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Here's How This Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shot in a Maximum Security Prison

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire February 26, 2014 at 1:43PM

Director Edgar Barens spent six months at Iowa State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in order to film the HBO documentary "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.
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HBO Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Directors have gone to extreme lengths to film their dream projects, but few if any can say they literally went to prison to make their film. That's the case for director Edgar Barens who spent six months at Iowa State Penitentiary, a maximum security prison, in order to film the HBO documentary "Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall," which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.

"Most people want to get out of prison, but I couldn't wait to get in," Barens told Indiewire by phone from Los Angeles, where he is preparing for Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony (he's bringing his mom). 

For the film about an innovative prison hospice program, Barens spent six months at a prison working as a one-person team. He was not only the film's director, but also the cameraperson/DP, sound person, lighting director, etc. After cashing in his retirement savings at the time to buy the camera, a Panasonic DVS100B, mini DV tape/digital, Barens approached the prison with the idea of living there for one year and filming.

Unsure of how the prison would respond to his unusual request, Barens was pleasantly surprised when he learned that the prison hospice was using an earlier film he made about prison hospices as a teaching tool for their program. "In my heart of hearts, I always wanted to revisit this topic...The fact that they were using it as a teaching tool and they knew my work and knew I was trustworthy opened the door to me," he said.

But still, he didn't quite get carte blanche to roam the prison. "I said I wanted to live in the prison for a year. Can I have a cell? They said 'you won't live in a cell, but you can live in the basement across the street."

In addition to the camera, Barens brought a lighting kit, but he said he purposely didn't bring in too much equipment. "I wanted to shoot from the hip. I didn't use a tripod except maybe the opening shot of the film. I wanted everything to be organic. I didn't want to drag around a tripod and a bunch of light kids. Digital cameras are pretty forgiving - I actually kind of winged in that way. It was less obtrusive," said Barens, who shot 300 hours of footage, which he plans to feature on the film's web site at some point.

Though filming such a difficult subject matter was, of course, emotionally grueling, it was also rewarding -- and not just in terms of the Oscar nod. "I pinched myself every day when I knew I was going into a maximum security prison. It was good too good to be true," said Barens.

Check out this exclusive video where Barens discusses the making of the film, which will debut on HBO on March 31.



This article is related to: TV Interviews, TV, Television, HBO Documentary, Awards Season Roundup, awards season, Academy Awards