Filmmakers Show How Hard it Is to Make Change in Epic "Philly D.A." Docuseries
Posted on April 6, 2021
The trio talk about how the ITVS-supported series went from a feature to an epic, groundbreaking docuseries.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see change from within a government building? The eight-part docuseries Philly D.A., directed by Ted Passon and Yoni Brook and produced by Nicole Salazar, takes a look at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office through the lens of D.A. Larry Krasner and his staff alongside a constellation of residents and activists. Krasner was elected into the D.A.’s office in 2017 during the wave of the “progressive prosecutor” movement. He ran a platform of reform from the inside-out of the criminal justice system including ending mass incarceration, releasing low-level offenders, and reducing sentencing.
The docuseries dives into the aftermath of Krasner's historic election to view the day-to-day operations of the D.A.’s office, through intimate vérité footage of Krasner’s team, providing rare insight into criminal justice reform. Philly D.A. also includes interviews with activists and local residents that are affected by issues like over-policing, cash bail, gun violence, and more. The series serves as an overarching portrait of modern America through the landscape of Philadelphia.
Philly D.A. features a team of talented directors and producers with decades of experience in the documentary field. Co-director Passon has been working in Philadelphia for several years as the co-founder of All Ages Productions and directed three episodes of Worn Stories (2021), a Netflix docuseries adapted from writer Emily Spivack’s New York Times best-selling book. His work has been supported by Sundance Catalyst and Sundance Lab Creative Summit Fellowships as well as the Ford Foundation, among others.
Co-director Yoni Brook is an award-winning cinematographer and director who has been nominated twice for the Film Independent Spirit Award. He began his work as a photojournalist for the New York Times and Washington Post. Brook is no stranger to ITVS and Independent Lens, having co-directed the epic doc The Calling (2010) and directed A Son's Sacrifice (2008).
For over a decade, their teammate producer Nicole Salazar has worked on investigative and breaking news stories in the U.S. and internationally, and was a producer and journalist for Democracy Now! She has also served as a producer for Fault Lines on Al Jazeera, an Emmy Award-winning series.
The first two episodes of Philly D.A. premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival where producer Nicole Salazar received the Amazon Studios Producers Award for Nonfiction. It was also the first documentary series to screen in the new “Berlinale Series” program of the 2021 Berlinale Film Festival. Philly D.A. was commissioned by ITVS as part of its Series and Special Projects and will debut nationwide on Independent Lens on PBS on April 20, 2021.
Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar spoke with me for ITVS about tackling their groundbreaking series.
How did you get started on this ambitious docuseries? What compelled you to want to undertake it?
Ted Passon: The whole thing started because I'd heard Larry Krasner's name for many years. He represented friends of mine but I had never met him. A friend called and asked, “Hey, do you know Larry Krasner? He's announcing he's running for D.A. on a platform to try to use the office to end mass incarceration.” [At the time] it just seems hilarious and absurd because I didn't seriously think he would actually win. It just seemed like an interesting thing to document.
[My friend] put us in touch with the Krasner campaign and we started following him. We did not know what this was going to be—a short or maybe a feature. When it became clear he was going to win, the scope of the project changed. Then the interest [of the series] became: Is Krasner actually going to be able to do any of this stuff [he promised during the campaign]? What happens when you take over an institution like this? Are you going to be able to make change? Why or why not? What things are going to get in the way? How is it going to change you? How is it going to change the people involved?
Philly D.A. directors Ted Passon and Yoni Brook film District Attorney Larry Krasner during a meeting [Credit: Nicole Salazar]
We decided to push forward and we started showing up at the D.A.'s office every day. And, we just said “Larry, we'd like to keep the story going. What's going to happen next as D.A.? We need editorial control and access. Would you be willing to do that?” And, Krasner went for it. At the time we were talking about it he did say it seems useful to him. He believes very sincerely the progressive prosecutor movement is really important.
