Interview: Joshua Zeman, Cropsey

Joshua Zeman is the co-director of “Cropsey”, a documentary exploring the story of Andre Rand, a kidnapper and child killer on Staten Island. Is he insane? Evil? Is he innocent and misunderstood? How does the history of the institution fit in? What about the countless homeless who live in the woods and abandoned buildings?

Joshua chatted with me for a while on May 4, 2011 to discuss the film, which is really a great piece of detective work and journalism rolled into one. Our conversation went a little something like this…

GS: The movie is called “Cropsey”, but the focus is less on the myth and more on kidnapper Andre Rand.

JZ: Well, what’s interesting is that, people ask me, “Why the name Cropsey?” And you have to remember it is a somewhat personal documentary. For us, Cropsey was the name of an urban legend, but Andre Rand was spoken about in similar terms as the urban legend — he was both fact and fiction. I don’t think it’s misleading, because the film is really about mythology and the legend of the man rather than the man himself. At the end of the day, we don’t really find much out about the man himself — it is all conjecture. It goes back to reinforcing the legend of Cropsey and adds to the legend for the next generation.

GS: Andre Rand seems like a paradox — there is news footage of him drooling and staring off into space, and there are the letters he wrote you where he comes across as being intelligent.

JZ: There are times he seemed to me to be extremely intelligent. It goes to show you the way the media deals with crime is very interesting. It has only been in recent years that we have had this kind of super-criminal, the Hannibal Lecter. They are just so unbelievably smart. Before that was the Son of Sam, someone who is evil and we do not understand why they are doing it other than they are mentally disabled. I think that was something we wanted to explore. It was amazing that people could on one hand refer to him as a drooling madman and then at the same time say he was clever enough to evade the NYPD for 30 years. We were exploring the duality of man. I know some very smart people who are fucking crazy. That was more stuff to add to the mythology. Is he incredibly smart, or is he so crazy people can’t figure him out, or is he a combination of both — crazy like a fox?

GS: You went into the history of Willowbrook a bit. Was this connected to the wave of deinstitutionalization, or an isolated case?

JZ: No. You’re talking about the deininstitutionalization of the 1970s and 80s?

GS: Right.

JZ: It was involved, sure. Public policies had helped create this fear. Basically, we were in a budget crisis, and Reaganomics said the way to solve it was to stop spending money, so we ended up deinstitutionalizing people. We had the financial motivation, and also the perspective that an institution may not be the best place for these people. Unfortunately, we go in with the best intentions when cutting costs, but we didn’t provide for the proper follow-up care to maintain their mental health. You can’t go around on the street and force people to take their meds. That is one of the reasons we have the homeless problem in New York, because they were let out of mental institutions. This added to the rumors and the legend that these homeless former patients had come back to the island, the place where they grew up, and took up residence in the basements and halls of the abandoned buildings. The tunnels then have an urban legend issue, but also an urban politics issue.

GS: We saw similar things here in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. I see in the film an undercurrent that indirectly, the public policy created Andre Rand. I’m not saying the policy is responsible for the killings, but one could draw that connection.

JZ: Absolutely. Staten Island was just one touchpoint. We decided not to politicize the issue because the idea of Staten Island as a dumping ground goes beyond that. We were the garbage dump of the world. We didn’t say this in the movie, but when you came over to Ellis Island, if you had to be quarantined you were sent to Staten Island. This is where you went to be treated if you were sick, and the doctors and nurses who treated the sick lived in the outlying villages. But the local villagers could never figure out why they were getting sick all the time. We now know the preventions we had back then were not enough to stop communicable diseases. They realized it must be the quarantine. They quite literally went with pitchforks and torches in hand and burned down the quarantine. It’s the ultimate NIMBY — not in my backyard. Like an large city, the outlying area is where you put the mentally ill so they’re not in the city. Not in proximity to the rest of the people. For us, it was an endemic issue of Staten Island and very systematic. It created the culture that allowed Andre Rand and the ideology of classism. You have all these people moving to the Bronx, Brooklyn, and then moving back and their children start getting kidnapped. “What the fuck? I thought if I did my job, worked hard, this wasn’t supposed to happen.” It’s status anxiety.

GS: I’m not going to ask directly if you think Rand was guilty —

JZ: No, please do.

GS: Well, you can answer that if you want, but I’m curious if you think they had enough evidence to convict him?

JZ: That’s a very interesting question.

GS: Personally, based on what the film showed, it looked like they were railroading him.

JZ: I think “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a very interesting legal term. I saw a post someone made on the film “12 Angry Men” and they brought up “Cropsey”, because it brings up the issue of beyond a reasonable doubt in a very hardcore way. There a lot of people who believe that Andre Rand did something, but when presented with this evidence don’t think it proves anything beyond a reasonable doubt. It doesn’t really matter… you’re forced to negate whether he actually did it and rely on the evidence. And his past crimes could not be brought up in court. You can understand that from a legal perspective, but you can look at it from a human perspective, where we see this as not a singular event but a string of events. If you have a friend and he keeps being a bad friend, you ask yourself if you should keep being his friend. You would judge people based on what they’ve done, and not just on one event. So there’s a difference between what you feel in your heart is right and wrong and what the law requests of you to see as right and wrong.

I will say that Barb and I had very different opinions about whether he was guilty or not. I won’t say who had which opinion, but I will say those opinions shifted through the course of the film. We started on opposite ends and both ended up on the other side. So, we each had a period of looking at the middle from either side.

GS: I know you maintained correspondence with Rand after the trial. Should we be expecting a book?

JZ: Interesting. We had thought about writing a true crime book about him, but for us the visual medium was so important. It would be one thing for us to describe the abandoned areas and enough thing to show them. I don’t know. We are working on numerous things in relation to the Cropsey story, including a show about where urban legends come from. It is definitely not the last time you will hear about the Cropsey legend, it just may not be in the form you expect to hear it.

Crime documentaries are so funny to me, because there is the story you can show and there’s the story you can’t show. And we all know the second story is sometimes more interesting than the top story. The top story is what it is, but it is only on the second level, the nitty gritty, where the devil is in the details. For me, watching “Paradise Lost”, it was not necessarily about who committed the crime, but the filmmakers relationship to the theoretical criminals. And so, I think the same thing goes on here. And that’s why we’re excited about the DVD and the 30 minutes of deleted material. I think the 30 minutes will help round out the story where the first 90 minutes did not.

GS: Last question — did Robert Graham creep you out? He was by far the scariest part of the film.

JZ: (laughs heartily) Robert Graham is the best character ever. We went to pick him up at his house. We got there and he invited us in because he had to tell his mom he was going out. And we were like “cue music, dun-dun-DUN”. There were times we felt that he was the killer, that we were sitting with the killer and he’s talking to us. Asking him the questions was half of it, while the other half was looking over at the sound guy or camera man and giving the look saying, “If he tries to make a move, someone has to stop him.” However, by the end of the interview, he delivers the line that encapsulates the entire film — he shows a photo and says if he told us the man in the photo saved five people from a burning building, you would respond “he looks like a good man”, and if he said the man was a killer, you would respond “I can see that.” And that’s the movie. It’s so interesting that the man who so many view as the real killer or as the creepiest guy, is the man who has the most prophetic statement about how we view other human beings.

GS: Josh, thank you so much for your time. I love the film.

JZ: I really appreciate that, Gavin. Thank you.

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