Jena Friedman on combining comedy with journalism in her AMC+ true-crime series, “Indefensible.” Also, film critic Adam Nayman talks about one of today’s most compelling directors, David Fincher. And Wisconsin native Charles L. Hughes on rapper Bushwick Bill.
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Comedian Jena Friedman learns the justice system is not that just
Jena Friedman is a writer and comedian. Her credits include writing for “The Late Show with David Letterman” and an Academy Award nomination for her contributions to the screenplay for “Borat 2: Subsequent Moviefilm.” Friedman has also worked as a field producer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
Now she’s rolling all of that experience into her latest project, “True Crime Story: Indefensible.” The show airs on Sundance TV and streams on the AMC+ Television Network. In six episodes, Friedman explores how dysfunctional our criminal justice system can be.
One of the most fascinating things about “Indefensible” is how she manages to weave funny moments into stories about tragedy and injustice, without missing a beat.
“I don’t think I would have ever been able to sell a true crime show with comedic elements,” Friedman told WPR’s “BETA.”
“That was all AMC, actually,” she continued. “They have been launching a true crime franchise. And I made fun of true crime on ‘Conan.’ And they saw that set and reached out to me, and they were like, ‘Do you think we could make a true crime show that’s like feminist and kind of funny?’ And I said, I don’t know. And then the pandemic happened, and I was like, ‘Sure, anything’s possible.’”
So Friedman and AMC executives began to develop this show which drew on the kinds of comedy work she had already done.
The first episode, “How Men Get Off,” explores the case of Steven Steinberg which happened in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1981. Steinberg stabbed his wife Elena 26 times. He didn’t deny that he committed the murder, but he claimed that he did it while he was sleepwalking.
Friedman was able to interview the forensic psychologist Dr. Martin Blinder. After interviewing the victim’s husband, Blinder testified at the trial that Elena had driven Steven to such a high level of insanity that he must have been in a dissociative state of mind born out of trauma. In the interview, Blinder told Friedman “this was not a conscious act on his part.” The jury found Steinberg not guilty on the grounds of temporary insanity.
It was this first episode that sold the series, Friedman said.
One of the best examples of Friedman’s ability to incorporate humor into the show occurs in the first episode when she interviews Dr. Stephen Herman. Herman has more than 40 years of experience in forensic and clinical psychiatry.
Here’s the exchange:
Herman: It’s really important for your audience, for the people watching us, to know that there are good people doing this work.
Friedman: (points at camera) Talk to them.
Herman: (looking at camera) I just want you to know that there are plenty of good, ethical forensic expert witnesses.
Friedman: (coaching him) Who don’t just say what they’re coached to say.
Herman: Who do not just say what they want someone to hear them say.
Friedman smiles and gives him a thumbs-up sign.
How do Friedman and her colleagues decide which cases to turn into episodes?
“It’s just a combination of: Who do we have access to? What is the larger meaning behind this case?” she explained.
Friedman wrote and directed field segments while working as a field producer on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” from 2012-15, which she said has been very valuable for her work on “Indefensible.”
“And having worked at ‘The Daily Show’ and done that for a bunch of correspondents and then the show that I did called ‘Soft Focus‘ after that,” she said. “‘The Daily Show’ is like a crash course in film school. For me, it really taught me so much.”
One of the most impressive things about “Indefensible” is how Friedman finds ways to inject her dark sense of humor into the show and still show respect for the victims. How much of a psychic toll is working on “Indefensible” taking on Friedman?
“Thanks for asking that, because it is intense, and I was googling second-hand trauma or secondary trauma,” Friedman replied.
“After the Tiffany Taylor interview (Ep. 5), I was in New York and I got robbed because I was like in open mode and this homeless woman came up to me,” she continued. “It’s a longer story, but I just didn’t have my defenses up because I had spent the prior day just totally in open mode with Tiffany. It was a good lesson — you’ve got to leave your work at work.”
Friedman also said her “anonymity” has both pros and cons when it comes to covering these tragedies.
“It’s really hard,” she said. “I feel lucky that I’m so under the radar and nobody knows who I am because for one, I just love anonymity. But then the downside is like when we would go into a ‘Daily Show’ piece on a dark subject, there would be trust there. People knew Jon. They knew his point of view. They trusted him. Whereas with this project, it’s like they don’t know who I am for better or for worse. With the defense attorneys, it was great because I could disarm them.“
Ultimately, Friedman doesn’t know if making “Indefensible” can help make the criminal justice system more just.