He said he was interested in doing [the film] because he felt having a document that showed his successes and failures could essentially be a blueprint for others to follow and learn from and would be really useful to that movement. That seems to be one of the reasons he went for it over the advice of his communications people and some of his staff who thought it was insane.
Nicole Salazar: I think also for Larry, just because he'd spent so many years feeling like the D.A.'s office had no transparency at all, there was probably a part of him in that moment where he felt very strongly the office needed transparency. It just wasn't something he was going to say no to.
Yoni Brook: Like Ted said, once Larry got into office, we realize that's when most documentaries about elections end—when somebody wins, they make a lot of promises, and you don't get to see the actual struggle of trying to implement [the promises]. And we thought this would be a really interesting chance to see how hard it is to make change.
The other challenge is the prosecutor's office prosecutes something like 40,000 to 70,000 cases a year—everything from a stolen bicycle to really terrible homicides and murders. So a challenge for us was you're not allowed to film in courtrooms in Philadelphia and the whole state of Pennsylvania. How do you make a film about the criminal legal system when you can't actually be in the room where court happens? That's what viewers are accustomed to seeing.
What we realized is the limitation was actually going to make our series special because so much of what we see—on television, True Crime documentaries, court TV, and podcasts—are about spectacular, terrible cases of murder with a jury. But those are actually the exceptions.
What causes mass incarceration is actually all of these other types of cases usually decided by a plea bargain. It's a deal made before you get to a formal trial, between the prosecutor and a defendant. Those deals are made based on policies that happen in the District Attorney's office. If we could actually look at the D.A.'s office to see what happens inside, what some scholars have called the “black box of criminal justice,” that might be a way to understand how America got to be the most incarcerated country in the world.
And looking at it like that has been [historically] really hard, if not impossible, because no other prosecutor's office would allow us the access we need to tell the story.
How did ITVS get connected to the project?
Yoni: I've had multiple films with ITVS and, in the past, I've worked with Independent Lens before. ITVS knew we were working on [Philly D.A.] and reached out to us pretty early to stay involved. At that point, it was a feature film. As we started to understand the depth of stories at the District Attorney's office, [we began to] understand that, to make the series nuanced, we wouldn't just be able to just be in the District Attorney's office.
[The audience has to] see people who are impacted by those decisions being made in the District Attorney's office. [We had to show those who are] also influencing those decisions in the D.A.'s office like judges, activists, people who themselves are on supervision, or incarcerated. It became clear this had to be more than just a feature. It had to be a series. That was when we got reconnected with ITVS to talk about why public television would be the best home for this.
Ted: Once we went to a series, we asked: Is Independent Lens interested in this series and how often do they do series? And it was a happy surprise for us when we talked to them, they were gearing up for a push into docuseries. In some ways, that timing worked out for us as well.
Yoni: Partnering with Independent Lens and PBS for a project like this is really important because, in some sense, Larry Krasner can be politically divisive. But a lot of the issues we're discussing are universal across the political spectrum. By working with public television, we're able to get this project in front of Americans all over and not just people who maybe see themselves as diehard Democrats or entrenched Republicans.
You're able to reach all corners of the electorate and ask them to really think about civic engagement in their own communities. And think about: What does public safety look like? What are the values they want to see espoused by their prosecutor?
Mike Lee and Maria Quinones Sanchez, in Philly D.A.
And how did what was going to be a film then evolve into a docuseries?
Ted: That was an interesting organic process when we started filming. We didn't exactly know what the story was but we had a sense of where the challenges were from the office. The first clue we had was the campaign. The most hot-button issues were where Krasner was promising to make changes. You could already see some resistance to those promises. It gives us a clue as to the things we should watch out for and we should follow.
Then, even just being there, there are rough things that would happen like the finding of the “damaged goods” folder [a list of police officers with histories of misconduct the previous D.A.’s did not call on as witnesses for trials]. We just happened to be there when that happened.
