“A Murder in Mansfield”Barbara Kopple
is a two-time Academy Award winning filmmaker. Her credits include “This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous
,” “Miss Sharon Jones
!” and “Harlan County USA.” Kopple actively participates in organizations that address social issues and support independent filmmaking.
“A Murder in Mansfield” will premiere at the 2017 Doc NYC film festival on November 12.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
Bk: “A Murder in Mansfield” is the story of a boy who grew to manhood haunted by the trauma of a murder and by issues with his parents and family that remained unresolved in him many years later because of that murder. It’s a story about human resilience and hope. It’s a story about someone choosing to confront the past in an effort to take control of his future.Collier Landry
is the boy and the man at the center of this story, the son of a prominent doctor and a beautiful, loving mother in Ohio. Dr. John
and Noreen Boyle raised Collier with a picture-perfect life, but below the surface was deep dysfunction and unhappiness. Even before the tragedy that changed his life, Collier was dealt a psychological double-whammy: a distant father who withheld love and acceptance from him, and a lonely mother who overcompensated by treating her son like her missing partner.
Then one day at age 11, Collier told his parents good night, went to bed and woke up to learn his mother was missing. 26 days later, her body was discovered in the basement of Dr. John
’s second house. Also discovered was John’s pregnant mistress for whom he had purchased the house. Collier and his adopted sister were pulled from their home and placed in foster care as their father was arrested and charged with the murder of their mother.
The arrest and ensuing trial turned the small city of Mansfield upside-down. Collier had a very public decision to make. Would he stand by his father, regardless of his guilt, or would he seek to avenge his mother? As the cameras rolled inside the courtroom from nearly every news outlet in Ohio, an angry young Collier took the stand and left no bones about whose side he was on.
As dramatic as that story was, it turned out to be only the beginning for Collier. And that’s where our film picks up. After the news and cameras went away, the boy struggled with the fallout of his decision to testify.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Bk: The first thing we watched when we started this project was Collier’’s hours of testimony at his father’s trial when he was 12-years-old. He was such a bright, articulate, sensitive, and artistic boy. It was like an adult talking from a child’s mouth.
Another thing that strikes you is that Collier clearly had a lot of anger toward his father at that point. You wonder, “Was he angry before the murder?” It seems like something that’s been simmering inside him for a long time. He’s asked by the prosecutor how much time he spent with his mother and how much with his father, and he answers, “99% with my mother and 1% with my father,” which drew a gasp from the courtroom audience.
It was a child’s exaggeration, but it’s clear that there is something deeper going on between Collier and his father. That footage opens “Murder in Mansfield,” and everyone who watches it is just hooked right away by this compelling young man, as I was.
Meeting Collier, who is such an open and vibrant person, it is hard to imagine how much he had endured. His attitude towards life is so inspiring to me, and I was touched — but not surprised, by how many people loved him.
Collier’s relationship with his father is complicated and their correspondence is heartbreaking. I was left feeling that the maturity and emotional intelligence Collier displayed in his letters to his father was incredible. I understood how deeply Collier wanted acceptance and approval from his father, even with their convoluted past.
When I looked at tapes of young Collier, so brave and well-spoken on the stand, my hope was that he might grow up to be something like the adult Collier I know now. Adult Collier is kind, smart, and following his dreams as a cinematographer. I am thankful to know a person like Collier, who makes us believe again in the power of the human spirit and our ability to survive tragedy and live a full life.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
Bk: “A Murder in Mansfield” has a true crime subject, but we weren’t interested in making a true crime documentary. For one
thing, most of the documentaries in the genre are trying to create doubt about whether someone convicted are actually innocent, or whether someone who got off is actually guilty.
In the case of Noreen Boyle’s murder, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer cut case of guilt than with the man who got convicted for it, John Boyle
. In the midst of divorcing, with Dr. John Boyle
’s baby due the following month from another woman, he rents a jackhammer for the first time, he and his wife go to sleep in separate rooms of their Mansfield home, and his wife is never seen alive again.
Boyle tells his son Collier the next morning that “Mommy took a little vacation.” 26 days later, Noreen’s body is unearthed by police in the basement of the new home John Boyle
has just purchased for his mistress. She was suffocated by a bag and hit twice on the back of the skull by a hammer-like object.
So immediately this was not a case where you are exploring a mystery or a miscarriage of justice. Instead it was compelling to me to explore the effect it had on the mental and spiritual well-being of those connected to the case, especially Collier.
I studied psychology in Boston before I became a filmmaker, and my son is now a psychiatrist in Manhattan. I’ve done several documentaries that look at mental illness and psychological damage by getting up close and personal with a few individuals dealing with those issues. These are always “heavy” subjects to tackle, but it can also be incredibly inspiring to watch someone try to fix themselves, to try to better their own lives and be happy.
“A Murder in Mansfield” was a chance to look at the trauma experienced by people close to a violent crime — how sometimes there are more victims than just the recognized victim. It seemed like an under-explored topic given how many people in America are affected by violent crime, and one that an audience might be moved by.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Bk: The real challenge of this film took place inside Collier Landry
. Our team was along for the ride, essentially, and it was on him to figure out what he was looking for, both in Mansfield and inside himself, and what path he needed to take to get there.
