Interview: Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady on the Thrill of the Chase in “Love Fraud”

As vérité filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady had never really had to think before of a soundtrack for one of their films, but with their first event series “Love Fraud,” involving a lowly con artist named Richard Scott Smith who seduces women to swindle them, they let their imaginations run wild.

“We looked for torch songs, broken-hearted songs. We had playlists running, which is how we found a lot of [songs]. “One Way or Another,” it’s obvious [when the hook is] ‘I’m going to get you,’” recalls Ewing, putting in the Blondie classic over the show’s end credits when the women decide to track down Smith. “And then we started going through B-sides and C-sides and found all these ‘I’ve been done wrong’ songs.”

Eventually, they settled on “Part-Time Love,” a Little Johnny Taylor track from the 1960s that was uncovered by their editor J.D. Marlow, and Grady suggested to give it the right amount of zest, they should ask the cabaret singer and comedienne Bridget Everett to sing it after spending time with her for “Call Your Mother,” the lovely portrait of comedians and their mothers for Comedy Central that somehow they fit between trips to the Midwest to track down Smith in an active investigation, sifting through the 43 phone numbers and 58 addresses he was known to have.

“Isn’t that cool? That’s like worlds colliding,” adds Ewing, who could be describing any number of elements of “Love Fraud,” which is marvelous for many reasons, but perhaps most so when it seems like the closest one of their works has resembled spending time with the whipsmart and wisecracking pair, master filmmakers who are equally adept raconteurs.

Taking full advantage of a stranger-than-fiction subject, the directors behind “Jesus Camp,” “Detropia” and “One of Us” may have been compelled to include themselves in one of their films for the first time when their involvement in Smith’s case grew to enlisting a deliciously salty bounty hunter named Carla and keeping in touch with private investigators to hold him to account for duping his lovers into pouring their life savings into seafood restaurants and unfulfilled promises of relocating to exotic locales, but their personality shines through in other ways as they bring their distinctive style of coupling spellbinding imagery from the places they traverse with gripping personal testimony to bear on a story where Smith toys with the women’s imagination, and take cues from his brash behavior to be bold in the series’ presentation with eye-catching animated interludes to fill in backstories and entertaining detours that lead to unreal karaoke performances of “Ice, Ice Baby,” raucous visits to gun ranges and hot pursuits on the highway.

“Love Fraud” is an impressive undertaking by any measure, but whether or not they catch up with the ever-elusive Smith – you’ll have to watch to find out – Ewing and Grady deliver justice to those who fell prey to his lies and to an endlessly fascinating story, compassionate in conveying how the women’s emotional betrayal was far more devastating than any monetary loss curious about how the mind of a complete sociopath works, as well as the cultural conditioning that leads to crimes against women to be taken less seriously than men. With the series beginning its four-episode run on Showtime this weekend, Ewing and Grady spoke about how they seized the opportunity to do something new creatively and embrace a story they had no way of knowing how it would be resolved.

How did this come about?

Heidi Ewing: Rachel and I decided that we were interested in bigamists and we started looking for stories. We didn’t know what we were looking for exactly, but then our producer found this blog [Richard’s victims had started to track his whereabouts] and the fact that it was an active story that hadn’t been resolved – you couldn’t Google a New Yorker article about it, it was an unknown story that no one was talking about or no one was thinking about, but there was so much richness there. We met the women and we met Carla the bounty hunter in Kansas and we were like, “We have to make this.” We never made a series and this seemed to be kind of crying out for that sort of storytelling.

A lot of the details and the color and the character studies that we were able to engage in would probably not even be possible in a feature-length doc, so we wanted to take the opportunities of a series where you could go on side chases you can take in a series that you can’t always take in a film. This one had so many tangents, we thought it was best meant for a longer telling, so we got together with Showtime and they asked us, “How is it going to end?” We said we had no idea. They said, “Are you going to find him?” We said we have no idea. “Is he going to be brought to justice?” No idea. And they still wanted to do it. And there was something thrilling about an active con case with a man where there was a national warrant for his arrest and setting out to see if the women would find him.

Did you know immediately it was a series?

