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Larry David, Accidental Hero: How ‘Curb’ Got An Innocent Man Acquitted from a Murder Charge

IndieWire spoke with the director of "Long Shot" about how he convinced the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" anti-hero to appear in the true-crime documentary.

Larry David in “Long Shot”

Netflix

NYU film grad Jacob LaMendola visited the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” trivia page on IMDB on a lazy day in 2012, expecting to find frivolities like how many f-bombs Susie Essman dropped in her angriest episode. Instead, the top entry explained that outtakes from “The Carpool Lane” — the season-four installment in which creator and star Larry David evaded traffic by inviting a prostitute to a Dodger game — exonerated a murder suspect.

Telling that story became “Long Shot,” which is now streaming on Netflix. It took LaMendola five years to make the 40-minute documentary: “I knew that it was worth taking the time to tell it correctly,” he said.

This was the backstory: The victim, 16-year-old Martha Puebla, was shot and killed on her Los Angeles doorstep in May 2003. Three months later, police arrested Juan Catalan, a machinist who resembed a sketch artist’s composite. They believed he had a motive: Days before her death, Puebla testified in a murder case in which Catalan’s brother was a co-defendant, with Catalan looking on. But Catalan pled innocence; that night, he said, he was at a Dodger game with his daughter and some friends.

Catalan’s ticket stubs and witness testimonies did not sway deputy district attorney Beth Silverman, nicknamed “Sniper” for her ability to secure death-row convictions. His lawyer, Todd Melnik, culled the stadium’s security footage of that night’s 27,458 attendees, but none of the shots with Catalan were clear enough. However, Catalan remembered spotting a television camera crew at the game.

Long Shot

Juan Catalan in “Long Shot”

Courtesy of Netflix

Melnik learned that the cameras belonged to HBO, consulted their timecoded takes, and was astonished to see Catalan and his daughter returning from a snack run to their row, mere feet from where David stood. Cellphone tower data also placed Catalan near the stadium. After six months in jail, Catalan was freed and later awarded a $320,000 settlement for police misconduct; four other men were found guilty of Puebla’s murder.

LaMendola, who previously directed several shorts, was fascinated by the tricky case — but it also proved to be a tricky story to tell. With the support of his partners at New York production company Hayden 5, he began by flying to California to record five days of interviews with Melnik. The next year, LaMendola filmed side-by-side interviews with Melnik and Catalan, who have become best friends since their days as attorney and client.

Said LaMendola, “It took a long time to convince them both, too, that it was something worth doing,” and build trust; there were also safety concerns about Los Angeles gang activity. “Once we shot those interviews, it was one piece of the puzzle that we would use to try to get financing for like the next piece. So for four years we would just get together as much money as we could to either shoot an interview or get some archival.”

However, the most coveted interview was with David — and it proved nearly impossible to get. “We hounded him for over a year, just trying to get him to answer our calls,” said LaMendola.

Finally, David’s secretary relented. This gave LaMendola had five minutes to convince the press-averse “Seinfeld” co-creator  to speak with him on camera.

“The very first thing he said when he got on the phone was, ‘There’s no way that I would ever be a part of this,’” LaMendola said. “I think I just went into shock… We had gone so far, we had every piece, and I just didn’t want it to end.” So LaMendola began citing examples of how much work he’d done, including visiting Catalan’s brother in prison. David interrupted him: “So wait, you just want to interview me?’” LaMendola said yes and David replied, “‘Okay, I’ll do it.’”

On the appointed day, David stayed at least three times longer than his promised 20 minutes, even filling out a crossword puzzle as the 15-person crew maneuvered their “giant” lighting set-up (David told LaMendola, “Oh, shit. You’ve really got a lot of stuff.”)

Long Shot

The “Curb Your Enthusiasm” still that placed Juan Catalan at Dodger Stadium on May 12, 2003

Courtesy of Netflix

With help from sales agent Preferred Content, Netflix bought the project in 2016 based on the strength of a single completed scene. Prior to the deal, LaMendola said he pitched “Long Shot” “millions of times,” and each company “had a different idea of what the movie should be” — sports saga, “Curb” folklore, prison plight. However, what LaMendola and Netflix found exciting was “how all of these things played with each other.”

Netflix screened “Long Shot” at the 2017 Telluride Film Festival — the same rollout that helped earn the streaming platform its first Academy Award this year, for the documentary short “The White Helmets.” And today, Catalan is a new college student, who continues to work in his family’s machine shop while raising three children. Since his false arrest, he has been to countless more Dodger games.

“Long Shot,” now streaming on Netflix, will also screen this weekend at the Hamptons International Film Festival.  

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