We stepped back at a certain point because we had all these different stories that spoke to different issues of discretion, power, and influence of the District Attorney. And we started to think: How would we make this into 90 minutes? We would have to reduce it to one or two stories. Are there one or two stories that would do this subject matter justice? We felt like there wasn't. This [was an] opportunity to really be behind this normally opaque institution that has so much influence over people's lives, to really do [it] justice and to really show people what the power and the discretion of the D.A. is, for better or worse.
Producer Nicole Salazar rolls sound while Captain Javier Rodriguez addresses his officers [Credit: Yoni Brook]
We ended up feeling the best stories, the most satisfying story, was a longer multi-part story with different storylines.
It also gave us the opportunity, as Yoni mentioned, to widen our lens out. We knew we didn't just want to be in the D.A.’s office with people making decisions. We wanted to be out with people whose lives were impacted by the decisions in all walks of life—from people in different parts of government to people incarcerated to people in communities. There just wasn't time to do that in a shorter version of the story. These factors led to us saying “We just think this needs to be a multi-part series.”
Nicole: Even with eight episodes, we're really only scratching the surface in many ways. I think by having multiple episodes where you can center different elements of the friction in the system and, taken as a whole, it's a portrait of systems change and what that friction is when that is starting to happen or possibly happening. Different parts of the system provide resistance in different ways.
"Even with eight episodes, we're really only scratching the surface in many ways."
In episode two, you get a glimpse into the relationship with the police department and you understand the dual responsibilities D.A.’s have to both work with police but then also be a check on the police. You can see how that has created the culture we have today where there's just too much complicity and not enough accountability. Then, in episode four, when we talk about probation, you get a glimpse into the culture of the judges and the judiciary and understand their role in maintaining the status quo, if that's what they want it to be, or potentially change.
In episode six, we see a little bit of City Council and get more of a feeling of how the public is receiving some of these policy changes. I think in showing the multiple different stories that are discreet, you get to see these broader arcs that have to do with [the] public narrative around crimes, what public safety means, and understand how all these different levels of discourse are interacting in a way that is the real challenge of actually making things change. You need all these different elements to be pulled together to get to a new place.
I think you start off in theory thinking or hoping one elected official can really make a lot of change. Through the course of the series, you understand not only is he not working alone in the D.A.'s office, there's a whole ensemble of really incredible people who are also in that office working on many different issues. Different parts of the system and the city have to cooperate and have some kind of mutual understanding for things to really get to a more transformative level; we're not there yet. I think you get a glimpse of that through the series.
What was the process like in editing each episode—did you have a holistic approach, or have to keep carving at it individually?
Ted: That was another process that evolved. Originally, our first pass, trying to lay out what we thought this series was going to be was a lot more intercutting of storylines and having different storylines span the series. When we watched it, we were like “Oh, this is a hot mess.” It doesn't make any sense because these stories are so dense and complicated.
There's a lot you need to understand the stories and we started realizing we needed a much simpler approach. Our episodes became more self-contained storylines like smaller kinds of meta-narrative with aspects of them that go between episodes and every now and then there are storylines that continue. For the most part, each episode has a beginning, middle, and end of a story. That's certainly tough. It was a lot of trial-and-error to arrive at what we did.
Nicole: I think we really didn't know how to put it all together. We had over 700 hours of footage, shot over about two years. Over the course of shooting, we had assistant editors working with us who were pulling things together into theme assemblies we would watch. So, down from 20 hours to half-hour cuts of footage related in some way. Then, from there, we had hundreds of note cards with different themes on them that we would put on a wall like a big grid to make sense of [the story] across time.
That was productive for the conversation and the thought process because it helped us organize what we want this series to do, what we think are the most important ideas, what stories actually function as stories as opposed to some things we absolutely loved but they didn't really have a home anywhere. It helps us think about that big picture. But it's like Ted said, we really just started editing things together. That's when you learn what's actually possible and what actually popped out as a story and really worked as opposed to just conceptually making sense.