“Do I think that media plays a role in shifting public consciousness? Absolutely,” she said. “I always look at LGBTQ rights and how that has shifted in such a positive direction from ‘Ellen’ and ‘Will & Grace,’ but this is a tiny show on a streamer no one has.”
“But do I think that entertainment can bring people together? Absolutely. Can it raise awareness? For sure. Do I think that the projects that I keep doing on tiny platforms nobody has do anything? No,” she continued, laughing.
Friedman said there are talks for a second season of “Indefensible.” And she’s been working on a feature she hopes to get out there soon.
She has a few other things in the works, as well.
“I’m doing another stand-up special; I’m working on that now,” she said. “And I sold a book during the pandemic that I’m writing. It’s just a series of essays, and it’ll be called ‘Not Funny.’ I haven’t told anyone about it yet except for you.”
The exacting and evolving genius of filmmaker David Fincher
In 1985, aspiring director David Fincher was tapped by the American Cancer Society to make a PSA. Riffing off Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” Fincher put forth one of the most provocative and memorable commercials ever featuring an in-utero fetus smoking a cigarette to demonstrate the dangers of pregnant smoking.
This PSA was just the beginning of Fincher’s ability to utilize the shared language and visuals of film to express a point. He would move next to directing music videos where he famously invoked Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” while directing Madonna’s 1989 video for “Express Yourself.”
Film critic Adam Nayman told WPR’s “BETA” that Fincher’s cinematic ambition was present in all of this early work before he became a household name directing transcendent films like “Fight Club,” “Se7en,” “Zodiac” and “The Social Network.”
“I think that he was part of a cycle of music video directors who were drawing on movies for the music videos. So, by the time they ended up making feature films, the visual language and the ambition were already there,” Nayman said.
Nayman is the author of “David Fincher: Mind Games,” a comprehensive critical companion book to Fincher’s career output thus far. It’s the third installment of Nayman’s deep dives into generational filmmakers that includes the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Nayman said Fincher became a highly in-demand director in the MTV universe because he was still implying elements of advertising. The videos he made turned the artist into the product that was being sold. For a future feature filmmaker who would develop an unmistakable aesthetic style and thematic focus, this tactic now looks strangely impersonal.
“The videos aren’t about David Fincher, right? The style, the lens and the color palette, the cutting. Yeah, you could recognize him in it, but it’s never to the point of overshadowing the artist,” Nayman said.
Even though Fincher has been thrice nominated for an Academy Award in directing, Nayman said perhaps the best directorial work he’s ever done is for George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” music video. The video, which features a series of models (both male and female) lip-syncing, achieves the necessary complexity to match the song’s complicated conceit of fluid identity and sexuality.
“Fincher is all over it in terms of how it’s made. But it’s about George Michael. That’s why he kept getting all this music video commissions,” Nayman said. “And then once he gets into feature film, I think his personality and the idea that he’s maybe making movies for and about himself starts becoming a little more evident.”
While Fincher has become a household name for all of his success in the succeeding decades, Nayman argues he’s also notably become known for his meticulous and perfectionist ways.
“He’s one of the few contemporary American directors whose methodology is kind of famous. I mean, a lot of directors are famous for their personality or for their private lives or their political stances or for other sort of celebrity things. Fincher’s famous for lots of takes and for control,” Nayman said. “But, how many directors are household names and how many directors are household names because they’re a little bit of a taskmaster?.”
Fincher’s rigorous approach — which includes doing repeated, sometimes upwards of hundreds of takes — has rankled a few feathers, especially amongst actors, but there’s no arguing with the results. After a miserable experience attempting to helm the third film in the “Alien” franchise, Fincher acclaimed critical and commercial praise with his second feature, the serial killer blockbuster, “Se7en” with Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. Nayman said the genius behind “Se7en” is that Fincher makes the viewer complicit in the film’s outlook.
