By: Kayla Caldwell
The story of the Stayner family is not your typical true crime case, so it makes sense that director Jessica Dimmock (Flint Town, The Pearl) decided to cover Steven and Cary Stayner in an unorthodox way. We were lucky enough to chat with Dimmock about her desire to tell this family's story, why she had the original actors read lines from TV movie I Know My First Name Is Steven, and what she hopes everyone takes from watching this Hulu three-part series.
CREEPY KINGDOM: You have a documentary background, so it makes sense for Captive Audience, but what drew you to this story in particular?
JESSICA DIMMOCK: I am a true crime lover myself. I don't necessarily always want to make them, but I do really enjoy watching them. But in this story, there's such a fantastically rich series of events that happen. It's truly kind of unbelievable, but in this particular case, there were so many layers to work with, the fact that this crazy thing had happened over the course of many decades to the Stayner family is one thing, but the idea that they would be willing to talk to me about it, and be open to participating was really, really important to me.
And also that there was all of this kind of meta, hybrid material to work with. So in the course of this crazy story, you have a media frenzy around it, but you also have a fictional media frenzy. You've got a made for TV movie, and so there was this fun intersection between fantasy and reality, and fact and fiction that it felt like we could really experiment with, to look at the very nature of storytelling.
CREEPY KINGDOM: Yeah, and that was actually something else that I was going to ask about, is the decision to have the original actors reading the script from the made-for-TV movie, and giving that look into the story.
JESSICA DIMMOCK: Well, I didn't know going into the project, but in the research stage, once I was attached to the project, and was kind of delving into the research, I found all of these really beautiful interviews with Steven Stayner and his other family members… Sometimes the audio was totally destroyed, and they had just been transcribed, and it felt like, "oh my God, if I was going to do a film about this family, of course I would want to interview Steven" - and I can't do that, because he's passed away. So it became a way of getting the material on the screen, but it also had this added layer where, you know, the actors that played these people get to return to the source material. So once upon a time they played someone based on interviews that had been done with that person.
CREEPY KINGDOM: It's really interesting, because, like you said, they're not just actors. Yes, these are lines that I'm reading, but this is a really intense, real story that happened to a person who can't speak for themselves anymore.
JESSICA DIMMOCK: Yes, and for me, as a director, it was so fascinating, especially because I work in documentary. I don't really work with actors, typically. It was so interesting to have them in the chair, and watch them toggle back and forth between being an actor, and being a person. They would read the line, and in that way, they were not fully acting. They were kind of being a proxy, they were embodying someone else. And then they would kind of snap back into their own body to comment on it. They'd read a line, and then they'd be like, “Wow… I'm feeling all of these things I didn't expect to feel, or I can't believe he said it that way. So, as a director, to watch someone vibrate between these two worlds was so fascinating. It was my favorite thing I got to do.
CREEPY KINGDOM: Another unique thing about CAPTIVE AUDIENCE is that the first two episodes are telling the story of what the victim went through, and then it pivots. What was it like balancing those two perspectives?
JESSICA DIMMOCK: I'm very interested in some of the questions that it raises about like, what is the role of the family of a perpetrator? And how do we think about the family of a perpetrator? Typically, at least in my experience, the family of a perpetrator often, sometimes for very good reason, gets lumped into the perpetrator pile. You know, everything kind of goes in certain buckets, and that's the bucket that they are in. But in this case, we first meet some of those people in a different bucket. And then we have to think about, if we pick 'em up out of this bucket, and put 'em into a different one.
Are they also victims here? Are they victims of perhaps some of the things that even Cary is a victim of? There's this initial crime that sets into motion a lot of things. How do we view the mother of a killer? Is it uncomfortable to shift our sympathies or once we're aligned with sympathizing with her, can we see it through her perspective more? I would argue that once we're aligned with her, it's easier to see that world through her eyes. I'm not sure that will be everyone's experience, but that's definitely how I felt. And that was interesting territory for me. I don't feel like I've ever necessarily thought about that.
CREEPY KINGDOM: That's a really good point, because I'm also a big true crime fan, and there are many cases where maybe the family or the parents weren't complicit, but just in seeing them defending their child - which, I mean, I imagine any parent would want to do - but the media is like, okay, they're with them. She's guilty, too. But, I don't know how you watch a woman tell the story of her child being kidnapped, and having to hear what he went through. I feel like it's really hard to not sympathize with her, because another big thing in CAPTIVE AUDIENCE is looking at how the media impacts things. It's like a scale, where on the one hand, it's super helpful with lesser-known cases that maybe weren't getting attention, but on the other hand, watching this, it's just really wild to see in such detail the damage that the media really did.
JESSICA DIMMOCK: Absolutely… Cary’s crimes are also all the more publicized and spoken about, because he's an exact opposite of his brother. We see Cary’s crimes as even more horrific, because, it's like, well, his brother was so incredible. And that kind of duality, one is evil and one’s a hero, makes our attention on Cary even stronger.
CREEPY KINGDOM: Yeah, and for a project like this, you have to get in with the family, and speak with the family. What is that kind of process like, of meeting with these people who've dealt with this insane tragedy?
JESSICA DIMMOCK: I've gotta say, from my very first conversation with Ashley [Stayner, Steven's daughter], we just kind of clicked. I approached her as someone who has had a really crazy life story, most of which she has not been an adult for. There's no pointing a finger at her for anything. That's so clear. I came to her and was like, I kind of want to do this weird thing where I use the made-for-TV movie as reenactments. And it's kind of experimental. I really think she is exceptional and honest and smart, and I just really click with her. So that made the process all the more easy and fulfilling, and I really wanted to do something that honored, at least her part of it. I wanted to do something that honored her father.
CREEPY KINGDOM: What do you hope people take away from watching captive audience?
JESSICA DIMMOCK: You know, I hope that they, first and foremost, have a kind of intimacy and perspective about the Stayners. I hope that they have an experience of this story that cast the Stayners as a real family, that these real things happened to… I hope that we told the story in a way that makes people just think about the very role of storytelling, and kind of buckled in for a ride that I hope kind of pointed a flashlight into some corners of that experience of, who are the stakeholders?
CAPTIVE AUDIENCE is streaming on Hulu now.