I know that was an extraordinarily difficult process for him, and we had a lot of conversations and concern about going with him on his journey rather than pushing him into a journey. It had to be his, not ours. Collier held a great deal of faith that confronting and examining the trauma he carried would lead to good things — something that others in his life were very skeptical about and preferred to avoid it like the plague.
We wanted to make sure that what we were participating in would be healing for him, not add further harm. We consulted with mental health specialists before we started filming, and Collier picked up his sessions with Mansfield’s Dr. Dennis Marikis that he had started as a child when the murder happened.
So he had someone who cared and understood his story to guide him repeatedly through all this as it unfolded. And there’s no question in my mind that the results for Collier speak for themselves. He took the right approach.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
Bk: The project came about when an old friend from Hollywood, John Morrissey
, sent me a message about a cinematographer he knew out there named Collier Landry
. Actually, I recently looked back at the first email, and it was sent in late January 2015, coincidentally twenty-five years to the day after Collier’s mother’s body had been found, his father arrested, and his life changed forever.
Morrissey was a producer probably best known for “American History X
,” and he had produced my 2005 film “Havoc
” starring Anne Hathaway
and Bijou Phillips
. That was a scripted film, and Morrissey had always been interested in doing a documentary with me. He ran in the same circles as Collier and saw something in his story, and when my producers and I heard it, so did we.
The original concept was to follow several individuals all connected by the same violent crime, watching them come together, and help each other find ways to deal with lingering trauma. There were 1,197,704 violent crimes committed in the U.S. in 2015, according to a report released by the FBI. We felt a film on this subject could be an inspiration to so many people who find themselves as “secondary victims.”
As we researched the subject, we found that many of those close to violent crimes suffer Ptsd-like symptoms. Many never deal with their trauma because they don’t want to give any further energy to such a terrible event in their lives by focusing on it or thinking about it more than they have already had to. As a result, many carry baggage from these crimes for the rest of their lives and never find a way to deal with it.
Collier tried to convince others affected by his mother’s murder to be a part of this film. One family member told Collier that she had tried so hard to move on and did not want to go back into the worst moment of her life. When these kinds of tragedies happen that mix terrible loss with man’s inhumanity to man, the depths of depravity, many people can’t let themselves go there for too long and try to quickly move past it toward something positive in their lives.
The problem is that they never really heal.
For Collier, even though he had carved out this successful life for himself in production out in L.A., he still carried this with him every day, and it still affected him in all kinds of ways. When I met him he seemed desperate to find someone else he could share that with, someone who had been affected by the same terrible moment. And he seemed genuinely concerned that others might be hurting and he might be in a unique position to help them.
But his journey proved to be more complicated.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at Doc NYC?
Bk: Doc NYC is a wonderful film festival and so important for documentaries. Thom Powers
has my love and admiration for creating it. Another film of mine very dear to my heart, “Miss Sharon Jones
!” got its U.S. premiere opening the festival in 2015.
The same year I was honored to receive a career achievement award from the festival, alongside my colleagues Frederick Wiseman
and Jon Alpert
. I look forward to that ceremony every year because it’s a chance to see all my favorite filmmakers and colleagues together in one room celebrating what we do.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Bk: Bad advice? I can’t remember anything in particular, but I think most of the bad advice in my life has been people telling me I can’t do something or shouldn’t do something. It’ll cost too much. It’s too dangerous.
Some advice I heard early in my career that I live by when making documentaries is to be true to your “characters” — be true to the people you are filming, and allow them to take the lead of where they are going, because they will always be much more interesting and moving than whatever you have in your mind. And be a really good listener.
As far as life goes: When someone tells you that you can’t do something and you feel deeply in your soul that you can, go for it. If you fail, you’ll learn from it. If you do well, the risk was well taken.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Bk: It’s the same as I would have for male directors: not to be afraid of anything. That really is the best advice. Stick it
out, know that you can do it, even if you aren’t sure you can, and people will help you and stand up with you. If you tell other people you need their help, people will want to see you succeed.
Don’t take no for an answer, figure out a solution, go by your instincts.
Believe in yourself and mostly have fun. Make the material your own.
It’s not easy to make documentaries. You are always prying into other people’s lives, often in times of stress. Trust between you and the people whose stories you are telling is sacred. Stay focused. Serve the story, as it is being told by the characters you are following.
Maybe most importantly, there’s no right or wrong way to direct. Embrace good ideas from others. And it’s also okay to change your mind. That’s courageous. That’s a good thing. If you find a better way to do something, it’s fine to change your mind. That’s part of life. And I think it’s very open and cool to say, “Hey, I thought this was a good way to do it, but this is better.”
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
Bk: This question makes me feel like you’ve got a gun to my head. Well, you’re going to need a lot more guns, because there are too many great female directors for me to pick just one!
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.
Bk: Yes, I am optimistic. So many consistently great documentaries by women are getting to be ever more popular. Women directors are a special group who are determined, have perseverance, and continue on in the hardest of times.
They should be applauded, loved, and given lots and lots of money to make their films!
Doc NYC 2017 Women Directors: Meet Barbara Kopple
— “A Murder in Mansfield” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.