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Why Alex Gibney Is Taking On Capital Punishment With His New CNN Docuseries 'Death Row Stories'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire March 7, 2014 at 11:54AM

Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney talks his new CNN series "Death Row Stories."
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Edward Lee Elmore, subject of 'Death Row Stories' episode one
CNN Edward Lee Elmore, subject of 'Death Row Stories' episode one

Alex Gibney is astoundingly prolific. The Oscar-winning documentarian isn't just turning out films at a regular clip of two to three a year, he's also found time for television projects -- like the new CNN series "Death Row Stories," which he executive produced with Robert Redford.

The eight-part docuseries, one of two Redford is debuting on the news channel this week, premieres this Sunday, March 9th at 9pm and explores questions about the death penalty and the justice system, with each episode unraveling a different capital murder case. Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar herself for her role as death row minister Sister Helen Prejean in "Dead Man Walking," will serve as narrator.

So, how does Gibney do it? Indiewire caught up with the filmmaker in January to ask him about "Death Row Stories."

Alex Gibney
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders Alex Gibney

What's your involvement in the new series?

I came to it because I'd been getting some really interesting stories that I was thinking about doing as feature docs, and they all seemed to be centering around the same issue. And I thought, wouldn't it be fantastic to do a series? That's what got me started, and then the thing was, "How can we come up with a series that has a certain look and a certain feel?" I got together with some very talented people, and my job is to set a kind of look and style and narrative approach, and then let these super-talented people execute it.

What's it going to look like?

A lot of these stories, in a way, are mystery stories. They focus on the death penalty and how justice is unfairly applied, and how the system doesn't know how to correct its own mistakes. They're also murder mysteries, in a way, so in style they're intended to be kind of like film noir, in the sense that each location has a certain character. The character of the place ends up being quite important to the story, particularly in terms of how we tell it in visual terms.

Do you see this as a series with an activist bent, about miscarriages of justice?

The first thing I can say about it is that it's a series of great crime stories, so that in and of itself is important. But I think themes emerge, and one is that the system itself is badly broken. That, I think, is something that we have to recognize, and in part, it's because it's not a particular story, but a series of stories, and they seem to have the same kind of pattern. That should teach us something. It has a point of view, let's put it that way.

'Death Row Stories'
CNN 'Death Row Stories'

How did you find all of these cases?

Some, like I said, came to me as feature docs initially. Then we went looking for other ones to see what would be interesting stories that might examine this idea. We found some really good ones -- ones that happened a long time ago, and one that's very contemporary, which relates to the election that's going to happen for governor in Colorado. It's all going to be a kind of referendum on whether we should kill people.

You've been reliably prolific over the years -- you just had a new doc, "Finding Fela!," at Sundance. How do you manage to balance so many projects?

It's hard, but one of the things that's been a great boon to us is that we got an investment from a company called Content Media, and that allowed me to expand my core group, to hire some people to help really run the show in a way that took a lot of the pressure off of me. I'm a director, but I'm also a producer, and I produce for a lot of people. One of the things I learned as a producer was that if you hire really talented people who are better than you are, then sometimes good things can happen, and you can do a lot more things than you would otherwise be able to imagine.

Does having a project at CNN shape your approach in a particular way?

We went to CNN and said, "This is what we want to do, are you interested?" We weren't trying to marry something to the CNN style. We went to them and said, "This is what we want to do, do you want to do it with us?" And they said yes, so that's always a good sign for me.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Alex Gibney, CNN, Death Row Stories





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