Producer Eon McLeary in discussion.
Producer Eon McLeary joined us for a screening of his film The Work on September 27, 2017 the following is a transcript of our moderated conversation and Q&A with the audience at Amherst Cinema.
George W. Myers: While distance from a subject can be hard for any filmmaker, I wonder if it’s more difficult for you on some level: you were pretty deeply involved, not only with the process of making the film, but with the program itself, correct?
Eon McLeary: We were involved in the program, if you can call it a program, from the beginning. I never saw myself as a prison activist, and I still don’t. Originally it was just an interesting place to go, and then I felt, “This is the most amazing interface with humanity.” I would tell people about it, but I wasn’t able to communicate where I was on my “prison vacation” when I would come back to work. My brothers would have the same experience, but then one of my brothers, who was a burgeoning filmmaker, said, “Let’s show the world.” I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I moved out to California; we started planning, trying to figure out how to pull this thing off, and what you see on the screen is the result.
George W. Myers: The film is almost experiential: it puts the viewer in your predicament of not being able to explain their ‘prison vacation.’ It’s very difficult to explain the depth of this film and communicate the richness within beyond, “it’s a prison therapy film.”
Eon McLeary: We wanted to put the audience in the circle. That was our goal from the beginning, and that’s why we brought in Chris, Charles, and Brian: they were surrogates for the audience. We knew there was a risk that the film would just look like a bunch of guys screaming at each other, and saying, “Fuck you,” and rolling around on the ground or whatever. We were asking , “How do we convert the viewer?” It would be so easy to lose the audience, and so how do we invite them in? We picked three guys, more or less from our lives. Charles was our favorite bartender in the Little Canyon community we lived in. Brian was a friend from college, and Chris was a friend of a friend from Chicago. They had varying degrees of understanding what they were going to step into, but they didn’t fully know what it was.
We gave them ample opportunity. We interviewed them. We really let them vet the experience as much as they wanted to vet it. There’s no effective way to fully communicate what you’re going to step into. We knew using those three would be how we would get the world to come into the room and be a part of it.
George W. Myers: The film is at times disorienting for me. The core of the film is about entering an intensely emotional space and there were many times I would get lost and just forget this was happening in a prison. I have to remind myself “they’re in jail.” These guys are serving multiple life sentences. But because you have Chris there, and he looks like a barista.
Eon McLeary: Yeah, we wanted to pull people in. It’s funny cause Chris, as I think he articulates in the film, his issue had to do with just not feeling a connection to his father. And that’s common. I’ve been to a bunch of these, and every single one of them is like this. I mean, I grew up in literally the land of John Hughes’ movies. I didn’t have the same issues as these guys, and so, with something that I might be struggling with, how am I going to voice that? How is that going to stack up against what this guy is talking about, because I’m not about to kill myself?
All that stuff sort of washes away. It just equalizes. It doesn’t matter what it is, it just matters that you show up and you tell the truth.
George W. Myers: Were there edits of the film where you were figuring out ways to contextualize the circle or give some political weight to the film?
Eon McLeary: Well, I don’t think we ever looked at it in terms of wanting to politicize it, but we didn’t know what we were going to catch. We were first-time filmmakers, though I also don’t think it would have mattered how many films we had shot, in terms of preparing us for this. But we didn’t know it was such a volatile environment, and we didn’t know how introducing camera and the machinery of filmmaking… was that going to shut down the emotion, when people are descending into these deep, dark places? They’re going down, they don’t know what’s going to come back up. Basically, because we didn’t know what we were going to catch, we had other narratives that we were trying to weave through. There’s 87 minutes of film. We have 400 hours of footage, and so we did do tons of interviews with a lot of different people, and one of them was a prison industrial narrative. A little bit, “Prison’s bad. This is the answer.” And we thought, “Hey, there is a problem and there is a solution. We can talk to people who can put flesh on the bone of this solution, and then we’ll show the training.” But once we caught everything we wanted to catch, we said, “Nah. This is it right now. Let’s not make a commercial. Let’s not make something political.” My desire from the beginning was not to make a prison film or political film; I just wanted to make a film that reflected my experience that I couldn’t nail down with words.
