On Easter Sunday in 1993, inmates at a maximum-security correctional facility in Lucasville, Ohio, grabbed control for 11 days, making it the longest prison siege in U.S. history. Rioters took eight prison guards hostage, one of whom was killed – along with nine inmates.
Netflix’s new documentary series “Captive,” from filmmakers Simon and Jonathan Chinn and Doug Liman, kicks off its eight-episode first season by recounting the harrowing events behind that riot, interviewing both inmates and guards involved with the hostage stand-off. But unlike Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” which premiered during the holiday season in 2015, “Captive” follows a new story every episode. Later hours include the story of a kidnapped Brazilian-American woman who ran her family’s Coca-Cola bottling plant.
“There probably wasn’t a hostage story from the past 20 years or so that we didn’t look at,” Simon Chinn (“Man on a Wire”) told IndieWire. Besides asking whether each story had enough of a narrative to sustain an hour of television, Chinn was on the lookout for archival footage and access to the various players – in particular, the hostage takers.
“I think that was a big part of our pitch to Netflix,” he said. “We wanted to tell stories that felt extremely morally complex and surprising, where the good guys and the bad guys were sometimes indistinguishable.”
That kind of storytelling is also what brought Liman on board. “I think I’ve always been super drawn to anti-heroes,” Liman said. ” It shouldn’t surprise you if you look at my movies because Jason Bourne is an anti-hero… I’m not sure I’d ever direct a Tom Hanks movie because he’s such a hero. I definitely find myself in these stories connecting just as much, if not more, with the hostage taker and how they got to where they got to. My brother was a federal prosecutor and I oftentimes was rooting for him to lose cases because I’d be like, ‘I get why that person turned to a life of crime,’ that the world was unfair.”
Indeed, in the prison hostage episode Chinn, Liman and their team manage to unofficially interview some of the inmates (now being held at a Supermax facility), as well as a number of the hostages, and even the prison warden, who still struggles with the events, nearly 25 years later.
“Captive” blends those interviews and archival footage with re-enactments, which Chinn admits has been a controversial practice.
“But I think actually what we’ve witnessed in the past decade or so is a greater acceptance of deploying some of the tools from fiction to the documentary form,” he said. “I think people expect their documentaries to push the form. I think the purist idea of documentary, that the actions should somehow unfold in front of the camera and we should just observe or tell stories in a very, very particular way following very prescribed rules, fortunately in my view, those rules have been broken so many times as to not exist anymore.”
Liman said he thinks “re-enactments” became a dirty word because “they were done poorly,” and that documentaries became too synonymous with news.
“I went to USC film school and they taught documentary film there, and they taught the same techniques for documentary film that they taught for narrative film,” he said. “All we’re doing is we’re being storytellers first and foremost. We’re just telling stories that really happened and we’re showing the real people and we’re seeing how real people really reacted in these extraordinary situations. We’re being good storytellers, and there’s a point where you could do re-creations and you could hurt your storytelling, because part of what makes these stories so compelling is the real footage. If you ever started doubting the real footage, the stories in ‘Captive’ might lose some of their impact, so you have to be restrained in some of your re-creations the same way I have to be restrained in my narrative storytelling.”
Liman said he believed narrative features and documentaries have borrowed so much from each other over the years that their styles and techniques have become blurred.
“When I started out making feature films, I actually employed a lot of the techniques of documentary films,” he said, “including the fact that I used an Aaton 35 millimeter camera, which was a documentary film camera. And I put together production teams that looked a lot more like a documentary team than a feature film team… You start having documentaries that are beginning to look like ‘Bourne Identity,’ and so I think that we’re headed towards each other. It’s more honest storytelling as audiences get more sophisticated.”
“Captive” was produced as a full series, but each hour had its own director and producers handling the editorial and re-enactments (which were shot in locations including South Africa, Romania and the U.S.). Showrunners Alex Marengo and Kathryn Taylor oversaw four episodes each, and eight editing rooms were operating simultaneously at London’s Modern Air.
“[Netflix] certainly weren’t heavy-handed in the notes process at all, so it was a really good relationship I think founded on a strong mutual ambition for the series,” Chinn said. “They bought into the idea of a series very early, the global scope of it.”
As for a second season, Chinn said he’s ready and in early discussions with Netflix. “Fingers crossed, we’ve got a number of stories, some of which didn’t quite make it to season one because we couldn’t quite get the access,” he said, “but I think we’ll figure that out for season two.”