And what was the relationship with ITVS as the project evolved? How did you work with ITVS producers and staff there as the project grew?
Nicole: They were really wonderful. When we started with ITVS, we agreed on doing a four or five-part episode series. We thought we had more materials and it's difficult at that stage to really prove it. The most important thing they allowed us to do was actually, once they saw the material that we had and we were cutting things, they had the flexibility and the willingness to see that maybe there's actually more here.
They helped us figure out how we were able to raise the funds to get the episodes where the series ends up. I think that was a big risk and a big challenge they took on that we're really appreciative of. It was also challenging to pivot from a five-episode plan to an eight-episode plan midway but they've been wonderful collaborators through it all.
Ted: We gave ITVS very fat, rough cuts of episodes one and two in the beginning. And [each episode was like an] hour and a half, two hours each, something like that. We were just like, “We don't know what to cut. What would you cut?” And the ITVS team was like, “We probably wouldn't cut any of this. If anything, we want more on some of this stuff.” So we needed to reevaluate and were really grateful they felt that way.
Yoni Brook balanced preciously while filming Philly D.A. [Credit: Ted Passon]
In terms of the footage that's in the film, how did you get access to the archival footage but, also, how big was your film crew to get such intimate, incredible access to Larry Krasner?
Yoni: The trick to making this project, I think, is that Ted started this project. And Ted's office is right across the street from the D.A.s office. I'm in the office right now and I can look out the window and see the D.A.'s office. That proximity meant we could just go there a lot. We didn't always have a minder at the D.A.s office and we had relationships with people at the D.A.s office that would allow us to come and go on pretty much on a daily basis.
"We couldn't outsource this to other crews or have massive infrastructure to do it just because of the sensitivity, not only inside the D.A.'s office but other folks we were filming with."
That meant Ted, myself, and then eventually, Nicole, were the nucleus of the film from the production crew. One of us would be shooting, another one of us would be the sound. Then, another one of us would be either off at another location with another camera or back at the office producing the next scene. A small crew, like a two-person production crew, meant that we were familiar faces. In a sense, it made us irreplaceable.
One of the three of us always had to be in the D.A.'s office or at some other institutions or with the characters we'd built relationships with. We couldn't outsource this to other crews or have the massive infrastructure to do it just because of the sensitivity, not only inside the D.A.'s office but other folks we were filming with.
That small production crew became essential because sometimes we had to turn off the camera. Sometimes we were sitting for hours waiting for the thing to shoot and nothing would happen. That was the production approach.
Ted: In the business side of the film world, especially coming from commercial work, you're used to people specializing in one thing. But if we didn't wear multiple hats, if we weren't doing the sound and the shooting, while we were directing while we were producing it, I just don't think it would have been possible. Thankfully, Yoni is an accomplished and trained cinematographer, who's exceptionally gifted at making boring spaces look good.
Just from a footprint angle, to get some of these intimate moments, we had to be as small as possible. We almost never went in with more than two people in the D.A.'s office unless we had two teams filming separately for some reason. It's something where it ended up being a very specific skill set. In some ways, I think in Philly, like when you're not in New York and LA, you're more likely to have to learn multiple things to get by. That definitely helped with projects and it made it possible. For us, I think, if we weren't used to being scrappy like that and wearing multiple hats that we wouldn't have been able to pull it off.
Yoni: I think part of what made the series have depth is that this was happening in our backyard. We could build on the fact that we could just create a lot of time on this in chunks. People think about making films and they think about hopping on an airplane and going to the next important story. A lot of the time, these stories are happening in your own backyard—you know every issue that plays out in Philadelphia is not that unique to Philadelphia. Philadelphia has its own twist on them, of course.
"A lot of the time, these stories are happening in your own backyard."