George W. Myers: It’s much more a show-don’t-tell type of thing, which I think is so much more effective. Alright, I’d like to open it up here cause I’m sure every single person has a comment.
The first question from the audience is about the effectiveness of the other prisoners as facilitators. Can you speak to where their training comes from or how they continue in their roles helping in the program?
Eon McLeary: What you see is four days, but these guys are meeting weekly. In some of their weekly circles, if they are further along, the facilitators from the outside are teaching facilitation techniques to the guys who want to take on that role. Like Vegas.
Those guys have to read people on a moment to moment basis to not get dead. That is from their words, and it is uncanny. Inside the room, a guy could speak, and then one of the inmates would look at him and say, “Oh, wait. Tell me more about this.” Someone would raise their hand and say something; that’s all they said, and now this guy is drilling down into their personal history, in a way. They first get a read on it; then, when you start denying it, they think , “Oh. I know what that is.” And then they go right for it. And it’s like, Is he psychic? Because it was so specific. How did he pull out something that’s so specific? They have to do that to live, on the inside. There’s not much else [to do], so, once you commit yourself to that, all of your time and all your energy — that’s a good crucible to learn how to do anything, whether it’s become a better mastermind criminal or become a master facilitator.
Another thing I’ll say is, Vegas is out now. Vegas is out, Dark Cloud is out, Manny is out, Rick is about to be out in a few months, Lonnie is out, Stands Alone is out. So just in that little circle, I would say 75% of those guys are out now and 50% of them travel with us. I’m going to be doing another festival tomorrow in Los Angeles, and they’re all going to be there. They are amazing, but Vegas, in particular, will blow your mind.
George W. Myers: Here’s a really good question from the audience. The film often lacks context for why these people are in jail. Sometimes the film shows their sentences, or Dark Cloud has that one moment. Did you intentionally leave that context out to focus on the introspection, or did that actually just not make it into the film?
Eon McLeary: With those guys, that’s all we have, in terms of what they did. I think all of our freed guys just ask point blank, What are you in here for. [What we see with Dark Cloud] actually wasn’t even what Dark Cloud was in prison for; it was why Dark Cloud was in the hole. It was a crime inside a prison. We thought it was important. We didn’t want to present these guys like, these are angels. They’re in here for a reason. In terms of the other 400 hours of footage, we conducted a lot of interviews. That’s really the short of it. Tons and tons of interviews of guys who are on the outside, who are on the inside who were not in the footage, all the founders of this program, and the origin story of this thing. Tons of interviews of our civilians against the backdrop of their lives. Once we had the meat of it, a lot of this other stuff is distraction.
George W. Myers: That part in the beginning where Brian actually asks that, I cringe. It feels like a crass question, “Why are you in jail? What’d you do to get here?”
Eon McLeary: It’s partly the way he asks it.
George W. Myers: Yeah.
Eon McLeary: When Charles asked it, I think, it was an honest, “I don’t want to pretend, we’re here. What are you in for?” “Can I ask you this question? What are you in for?” Where Brian came at it from a tourism, “I’m at the zoo” kind of place.
George W. Myers: Yeah. He’s a challenging figure in the film.
Eon McLeary: Yeah, yeah. One thing I’ll say is, we screened the film in the prison, maybe three weeks ago, inside the same room where we shot. There were only three guys — nobody from the circle — but only three or four guys that were actually there when we shot. The interesting thing is, most of them related to Brian. I think it’s particularly cause when Brian was tripping on not having the respect that he felt he deserved. And then also when he said, “I feel like I could kill people.” And because they felt, “Do you see that? He had every benefit in this world and he still feels like he could kill people. Where we had no benefits and some of us dead. It just shows we’re the same.” I never really thought of it that way.
George W. Myers: This question from the audience was, did the camera people participate in the program?
