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'Casting JonBenet' is a new twist on the documentary format

A still from
A still from "Casting JonBenet."
Michael Latham/Netflix
A still from
A scene from "Casting JonBenet."
Hawk Vaccaro/Netflix
A still from
A scene from "Casting JonBenet."
Courtesy of Netflix
A still from
John Horn and "Casting JonBenet" director Kitty Green.

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More than 20 years after six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was murdered in her Boulder, Colorado home, the unsolved case is still an endless source of public fascination.

There have been TV movies, documentaries and docudramas made about the case, but a new Netflix documentary being released on April 28 is something quite different.

“Casting JonBenet” is a documentary about the casting of a film about JonBenet Ramsey. The actors who are up for the roles are all from Boulder and surrounding areas. Their casting tapes and their personal stories about their connections to the Ramsey case are the basis of the film:

“Casting JonBenet” was directed by Australian filmmaker Kitty Green. She spoke with The Frame host John Horn about her unconventional twist on the documentary format.

Interview highlights:

On how she ended up taking this approach to a film about JonBenet Ramsey

It's a film that's structured around the casting of a movie about JonBenet Ramsey, so it's working on a few different levels. But I'd made a short film ["The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul"] with a similar concept that did quite well and won a prize at Sundance ... We made it in Ukraine about the conflict in Ukraine, but centered it around an audition piece for [figure skater] Oksana Baiul. So we got little girls to audition to play [her]. And so it became this kind of structural conceit, I like to call it. When it did well at Sundance, people wanted to know how we could do a similar thing in America and I just blurted, JonBenet Ramsey.

On how her short doc about Oksana Baiul and "Casting JonBenet" tell us more about ourselves than they do about the subjects of the films

With ["The Face of Ukraine"], I was trying to make a film about suffering during wartime that wasn't propaganda for either side, so I was just looking to document human suffering essentially. And once you sit people down and ask them how they're doing and how they would play a role like this, people just tell you about their own stories and their own pain and their own kind of emotional baggage. And I found it opened people up in different ways, so we used the same thing with the Ramsey case where we would sit people down and say, What do you know about the JonBenet Ramsey case? And they would immediately launch into not only what they think about the case, but their own backgrounds ... immediately they're on their own trajectory. So that became really interesting to me — how people deal with an unsolved crime and [how] they go emotionally inwards in order to comes to terms with something.

On what the actors who auditioned for the parts were told about what "Casting JonBenet" was about

We told them they're going to be part of an experiment, basically. That their casting material will be used in the film. It's a film about the making of a film, that multiple people may play certain roles. Will you jump down the rabbit hole with us? is basically what we asked them. 

On why she thinks the actors were so open about their own lives

I'm not sure, honestly ... I'm Australian and we're not like that. It's a very American thing. You throw a camera in front of a lot of people here and people just love to talk. And people, I think, found it cathartic to just tell me stories and chat. And we were very honest about what we were trying to achieve. I think they respected that and were honest back with us.

On what's behind the public fascination with the JonBenet Ramsey case

There's a few things. Firstly, it's one of the weirdest cases around. I think it's weirder than "Twin Peaks." She's six-years-old, it's Christmas night, Santa is a suspect. There's pageantry, there's glitz, there's glamour, they're wealthy. But also, I think inherently it's a family story. It's about a mother and a father and a brother and a sister and we can relate to that in some ways, so I think each of us can [think], Well, my mother used to snap occasionally if I didn't do this or that. I think people have a personal connection often to what happened in the house that night and exactly how it went down, so I think there's a few elements at play.

To hear the full interview with Kitty Green, click the blue player above.

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