LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
And now a warning - this next conversation contains disturbing material about a murder case that captured the nation's attention two decades ago.
In 1996, 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, a child beauty pageant queen in Boulder, Colo., was found dead in her home on Christmas Day. Her parents, Patsy and John Ramsey, and her brother Burke were at the time suspected of being involved in her murder, and the case took innumerable twists and turns. Ultimately, Boulder authorities cleared the family of suspicion in 2008. The case remains unsolved.
Now there's a new documentary out on Netflix that looks at the community where the crime took place. It's called "Casting JonBenet," and it is extremely unconventional. I'll let Kitty Green, the director, explain the concept.
KITTY GREEN: Basically, what we did was we went back to Boulder, Colo., which is the city that the crime happened in, and we held open casting calls for the community to come down and play all of the roles in the JonBenet Ramsey case essentially. And we found that once they did that and they sat in front of our camera and started talking about the case, immediately they started talking about their own connections to the case, their own reflections, memories, their own kind of emotional baggage that they connected to this case. It was - we were looking at doing more of a portrait of a community that had lived under the shadow of a crime for the last 20 years more so than the JonBenet Ramsey case itself. It's not a whodunit. We're not making a true crime film.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you ever, though, tell people that there was no fictional movie that they were going to be cast in? Because you see them quite often talking to you and saying - if I get cast in this film, I would play any role; if I get cast in this film, I'm going to bring this to the character. Did they understand that there wouldn't be an actual fictional film?
GREEN: Yes. They understood exactly what we were doing. They understood we were casting people for re-enactments, and the re-enactments are in the film. So there is a actor that gets to play the police chief in a press conference. There is multiple women that get to play Patsy in, you know, big, final sequences. And we have this amazing - I'm really proud of a scene in a house where everyone gets to act out their own theories of what happened and their own emotional stories.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to play a clip from the film. We're going to hear two of your interviewees describing how JonBenet Ramsey's body was found.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CASTING JONBENET")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It was after the police investigated the house, I think - right? - and then John Ramsey and - was it the police? - were searching the house.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So him and his friend walked down the basement, and they went through the train room 'cause he was big into trains. And that's when they opened the door to the wine cellar and saw her covered in her favorite white blanket.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So John Ramsey, we should say, was JonBenet's father. What we just heard there is pretty much how we get the facts of the case in your film, only through the voices of your interviewees. But as we hear in that clip, they don't always sound so sure of themselves. Did you ever worry that you were blurring reality in a way that was irresponsible?
GREEN: We were looking at the way people interpret these sort of big, sensational crimes and cases themselves. We're looking at individual interpretation and perception and the way the media kind of takes these kind of - this crime and has kind of sensationalized it over the past 20 years and what that's become and gossip and rumor. And these are all the themes that we were dealing with.
So that was the intention of the piece, to look at the blurry - kind of the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. And these are all the themes that we were dealing with.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As you mentioned, you delve into the trauma of some of the subjects that you interview in this film. Let's hear a clip of one of the women you spoke with who's talking about how difficult it is to talk to you about the case.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's hard for me. It's hard for me sitting here talking about it as myself, to not just - I mean, I'm holding back weeping over the loss, you know, because I myself have lost three children. So I know what that feels like.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did you sort of elicit that from your interviewees, or did they volunteer it?
GREEN: Definitely volunteer it. I wasn't pushing anyone further than they wanted to go. The surprising thing about this was I went in knowing that we wanted to get these emotional stories from people, but I had no idea just how heartbreaking a lot of them would be and how organic that process would be. So I would sit people down in the chair, and I would ask, you know - what do you know about the JonBenet Ramsey case?
And immediately, they would start talking about their own families or, my mother has bipolar disorder, so Patsy must have had bipolar disorder, and this is what my experience with my mother - and they would tell me stories. And they would just - I just let them chat. And, I mean, they knew they were on camera. They knew that this would be shown to the world, and they were happy to talk. I think they found it quite therapeutic and cathartic in some ways. They've been surrounded by this case for 20 years. They're trying to make sense of it themselves, and this is a way to do that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you want the traumas in particular, though, to be part of the film? What did it evoke?
GREEN: Well, this film is working on a few different levels, and there's lots of themes that we're exploring. And one of them was about why we're so obsessed with true crime stories. And why do we keep reading - why is JonBenet Ramsey still on the cover of magazines 20 years later? And we found that often people are so obsessed with this crime, and the reason they can't let it go is because it's almost quite a personal story. At the heart of it, it's a family. It's mothers, brothers, sisters.
As bizarre as this crime is - with the pageant Santa Claus as a suspect, it's Christmas night - there's still this really kind of intimate family at the center of it. And I think we can all relate to that on some ways - on some level. So often people - yeah - they filter everything through their own personal experience. They're bringing their own kind of trauma to this case, and that's part of a reason that they're so obsessed with it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've mentioned a few times that the media played an outsized role in making this a really important case in the minds of Americans. Do you not see yourself as part of that continuum, as part of the media?
GREEN: Yeah, well - we - I mean, there's been a million JonBenet Ramsey films, and we really tried to separate ourselves from what they were doing in a number of ways. I mean, we haven't used any footage of the actual family in the film, so there's no archival footage, which is unusual for a documentary. We use JonBenet Ramsay's image quite sparingly. She only is in kind of the beginning and the end of the film and kind of lingers above the whole thing. But we only really used her image in order to remind audiences just how horrific this whole thing is. It's a 6-year-old child at the center of it. But we - so we took steps to not further exploit the story.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Any thoughts about JonBenet in the end and what may have happened to her or not?
GREEN: I have no idea what happened that night. I don't think we'll ever know. And that was never my focus or my priority. So I guess I - yeah, I'm as clueless as when I began. And it's not something that I think I'm interested in following. I've - it was quite a cathartic experience with those actors on that set. And I feel like I've found a little bit of closure. I'm less fascinated and obsessed with this case now. I'm kind of ready to move forward.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kitty Green is the director of the new Netflix original "Casting JonBenet."
Thanks so much for speaking with us.
GREEN: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF PHONTAINE'S "FIN")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.