Eon McLeary: Yeah. One of the prerequisites for working on the film — this is a year before we had money or permission to shoot — was that if you wanted to work on the film, you had to go through. All three camera guys went through, our sound guy went through, an editor, who we actually ended up not using in the end, he went through. They had to go through: “This isn’t part of your job interview. You have to go see what this is.” Once those guys did that, they were embraced by the men inside. They went through a different yard, so they didn’t know any of these guys when they showed up at this yard. But they had been through and that was enough, because the men knew that, if they had been vetted by any guys inside, they were solid guys.
And they did. Our DP, after he went through, he seemed to be affected the most; he dropped his 19 year old brother off at our house a few months later and said, “Take him up there.” We took him up and it was an amazing experience for him.
Audience Member: But they weren’t participating in the sessions?
Eon McLeary: No, no. There were times they had to check in cause there’s all those check-in’s. They had to check in, right? But it wasn’t every single check-in. They might’ve checked in their camera. We were tempted to show that, also, but it just didn’t fit.
George W. Myers: This question was, were there any issues with the camera? Anyone confront the camera people?
Eon McLeary: No. They were the final group to sign off on this. Investors, one; the prison, two; the organization, three. And then the actual inmates. They were like, “Why? Why do you want to do this?” They were the most hesitant about it, but after we brought the cameras in there, the other guys were like, “Why can’t I tell my story on camera?” They wanted to be a part of it also.
George W. Myers: That’s a good question. So the next question is, this training is dealing with basically the symptoms of some of our societal sicknesses. Do you know of any instances where training like this is being done at the root level in schools, with younger children?
Eon McLeary: Yeah. There are different organizations that do this in different contexts. Specifically, in terms of schools, my father has tried to bring this into schools — but it’s pretty volatile, right? From the outside looking in, it looks like a school would have liability concerns about it. But he has brought it into high schools. He’s done it on a volunteer basis. He’s also worked with Northwestern University in their academic programs, when they were under pressure for hazing.
What ends up happening is you get this super watered down version, where the teachers aren’t the coaches; they’re not necessarily participating, right? But they’re present. There’s a disconnect there. So, yes, but not completely.
George W. Myers: The follow up from the audience asked whether this program is being used in juvenile detention, or other instances in the corrections system? Do you know?
Eon McLeary: I personally don’t know. I don’t think so. The hardest problem is finding enough people to care. It’s not really a function of just money. The other part is this: one of the unique things about what happens inside Folsom is that this isn’t, technically, a program of Folsom. Years ago, when they were first setting it up, they had literally legislated the R out of the CDCR: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. They took the Rehabilitation out, and it was just punishment, law and order. There were also a bunch of crises within the prison. Basically, the prison chaplain who helped facilitate this, he said, “Well, I’ll frame it as a religious or a Catholic program.” So he went to the Bishop; he got the paperwork signed. The Bishop probably didn’t know what he was signing, and so now it’s a Catholic men’s program, although there’s no religious component to it. There’s really not a Catholic component.
It takes a lot of wrangling to make this thing go. In terms of scaling it up or expanding it, you have to find people who care enough, who are part of the system, to help you creatively package this in a way where someone can’t just push a button and kill it.
George W. Myers: A comment from the audience noted, “ I do work in juvenile corrections, and often, hatred expressed outward is actually a self hatred.” Is that something that you found in your work on the film?
Eon McLeary: Yeah. I think that’s something that comes up often with the men themselves, as they realize all of the stuff that they’re projecting out there has to do with themselves and not the outside world. Particularly with the lines of affiliation drawn along race in gangs. We went into the prison a few weeks ago to screen the film . Our distributor wants to show it on the prison channel inside of prisons, and we asked them, “How do you feel about that?” A lot of them we’re like, “No, cause I don’t want to die. I’ll be killed.” I know some of the gangs are more rigid.
But, they know it has to do with themselves. One thing that they say often is, hurt people hurt, healed people heal.
George W. Myers: The question from the audience is about the follow up after these cathartic experiences. You said it was a weekly program. Is there a follow up with these people when they re-enter an environment that isn’t as supportive?
