In 2014, podcast Serial became a massive international phenomenon. Telling the story, week by week, of the murder of schoolgirl Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of 17-year-old Adnan Syed for the crime, the podcast exposed holes in the prosecution’s case that cast serious doubt on Syed’s guilt. He’s still behind bars, though many think he’s innocent.
Now a new documentary series focusing on the case has arrived, directed by Amy Berg, who’s no stranger to miscarriage-of-justice cases – Berg made West Memphis Three doc West Of Memphis, which was influential in getting the three eventually released.
The doc arrives in four parts – it’s already showing on HBO in the States and will be available in the UK via Now TV from 1 April. Recapping the main parts of the case (so it doesn’t matter if you haven’t listened to Serial), the doc focuses on developments in the case, while emphasising the impact of the murder – and the podcast – on the real people involved. Packed with talking heads including many of Hae Min Lee’s best friends, it strives to focus on what Hae was like and who she was. “Most important for me was to bring Hae Min Lee’s story to life,” Berg tells us.
Can you tell us about how this series came about from the podcast, and how involved Sarah Koenig was in it?
Sarah was not involved in the series at all. I listened to the podcast and I was approached by some producers out of the UK asking if I wanted to do a series about the case. So that’s how it came to life. Then we went to HBO and partnered up with Sky in the UK, so that’s the origin story for you.
The podcast is quite a lot longer in terms of total runtime, so how did you go about picking what you wanted to include from that and what you would omit within the series?
We picked up where the podcast left off. We really started the story at the PCR hearing. The current day story, which is the case and is the timeline that happened after the podcast in February 2016. We were documenting everything that happened with this case in Baltimore from February 2016 to now. I really just wanted to look at the state’s case and follow their path and investigate that, what they presented in the trial. Most important for me was to bring Hae Min Lee’s story to life and I wanted to really understand who she was and get into the high school mindset at the time with all the students. That was really important to me.
I feel like in true crime oftentimes the victim gets lost in the storytelling, because it’s about injustice and wrongful convictions and prosecutors and the police work. I just wanted to make sure that we didn’t set the series up with that.
The decision to animate Hae Min Lee was really fascinating. Can you tell me how that decision came about?
Yeah, I had seen Diary of a Teenage Girl the summer before I spoke to the producers. I was really moved by the animation in that film and the teenage experience so I approached the animator Sara Gunnarsdóttir to collaborate with me on this. After looking at her journals in the process of choosing excerpts that I thought was really important. We collaborated on that whole storyline for over three years now.
There is a really fascinating series of interviews with Hae’s friends. Did they take much convincing to take part?
In terms of the interviews with her friends, it took a while to build trust. I was mostly speaking with them on a research basis in the beginning. Then as we went along, some of them decided that they wanted to participate. But it was really important for them to trust me, and how I was telling the story, before they agreed.
The pieces with Jenn Pusateri were particularly interesting and at the time she seemed to find it quite stressful. Again, how was that?
Jenn is really stuck in her life as a result of having involvement in this case. She definitely wanted to get some things off her chest. She’s called me at different points over the past three and a half years wanting to talk. Then she disappeared for a while. It’s hard to keep up with Jenn. Poor Jenn has been victimised by being a part of an investigation that she’s just confused by. You can see how it affected her, physically and mentally, it’s very stressful for her.
The impact of the podcast is something that you talk about in the documentary a lot. Was that an important part to bring to life for you?
Yeah, after working on West of Memphis for almost four years and seeing how a murder case in a small town affected so many different people, I’ve always had a fascination with how people move on from something like this and the devastation attached to it. From both sides, I feel like it’s important for law enforcement and then the people in the justice system to see the impact and the damage that is done when the investigation isn’t accurate.
