A scene from Jairus McLeary's "The Work"

SXSW ’17 Interview: Jairus McLeary on Going Inside to Do “The Work”

Towards the end of my conversation with Jairus McLeary, I lamented lacking the words to describe what he has accomplished with his staggering directorial debut “The Work,” which bears witness to an unorthodox therapy program in Folsom Prison.

“Yeah, it’s difficult. It’s difficult,” McLeary said, knowing just how hard it is, having spent the last seven years trying to describe it to potential financiers after spending roughly the same amount of time before trying to explain it to others and realizing he needed to make a film to do it justice. “There were some very low moments where people just made the assumption that they’d seen this before. They hadn’t seen the whole film, but they were like, ‘Ok, this is ‘Scared Straight.’” Then I would try and force them to see the full footage and those people got it right away.”

That’s because you really haven’t seen anything like “The Work” before. Not even the guards at Folsom have seen anything like it, since as the film announces at the start, they aren’t allowed in to the gathering of inmates that takes place twice a year to create a complete atmosphere of trust and openness within the chapel it takes place, where white supremacists and members of the Bloods and Crips can share their most intimate fears with one another and work through their issues without judgment. While prison staff doesn’t take part, there are civilian volunteers who come in through the nonprofit Inside Circle Foundation to help facilitate the discussions that take place in circles and it is through their eyes that McLeary positions the film. Over the course of four days, Charles, Chris and Brian, three men who find themselves at their own personal crossroads on the outside, become equals with the men they meet inside prison, with all gradually losing any inhibitions to get at what troubles them.

“The Work” would be intriguing enough as a rare glimpse into this extraordinary process in which you can actually see convicts with life sentences set free psychologically if not physically over the course of the film, but just as unusual is a near jaw-dropping display of male vulnerability. It becomes common to see the civilians and inmates alike break down in each other’s arms as they reveal past trauma and often come to learn that someone in the circle can relate, with McLeary’s camera catching precisely how their subsequent words of encouragement pierce through years of building up protection against being so exposed. Through conveying the experience so tangibly, it is not only those who you see onscreen come away from “The Work” changed, but just as likely yourself as well.

On the eve of the film’s premiere at SXSW this weekend, where no less than Darren Aronofsky dubbed it as “insanely moving,” McLeary spoke about his 15-year journey with the film, getting such incredible access to a program shrouded in confidentiality, and how what he wanted to show evolved over time.

Even before this film, you volunteered for Inside Circle Foundation. How did you get interested in the prison system?

I’d done group therapy work like this before and conflict resolution that deals specifically with individuals — I had worked with high school kids before, but my dad is a clinical psychologist and a consultant for different types of groups, and when the Inside Circle Foundation was just getting off the ground, he met one of the founders. They asked him to come inside the prison, and there were two of these annual events. I actually was asked twice to come and I said “no” because really I didn’t know much about what the inside of a prison is beyond what I saw on television – shows like “Oz” or any of the shows that are on A & E. At some point, I realized that’s where I was drawing all my information from, so it was my obligation to find out. I went in and I was just blown away by what I saw, so I continued to volunteer.

They have meetings every week, but I kept on appearing for the biannual [events] where they’d invite the public to volunteer. It goes by word of mouth and my brothers have gone, my dad has gone, my uncle has gone. Friends of mine would hear about it and there’s no great way to explain it, except for it’s just an amazing experience. You learn a lot about yourself and other human beings, so it got to the point where I was doing independent film in Los Angeles and I would get these questions [about it], like some skeptics would say, “Why do you think these guys deserve it?” or “Why do you think you could help these guys?” and [the film] just started as a way to answer the question, “What do you guys do in there?”

When you have a note at the beginning saying not even the security guards are allowed in, a film seems like an impossible undertaking. How did you manage to get access?

