“I’ve turned into a ‘Just the facts, man’-type of person,” Emily Nestor says as “Citizen Sleuth” director Chris Kasick worries he’s droning on during our interview on the eve of the film’s premiere at SXSW. (He’s not.)
“She’s had a camera after her for four years, so she’s used talking in sound bites,” Kasick laughs, realizing he and his once-motor mouthed subject may have swapped personalities.
“I’ve learned to compress,” Nestor says, appearing to not want to miss an opportunity to give Kasick some guff. “No, this is the back and forth that we have developed at this point.”
In sitting down with the two, you immediately get a sense of how “Citizen Sleuth” became so much fun, as if someone updated “American Movie” to look behind the scenes of an independent true crime podcast as Nestor doggedly pursues an investigation into the 2011 death of Jaleayah Davis, whose tragic car accident on the side of a freeway in Appalachia had some unusual loose ends that seemed to demand greater scrutiny. But as Nestor and Kasick challenge each other throughout the conversation, sometimes with good humor and sometimes more seriously, you also observe how they ended up with something far more weighty when the implications of reporting on a case, as so many now working in the wildly popular true crime arena do, with no formal training in either journalism or police work invites questions that she doesn’t feel she has the authority to answer.
So thoroughly obsessed with lurid stories of criminal pursuits that she gets a Richard Ramirez quote tattooed – on camera – near the start of “Citizen Sleuth,” Nestor becomes the host of a gripping podcast “Mile Marker 181,” but also for Kasick’s purposes, a fascinating window into the explosion of true crime content where there’s real money to be made with sponsorships and conventions but can easily drift into exploitation of those who lived through tragedy, with the success of the first season of “Serial” on both a financial and judicial level inspiring others to find and exonerate their own Adnan Syed. In trying to get to the bottom of what happened to Davis, with the initial support of her grieving mother whose blessing comes with some credible intel, Nestor ends up calling three of her friends into question with “Mile Marker 181” and opens up an even bigger one for the culture when podcasters exist in a grey area of seeking legitimacy without accountability and false accusations can quickly ruin lives.
On one hand, “Mile Marker 181“ could appear to be filling a need in a community where the facts of Davis’ case are still debated after the police investigation has concluded and the local news no longer has the resources to serve as a robust fourth estate, but as the podcast makes must-listen lists and advertising threatens to make it a real vocation for Nestor rather than a personal project, she must navigate moral and ethical considerations that should inspire some soul searching for an entire industry as it matures. Every bit as irresistible as the most addictive pods, “Citizen Sleuth” has the richness of detail of a five-year project while it zips by in a flash and Kasick and Nestor graciously took the time to talk about the pressurized process that yielded such a gem.
How did this come about?
Chris Kasick: Emily had started the podcast in 2018 and then some of my producers Fabiola Washburn and Jared Washburn are real big true crime fans, so they had sent [“Mile Marker 181”] to me because I had lived in the area and went to college in the middle Ohio Valley, so I was familiar with it. And when I heard Emily’s first season, she was a character, and this is when “S-Town” was out and I [thought], I need to meet her. I don’t hear voices like this in underrepresented regions. So I went out to Parkersburg in West Virginia and [it was like] she was shot out of a cannon. You can tell a character when you’re with one, and she was curious and interesting. andI could tell she’d be good on camera, so I was like, “I’m in. Let’s just see where this goes. Let’s solve this murder.”
As Emily started investigating and when things started not adding up to the narrative that was out there, [I thought] this is a story and then all of a sudden I’m [thinking], we’re giving a commentary on the genre, but that wasn’t obvious at the beginning, so it was an evolution of five years of where we landed. A lot of documentaries are done in six months. Emily’s not the same person from the beginning as to where she’s now and she has these life lessons and maturity, so it just became this larger story that I knew I needed to give time.
Emily, we’re you onboard from the start or was this something to really think about?
Emily Nestor: The way that it happened is 2019 was the most wild year of my life. I hope to not repeat a year that turbulent, but at the time I don’t think I realized what I was getting myself into. I didn’t realize that not only would we be sitting here now, but that I would be involved in this for as long and if I had known, I wouldn’t know if I would have signed up for it at that time. I was on board for what I thought I was signing up for, but I wasn’t aware of what it would end up snowballing into.
Chris Kasick: The meta layer of this snuck up on both of us where we felt the pursuit of the truth and putting what really happened out there became such a driving force in our lives, and then when she did put the truth out there and [you see] the True Crime community’s reaction to it, it really caught us both off guard and we’re like, “What is going on?”
Emily Nestor: I saw [that] coming, which is I think why I was struggling to be done and put it out there is because I think I was somewhat aware of what I was in for.
