Do kids who’ve committed terrible crimes deserve a second chance?
In his feature directorial debut, the documentary “They Call Us Monsters,” Ben Lear tackles that thorny issue through the stories of three juvenile offenders facing sentences of up to 200 years for violent crimes they committed between the ages of 14 and 16. Lear follows these teenagers — Jarad, Juan and Antonio — as they take a screenwriting workshop in a Los Angeles County prison and try to express themselves through art while waiting to learn their fates.
With the film set to make its world premiere Monday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the 27-year-old Lear discussed why he decided to take on this difficult subject, his own family legacy as the son of celebrated TV producer Norman Lear, creator of such shows as “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” and what he hopes audiences will take away from his film.
How did this movie come about?
Three years ago, I was interested in writing something that had to do with the prison system. I didn’t have any intention of making a documentary. Gabe Cowan, who teaches the [screenwriting] class in the film, and I met Scott Budnick, who’s a Hollywood producer who’s at the moment a full-time juvenile and criminal justice advocate. We told him what I was trying to do and we made a plan to visit six or seven different juvenile facilities in about a two-week period.
I went into a juvenile hall and sat in on a writing class, expecting to meet these intimidating gang members who I felt would want to beat me up. And instead I met these wide-eyed, excitable teenagers who wanted to know everything about the world and themselves — all the while knowing they were facing life in prison and most likely were not going to be able to do any of the things they were dreaming about.
Through the course of that experience, what had originally been a plan to write this screenplay about prison became a plan to tell the story of the work Scott was doing around juveniles who were tried as adults, providing second-chance opportunities for kids facing extreme sentences.
As these three kids were going through this screenwriting class, what were you anticipating would come out of it?
I always knew that creative process was going to lead to interesting insights into their personalities and them as teenagers. But neither Gabe nor I had any idea they were going to want so passionately and immediately to tell their own story.
The way Gabe set up the class, he said, “You can write a movie about whatever. You can write an animated movie about, like, some sci-fi thing.” And from the beginning, they were like, “No, I want to tell my story.”
It quickly became clear that they all had experienced this loss of innocence around the age of 12 or 13. So their film became about them putting their stories into one 12-year-old boy and his loss of innocence.
On the one hand, these are young guys from tough backgrounds whose impulse control and sense of consequences haven’t fully developed yet. On the other, they’ve committed serious crimes, including attempted murder and first-degree murder. What are you hoping audiences will take away from their stories?
First of all, I want people to just be aware that we try juveniles as adults. In California, a juvenile can go to prison for the rest of his life. Until the bill that we followed in the film passed, SB 260, he could never have an opportunity to get out again. The film is trying to show these kids as people and present the idea of offering them a second chance.
But while I talk with so much affection for these guys and want so much for them to succeed, I never want to get too far away from the reality of the crimes they committed. That’s the whole other side of this issue. That’s why we’re talking about them in the first place. They made horrible, heinous mistakes with real victims.
Yeah, I believe they should have an opportunity to live their lives again one day. But I think, in coming to that conclusion, you have to face the impossible task of reconciling what they did with their humanity. That’s the challenge that provoked me into telling this story and that I want to pass on to everyone who sees the film. These are kids who committed crimes ... but they’re kids … but they committed horrible crimes. Wrestle with that.
You obviously have this immense family TV legacy through your dad. Were you always more interested in making movies?
I found a passion for movies and filmmaking at a really young age. I started making little short films around 10 or 11 and continued to do that really seriously, at least for a middle schooler, until I found rock ’n’ roll. Then my band kind of took over and I got really into playing music and studied music composition at NYU.
Part of what I’ve worked on as the son of someone in the same industry who’s done so well is that, for whatever reason, growing up I put an insane amount of pressure on myself to match that success. I had no sense of how to do it. It was just this idea.
And it was a really tough process, starting with music and then into film, realizing that just because you’re born into a really awesome opportunity with an amazing mentor and someone you can learn so much from, that doesn’t mean you’re on top of the mountain. You’re still at the bottom of the mountain. You may have the nicest ice picks but you’ve got to start from the same place and climb. And now, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Are you still in touch with the three kids from the movie?
Yeah, I stay in pretty good touch with them. Antonio is in a jail in Ventura and is most likely getting out in the next few months, so he’ll have another opportunity. And Juan and Jarad are doing a lot of time at Ironwood State Prison.
Juan and Jarad saw the film a couple of weeks ago. I had sent a DVD to the prison and I got a phone call from them and they both said they loved the film. Juan sent me a little piece of paper that was scanned that said, “I approve of everything” — which was just the sweetest gesture. I had no idea how much that was going to mean to me until I got that approval.