Rachel Grady: Yeah, after we met the women, it didn’t take very long to figure out there were enough mysteries of different sorts. We didn’t know [the length], but it just felt like it had enough meat on the bone and as Heidi said, the real estate is just different for a series than it is for a movie. Our movies are basically 85 minutes. We have no fat and there’s [usually] so many great stories you can’t put in — all these side characters and things that don’t go anywhere that you don’t have the ability to include, but with this one, there were so many characters that we met that we wanted everyone to meet them. [Richard’s] best friend from high school – everyone has to meet him.

Heidi Ewing: Gary! Gary! We love Gary!

What was it like meeting Carla the bounty hunter?

Heidi Ewing: She made fun of us a lot – our coffee preferences and our outfits and our accents — she thought we were funny East Coast people and the first meeting was like you’d imagine. “What’d y’all want? What are you thinking? What are y’all doing here? You want to get that sonuvabitch?” She was very, “Let’s get to it,” which was so refreshing and I think maybe New Yorkers and bounty hunters from Kansas City some things in common like cutting to the chase, [which] she was really good at. It was thrilling because as filmmakers, you know when you encounter what you know is an amazing documentary character. We knew it with Becky Fisher in “Jesus Camp.” It’s like one of those things that jumps right at you and we knew it with a couple of our other films. It’s immediate thing and it doesn’t happen that often. This one we knew she was going to be a centerpiece of the series.

With Richard, what’s it like having a character at the center that isn’t actually there for most of it?

Rachel Grady: It was like we were making a film about a ghost for a lot of it. And as we were filming and editing and interviewing. we were doing this deep dive into this person’s past and psyche and we had never spoken to him. But what it did do is when we did get an opportunity to meet him face-to-face, we were really prepared. Of course, it was still surprising because he’s an endless well of oddness, but we knew what he was trying to do to us at every turn. We were experts, as much as you can be on a complete stranger.

Since you came in through the blog, would you actually keep tabs on his whereabouts through it?

Heidi Ewing: Yeah, checking the blog was like a daily occurrence that someone on our staff was always doing — somebody heard a rumor, or talked to somebody who has a suspicion — and having that group of amateur lady sleuths definitely helped us. A centerpiece to the story was these women that didn’t know one another had bonded in a common interest, which was to bring this man to justice and to prevent him from doing this to other women, so that was very, very appealing to us.

When these women might feel shame for being part of a con, did it take some convincing to get them involved?

Heidi Ewing: It always takes some convincing. People want to know your motives and what your intentions are when you make a film about them, but I think they came to understand pretty quickly that we were empathetic to their plight. We weren’t looking to make them look bad or try to tease out any jealousies among them. We were really interested in the fact that they were helping one another in getting a bad guy off the streets, and I think they were happy this case would get some attention because they felt that law enforcement had really shrugged them off. They didn’t ever get the justice they personally deserved in any of the cases, which is small potatoes if you look at it against a lot of crime shows. There’s no bodies, there’s no murders, but there’s something much more profound in our mind, which is somebody who’s playing with all these people’s emotions and the little money that they have. They were relieved to have someone else step in and take an interest and say this is really wrong and this guy should be brought to justice, so they trusted us that we weren’t looking for dirt on them or that our intentions were pretty straightforward. They discussed it amongst each other and Carla, the bounty hunter, had to think about it, but they all came back raring to go.

Was it much of a decision to include yourselves in the film?

Heidi Ewing: We’d never done it before. We’d never even put our voices in or our questions – we always cut them out and it’s something we’re very conscious of, and we fought against it for quite a few months into the edit. But the truth was we were a part of it and we joined with these women and helped them find him, so we wanted to make that transparent that we hired PIs and it seemed only fair to at times see how the sausage is being made. Also, Rachel and I like to have a good time and we’re told that we’re funny, but usually the subjects we choose are dramatic and serious and we choose to tell those stories, so this is a place where it seemed appropriate to put in our personality a little bit more. There was definitely a lot of quirk and color and strange twists and turns that were incredible and inconceivable, so we decided it was alright to loosen the reins a little bit and have more transparency.

