As difficult as it may be to believe that one of the year’s most accomplished films comes from a first-time filmmaker, “Killing Them Safely” director Nick Berardini still sounds as if he’s in mild disbelief it came together at all. Berardini was a senior at the University of Missouri, on the verge of becoming the first Tiger basketball player to earn a degree in broadcast journalism, when he first heard of Stanley Harlan, a man who would change his life. The two would never meet — Harlan died of cardiac arrest, as Berardini would come to learn from the police scanner he listened to while working at a local NBC affiliate, but in hearing the details of how the 23-year-old was detained by police in Moberly and tased mercilessly by local law enforcement as one of the first to the scene, Berardini was inspired to try his hand at documentary, setting up a seven-year journey full of frustration as well as the satisfaction of a job done thoroughly.
When it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year under the title “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” a reference to the children’s novel from which TASER International, the company founded by Tom and Rick Smith takes its name, those seven years were on display in Berardini’s feature debut, but none of the struggle. As sleek and sophisticated a weapon as the Smiths created, “Killing Them Safely” firmly but never overaggressively lays out the way in which the brothers behind the widespread adoption of the stun gun became victims of their own success, introducing to police departments across the country non-lethal means of detaining criminals and subsequently looking the other way when misuse due to overzealous officers and poor training led to death as they expanded their global empire. The film plays out as a compelling perversion of the American Dream narrative, looking on as the Smiths take advantage of the unique period in American history when the climate of fear post-9/11 militarized police forces and corporate greed was left unchecked.
It would come as a surprise to me later to learn that Berardini had initially intended to make a film exclusively about Harlan’s death, which is now just one chapter in the film since the director sadly had too many other stories of taser-related injuries and deaths to choose from by the time it was finished. Yet Berardini and a team of some of the best minds working in documentary today (including Robert Greene and Nathan Truesdell) bring the kind of human dimension to each of the people featured in the film that suggests they came to know them as well as Harlan — even Steve Tuttle, the TASER crisis management exec tasked with keeping up the company’s spin during an interview at corporate headquarters. Shortly before the film makes its way into theaters, Berardini spoke of the surreal experience of visiting TASER International, creating central characters out of archival footage and when filmmaking becomes activism.
I was definitely interested. Initially, this was a different movie, but as I came to understand that I had a real movie about what happened in Moberly, Missouri, it started to nudge me towards something I definitely wanted to pursue. I’m obviously not happy about what happened to this young man and that I had to make my first movie about death, essentially, but it humbled me and reminded me that ultimately humanity is complicated, and capable of so much good and bad. That really turned me on to documentary. I had certainly been interested in documentary film, but now I’m an avid fan. I certainly want to potentially pursue narrative films one day, but I’ll never abandon the desire I have for documentary because of the exhilarating way you come to understand people.
This film is a beneficiary of that complexity. When you first found your subject, was it apparent it had that in it?
It was tough. Not that I didn’t think there was potential because the dynamic was clear. When I had the stuff with Steve Tuttle at Taser, I didn’t get any more access because the day was so bizarre, but I had a new idea about the movie I was making, which is how do we see ourselves versus who we really are? At TASER International, they saw the best version of themselves and that lack of self awareness about who they really are made it really difficult to mitigate any of the collateral damage because the only way they could really justify their own existence was to believe in the idealism that they started out with — that “We’re going to save lives.” It’s common for a weapons manufacturer to feel some sort of pride in the ends justifying the means, but in this instance, they certainly had a case that they were going to do something positive for police officers and the communities they serve because use of force can be violent. But what inevitably happened was they chose their own interests — over the course of several decisions over several years — that ultimately put a lot of people at risk.
It was reported that Rick and Tom Smith actually sat for an on-camera interview, but was that actually true?
No. And part of the challenge of making the film was once I really decided that the movie was about TASER International and the way it sees itself in the world, was to create Rick and Tom Smith from [archival footage]. They didn’t actively participate and they’re two of my three main characters, so it required a lot of discipline and understanding the structure of the movie in the sense that we’re building it around this company’s point of view [with] the conflict coming from all the things that threaten the company’s POV.
That’s why the deposition footage [of the Smiths] served such purpose because it [provides] the most human element in the way that we see them. In the interviews or when they’re up on stage doing promotional things for shareholders or training officers, they are constantly performing. Yet in these depositions, they’re performing slightly, but there’s more introspection that we don’t get in the other context when we see them [that’s not as aggressively] trying to convince you of this one image the way that the company sees itself. That’s a fascinating tension.
One of the most powerful images in the film is simply of the fortress-like compound that Taser operates from. Did you actually know how important filming in and around the company would be in the final film?
