Tribeca 2015: David Carr's Daughter Erin Lee Carr on Her "Cannibal Cop" Doc, Dad's Advice
'Thought Crimes,' premiering Thursday at the festival, deals with the notorious New York City case of Gilberto Valle: "It was a complicated decision for him" to open up, Carr says.
A version of this story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Over this past Thanksgiving, Erin Lee Carr sat down with her father, David Carr, her twin sister, Meagan, and the rest of their family to show them her new film, Thought Crimes. "It was pretty funny, given the subject matter," admits the 26-year-old filmmaker, since the documentary, which will have its world premiere April 16 at the Tribeca Film Festival, deals with the notorious case of Gilberto Valle, dubbed the "Cannibal Cop" by New York's tabloids.
Valle, who hung out on fetish sites where he posted in lurid detail about killing and eating women, was convicted in 2013 of one count of conspiracy to kidnap. But after spending 21 months in federal prison, seven of those in solitary confinement, he was released on bond and then, in 2014, a judge overturned his conviction for lack of evidence, ruling Valle's fantasies weren't criminal in and of themselves.
The film hardly was family holiday fare, and, recalls Erin, "My heart was racing during the last scenes, but ultimately they loved it." She adds: "I think it was important to my dad that it wasn't just a salacious story about the Cannibal Cop but more a meditation on the thoughts we have in our head and the Internet's ability to render those thoughts visible."
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin — Madison, Erin considered a career in journalism before deciding it "was a little too close to home." Instead, she headed to London to work for Vice Media, becoming a video producer and completing her first short film, Click. Print. Gun (about 3D- printed firearms). Returning to New York, she became fascinated with Valle's case and secured the first prison interview, which in turn led to a months-long collaboration as his case played out.
With her father at the U.S. Open in 2014.
"It was a big news story," Erin says of the tabloid coverage that surrounded Valle's arrest and trial. "As a young woman living in New York, it really was your worst fear, a nightmare that was realized. So I kind of kept tabs on the story." During a meeting at HBO to pitch other ideas — producer Andrew Rossi had brought Erin in to meet with Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films — the conversation turned to Erin's interest in the so-called dark web and that in turn led to a discussion of the Cannibal Cop. "I was unsure after reading all the coverage of what he'd actually done," Erin recounts. "I think there was a blanket perception of who he was and how evil he was. But, at that time, I couldn't really figure out what the overt actions were that he was convicted of."
Deciding to pursue the provocative subject, Erin, with the help of a Slate writer Daniel Engber, who'd been covering the case, found Valle's email and wrote to him in prison. Receiving permission to visit him, she met him for the first time in January 2014. "It was really low-key. He really wanted someone to talk to," she says of their initial meeting.
"It was a complicated decision for him," says Erin of Valle's willingness to open up to her. "He had never really talked to anyone about this stuff. The only interviews he had done had been on the courthouse steps. His legal team didn't want him to do it. "
While her camera documented how the court case played out — during the course of which she spent time with Valle and his mother at his mother's home once he was released on bail — Erin also began exploring the larger issues that his case raised.
"It was really important that this was not just a film about the Cannibal Cop. I don't think HBO would have been interested in just a piece on him. We needed to understand what the ramifications of what happened to him are in our world. The connecting thread was always the Internet. I found it fascinating that his Google searches were submitted in court as overt actions. He would type in things like 'How do you kidnap a girl?' So from the outset, it was, 'OK, this movie is about the Cannibal Cop, but in reality, it's about the Internet.'"
Valle was skewered in the New York media in 2013.
Valle's defense was that he'd merely been exchanging fantasy scenarios, however gruesome, with other like-minded fetish enthusiasts. And, in part, the film asks whether Internet searches should be viewed as overt acts from which criminal intent can be inferred.
Researching the project also meant that Erin had to spend time delving into the extreme corners of the fetish world to which Valle was attracted. "I'm not sure how much people understand the cannibalism fetish," she says. "But I had to look at exactly what a fetish is, what does it mean for people to be attracted to these things, do people have control over what they are attracted to. Psychiatrists were important to talk to because I needed them to lay the groundwork to explain those concepts to audiences." She admits, though, that it was a relief when she could finally put that aspect of the film behind her. "Looking at this really terrible stuff did start to affect me," she says. "I was happy when that part of the research was over."
Throughout the process, her opinion of Valle was constantly changing. "When he was in prison, it was so easy to say he was innocent. When he got out of prison, certain inconsistencies appeared, and when I presented them to him, he couldn't really answer me," she says. "Andrew said to me, 'You can't take people's words at face value. You have to capture everything.' So I really wanted the film to present all the facts, and the viewer can take away, 'I don't think he would have done it. I do think he would have done it.' It's really interesting to ask men and women what they think. Women tend to think he's guiltier. It's a really complicated question."
Erin also credits Meagan, who is getting a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Eastern Michigan, for helping her with the psychological dimensions of Valle's case. "She's the brilliant one in the family," she says. And Erin expresses an even deeper debt to her dad: "I tried to keep up with my dad but mostly failed. He introduced me to people, places and above all good food in NYC. Cheesy to say it, but I so lucked out with having him as my dad."