“Without an audience, without a viewer, what the killer is doing is meaningless and without us to sort of sit and want the puzzle to be completed, what Fincher is doing is meaningless,” Nayman said. “He makes us want the killer to succeed, and he makes us want the cops to fail because otherwise we’re denied the shape and pleasure of the killer’s overall design. And that’s one of the things about the movie that I think is really extraordinary.”
“You kind of want the killer to see this thing through to the end because you’re going to feel cheated otherwise,” Nayman continued. “And that’s a really ingenious and diabolical and affecting structure for a thriller.”
It’s clear the concept of serial killers fascinates Fincher as it permeates his career. In addition to creating Netflix’s bingeworthy series, “Mindhunter,” based on the real-life practice of the FBI’s serial killer profiling program, Fincher’s best movie is arguably 2007’s “Zodiac,” which tells the compelling and unresolved story of the Zodiac killer who haunted northern California in the late ’60s, early ’70s.
“You are moving from a stylized world like the one in ‘Se7en,’ which is meant as a kind of the worst possible version of ours, into a more recognizable and everyday version of our world, but that still plays host to that kind of depravity and that kind of psychosis,” Nayman said.
“I think that ‘Zodiac’ is a wonderful follow-up in that it takes everything that’s kind of perfect about the original movie, like the fact that it has a killer who lives up to his methods, and it completely reroutes that,” Nayman continued. “There is no monster at the end of the movie. And so instead of that perfect, Iron Maiden-like structure you have in ‘Se7en’ where everything closes in and comes together. Zodiac is totally open-ended.”
Nayman is unambiguous that “Zodiac” is Fincher’s best work because of that ambiguous ending. He said that is one of the most daring moves by a director. Furthermore, the film’s meticulously researched, and procedural structure is the embodiment of Fincher the filmmaker.
“I’m not shy about saying I think Zodiac is his great work. I think that his great theme is procedure, and I think that ‘Zodiac’ is his great expression of that theme,” he said.
“Zodiac” also represented a pivot for Fincher, marking the first time he adapted a historical period and story. He would take this a step further in his 2010 film, “The Social Network.” Collaborating with scriptwriting virtuoso Aaron Sorkin, “The Social Network” offered a treatment on the litigious beginnings of Facebook and its embattled founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
Nayman said Fincher’s handling of Sorkin’s trademark whirlwind dialogue, including the famous opening scene where a fictionalized breakup instigates the idea for Facebook, created perhaps the most enjoyable experience of what could have been a very dry subject matter.
“These are characters whose synapses flash very quickly. They’re smart, they’re Ivy League, but there’s also something about their narcissism and their solipsism that speeds them up,” Nayman said. “And so, I love that scene because it evokes ’30s screwball but in a 21st century context where everything old feels new again. And I love the way that the speed keeps changing. Their dialog is so fast. Then his trip home from the bar after they break up, even though he’s jogging, it’s got a really sort of glacial, funereal pace.”
Nayman argues Fincher has carried this practice into his contemporary films like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “Gone Girl.” He said it’s a natural skill progression for someone so exacting and fixated on procedure.
“When you’re working with that kind of speed and you’re cutting in your storytelling, you’d think you’d miss all the details. But he actually finds a way to make these incredibly fast movies where the details keep jumping out at you. And that’s the alchemy that I’m always dazzled by with him, is this yoking of speed to clarity, which he does like no filmmaker I can think of,” he said.
Fincher differs from other auteurs and filmmakers in the sense that most of his films are fairly deliberate in their interpretations. They’re exercises in perfection, not abstraction. But Nayman said that creates an unending debate on Fincher’s place in the annals of directors.
“I don’t think his movies are ambiguous the way someone like David Lynch’s movies are ambiguous. They’re pretty left to right and linear and narrative driven,” Nayman said. “Are we watching something that has humane empathy? Are we watching something that’s political or are we watching something that’s product? Are we watching the logical culmination of a music video virtuoso working in in feature format? I find that there’s a lot of debate over those things, and I think the debate over David Fincher in 1993 and the debate over David Fincher in 2021 are strangely similar, even though there’s a much longer body of work now as a staging ground for that debate.”
In 'Why Bushwick Bill Matters,' Wisconsin native takes on history of disability in music
Bushwick Bill started out as a dancer for the Houston-based hip-hop group the Geto Boys. He turned into a groundbreaking rapper who helped define Southern rap while courting public controversy and battling personal demons.