The best thing inexperienced filmmakers can do is get coverage. I think we don’t really understand quite how to represent the idea in your head visually [yet] so you need to basically make sure that you have everything. We just made an effort to be patient. I wasn’t working with a cinematographer really at that time, I was working with a news photographer. Eventually, I started working with more people who were used to shooting films, but our goal in shooting that was represent the feeling of being here in this time that is Orwellian and at the same time, very human because there are people whose jobs are on the line here. They know nothing about the controversy of what’s actually happening and have to come to work everyday. There’s a manufacturing process that represents the monotony of marching forward, which this company did, so our sense was to show this place as a living thing that’s at the creation of all these decisions.
If you had your heart set on telling the Stanley Harlan story initially, did you have tunnel vision or were you aware of all these related injuries and deaths that were a result of Taser misuse?
I became pretty aware of the surface controversy pretty early — the company saying this weapon doesn’t kill people and here are a bunch of dead people. Why I pitched TASER early on was because I genuinely wanted to understand [the company’s] point of view. I thought they’re going to say the weapon is safe — because in most contexts, it probably is — but what I didn’t understand really until I was there was the extent at which they were adamant that [a death] couldn’t ever happen. There’s a difference between being aggressive in marketing, and actually not capitulating at all about what we know to be true, which is that some of these people were definitely killed because of a taser. When they denied that categorically, that’s when I realized this is more manipulative, misleading, and irresponsible than I [initially] thought.
During the years you were making this, there’s also been a trend towards police departments becoming more militarized. Did that influence how you told this story?
What I was becoming concerned about, which makes perfect sense to me now, is the eagerness of officers to use force. Not to say that policing hasn’t always had problems, but we were starting to see weaponry, especially tasers, making [law enforcement] more susceptible to try to end a confrontation with violence rather than de-escalating the situation. Tasers are by far the most popular use of force tool that officers use, and one company controls everything about them from the manufacturing to the selling of them to the training of how to use them. So I started to look at TASER International not in the way that they want people to look at them, which is as company making a life-saving alternative, but to look at them as a weapons manufacturer.
As a weapons manufacturer, war is a good business, and you’re seeing that with tasers. The weapons are so expensive – more so than guns – that in order to justify departments buying them in mass, they had to convince all the officers they were safe. If they couldn’t convince officers they were safe, maybe some departments would still buy tasers, but they would only be used in high-risk scenarios, and those don’t happen enough to justify the expense of the weapon. Chicago PD is not going to buy 7,000 tasers if the officers can’t use them frequently. That’s when it really became clear that this is a weapons manufacturer with a vested interest in making sure their weapons are used.
You’re obviously angry about what you discovered throughout the process of making this film, but you make something that’s evenhanded. Was there a point where you realized the facts were enough to make your point?
People are skeptical of information, for the most part. This is why we still have debates about climate science because people do a really good job of flooding the debate with junk that creates a sense that there is a debate even when there isn’t one. What I knew would not work was lecturing an audience about the dangers of tasers and how they should be used. I can’t offer an easy solution to fix these problems, even though a lot of audiences want simple solutions in their issue films to make themselves feel better. A lot of issue films present a thesis and basically prove that thesis from their point of view, using only what’s necessary to get the audience to believe their thesis. That can be very one-dimensional and maybe you can go sign a petition or something, but oftentimes that doesn’t stick with people because it doesn’t challenge them.
Knowing that, I said, “Well, we are going to make a movie. It’s going to be three dimensional and it’s going to be from the company’s point of view because as characters they are the most interesting characters. They have the most to lose. And they are the ones that have the most inherent conflict built in, so we’re going to make this genuine effort to understand them,” because the audience is going to process the information that’s important organically. They’re not going to feel like they just sat through a lecture.
I’m sounding like I’m disparaging all issue films, but I’m certainly not. What was important to understand about this film was that it was retroactive. It’s a film about the victors writing their own history. It’s not like we just started implementing tasers. Fifteen thousand departments were using tasers by the time I went to talk to TASER International. That number is up to 18,000 now in the United States alone. All these questions [about TASER] have gone unanswered, but maybe if we just raise awareness about these questions, we might prevent some people from dying and just say to police officers, “you know what, I’m not asking you to hand me these things back. What I am asking you to do is be judicious about the way you’re going to use them.”
Do you actually see this as an issue you’ll continue to keep up with after the release of the film?
I do think it’s important for me to continue to be engaged with these issues because essentially the only thing that’s changing behavior, which is very scary and tragic, is litigation. It’s mostly police departments that are now going to be susceptible to litigation with tasers, but that inherently means that if they change their behavior, it’s because somebody made a mistake and that mistake proves to be fatal in a lot of cases. By being engaged and active and a voice of understanding for a lot of points of view, what I can do is help officers not feel defensive about it and [show] that there’s somebody out there who is trying to engage in a thoughtful way about the consequences of this weapon and who they’re dealing with. If that’s all they take, at least they’re thinking critically now as opposed to only getting the information from the primary stakeholders [in TASER]. TASER has a vested interest in continuing to mislead law enforcement, because they’re trying to protect everything they built, and that’s why they’re scared of this film.
“Killing Them Safely” opens on November 27th.