Eon McLeary: Some of these guys might go to these weekly circles for a year before they ever do this four day. And then when they come back, they continue to do [the weekly circles . The guys that we just screened for, they’ve been doing it, some of them, for 10 years. They’re involved with it as long as they want to be involved with it. In terms of them going back out into their own environment … I mean it’s every man for himself. It doesn’t feel, at least to me, as volatile as it was the first time that I went in there. The first time I went in for one of these trainings, people had knives and, literally, someone almost got killed. It’s not like that anymore.
It’s still is like that once you go out into that world And depending what gang you’re in, where you are in the shot caller spectrum — you have a different amount of freedom to associate with other people and, through that, have support from other people. It’s still a lethal situation once you leave that room.
George W. Myers: How does the warden see the program?
Eon McLeary: There’ve been so many wardens. There’s so much turnover, and so I don’t know. I honestly don’t know who the warden is right now. When we spoke to them to get permission, they sign off on it because it makes the guard safer, right? They don’t care about recidivism. They care about their people. If the guards are under less threat of getting stabbed or having a bag of poop thrown at their face or having to go into someone’s cell and pile on top of them, then that’s good. So, to that extent, yeah. We have had them come into the rooms, and some of the captains come into the rooms and speak to the circle and be like, “I respect what you’re doing.” They still might throw out, “Some of you are knuckle heads,” and this and that and the other, but there’s more of a mutual respect.
George W. Myers: The question from the audience was, do the weekly sessions provide the same outlet?
Eon McLeary: Yeah. They break up. You see the chapel. There are also these little, tiny rooms. And so, depending on where you are at along this process, you will go in a different corner. Not, “Oh. You can’t see what’s going on.” But, “Oh. You guys already know what this is and so you guys are over there. You guys are totally new and so maybe we’re just going to go around the circle and … “ One thing that they used to do is tell the circle the name of their mother, because if I know your mother’s name, it makes it harder for me to kill you.
And so, there’s lots of these little things. Those guys aren’t ready to start talking about what their mother did to them, but off in the corner, there’s another circle where that is happening.
Question from Audience: You said that the three people you brought in with you were people from your life and would be a means for the audience to enter into the circle. Were you prepared for them to have the reaction that they did? Especially Brian and just how incredibly intense that was. Were you prepared for him to have these wounds in him that were going to come out?
Eon McLeary: Ironically, Brian yes. I was like, “Brian will pop.” I was worried about Chris and Charles. Are they going to pop? It’s hard not to if you go in there. However, you want to frame it, at some point. Something finds its way in and you’re like, “How did I get here?” Chris and Charles, we didn’t know. They were actively resistant and clowning on it. We portrayed it sequentially, how it happened. To me that’s sort of the cheesiest part of that four days, the little boy and the crying in the little blanket forts. I’m like, “Oh my god. What is this?” I was in the little back room and I’m like, “Who’s crying?” Cause we had the audio mixer. I’m like, “Is that Chris?” And he cracks.
George W. Myers: The question from the audience is about the organization that does this. How was it founded, who are the facilitators, what is their relationship, and how was the program birthed?
Eon McLeary: In terms of the origin story of this, it’s another movie we hope to make. I don’t know how to explain the short version of it. It was a series of coincidences and invitations: “You help me do this.” One guy was an Air Force, Stanford-educated accountant. Another guy was an ex-Hells Angel, basically. My father was invited by the ex- Hell Angel, another guy was the prison chaplain, and another guys was an Aryan brother prisoner. They initially all came together around poetry. A lot of other weird stuff. Doing indigenous rights of passage in Africa and all this crazy stuff. I don’t know how to compact it down into the 30 second version.
In terms of the training, my dad is a degree collector. He has a Phd in psychology, as one of his degrees. And so he comes from that world. But, it’s also packaged into the Stanford-educated Air Force guy. He was coming from the men’s movement in the early 90’s and the late 80’s; there was a psycho-drama, Jungian and philosophy group-therapy component to it. He was versed in that, and Rob eventually became versed in that. They were, in the beginning, trying to help this Arian brother who was in the inside; it was after this horrific riot, and he was just, “I want to change this place.” They initially connected over poetry, but then they thought, “Oh. But we also know how to do this other stuff.” And the Aryan brother said, “Well, you teach me this other stuff, and I’ll go get the guys to do this other stuff, and maybe I can change this place.”
