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‘Trial by Media’: Tony Yacenda on Directing ‘American Vandal,’ and Then a True Crime Story

Crafting an episode about a murder that happened in the wake of a "Jenny Jones Show" taping led the director to recognize both the similarities and vast emotional differences from his last series.

Trial by Media Netflix Jonathan Schmitz

“Trial by Media”

Netflix

Netflix’s latest true crime documentary anthology series “Trial by Media” opens with a chapter on a story from the periphery of ’90s daytime TV that may not be a collective household memory. Still, the story of the murder of Scott Amedure makes for an illustrative first chapter in the way that legal proceedings and press coverage have become intertwined in the national consciousness.

It tells the story behind an unaired episode of “The Jenny Jones Show,” a daytime TV installment that saw Amedure profess his feelings for Jonathan Schmitz in front of a live studio audience. Just days after the taping, Schmitz approached Amedure and shot him. Charged with murder, the heated public debate over Schmitz’s guilt or innocence centered on whether or not his feelings of embarrassment were justification for his actions.

The subsequent trials — both in the Schmitz murder case and the Amedure family’s lawsuit against the show and parent company Warner Brothers — coincided with the ascendance of Court TV as another daytime TV destination. The story itself has plenty of entry points: the rise of “ambush TV,” the development of the 24-hour news cycle, a new development in the American sense that justice and entertainment weren’t mutually exclusive.

But when talking about the episode itself, there’s another interesting layer to this opening “Trial by Media” installment. Its director, Tony Yacenda, spent two seasons behind the camera of “American Vandal,” another Netflix series that used true crime documentaries as a foundation for a scripted comedy. Over the course of the run of “Vandal” (which he co-created with Dan Perrault), Yacenda got to direct multiple instances of high school students trying to piece together a crime. For a real-life trial with far more wide-reaching consequences, Yacenda saw how those shifting perspectives play out in reality, especially when it came to perceiving Schmitz’s demeanor in the original “Jenny Jones” footage.

“One of the cool things about interviewing all of these people was everybody was saying, ‘Well, of course you could tell he was really disturbed. Look at the footage.’ And then the other side would say, ‘He clearly was fine on the day he wasn’t disturbed. Something must have happened in the three days between that and the murder,'” Yacenda told IndieWire. “Really, the approach was getting them to fully paint how they see the sequence of events. Everybody was a little bit off by a few degrees from each other. And ultimately, probably everybody’s a little bit right and everybody’s a little bit wrong.”

Trial by Media Netflix

“Trial by Media”

Netflix

There’s another metanarrative element to this particular case. As the episode details, attorney Geoffrey Fieger became one of the standout personalities from Court TV’s “gavel-to-gavel” coverage. Not only did he employ plenty of in-court dramatics in his attacks on those within the “Jenny Jones Show” apparatus, but he frequently appeared on Court TV daily previews and recaps. While media-savvy trial lawyers might be a little easier to sign up for a project like this, there was one figure in the trial that took a little extra coaxing: James Feeney, the defense attorney who represented Warner Brothers. Luckily, Yacenda didn’t need to look far for help in showing the value of his participation.

“He didn’t really want to interview with us. I think it’s understandable because all of the coverage to that point had been that ‘trash TV’ is bad and we need to stop it. It was really black and white thing,” Yacenda said. “I asked him, ‘Have you seen ‘Wild Wild Country?’ Watch it and you’ll kind of see where everybody’s coming from, depending on where you’re standing. And that’s what I really want to do with this. It’s not gonna be a puff piece for your side. I really think you are defending a pretty terrible television show. But I think a lot of your points are very valid, and I want you to make them.’ He ended up being a great interview.”

Making the transition from “American Vandal” to “Trial by Media” would have had more crossover than expected, even if Yacenda was starting his work on this new project from scratch. He had the good fortune of being able to work again with cinematographer Adam Bricker and composer Darien Shulman, both of whom worked on both seasons of “Vandal.”

“It was validating for our ‘Vandal’ process that our shot lists were very similar. And basically, the technical approach was was pretty identical. Certainly for Bricker, we have our own vocabulary and a shorthand that it was like riding a bike and we were right back at it,” Yacenda said. “Darien is so good. I guess that’s a bigger part of being a documentary composer is being able to score something and then have the director go, ‘You know what, we’re gonna just cut this whole 15-minute sequence and then use a whole set of other interviews instead.’ Because he works so fast, he’s able to keep everything moving.”

Of course, “Trial by Media” presents real individuals who are relating their own memories of a crime that brought significant pain into many people’s lives. Approaching that trauma with respect meant relinquishing a certain kind of control that Yacenda has had on scripted projects. Documentary interviews don’t happen without direction, but for someone whose previous work in weaving together story involved a lot more hands-on guiding, making this episode of “Trial by Media” was a reminder of the emotional toll that documentary filmmakers can face. One particular memory came from interviewing Amedure’s brother Frank at his house.

Trial by Media Netflix Frank Amedure

“Trial by Media”

Netflix

“We wanted him to really open up and get emotional and go back to that place. And I hated that, trying to make him emotional and vulnerable for the camera. It just felt so it felt so violating. Being able to write it and script it so it’s not real people’s real trauma is much preferable,” Yacenda said. “But, honestly, if I was to be like, ‘Hey, I feel uncomfortable getting Frank there. I don’t want him to do it,’ well, fuck you. Don’t be a documentary director. If it’s uncomfortable, that’s the job. If you’re going to make ‘The Act of Killing,’ you just gotta do it. That is your responsibility as a journalist, as a storyteller, to do it the right way. So I have a tremendous amount of respect for people that do it full time.”

At the same time, Yacenda took great care to make sure that the interview with Amedure wasn’t manipulative and that those emotions came from a real place. That process meant that Yacenda wanted him to be as comfortable in front of a camera as any actor would in a scripted context.

“My approach on set was being very conversational. Going into Frank Amedure’s house and just letting him open up to us, and relate to him for a long time so he feels comfortable. On set, that’s my goal, to just have people drop their tenseness and open up to the cameras so it’s no longer like they’re performing,” Yacenda said.

Now that he’s had this chance to help craft a self-contained true crime documentary, Yacenda said that he wants to continue that two-way street and bring some of that spirit back to what he writes and directs on the scripted side.

“I’m constantly blown away with, like, the things other documentarians are doing to stick out from the rest of the noise and and push the medium,” Yacenda said. “But I do think that in the fictional space, the rules of the documentary have kind of stalled at ‘Spinal Tap’ rules. The Christopher Guest, fly-on-the-wall approach. It’s not all I want to do, but I think there are so many ways to use what I love about documentaries to tell a bunch of different types of stories and continue to inject documentary tools into the narrative stuff that I do.”

“Trial by Media” is now streaming on Netflix.

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