There were several people who tried before me to film it, and the guards are right outside the room. It’s held in a chapel and the gentleman who runs the chapel is one of the four civilians who started the group in the first place. If anything were to go wrong, he could press a button — but there hasn’t been in over the 20 years [they’ve been doing it]. The prison [workers are like], “We don’t know exactly what you guys do in there, but we know it’s working. I just thought that I could shoot it. I’d gone enough times, and I knew the founders and I knew some of the convicts inside. It was process to get permission because at first I had to go to the founders of the foundation — Rob Allbee, Dennis Moreno and Donald Morrison — and they were recruited by an inmate named Patrick, who essentially organized everything on the inside with convicts. They petitioned the convicts – [including] the leaders of the gangs who run the yards and what they say kind of goes.

The guards never really see what goes on [during the work program], so that gives the program and the guys inside a safe place to discuss anything, whether it’s the death of a family member or what they want to do with their lives, even if they’re never going to see the outside of a prison again — like what kind of meaning can they make for themselves if this is their life. [When] those guys endorsed it, we went to the prison administration. And I think they wanted to stand behind something that was working, even if they weren’t sure exactly why it was working, because the more guys that did it, the rate of violent incidences on the yard went down between inmates and also with the guards. Once we convinced them and ultimately, the warden and all the people who are above that who are essentially the people who they call “Downtown,” all of those things came together and conspired in a way where one day they just said, “Yes, we will allow you to come in for four days and shoot what you see.”

Having had the experience of doing this before as a volunteer, did you have any idea how to anticipate what you’d be able to shoot in order to create a film?

Any of the crew members that came inside — our camera guys Art [Santamaria] and Matthew Rudenberg and our two sound guys Tom [Curley] and Brian [Curley], and a still photographer Joe Wigdahl — before we were allowed to shoot, those guys had to go through [the program] so the convicts could see them and knew they were emotionally on the same page as they were. Then we planned to shoot one circle that was composed of guys that they chose among themselves, that they felt were ready. Some of the guys had been in the program for years and then [others] were new, but they volunteered. They knew they would be [sharing] this confidential information, which is one of the reasons why this program works is because they agree to strict confidentiality, but for this one circle, they would allow themselves to [be open], so we picked guys coming from outside — staff members and volunteers who were private citizens as our three subjects. We didn’t really know how it was going to go on the day. We tried to be as out of the way and unobtrusive as possible, but they were ready for us. It was as if we weren’t there for them and they just did the work. We had two camera guys moving around the circle and we had a sound guy who mic’d everyone with remote mics before each day began and collected them at the end of the day. It was usually about a 12-13 hour day.

Was there anything particularly intriguing that led you to follow Charles, Chris and Brian as the three volunteers?

Charles, Chris and Brian just happened. There were other people that we chose and we did pre-interviews with these guys, but my brothers and I each just wound up choosing an individual [to follow]. I chose Charles, my older brother chose Brian and my younger brother chose Chris. It mirrored [my own] process and ones my friends [who volunteered] had [to some degree]. Without getting into too many specifics because there’s no words that could really satisfy the experience that I had, but there was an effect that happened [where] the end was the same [for the volunteers as it was for the inmates]. People would do whatever work they were told to do based off of the other men in the group. One guy would do work about his father and that would remind another guy that his biggest work was his father [so in the case of someone like] Brian, everything that happened to him, whatever judgments he had from the street in his life, those things are meant to happen. It doesn’t always look like it, but what it does is push people to do different kinds of work. So there’s this very strange, organic process that just goes on right in front of your eyes every time and hopefully that is what comes across on film.

Beyond that, people want to pull out a measuring stick to measure the kind of experiences we’ve had in life. I was able to go to college, but my dad grew up on the Southside of Chicago, so that wasn’t his first path. His first path was to have similar experiences that a lot of the men in this room have. When you get people in a circle and you start talking, it’s the raw interface of humanity. As you can see, you have a guy like Chris, a young [seemingly well-adjusted] guy and what has happened to him in his life hurt him as much and affected his life in similar ways that some of these guys experienced. Once you have a group of people that can get together around that, the thing that happens in that room, you start to forget it’s a prison. It’s just a bunch of men trying to get to the bottom of whatever it is for each other. They’re fiercely committed to do that to whoever’s talking, whether that’s a guy who’s been [in prison for some time] or a guy that went to art school who’s volunteering. They’re fully as committed to sitting and helping somebody do that work.