You can certainly feel that come out in the animation, among other places. How did you find that particular vivid, fragmentary style?

Rachel Grady: We looked for quite a while at different animators and artists and we just kept gravitating towards these collages [because it was like] we were discovering this guy through this collage [where] things that didn’t really match up, but then they went together.

Heidi Ewing: And when we went to look at collage artists, and we realized a few months into our search, there is not an animator that does this, but we found Martin O’Neill, who’s an illustrator, not an animator…

Rachel Grady: We found him on Pinterest!

Heidi Ewing: Then it was going to take two people working together because collage is usually an illustrative technique that’s used in print and paintings. It’s not usually animated, so we needed to find an animator to bring those illustrations to life. When we contacted Martin, he had not really done a film before, but he said his friend Griff was an animator and that they had worked together on something, so it worked great because they’re both in England and they’re friends.

We wanted it to feel handmade and imperfect and slightly strange and also made of tall tales, which is epically visual, like the annals of [Richard’s] mind. That’s what we asked them to do, and they just took it from there. It was endlessly fun and creative to hear their ideas about what the inside of his brain might look like and it was an absolutely wonderful collaboration because these are great artists in their own right. Their take on what we were doing tickled us, but we don’t like that slickness that a lot of animation can bring, so they were the perfect anecdote to that.

Even with the length of a series, I suspect you had to kill some darlings. Was there anything that pained you to leave on the cutting room floor?

Heidi Ewing: There were a few stories that were very convoluted and hard to explain, that we tried over and over and failed. Carla had an encounter with [Richard] before — she’d arrested him and he cried and had gotten away. Another time, he had faked a heart attack and convinced a judge he was sick. He had gotten out of a few scrapes in a clever way, but they were never articulated in a way that wasn’t confusing, so we had to let that go. All of these things are very complicated and baroque and layered and sometimes it was hard to explain how he was behaving and how he got away with things. There’s a whole storyline about his face surgery and coming up with this lie he told everybody that he was getting millions of dollars. There was a lot more to each story.

We also interviewed Sabrina’s parents and the family members who clearly judged her for dating him. It was obvious they hold her to blame for what happened to her, which we thought is important, but we were able to show how the criminal justice system doesn’t care about women in a different way, so there was a lot of different facets of every woman’s story that could’ve made its own episode. But we really decided to make it a chorus, and that’s what you’re seeing [when we’re] killing those darlings was to make it a chorus of women’s voices instead of making it one or two, which you would’ve had to do if we wanted to tell all these stories.

Carla had a backstory. They’re trying to get her to retire, she doesn’t want to retire, her kids think she’s too dangerous. Her partner thinks she’s getting too slow. She doesn’t want to go. That could be an entire whole half of an episode, but instead we wanted to keep our focus on the chase and the chorus of women going to get him and we really wanted to drive that home that this was a group of women that spoke in one voice.

Have you had a chance to show the women the series?

Rachel Grady: They have seen it and they really, really enjoyed it, but I have to tell you the thing that I’ve heard the most excitement from them about is the billboard that Showtime put up. They can’t get over that.

That’s relatively new for you as well. Has this experience been pretty exciting?

Rachel Grady: It was really a blast. There were so many things we had never done before. I really enjoyed it, and I don’t want to undermine the damage that he caused to these women [because] that’s real and I feel badly for them and I hope people have empathy for them and don’t judge them. That said, following a crazy person around the country is a real treat for someone like me. [laughs]

Heidi Ewing: If there’s not a fresh challenge as a filmmaker, it’s hard to have the momentum and enthusiasm and the wherewithal to do something like this if you feel like you’ve done it before. Part of the reason I think this series works is because we’d never worked with animators. We never filmed someone at a long distance who never knew he was being filmed for many, many months. We never chased someone. We’d never done a series…all of it was new. So it feels fresh partly because it wasn’t like oh, we’ve done this 15 times before, and I think that comes through the screen. I hope it does. And we had a blast making it. I’m also glad it’s over. [laughs]

“Love Fraud” premieres on Showtime on August 30th and will air on Sundays at 9 pm.