Whether it's a mere chase on a big city freeway or a more detailed story about a criminal on the lam from the law, fugitive stories both fiction and non-fiction have always captivated audiences. A&E is hoping that interest will turn into solid ratings for its latest reality series "Fugitive Chronicles," which spends an hour each week on a true story about an often-dangerous criminal being chased by law enforcers. One key difference with this series is that it is filmed in a slick documentary style that creates the kind of cinematic suspense, action and terror that should find audiences on the edge of their seats by the conclusion each week. To get an understanding of how the show was pieced together, our Jim Halterman caught up with Executive Producer Bart Layton to get his spin on the cinematic quality of the show, just how dangerous these fugitives truly are and how much dramatic license is taken in each episode.
Jim Halterman: Talk to me about the choice to film the stories as reenactments as opposed to a straight-on documentary.
Bart Layton: We do a series called 'Locked Up Abroad' on the National Geographic channel which has a very high-end documentary drama reconstruction about drug smuggling and it has this weird cult following in the US. The drama elements of that show were very distinctive and we wanted to do something that was cinematic, had a movie-like feel to it and was completely against the trend of really crap reconstruction that you see so much of. There was always going to be that combination of very detailed first person testimony and then obviously we spent a long time researching and corresponding with the fugitives who are in prison now in order to get their account of their time on the run. There is nothing else but the voice of the fugitive and the voice of the law enforcement and the rest is purely dramatized. When we pitched it to A&E, we were saying it would be like watching a movie a week. That was our ambition and, of course, it's produced on a fraction of the budget.
JH: What did a fugitive case have to have in order to be considered for the show?
BL: It was exactly the same way as you'd look at a movie script because when you start to look at the story you have to break it down to a three-act structure or a five-part structure that has all the twists and turns, the nemesis and there are so many instances where they nearly get him and then literally lightning strikes, the lights go out and then he gets free. We look for beats in the story like that and we also looked for stories that got a lot of news coverage so we can use archives from local news stations and we can put that into the drama and that would a) remind you that this is a real story that happened and b) it adds another layer to the whole story. We try to make the drama work in such a way so that when you inter cut the archives it will add to it rather than make you realize "Oh, I'm just watching actors running around in a field."
JH: You said you communicate with the fugitives for the stories so I wonder if that makes them a bit more sympathetic as you get to know them and their individual stories? Are they always villainous?
BL: I think we have to be very careful in the way that we present that and we need to be careful and avoid giving them a platform for apologizing for their actions. They generally are villains and in some cases less severe than others but in other cases extremely severe where there are real victims of these crimes so we have to be very careful when we construct that voice. It is really an account rather than an opportunity for them to explain themselves or excuse their actions or anything like that.
JH: The episodes I saw were with male fugitives. Will we see any female fugitives see this season?
BL: In two cases there is a Bonnie and Clyde thing going on where we have to account for a girlfriend. In the Chris DeMayo story, there was a woman who was with him and they were robbing jewelry stores around New York State and she was heavily involved. Then there's another fantastic story which is like a real life Bonnie and Clyde with a guy called Craig Pritchert and his accomplice was a woman called Nova Guthrie. They're a self-styled kind of rock-n-roll Bonnie & Clyde. In that story, they were probably less villainous than others. They hadn't committed any murders but had just robbed banks and had been on the run. In that film we made it more like a Tarantino film and we made it more playful and the soundtrack is more playful. A lot of what we do is we may homage to some specific movie references.
JH: How do you approach casting for the show since you want to maintain realism in the stories?
BL: It really helps if we can get actors who look like the actual fugitives so when you use the archives it doesn't jar too much but definitely we want actors who can understand the way we work, which is a documentary approach. We shoot it like a documentary as you see it in movies like 'The Green Zone' and the 'Bourne' movies. Paul Greengrass, who is a British documentary director [who directed those films] is bringing documentary style of shooting to drama films; it's similar to how we work.
JH: In terms of dramatic license, how much leeway do you have in dramatizing the facts?
BL: We really do try to stay close to the facts as best we can. These are true stories and essentially they fall under documentary but if it fell under full drama you could take more artistic license. In some cases, the story can stand a number of years and obviously in order to be a part of our show you have to abridge time and you have to make some leaps in the chronology. In some scenes there's a bit of dialogue and some of it is improvised but generally it will be based on fact. With the 'Bucky' Phillips story in the first episode, we had stacks and stacks and stacks of letters from him from jail where he described everything that went on so all of the drama is based on his accounts.
JH: Are the police files public or do you have to work with them to get access?
BL: In some cases they are made public and in some cases we work with the police. We also have masses of court transcripts and at the beginning of each film you'll see what we based the story on. They're really documentaries in the true sense of the word. The amount of research and the amount of work that goes into getting the facts straight is substantial.
"Fugitive Chronicles" premieres tonight at 10:00/9:00c on A&E.