Nicole, for her part, moved to Philadelphia for several years to join the crew and film that way. I do think that's something I learned about making films is that sometimes it's not about going to the sexiest place, it's actually just looking with a microscope at what's around you.
LaTonya Myers in Philly D.A.
Something I found refreshing about the series was that there’s a constellation of people working with Krasner, many being people of color, who are also working to change policies. We get to meet them and learn a bit about their passions. Can you explain this choice and speak to how you balance the fact the D.A. is white in a city that is primarily people of color?
Ted: That was something we talked about a lot from the very beginning. We knew from the jump we didn't want to make a hagiography of Larry Krasner as this hero, savior coming in. We definitely knew that was not the story we wanted to tell. As soon as we got into the D.A.’s office and we saw what was going on, [we realized] the issues and the stories that we wanted to follow.
Everybody has their mission and their thing they work on at the D.A.'s office and we're meeting these great people who are coming in from all backgrounds and all walks of life. In terms of the story inside the office, one of the things we're showing is what happens when somebody who defines themselves as being against the system or the establishment becomes the establishment.
We realized quickly, not only what do we not want to [do], we also don't have to put all of that on Larry to see that transformation because we have all these amazing people going through the same thing. They all define themselves as people who were against the system but they all come at it from different ways. Each one of them has their own mission of the thing they're tackling that corresponds with the story. It was a perfect way to include these other perspectives and understand the change they're bringing to the system.
It was a storytelling choice but we also wanted the point-of-view of the series to be a lot bigger. We were interested in the idea: How can we create a 360-degree view for as much as possible to look at the same change and the same historic moment from as many different vantage points as we could? Krasner in the series becomes like the glue that holds all these other things together because everybody has to report to him eventually. Everything we tackle has to go to him at some point and so he intersects.
We use his face or his story as the instigator, as a way to introduce this whole other world. He's like the familiar face on this journey to meet all these different people. It was important for us to find people who were impacted by the system, who were working in the system in different capacities, people who very much disagreed with him, and people who agreed with him. We worked really hard to try to find as many different takes on this as we could.
Nicole: I think it's helpful because Larry is not the only person who calls himself a “progressive prosecutor” across the country. It's a growing movement. It's not a movement just coming from progressive attorneys. It's coming from mass mobilizations of people who've been doing work on the ground and in cities all across the country for a long time. To try and boil it down and have it just be the story of one hero going in and trying to make this change by themselves is not a reflection of how change actually happens.
You need that push from the outside and that's where that energy comes from. That's where his victory and his legitimacy come from; from his track record of working with activists and working with defendants over many years suing the police. I think we wanted to maintain that complexity. In a story, it can be easy to fall into making something more reductive, where you just take that one individual and hold them up as the thing that's going to cure everything but that's not how the real world works.
We tried very hard to show it goes much beyond one person to make any of this change happen. He's not always the tip of the spear but he's also getting pushed after he goes into the office. He has his philosophy and approach to change but you need other people in the office who have different philosophies and approaches to change.
"We think the series gets more and more complicated as it goes on."
Ted: Just to tack one more thing on, when Nicole was talking about complexity, a big driving force for us was the real story of change is always complicated. The human drama underneath this is about how complicated all this stuff can get. We really wanted to lean into that as much as possible. We think the series gets more and more complicated as it goes on.
If you've ever been involved in any change-making effort, whether an activist or working in a nonprofit, when you see stories about change being made, usually they tell you the good thing that happens or that the law passed. It seems like it happened really fast, wasn't hard, everybody agreed with the way to do it. [But] there's tons of disagreements—it's really a complicated two steps forward, one step back.
We felt people needed to see stories like that so when they're involved in making change and it is difficult, they know that's normal and they're doing the right thing. They need to just keep going. We need more short stories that are honest about how difficult it is to make change.