Does sound design become particularly crucial on a film like this? Emphasis seems necessary in such a loud environment, but also in terms of the intimacy you can hear some of the personal revelations, it seems like a useful tool.

Yeah, there were about six other circles like that in this room, and the chapel is a high-ceiling, cinder block room, and [our sound designer] Tom Curley, won an Oscar for working on “Whiplash.” For months, Art [Santamaria, the cinematographer] and myself and my brothers sat down — and having been in that room — [asked] what’s the best way to approach it? It’s a state facility, so [the staff] have walkie-talkies as well and channels they’re using, so we had to understand what those things were and avoid them, and sound was tough because it was a very echo-y, large room and obviously, we’re right up on top of 60 other people, and there were times, as you see in the film, [that were unplanned like] Donte, one of the Bloods came into our group and he just sat down with us and started doing work, so we just did the best we could.

I was surprised to learn your co-director Gethin Aldous actually came on during post-production. What impact did he have?

He was great. We shot the film in 2009 and 2010 and we began to organize things for post. I spent a long period of time trying to get more investors and there were people that stepped up, but I knew that they would change what we planned for the film, so I would cut things together and I would show things and Gethin was essentially a friend of a friend of a friend. I’d never met him but he had heard of the film and he was able to get in touch with my father. The two of them talked and my dad vetted him and then he talked to me and I was like, “Well, you’ll have to go through the weekend [at the prison] before we even continue this conversation.” He was just blown away and he’s since staffed several times. That was in 2014-2015. I went to his house in New York and we looked at the footage and we didn’t leave that room for two or three days. He was the guy, and not only that, he’s one of those guys who doesn’t quit.

Once he came on, he introduced me to Amy [Foote] the editor and Alice [Henty], the producer, and Mike Vass, an assistant editor that helped us finish it. We went through a couple of different versions of the film and came up with this one. And it was interesting with Amy and Alice [because] as much as Gethin put in to it, he’s a man and I’m a man and we had been in this room and he was newer to this world, but we had certain biases from being so close to it, so Amy and Alice were the first women to see the footage in its entirety, so their opinions were just so important, coming from the opposite side of the spectrum.

When you’re sitting on the footage for this length of time, do your ideas about it change over that time?

I was drawn immediately to how the program started. That there were these handful of men that met and somehow coalesced within a very short period of time when they would have no reason to. And the way that that they worked to get this program inside the prison was almost like a reverse heist film. They were trying to break into prison [with this program] and prison is a very dangerous place, so the administration had very cold feet about trying something as revolutionary as this. I had wanted to include some of that story, because what I loved was trying to explain how it got to be there and what it is and why it is. But as I sat down with Gethin and Amy, we knew we had several options and the first option would be to just do a film of what you see in that room.

Gethin loved to do a verite cut and one of the things Amy said to me was, “Look, there are two types of questions – the first is [expressing] a problem that is not on screen, so what do you need to get from scene to scene with the individuals that we have? Then the question [of what this program is], and these aren’t bad questions [to leave open] because all the questions of what this is besides how we experience it through the men in that circle will lead you to seek out information about what this is.” So in the end, we all came to the decision that we were just going to do a verite cut, have the three [volunteer staff] subjects be our window into the group and be placeholders for the audience — not tell them how to feel, just to experience it.

After carrying this around for so long, what’s it like to get to the finish line?

[laughs] It’s unbelievable. I always believed in it and I never stopped, so I am ecstatic and my brothers and my father are ecstatic. One of the themes of the film is fatherless sons and as we would staff together, I know there is something about the four of us being in that room when men would come up to us and just tell us how good it made them feel to see like a family that’s together doing this. I have no doubt that that they have been one of the reasons is one of the reasons why they allowed us to do it in the first place, so we started it together and we’re going to finish it together. But [while] it has been important to my family, we really went with cameras and it’s the guys who were in that room who did everything else just by allowing us to be there.

“The Work” is now streaming on Topic.

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