On October 5th, 2014 two sets of human remains were found at 2749 Knob Hill Drive in Clemmons, the home of John Alexander Lawson, or as he calls himself now- Pazuzu Algarad. The trial of Lawson and his alleged accomplices will begin in Winston-Salem this November and a crew of young documentary filmmakers is seeking audience help in funding the completion of their film and the coverage of the court proceedings.
In March of 2015 documentary film director Patricia E. Gillespie and her co-producer Kyle Porter came to Winston-Salem to begin shooting their film which seeks to explore the human and community costs iof vicious and outrageous crimes like Lawson and his accomplices have been accused of. CCD sat down with Ms. Gillespie to discuss “American Monster”.
CCD: What set you off on this particular journey?
Gillespie: I grew up kind of rough, working class, like a lot of kids in this country. When you grow up like that, without real financial capital, social capital becomes king. Sometimes that social capital takes the form of some pretty dark things: violence, crime, drugs—you name it. Fortunately for me, I was a real prude. Social capital, for me, took the form of learning to tell a good story. I got really lucky, did well in school, and went on to study filmmaking at NYU. It was a pretty unique opportunity for someone from a background like mine, and I promised myself that I would use it to try to tell the stories of people who’s voices weren’t really represented in the media— like the people I came from.
When I was in college, my best friend’s brother, Mike, was murdered by two acquaintances. It was brutal. I felt so angry, not just because of what happened, but because of how it was handled in the media. There was a surprising lack of empathy there. Everyone kind of focused on his killers and the details of the crime, instead of looking at the social issues that really contributed to his death. I wasn’t ready to make a film at that time— it was too painful and too personal, and I was too young.
After Mike’s death I promised that, one day, I would make a movie that examined violence in a new way— not as some sensational event but as a community problem with community solutions. That film is American Monster.
CCD: What about our community appeals to you? What makes Winston-Salem compelling for you as a setting for “American Monster”?
Gillespie: Waffle House. No. In all seriousness— the greater Winston-Salem area is an incredible place to make a film. It’s got a kind of hard-luck beauty to it. The people are warm and friendly in the face of hardship. It’s a town with knuckles.
Winston Salem also has an “Everytown USA” feel. It reminds me a lot of the area I grew up in: hard working people trying to make it in a place where all the industry left and kids are kind of floating around with not enough work. This is becoming a typical scene in 21st century America. It’s a complex and interesting problem we plan to examine in the film.
CCD: What about “American Monster” will make it transcend the genre or are you purposefully making a “true crime” documentary?
Gillispie: “American Monster” is NOT the story of Pazuzu Algarad. It’s the story of a community reeling in the wake of his crimes. It’s so easy to look at a the Algarad Murders as filthy news fodder: sex, drugs, and Satanism. But that’s too easy. And it’s not useful. I want to flip the script on the current narrative of violent crime, and see if we can’t pull some positive social change out of this devastating tragedy.
We get so inundated with a never-ending parade of carnage on the nightly news that we miss a big part of the story. We’re used to looking at violent crime as an isolated incident. I’d wager to say that’s not a healthy way to look at it at all.
It’s not just the criminal and the victim that are effected by violent crimes. Each crime sends shock waves through a community that we can learn from, but frequently ignore.
One of our main subjects, and biggest supporters of the film, is an incredible woman named Stacey Carter, the mother of Josh Wetzler’s son. Where is her story represented in the media? She’s doing a bang-up raising her son alone, running an entire horse farm pretty much by herself, all while dealing with this whole mess. She’s a hero. A real hero, and she has a lot to teach us. — not just about the aftermath of the crime, but the many ways in which it could have been prevented. So many impossible things have happened to this woman, and every day she gets up and tries to make a world that has been very, very cruel to her a better place. That to me is so much more interesting than “who-shot-who” or whether or not someone sacrificed a puppy. I want to make a film that tells the stories of people like Stacey, because I think our world needs it right now.
CCD: Can you speak about the process a little bit?
Oh gee, up until this point, “American Monster” has run on blood, sweat, tears, and the entirety of my savings, as well as my co-producer Kyle Porter’s. I’ve shot most of the movie by myself at this point which is impossible to maintain. And frankly, we’re flat broke.
A lot of my friends have come in to save the day— Adam Kolodny of House of Nod has agreed to shoot the film at a fraction of his rate, my good buddy, editor Lauren Minnerath is similarly volunteering her time. My childhood friend Nick Corbo, of Brooklyn band LVL UP donated his music to the campaign. I feel really fortunate to know these people. The film definitely wouldn’t be happening without them. But the sad thing is we still need more to git’r’done.
The hardest thing about doing an investigative documentary is just getting in the field. The story doesn’t wait for you. If you don’t get your funding, you miss it.
We launched a Kickstarter last week. We need to raise $30,000 in thirty days if we want to be in town for the trials and surrounding events, which are central to our film. It’s a terrifying prospect, because if we can’t raise this money, we can’t make our film—and we all feel it’s a story that really needs to be told the right way.
CCD: How do you balance your day job with your work on this film?
I am blessed to no longer feel like I have a “day job.”
Don’t get me wrong, I have two other jobs that pay the bills— but at this point in my career I get to make enough money to survive doing what I love. All told, I work about 80 hours a week— but it’s totally worth it.
I teach cinematography at the New York Film Academy in the Broadcast Journalism Department. I love my work there. I came up in the industry in the camera department. Cinematography is a pretty male-dominated field, and I enjoy the opportunity NYFA affords me to be a positive female role model for the next generation of non-fiction shooters. NYFA has a very hands-on program, and they understand it’s best for students to learn from people working in the industry, so they’re very understanding of my schedule.
I am also producing a doc called “Canary In a Coal Mine”, which has been a total blessing. It’s a Sundance granted film about “the most devastating disease you’ve never heard of” called “Myalgic Encephalomyelitis”. The director, Jen Brea, has the disease and courageously directs from bed while me and my fellow producer, Lindsey Dryden, jet all over the world. It’s really been a privilege to help tell the stories of these very ill people who’ve been abandoned by medicine. Giving someone the power to tell their own story, I think, is one of the most worthwhile endeavors. My heart is very full because I’ve had the privilege to do it.
You can see the trailer for “American Monster” featuring faces you might know from around Winston-Salem by following the link below to the “American Monster” Kickstarter campaign below.
One of the articles that drew Gillispie and her crew to Winston-Salem was CCD’s “John ‘Pazuzu’ Lawson… The Boogeyman Cometh”. You can read that piece HERE and read Chad Nance’s story of one of Lawson’s alleged victims HERE.
“American Monster” is also produced by Eric Chang.
Cinematography – Adam Kolodny
Editor- Lauren Minnerath