Chris Kasick: It was an interesting experience with larger perspective — there’s regions, Appalachia being one of them, where there’s not a lot of local media coverage and when people start going to Facebook and to community forums online that turn into these rumor mills, Emily filled this gap of local journalism that wasn’t apparent to you or I at the time. The library scene is a perfect example. There were more people there [for a “Mile Marker” discussion] than any event at that library because people wanted to feel connection to their community, but when the narrative of what everyone thought had happened wasn’t it, there’s this pushback that caught us all off guard, so I didn’t know what we were signing up for either at the beginning, but we felt like we were tied into a story and that we needed to put out the pursuit of the truth. When [Emily] did the podcast and that wasn’t enough, now it’s the film and the film’s going to put out the truth.
Did the introduction of cameras actually change the investigation? Already, Emily is trying to be taken seriously and that seems like it might’ve been off-putting to some people and could’ve made it easier to talk to others.
Emily Nestor: It definitely complicated things and there were times where I felt really rushed. It was one extra thing that added into my workload that was spread very thin already and it added a lot of tension. But overall, the outcome is the truth is the truth. It didn’t change any facts.
Chris Kasick: We shot 500 hours, [which we cut] down to 82 minutes and there’s a point where Emily is in her friend’s trailer talking, and it’s not the camera that made her feel vulnerable because we all have cameras. It’s the three people in the room that make her feel vulnerable — me, the director of photography, and then Callie, her friend — and my favorite kind of movies are these intimate movies about huge ideas and decisions that characters make in the moment that have these larger implications, so we were making an intimate movie about a story of conscience and it was just us and Jared Washburn, the director of photography, filming this for most of the time. There was a camera always present, always recording, because I knew for the truth to come out, we need to get used to the cameras and do it.
But does the [presence of] cameras change [things]? Of course. It puts it on blast because we know that there’s a record of it. But is that inherently bad? I think it expediates the process of the truth. Like [Emily] says about the article [about “Mile Marker” that the local] paper told you was going to be front page and you’re like, “Must be a slow news week,” when stories get elevated, you’ve got to be more careful. [Emily] when there was a camera on you and you started doing Discovery/ID [Channel] stuff, did that change how you approached this? It must have made you way more serious.
Emily Nestor: It motivated me more to put more work in, but I was taking it serious from the beginning — almost to my detriment in how seriously I took it.
Chris Kasick: She was into it, and some of the criticism that came at her [was that] she’s exploiting the family, this and that, but I saw she uprooted her life for this case and a lot of that comes through about how much she cared in the film. It’s a complicated journey, and she’s not innocent. I’m not innocent [either] in telling a True Crime story and using the tropes of True Crime to link in the audience and Emily says very poetically in the crime section of the film, if you want to get a story out there, you have to make it entertaining for people to listen to. But what is that line? We all struggle with that. It’s been a lesson for Emily and myself on this film on what are the rules of engagement when you’re telling human tragedies and how far can storytelling go? That’s why my film is funny because I’m trying to make it entertaining and play with the tropes of the genre so that an audience can come to it, but at the same time, the second half of the movie is super serious. It’s an emotional journey.
Chris, you actually can be heard at certain point having to ask Emily at a certain point “is there some personal gain with this?” prefacing it by saying, “I’m guilty of this myself.” What was that moment like for self-reflection in the thick of it?
Chris Kasick: We were struggling because we were having a conversation and people were coming at us personally, sending us aggressive text messages and [some] following us to locations. We’re like, “What are we doing? What are the ethics of this?” And as Emily says poetically [to me], “Your ethics are different than my ethics. You’re telling a story about what I’m doing, but I’m telling a story about something I’ve been in for over a year that I’m over my head in and trying to figure out.” I’ve been a part of big documentaries and [hard] hitting stories and conflicts and these conversations [that] take place all across the production [also] take place in rooms in the New York Times, but people don’t record it. People don’t talk about it and I felt that those conversations started becoming the story of the film and that we needed to record this to understand it.
It wasn’t obvious in the moment. I was just like, “press record.” But in the edit, I was very particular where I want editors to watch the footage unbiased from me, from Emily and from anyone, so they watch 500 hours of footage and give their own take on it and then we come together, write a script of what the documentary would be and then edit. Post-production was an intentional process in post-production, but in production, we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We were just rolling.
When things go south, I imagine that there’s an obligation to not only the movie, but to the investigation, Emily, but when you’re facing those things, are you having second thoughts about having this all appear on camera?