In terms of the other facilitators, some of them come from my dad’s academic world, but a lot of the other ones are just guys from the men’s movement. Or guys from different little offshoots, where somebody along the way told them about it and they came in. Some of them are really like Chris, Charles, and Brian, except they kept coming in. You keep coming in, and you just get better at it and better at it. That’s how that skill set develops.
George W. Myers: I look forward to that movie.
Question from the Audience: Apart from the content, the pacing, the editing, the instincts of the cameraman are amazing. The scene where, I think it’s Vegas and maybe Dante, bracing and you could hear their heartbeats, is just wild. It’s technically a beautiful, amazing film. Thank you for making it. One thing I wanted to comment on was the power and the physicality in this work. The blurry line for me between restraint and this gentle holding environment, I thought that was really … It just got my heartbeat really pumping. Not knowing where, on what spectrum is this: some type of physical restraint, or is it almost like a cradling? I thought that was really powerful and you captured it very well.
George W. Myers: This is a really “masculine” film that seems to use toxic masculinity as an entry point for progress.
Eon McLeary: Yeah. One of the things that Rob, the ZZ Top beard guy, always says is, anger is the cork that keeps all the other emotions — even happiness — it keeps all those other emotions in. You got to pop that one first and then all the other stuff comes out. But there definitely is that line between restraint or cradle. In the beginning when Kiki goes down, I know that someone says, “Press your body against him.” At that point it was cradling. If you’re there, you see what’s happening and you can feel what’s happening. And then it moved right into restraint. Everyone in there has the same intention. The collective intention to make the best thing happen. They’re keyed into it and they know someone’s going to read where the line is and when to change something up.
Sometimes something doesn’t work and they have to stop and reframe. That whole thing with Dante, that was hours. He was going on for hours. It’s dark. They were done. We probably portrayed it in 12 minutes or something, or less. I don’t even know. They ran out of rabbits to pull out of hats. Aaron got up and he was just, “I don’t even know what to do. I’m just going to sit next to you.” And then he eventually turned.
The whole thing with the heart beat: Dante wasn’t actually supposed to be in that circle. He was somewhere else, and he just wandered over to the circle, so he wasn’t even mic’d. And so, we had to capture all that audio off of Vegas’ mic. It was from the back room to the front room; the back room is where the sound mixer was and so, I could see all of a sudden something’s going on between them. I turned Vegas’ mic up and we heard — my brother and I were sitting right next to each other, and the sound guy — we heard the heartbeat, and my hairs just stood up on my arms. We looked at each other and were, “Oh my god.”
Comment from The Audience: Real quick. It felt like open heart surgery to watch that. Also, it really gave me admiration for film, cause a lot of times film is not the best medium. I’ve been in situations like that, and this made me feel as if I was there in that forum. That’s just amazing transmission. I’m so moved by people who don’t necessary know each other and how deeply they can be there for each other. This idea that family are people we know, that strangers are our family. I think that’s a huge message there.
I do like when you said he came over and just sat there with him; that sense of companionship melted my heart. That this is a human knowledge we all have, we just need to find the experience. I saw people there putting out wisdom that I think probably they themselves didn’t know they had that wisdom. That the whole group was bringing that there. It’s a different thing than skill learning or workshops or degrees. It’s like, let’s just do it and we’re way wiser than you know.
Eon McLeary: Right.
Audience Member: I just wanted to say how incredibly successful this film is. How risky it was for you to do this, and how successfully you captured that kind of experience. I, frankly, have been part of circles and done this kind of carpet work myself, but I never imagined that it could be portrayed so successfully in film. I just want to give you huge praise. You and the team that put this together, for the work you did in portraying this.
Eon McLeary: Thank you.
George W. Myers: Eon McLeary, thanks so much for being here with us today.
Eon McLeary: Thanks for having me.
To learn more about the film visit: https://theworkmovie.com/home-us
To learn more about Bellwether: https://amherstcinema.org/series/bellwether