York, but it has a subway station that closed in 1966, which is only used for filming and parties. They let you do whatever you want there and it’s quite expensive, but it’s still way cheaper than renting out a New York subway station and in New York, the subway runs 24 hours a day, so if you want to shut down a station, it’s very complicated. You need police and medics and insurance, whereas in Toronto, they give you a train, if you want it, and you can tell them to do whatever you want with the train – have them make it go fast, make it go slow, they can let you have a child driving it, which is what I did. [laughs] So by filming in Toronto, I was able to do these really great reenactments that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do in New York.

With the jail [scenes], there were some shots I actually got in California, where I rented out a couple of prisons and got some really cool steadicam B-roll of weaving through the jails. I was very restricted when I filmed Darius in jail in New York. They’d say, “You’re only allowed to film in this room for this amount of minutes.” And when I got exterior shots of the jail, they said you’re not allowed to film the razor wire or the towers, so I mixed the footage I got of Darius in jail in New York with B-roll that I shot of prisons in California and they blend [together] seamlessly.

Darius also seemed to have pretty good self-documentation from family photographs and other ephemera. What was it like having access to that?

I knew I needed it because I didn’t have any footage of Darius getting arrested or when he was a kid, so it was all through his mother in North Carolina. I flew down there twice to interview her and when I was there, I said I would love to be able to go through your photo albums. Luckily, she had six or seven of them with hundreds of pictures of Darius from the time he was a baby until he was about 19 or 20. He had class photos – I even got school notebooks of his from when he was seven years old where he wrote, “I love trains, I love trains, I love trains.” His mom was hesitant about me taking all these photos and copying them, but I assured her I would return all of them and that they wouldn’t be used to make Darius look bad, but rather to humanize him and to show that he was just like a regular kid who just ended up falling through the cracks.

Darius is also very meticulous about keeping all of his own mental health and prison records, so I was able to get all kinds of records. They didn’t end up getting used in the film, but they gave me a really good sense of what it’s like for Darius on the inside, even the type of deodorant or candy he buys in the commissary and how many phone calls he makes and how much it costs. Eventually, I got all his mugshots and fingerprints through the NYPD and it was really cool to see literally a 32-page rap sheet of all his crimes – what he was charged with, his fingerprints, what his address was, who arrested him, witness statements and to see it’s not a joke. He’s really getting arrested and doing hard time for all of these crimes and [with] the mugshots, it showed how he’s aged over time, even though his crimes are exactly the same over and over and over.

Because of that cycle, is it a challenge to make a film that isn’t repetitive?

Yeah, that is something I didn’t realize until I tested it out on audiences. Even though I knew you’d see him go back to jail, each crime is slightly different and interesting – one time he got caught as a kid driving, another time, he’s pretending to be a track work supervisor, and another time he apparently tripped the emergency breaks on a train so he could rescue a passenger – those individual stories all seemed interesting to me and what was disappointing when I tested it with audiences, was that by the third or fourth one, even though the stories are different, you’re just tired of seeing him go in and out [of prison].

It was a challenge, and I really struggled to find things to tell that weren’t about him going in and out of jail. I think it was a refreshing break for five minutes when you have the whole story of how he meets his wife because that’s like a left turn where you totally don’t expect it. It’s still about his obsession with trains [in a way], but it’s interesting to see Darius in the context of someone who falls in love and gets married rather than impersonating a transit worker [where] he goes to jail and gets out. So we were really looking for ways to have the story veer off the tracks a little bit, and even when we finished it, there are still reviewers who said it could be a little bit too repetitive, but I think that’s really in the end what I want viewers to feel. I want them to be a little bit fidgety in their seats, because that’s what Darius’ life is. He cannot get out of the revolving door and I want the audience to feel that claustrophobia of being stuck in this vicious cycle, and that there is no happy ending or refreshing turn, but that was definitely one of the biggest challenges.

Darius McCollum in "Off the Rails"It sounds like you were incredibly well-prepared for this, but was making your first feature a different experience for you?

Actually shooting it was very hard, not because it was a feature-length film, but because my subject is almost always incarcerated, so I can’t just call him or e-mail him and the law side of things like the NYPD, the parole board or the Department of Corrections or the Department of Justice, the DA, the MTA – none of them would really talk to me. That was something I hadn’t really encountered on my short film work because these were like corporate videos where I’m doing a video for a nonprofit – everyone wants to talk to me. So that was hard.

But the difference for me is all the stuff you do after you finish a feature-length film is much more complicated because you have to get Errors and Omissions insurance, a professional sound mix, color correction, a fair use letter from an attorney. You have to create closed captions and [take care of] all these technical, legal and accounting things that you don’t need to do when you’re just putting something on YouTube or a company’s website. That’s where I learned a lot. On a bigger documentary, I’d have a post-production supervisor or producer handling it, but I did everything myself, so that was really the challenge for me — negotiating sales contracts, looking over paperwork, and creating a press kit to send people, to think of the film as something that has to be sold, that has to have a catchy logline, a catchy poster and a catchy trailer. I was looking at my film as a commercial property that needed to be sold and that was something I’d never done before.

In the end, I really enjoyed the process because the film did sell. I felt really good about that because there are a lot of good films like mine that don’t because the people behind it ran out of steam, so burnt out from filming and editing that they just didn’t put in the time or money into the distribution and sales part. But I’m still there – my film comes out on Friday in L.A. and a couple weeks later in New York and I need to get people in the theater and people don’t know a movie’s out unless you tell them, so that requires Facebook ads, Twitter ads, getting on the radio, talking to you — that kind of thing.

“Off the Rails” will open in Los Angeles on November 4th at the Laemmle Music Hall and will play in New York as part of DOC NYC on November 12th and at the Metrograph beginning November 18th.