The rapper, who died in 2019, had dwarfism. He rapped about his height, incorporating it into his rap persona. And while he never called himself a disability-rights activist, he became the Geto Boys’ most famous member and one of the highest-profile musicians with a physical disability. The Geto Boys’ 1989 song “Size Ain’t S—” would become a kind of anthem for disability rights.
The 2021 book by Wisconsin native Charles L. Hughes, “Why Bushwick Bill Matters,” considers the career and significance of the rapper, who’s real name was Richard Shaw. Hughes is well-acquainted with the way people with physical differences can’t escape other people’s eyes. Scholars call it the “hypervisibility” of disability, said Hughes in an interview with WPR’s “BETA.” Like Shaw, Hughes has dwarfism — or in his preferred terminology, he’s a short person.
“We’re kind of always on stage,” Hughes said. “We’re always performing because so many ideas and fears and narratives and other things get written onto our bodies anyway. … One of the things short folks and many disabled folks over the years have really wrestled with is how to use that unique, exceptional physicality to our advantage.”
Shaw was part of a centuries-long, often ugly tradition of disabled people in the entertainment industry, Hughes writes in the book — from “freak show” performers during the 19th century to blind blues musicians in the 20th century. It’s part of a dynamic that can be a real burden of people with disabilities.
“Disabled people deal with this s— all the time,” Hughes writes. “We remain ready to be put on display even by our friends and we wonder if the attention we receive is because of our talents or because we are re-confirming some narrative of astonishing freaks or inspirational cripples.”
Part of what made Shaw’s work so important, Hughes argues, is the way he created his own story about his disability.
“He doesn’t just talk about the struggles of being short,” Hughes said. “He’s making jokes about his shortness. He’s talking about his sexuality and his sex appeal. … Bushwick Bill is wonderful at refuting and completely destroying the long-held and really, really problematic idea that short people are just ‘cute.’”
Shaw’s Bushwick Bill was funny, menacing, political, at times homophobic or misogynist. But he was never cute, never a simple and inspirational story for the enjoyment of able-bodied folks.
“Why Bushwick Bill Matters” is part of the “Music Matters” series released by the University of Texas at Austin Press, which have included volumes on the Beach Boys, Marianne Faithfull and a forthcoming edition on Patti Smith. Hughes, who grew up in Wausau and got his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, today is a professor at Rhodes College in Tennessee. His first book, “Country Soul,” was about Black performers in country music.
And while “Why Bushwick Bill Matters” is informed by Hughes’s own perspective on disability, it’s also informed by his cultural scholarship. He details the Geto Boys’ place in rap’s cultural history and the 1990s culture war over explicit lyrics in rap. The group would be denounced by parents groups and politicians for their violent, profane, sometimes horror-film-influenced lyrics.
In 1995, a music video showed Shaw burning a poster promoting the U.S. presidential campaign of Republican Bob Dole. After Dole named the Geto Boys in his call on the entertainment industry to end the “mainstreaming of deviancy,” Shaw told a reporter that he wanted to “thank Bob Dole and all his lily-livered politician homies for giving me more than $300,000 of free press” for his album.
The Geto Boys’ best-known song, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” uses horror-movie tropes to tell stories about paranoia, depression and alienation. Hughes said it is “very much designed to talk about the internal struggle these exaggerated narratives are obscuring.” It was a way for the Geto Boys, including Shaw, to say, “You may think (our songs) are these over-the-top narratives and fantasies. But we’re also internally struggling,” Hughes said.
Shaw’s own internal struggles became part of his public story in 1991, when he shot himself in the eye after a drug- and alcohol-fueled dispute with his girlfriend. An image of him in a hospital bed, pulling bandages aside to reveal the wound, would become the album cover for the Geto Boys’ “We Can’t Be Stopped” — an image Shaw later felt deep ambivalence about. He would rap about the incident in the 1992 solo single, “Ever So Clear.”
Late in his life, Shaw recorded an album of gospel hip-hop called “My Testimony of Redemption.” Though not a commercial hit, Hughes argues the album is important to understanding Shaw’s life and work.
“He had roots in the church,” Hughes said. “He had actually studied to be a minister, which I think places (“My Testimony of Redemption”) as the closing of a circle that had begun for him very, very early.”
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