Sundance 2020 Interview: Brian Knappenberger on a Test of a Scout’s Honor in “Church and the Fourth Estate”

After making “Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press,” Brian Knappenberger was keeping his eye out for more attacks on the media in the wake of Hulk Hogan’s case against Gawker that ultimately bankrupted the news outlet and was bankrolled by the billionaire Peter Thiel. He received a tip about a similar case in miniature going on in Idaho Falls where Frank VanderSloot, one of the top hundred landowners in the United States, had waged war against the Post-Register, the local newspaper, for reporting about a scandal involving a Boy Scout troop leader named Brad Stowell who had sexually abused young boys under his command. If it weren’t for a post-it note with a case number written on it for Post-Register reporter Peter Zuckerman, no one would’ve likely known about it after Adam Steed, one of the scouts, brought charges and it was quietly settled. But once the paper published the article, VanderSloot, a prominent supporter of the Boy Scouts, an organization with strong ties to the Mormon community of which he was a part, employed all manner of underhanded tactics such as producing misleading full-page ads to undermine the reporting and to target Zuckerman personally.

“Church and the Fourth Estate” recounts this unfortunate episode with the same urgency that has come to be expected of Knappenberger’s films such as “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” and “We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists,” depicting the rapid erosion of freedom in an era when truth can be manipulated by those with the most money, but it also gives an unmediated platform to Steed, who gives a sobering account of the abuse of power taking place inside the Mormon Church where disciples are expected to acquiesce to their elders even if they know their actions are wrong and will cover up for bad actors to preserve the Church’s pristine image. When seeing the lengths to which VanderSloot and others will go to prevent such testimony from occurring, Steed’s words carry even more weight, as do Zuckerman’s, and the film evolves from chronicling an attack to going on the offensive, showing the necessity of the press to keep even the smallest of communities safe from corruption in all its forms and the power of speaking up as Steed did, finding a personal sense of freedom in being able to talk about his trauma with others.

With “Church and the Fourth Estate” recently premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, Knappenberger spoke about how he had all but finished an entirely different version of the film before realizing there was a larger story to dig into, sensitively handling the subject of sexual abuse and debuting the film in a Mormon stronghold in Utah.

How did this come about?

Initially, we saw this as a press story. We were looking at billionaires and the way that they were attacking the press and we came across what happened at the Idaho Falls Post Register and VanderSloot taking out these full-page ads against those stories [about the Boy Scouts]. So we actually made a short film that we were pretty far along on, and I would say we got the the point it was good, but I thought it could be better. So we did a little extra research and as we pushed farther, I found Adam, the person at the center of those stories, and asked him to be a part of it.

[Adam] had never gone on camera like this before and he’d never talked about it, so I interviewed him and as soon as I was in the middle of that interview, I understood that This was a whole different film than what we were making and it was so much more powerful and such a bigger issue. We really just turned it over and started over. [Given] the crazy series of events that recently, especially in the last year, this just spiraled into a much bigger story about the Boy Scouts and the Mormon church. There’s a pretty good chance that the Boy Scouts may go bankrupt here in the next month or two.

You’ve made films with sensitive subjects before, but was it a different to deal with sexual abuse?

It really did. I’ve talked to people who have gone through traumatic events or facing big criminal charges and all that, but the intricacies of talking to someone who had been the victim of sexual abuse was new to me and was quite a learning experience. I found it very moving just how candid Adam was. He’s such a smart guy and it took a lot of courage to recount those events. The way he is thinking through them and dealing with them himself, I’m just really so impressed.

Whose idea was it to have Adam revisit the crime scenes?

It was ours, but we talked to him about it and he came to the conclusion that it would be a healthy thing for him and he wanted to conquer these locations and conquer that. I don’t think he’d been back to that Boy Scout camp in all that time, so to go back there, the line he says [in the film is], “This pile of snow is like this pile of shit I’ve been trying to get out of,” I found all that pretty moving that he wanted to confront it and write new memories almost.

You get the sense this was quite hard to talk about for Peter Zuckerman, the Idaho Falls Post Register reporter who covered the story as well. Was it actually as difficult to get him on board too?

It was. Peter was actually the first hurdle. We say in the film at the end, he’s actually signed an affidavit saying that VanderSloot didn’t [reveal personal facts about him], but I think he was under pressure to do that and as a part of that [agreement], he’s restricted from talking about that aspect. It’s probably clear in the film that it was very difficult part of his life. He was really attacked by that community after those stories came out and he still looks at it as one of the worst parts of his whole life, so it took some time [to get him to agree to participate]. I had to talk to him a bunch of times on the phone and just really gain his trust. Then [Post-Register editor] Dean Miller came along when he saw that Peter was on and then that helped later I think with Adam because they had a great experience.

Structurally, this is somewhat different from your previous work in that usually there’s an opening salvo that previews the film, but here you let the story unfold gradually. Did this present a new challenge as a storyteller?

That part did take some thinking because the original film that we made, we wanted to keep the attack on the press in there because we felt it was an extension of the way that the community attacked the stories and attacked the victims in a lot of ways, and wanted to believe that it wasn’t happening. And then the fact that VanderSloot [eventually] went after Mother Jones magazine seemed just to wrap that up a lot, so we could keep that in there, but one of the tricks was to keep that integrated into Adam’s story because more and more we understood that this is really his story.

You mentioned the Boy Scouts potentially going under, and of course, the attacks on the press have intensified – did what was going on in the larger world shape where you ultimately landed with this story?

It just felt like the volume was getting turned up all year as we worked on this. About a year ago or just under was when we knew we were going to just go back to the drawing board and recut it, and during that time, a bunch of lawsuits broke. A lot more of those ineligible volunteer files [for the Boy Scouts] that are known internally as the perversion file, more of those kept coming out and the full extent of the abuse scandal was really, really revealing itself. That was wild. It just felt like this is getting more and more and more intense and then this year, a lot of states are rescinding the statute of limitations laws, so there’s a new wave of lawsuits that’s beginning to break.

Is it meaningful to be debuting the film in Utah in particular where there’s such a strong Mormon community?

Yeah, we even have a screening in Salt Lake, so that should be interesting. This is my third time at Sundance, but it never stops being great. It’s the best film festival in the world, and I love lots of festivals, but there is something special about Sundance, and with this film, we’re really just going right into the belly of the beast and we’ll just see what happens.

“Church and the Fourth Estate” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Documentary Shorts Program 2 on January 30th at noon at the Park Avenue Theatre in Park City and February 1st at 9 pm at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City.

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