West of Memphis was amazing, you and others who focused on the case were massively instrumental in getting them released. But with something like Making a Murderer I feel slightly doubtful that those two will ever get out, possibly because of the loss of face for the local police…
The thing that upsets me the most, just looking at the justice system in this country, is that you never hear of prosecutors saying, “You know what, I want to retry this case. I think there might be a mistake, I want to test this evidence. I want to get to the bottom of it so that there’s not so much doubt.” But it just never happens.
Did you and the crew talk a lot about what might have actually happened to Hae?
I think it’s hard to not wonder about that all the time, so we talked about it all the time. There are people that have theories and tell you things that you’re not sure if they’re true. It was constantly a discussion around our production office and on our trips down to Baltimore, just like, “What actually did happen? If this didn’t happen, if this scenario that was put forth didn’t happen then what actually did happen to her?”
Do you have any theories about the specifics?
We got as close as we could get but I just don’t know, like if you take this scenario, the Adnan Syed scenario, off the table, what other options exist. There are people that were close to her that weren’t interviewed and I’d like to know more about their alibi; where they were, if their DNA or prints will ever be collected and tested. There are lots of questions but I don’t know that anything’s getting us closer there unless the prosecutor actually decides he wants to go forward and have a new trial but that doesn’t seem likely anymore.
In terms of things like impartiality, documentaries like The Staircase have come under criticism for perhaps not showing the full picture. Is that something that you were conscious of and how important was that to you?
Well I mean, I guess it depends what you mean by the full picture because there are so many different perspectives. I mean, I had four hours to tell this story and I wanted to create extra. I stuck to the state’s case and the questions around that and then our investigation into the key elements of the state’s case. That’s all I could handle in a four hour block but I’m sure there are many more stories to tell about this case and many other cases.
Why do you think people are so obsessed with true crime?
There was one study that I read, true crime affects your brain like an addiction, like when you ride on a rollercoaster. I think it also makes us feel safer to know everything we can about a situation so that we can protect ourselves and know more about the darkness in society. So I think there’s an element of that and there’s just curious minds, I guess, jump into this. I have one of those. My first series as a child was the Nancy Drew series so I’ve been into this space since I could read.
That’s lovely. Given that you worked on it for so long, you must have absolutely reels and reels of footage. Depending on what happens, is there scope to carry on the story? Is there scope to reveal any more of the footage that you’ve got?
Yeah, I mean I definitely don’t think we’re done with this yet, we were still editing just two days ago. I don’t know when this will end. I feel like there’s a lot more to explore and justice needs to be served so I hope that we’ll keep getting closer.
Was there anyone that you wanted to talk to, for this one, that you weren’t able to? And was there anyone that you did speak to that asked to be cut?
There are a few people that I still wish that I could talk to. We spoke to Don, obviously off camera, we spoke to a few people off camera that I wish we could have had on camera. I, of course, would love to speak to the detectives. We didn’t speak to any detectives besides Detective Massey. We really wanted to talk to Ritz and MacGillivary and tried to get in touch with them many times and other crews on the force at the time. We were struck by the silence.
You’ve made several great documentaries, but as you were saying, this is years and years and years of your life dedicated to one thing. How do you choose which case is going to be something that you will follow?
In different ways. This came to me but I was really interested in the case, after listening to the podcast I felt really curious at the end of that 11 hours, I guess. I usually respond through passion or curiosity.
Because of Serial, Adnan’s case was very well known. How did that affect you as a filmmaker?
I think it makes it a little bit more challenging as a filmmaker because people are less inclined to want to talk about it because of the podcast. There was so much coverage that a lot of people were just wanting it to go away. The podcast created so much attention to this case that certain people felt like their privacy was no longer intact. So that was one of the bigger issues, I think.
What has the response to the documentary been like so far?
It’s been interested because I’ve been watching it unfold in real time and it is interesting to see all of the people on Twitter that know the case learning new things about some of the characters and talking about it publicly. It’s really interesting and exciting to see the response so far. I hope that they’ll continue to reveal interesting things for everybody.
The Case Against Adnan Syed is out now on HBO. The documentary will debut in the U.K. via Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW TV on 1 April.