Emily Nestor: It’s been a very back and forth process. There are times where I was literally praying that this would just stop in its tracks and I could have a very normal life. And then there were times where I was like, “No, this is an [interesting] story in terms of the reality, the false narratives and the people that were truly affected by the false narratives,” including the way that I covered things. I think people are also missing that I’m tragically self-aware, so I have an extreme level of guilt and I do feel an obligation to do the people justice and I was complicit in making their lives harder. Was I creating this false narrative? No, but did I make their daily lives harder for a year-and-a-half? Yeah, I did. And what do you owe to [those three] people who, if we want to talk about exploitation, that we need to talk about. In the long run, it just changes day by day. I have extreme anxiety, but if you peel this back a little bit further, there was vulnerability with anybody who participated in the podcast. I was trusted to get to the truth and tell the truth, whatever that may look like, then [Chris] has the same obligation, so I guess I had to give him the courtesy of being like, “Well, I did my thing. Now here’s your thing.”
Chris Kasick: And I purposely wanted to tell this story over the long term, and it’s unusual in documentaries to have a character arc because documentaries are done quickly, especially now because all the streamers.
Emily Nestor: But I was not keyed into this.
Chris Kasick: No, it just kept unfolding. Every year was something. 2018, it was a murder. 2019 was “Wait a minute,” and 2020 is “No, it’s not.”
Emily Nestor: To correct that, I never said it was a murder.
Chris Kasick: You [generally] don’t get these arcs [or] changes in a character and I saw it was a coming-of-age story also as it was happening, [where] I was like, I haven’t seen something like this. Someone change on camera so much. She looks different in every scene. It’s like this evolution that happened over years into 90 minutes.
Emily, does it seem like a gift now to be able to look back on this so tangibly with the film?
Emily Nestor: [Chris] and I have discussed when I’m however many years old that I’ll have this to look back on [and] I can’t give an honest, unbiased answer [now] on whether it’s good or not because it’s the same as when I was listening to my own podcast. I was involved in the making and not only that, but this time it’s flipped around on me so I don’t know that I can have a clear look at it and it’s not really for me to decide. But I do want to add the music and the cinematography is something that when I watched it and I knew that it was going to be good because I know how much work [Chris] was putting into it. I was like, “Oh my god.”
Chris Kasick: So you thought it was good? Are you going to say something nice about the movie?
Emily Nestor: Jared [Washburn, the cinematographer] did a great job.
I have to agree and I wondered how the shooting style actually came about because there’s a lot of camera tilts that make it really distinctive visually.
Chris Kasick: Jared Washburn, the director of photography, and I have worked with Errol Morris for 20 years. We were 19-year-old kids who were his production assistants and he liked us and hired us for 20 years, so we’ve worked with a master of the genre, and [that] style we’ve developed over decades of doing it. We’ve traveled the world together, shooting and we fight like cats and dogs. It’s honest, it’s raw and we really wanted to do scene work where we parked locations and things happened. That was the origin of the style of it is do scene work and tell this story in a verite fashion, but things evolve. And then when [we filmed with] the victims — Katie, Freddie and Kristen, those were composed, beautiful sit-down interviews because they needed to be in-depth and we weren’t in their lives. If we did a verite thing with them, it would’ve been fake because they didn’t want to participate until the podcast was over because they thought I was in bed with Emily who was framing them as murderers. It wasn’t until 2020 that the end of the podcast came out where they realized [that was not the case]. So it was a very careful style.
Emily Nestor: It took me having a discussion with Katie and her sending a message and her responding to that and us having an open, honest [conversation about everything] which I’ve recently had with another member of that trio.
What’s it like now to have this finally getting out into the world after five years?
Emily Nestor: I know my answer. I can’t wait to talk about something else. And somebody close to me dealt with a case [on a true crime podcast] that follows them and that’s what they’re known for, and we’ve gone back and forth on how [we ask ourselves] will we ever get to stop talking about these things that we’re known for? I’m excited to finally put this to rest.
Chris Kasick: It wasn’t a fun process.
Emily Nestor: No, I was going to add that this was not fun for me at all.
Chris Kasick: We were in the middle of something and we needed to correct it, so the making of this was very purposeful and intentional, but I’m really proud of the movie we made and I think we did justice to the message of the pursuit of truth, so I’m excited for people’s takes on this. I know [Emily’s] over it. Your job’s done. It was a story that was out there. You did a podcast, I did a film and now journalists are going to tell us [about] this thing that just happened.
Emily Nestor: Rotating solar system. And there’s things I’m tired of talking about — specifics [like] McDonald’s drive thru times and things like that, but I’m not done talking about true crime.
Chris Kasick: They put you on blast. You put them on blast.
Emily Nestor: Everybody’s been on blast.
“Citizen Sleuth” will screen at SXSW on March 14th at 2:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar A and March 17th at 12:45 pm at the Stateside Theatre.