Yoni: We can't avoid the fact that Larry Krasner’s name was on the ballot. His name is on the outside of the [D.A.’s office] door. There is a white man at the helm, to some extent, of his office. I don't think that the series shies away from showing some of his shortcomings. Like all of us, he has frailties and [makes] mistakes. That's important to include.
I don't think we're looking to take cheap shots at him but, to some extent, he's a character [in the series] and like any character in a narrative, he is imperfect. We show those moments.
How do you feel about the series being on Independent Lens and what do you hope PBS audiences across the country can gain from this series?
Ted: I think the short answer is we're really excited that it's on Independent Lens. They're really smart collaborators to work with and they really understood and genuinely cared about, not only the stories, but just the issues underneath the stories and the whole ecosystem we're trying to delve into. They really care about audiences and getting a better picture of criminal justice institutions that impact their lives.
One of the things we really hope people take away is, as one of the characters in episode one, Josh Glenn, says, “The District Attorney has more influence in our communities than the president or any other elected official.” And that's true. It's such an opaque institution that people never get to see behind, never get to understand, and it has so much direct impact on so many people's lives.
We hope, if nothing else, people can understand that institution, what it is, and what they need to demand of that institution.
There's so little public engagement around District Attorney's races and so many District Attorneys run unopposed in very low voter turnout elections. We think it's important for people to engage there. Hopefully, people will look at [the series] and see people engaged in trying to increase voter outcomes and will be interested to get involved in that as well.
In some ways, [the series] really is a love letter to Philadelphia as someone who's been in the area my whole life. Yoni has been here many years and I think Nicole is the most recent, but, I think it's fair to say that she's also falling in love with the city. You don't often see Philly represented on screen. It was really important to us to show that we deeply love the city through our shot selections of Philadelphia as a character.
Philly's a big city but I think the small-town nature of Philly [shines through the series]. Everything in the downtown is a few blocks away so you show up at some event and it's always the same people. You get to see these recurring faces and places. I think it adds a lot of heart and character to the series that we're hoping translates to audiences outside of Philly.
Nicole: I hope people watch the series and reflect on where public safety comes from. I feel like the knee-jerk reaction is: we need more law enforcement, we need more police, and that's how we solve violence or crime. And it's not. I think that's a cultural shift over many decades that needs to be questioned and really needs to be interrogated.
I hope people watch the series and understand better that the criminal legal system creates a lot of harm and doesn't solve anything. It's reacting to other problems underlying in society. I think we just need to have really deep conversations about how we have healthier and safer communities. We need more complicated, nuanced conversations.
Yoni: Two things about being on PBS that are super important: one, that it is free and people will be able to see it regardless of what they subscribe to because it'll be online and on their televisions. I think that kind of accessibility around media is super important so we can have those conversations.
Also, there's a real engagement push to have conversations at HBCUs and District Attorney's offices with activists around the country. That's something I think only public media can do with that kind of legitimacy.
[Another] thing is there's a lot of effort we do as a society when elections come up. That's when everybody starts to discuss these issues. The series shows that's a trap because the hard work actually comes after the election. In Philadelphia, for example, the series gets a lot into the budgeting process—when you have conversations like defunding the police, how does that happen? Or, what does that look like? How do you untangle that?
That is a lot of what the series can do to show you can't just pay attention every two years or four years during an election cycle. How do you build engagement and build sustained conversations on what seems like the mundane parts of government policymaking? It stays in people's consciousness in terms of how they take ownership of the government that is supposed to work for them.
[All Philly D.A. photo credits: Yoni Brook]
Kristal Sotomayor is a bilingual Latinx filmmaker, festival programmer, and freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. They serve as the Programming Director for the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival and Co-Founder of ¡Presente! Media. Kristal is in post-production on Expanding Sanctuary about the Latinx immigrant community in Philadelphia. In the past, they have written for ITVS, WHYY, AL DÍA, CineSPEAK, Autostraddle, and Documentary Magazine.
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