Ideas From the Front
Lawyer Turns Documentary Filmmaker to Champion Rights of the Wrongly Accused
Posted May 28, 2005 5:55 AM CST
By Elizabeth Millard
It was the kind of moment every aspiring filmmaker dreams about. The houselights go up, there’s a second of silence, then applause rips through the theater as hundreds of audience members--tears still streaming down their faces--rise from their seats in a standing ovation.
For New York City lawyer Marc Simon, that moment happened not just once but over and over as After Innocence, the documentary he filmed, co-wrote and co-produced, was shown in January at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The movie profiles a number of people who were exonerated of crimes through DNA testing that didn’t exist at the time of their convictions, focusing on the problems they faced acclimating to post-prison life.
It was an honor just for the film to have been screened at the prestigious--festival of the 624 documentaries submitted, only 16 were chosen. So Simon was elated when the film won a special jury prize.
“The tremendous acclaim at Sundance felt wonderful because it means that people connected with the subject,” Simon says. “The audience was feeling what I’ve felt for the past five years.”
Simon’s inspiration for the film dates back to his law school days at New York City’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. There, he became interested in the Innocence Project, a program developed by the school that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. During an internship with the program in 1999 and 2000, Simon was amazed by the work being done, but he was even more astounded by how much still needed to happen.
Unlike paroled prisoners, who have a web of social services to help them get back on their feet and parole officers to track their progress, individuals who are found innocent of the crimes that sent them to jail are basically just given a “good luck” at the gate. In some states, Simon notes, their records aren’t even expunged. So, if they try to get a job, they have to explain why there’s still a felony conviction on their files even though they were exonerated of the charge. “These people have nothing when they’re released,” Simon says. “People who were actually guilty have the benefit of a system, but these people have no housing, no guidance, nothing but more to endure.”
After graduating from Cardozo in 2001, Simon entered private practice as an associate at New York City’s Dreier law firm. But he did not leave behind the passion he’d developed for aiding those who were exonerated. He wanted to find a way somehow to share with the public the admiration he felt for these individuals, and he wanted to shine a bright light on how shabbily many of them were being treated. He decided the best way to do this was through film--specifically, a documentary.
Simon wasn’t embarking on a totally new experience: An actor since 1996, he appeared in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and worked as a production assistant on Playing God, the 1997 movie starring David Duchovny. And he knew that, in the wake of films like Super Size Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, his documentary had the potential to reach far beyond the art house crowd.
But deciding to make a documentary was the easy part. Actually getting the film made proved to be far more challenging--in no small part because Simon was also juggling his first year of lawyering. Simon says he was able to do both by living somewhat of a double life--honing his practice skills by day and creating his documentary proposal at night. It was a dual role that didn’t change through the years, from struggling with pre-production financing problems to working out post-production distribution issues.
As the film began to come together, Simon kept his vow to visit the gym once a day, but he may as well have given up his apartment. Often, he was alone in the Dreier offices at midnight, looking out over a sea of dark offices, talking on the phone with the exonerated and their family members. Their voices and their stories kept him ordering takeout for dinner, but they also kept him going through the challenges of making After Innocence. And that’s a very good thing, considering that there were numerous obstacles on the path from idea to standing ovation.
Fiscal Woes, Firm Support
As with many independent films, finances were the main difficulty for Simon and director Jessica Sanders, who is not a lawyer. Even a low-budget film can max out credit cards and drain bank accounts with remarkable speed, and After Innocence was no exception.
After describing the project to friends and family, the pair managed to scrape together the resources to get started planning and even filming. Simon called on an old friend, David O’Neil, who had worked with him as a legal assistant before both of them headed to law school. Now an associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in New York City, O’Neil believed that law firms would be eager to fund the project, and he confidently began making calls.
After 10 replies of “no thanks” turned into 20, and then 30, O’Neil’s confidence was shaken. But, he says, Simon was always willing to make yet another call, no matter how many rejections they had heard.
“We started with a list of 40 firms, and 39 had turned us down,” O’Neil says. “It says a lot about Marc that he made that 40th call with the same enthusiasm as he did the first. He is, without doubt, the most persistent person I’ve ever met.”
In the end, only Simon’s and O’Neil’s law firms were willing to pony up some funds, but it was enough to hold a fundraiser that secured financing to continue the filming.
Just as those funds were running out--and Simon was about to pick up the phone yet again--the cable television channel Showtime swooped in and gave the filmmakers enough to finish the project.
Another challenge was time--more specifically, how little of it Simon felt he had. He wanted the film done now, not in five or 10 years. And his balancing act of legal days and cinematic nights was starting to wear thin, to say the least. At some firms, it would have been impossible, he notes. But when the founder and managing partner of the firm is also an avid champion of the work, scheduling becomes much easier.
“We wanted to be supportive of Marc, in terms of being able to practice law in a way that’s consistent with his film project,” says managing partner and firm founder Marc Dreier. But Dreier says he gave his blessing, as well as some of the firm’s money, because he believes determination should be rewarded, especially for an important cause. “We’re interested in promoting people like Marc, who can be successful in more than one endeavor,” Dreier adds. “He’s a very talented lawyer, and he’s obviously a talented filmmaker, and we didn’t want him to have to choose between one or the other.”
High Hopes At The Innocence Project
Although the film is made, Simon’s work is far from over. Still looming are issues of distribution--Simon and Sanders are hopeful that the attention it received at the film festival plus Showtime’s backing will translate into a wider release. And that means even more opportunity to get the message out, says Maddy DeLone, executive director of the Innocence Project.
“Attorneys and judges don’t understand how often wrongful conviction happens,” she says. “This film forces you to think about what it means to make mistakes. It also humanizes the problem. It’s one thing to think of an issue in an abstract way, but once you put a human face on it, it makes the significance of the error more understandable and profound.”
DeLone and others at the Innocence Project are eager to see the documentary get supersized, filling theaters across the nation with the same tears and deep connections seen in the Sundance audiences. “We’re very excited the film is out there,” she says.
“We’re optimistic that if people get a chance to see ‘exonerees’ firsthand, it will compel them to be more interested in preventing wrongful convictions.”
Simon is also hopeful that the film will bring more attention to the Life After Exoneration Program, an organization founded in 2003 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, and Dr. Laurie Lola Vollen of the University of California, Berkeley. If the film catches the eye of a distributor, Simon says, he’d like to organize fundraising events for the program so that its work can continue.
Actually, he’s already thinking of such details, even though the film’s distribution isn’t a done deal. Such planning before any contracts are signed might raise some eyebrows, but O’Neil isn’t surprised. “Marc simply doesn’t accept the possibility that things won’t happen,” he says, then jokes: “He’s annoying that way. He just talks and talks until the listener gives in.”
Such persistence has resulted in an empty apartment, a desk drawer full of takeout menus and a schedule that would make most people wince. But Simon wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I think I’ve forgotten what free time is,” he says, laughing. “It’s been a very emotional and exhausting experience, and it’s been difficult trying to deal with the job, the film and still have a social life. But being able to give these people a chance to tell their stories is what made it worth it. They are my inspiration.”