Making the Documentary ‘Ernie & Joe’
COW Library : Film Festivals : Hillary Lewis : Making the Documentary ‘Ernie & Joe’
Research estimates that 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental health issue over the course of their lives, leading to the largest mental health crisis in the United States and around the world today.
With higher rates of suicides, mass shootings and incarceration of the mentally ill, there has long been a profound misunderstanding on what mental illness is and how to help those dealing with a mental health crisis, especially in law enforcement.
Ernie & Joe is a documentary following two San Antonio law enforcement officers, Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro, who strove to find a healthier way of interacting with the mentally ill in their community. They are now members of the first ever 10-person mental health unit in San Antonio and are trailblazing the way in educating law enforcement on a new humanistic approach: treating the mentally ill rather than criminalizing them.
With this solution-based film, we witness the enlightened success of creating human connection in place of using excessive force, and the bright hope of rebuilding lost trust in local police officers.
Jenifer McShane – director and producer of Ernie & Joe – spent four years filming her last documentary, Mothers of Bedford, in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison north of New York City. There, she witnessed the disheartening link between incarcerating the mentally ill and the direct effects on their families and the entire community, especially between incarcerated mothers and their children.
Following the debut premiere of Ernie & Joe at the SXSW Film Festival and an emotional audience Q&A session, I sat down with Jenifer McShane and spoke with her on the audience reaction to the film, the obstacles of filming this subject in an unobtrusive way, and how she assembled the best crew for production and post.
Q&A session with the audience at the SXSW 2019 premiere of ‘Ernie & Joe’, from left: E.J. Enríquez (camera), Paul Toohey (sound), Toby Shimin (editor), Andrea Meditch (executive producer), SXSW announcer, Jenifer McShane (director), Joe Smarro (cast), and Ernie Stevens (cast)
Creative COW: Did the dynamics of personalities on your crew affect your filming, in a way you didn’t expect?
McShane: Yes, it was paramount to me that my presence and the crew’s presence didn’t change the dynamic of the work we were doing. The whole idea behind Ernie and Joe’s work was about having a dialogue and communication with victims, and us being there could totally derail the work they were doing.
At the same time I wanted that intimacy too, and we ended up getting that through the sound. I wanted to preserve the privacy and respect but allow the intimacy so the audience gets why this was important.
But a nice side effect of that, Paul Toohey (sound) who’s 6’3”, and E.J. Enríquez (camera) are crammed into the back of their police car, but thankfully they ended up getting along really well with Ernie and Joe. That helped Ernie and Joe feel really relaxed with them there. You never can be sure going into to something like this, but it was a very nice vibe.
Paul Toohey (sound) and E.J. Enríquez (camera) in production on a night ride
I felt really fortunate to develop a trusting relationship with them and the other officers as well, telling them how often I was going to keep coming back again and again. I got a joke from one of the head officers, “Wow, you must have enough for four films”, and having to explain to them how there’s so many layers to capture. But I think we started off with a strong relationship with them that it made shooting a lot easier.
While you had a small production crew of just a camera, sound, and yourself, I realized most of your post production crew is almost entirely women. Was that a happy accident or did you set out to make an all female post team?
I’m a collaborator by nature and I love when it works out for an all female team, but I didn’t pursue that necessarily. It was all very natural and I couldn't have been happier.
I had worked with a female editor, Toby Shimin, before and I knew there was nobody else I wanted to work with.
My crew, sound and camera, I wanted to be Texas-based since there were times when I was in transit or traveling home and they were able to quickly get on location since they were only an hour away from San Antonio. And I heard great things about E.J. Enríquez and Paul Toohey, who are not female but are super at what they do, and it worked out really well.
Our post sound mixer, Annie Medlin, was also great. She did our dialogue edit and sound mixing, and I didn’t realize but there’s not that many sound mixers that are female. There are lot of dialogue editors but not many sound mixers, so having her on was great as well.
What resources do you use to assemble your team and crew?
This whole project was funded through grants and foundations, so I’ve had a big posse behind me, but mostly by word of mouth. I put the word out through other filmmakers I knew and tried to find a crew that was going to be comfortable in an observational role riding along with Ernie and Joe.
But a lot of it was conversations. I talked to my editor and she put me in contact with so and so, etc. And I think sometimes women can network in a style that’s a little more inclusive, but it was always important to me that I surrounded myself with people who “got” what I needed to do. So much of this project is about passion and persistence, you’re always worried about funding and money, there’s a lot of stressors. And if the team is on the same page it makes the whole thing more enjoyable and rewarding.
As the San Antonio mental health unit is relatively new and maybe hasn’t been fully embraced by the entire SAPD, did you get any negative vibes from the other officers for shining a light on this new approach to mental health?
Surprisingly no. I’m sure Ernie, Joe, and now the mental health unit team had that reaction in the beginning when it was new, but not so much now that the unit is about 8 years old.
It’s been a slow growing unit. Started with two officers and slowly grew to four, and their police chief decided to make it a priority. He’s made it clear to everyone on the unit that this is important. So, not only is there the mental health unit but every cadet coming out of the police academy is receiving mental health training. The chief realized that if they’re going to be first responders to someone in a mental health crisis, and there’s really no one but the officers there, they have to be trained to deal with it.
So I think they’ve gotten push back from the other officers earlier on, saying things like “I’m not taking that ‘hug-a-thug’ training.” But we’ve been asking San Antonio officers now and they see it working and think “Wait a minute, maybe we are onto something.” And that feels good to everyone.
There’s research from the University of Chicago on CIT training, it’s being tried in other police departments (more successfully than others), and the common denominator is the officers feel so much better about what they’re doing afterwards. It used to be a job that felt respected and nowadays it doesn’t make them feel respected anymore, but after CIT training they feel like they’re actually making a difference.
Officers aren’t immune to mental illness either. Statistics show that officers are three times more likely to die by their own hand, suicide, than in the line of duty. So there’s clearly issues that haven’t been dealt with, stress related to the job etc., and it’s about opening up the conversation.
Ernie Stevens talking with cadets
And I don’t want people to think I’m saying “San Antonio did it this way, so it’s going to work everywhere around the country.” The film is more about opening up the conversation so it’s about humanity and actually seeing the person in front of you, not making assumptions, a lot of those things. And the reactions have been outstanding. People are connecting the dots. I didn’t want the film to be preachy, I wanted it to feel like you were just on this journey with these two guys.
As Ernnie says in the film “If you unplug a lamp it doesn’t work, if you unplug a human it doesn’t work” in the sense that we’ve become so isolated and disconnected, people feel alone, suicide rates are skyrocketing... there’s clearly something epidemic going on. I think we really need to be paying attention and as a society we’re not paying attention to mental health in the way we need to. I understand there’s shame involved, there’s taboo involved, and that’s why we don’t talk about it, but we’re at a point now where we need to talk about it. We’re in crisis.
Some would call you a social justice warrior. How did you get into social justice reform issues and how has that affected your career path?
I feel compelled to make these films. Once an issue gets its hooks into me I can’t stop until I’ve finished the film. There’s little financial reward and these things are very hard to fund. All these great films are competing for the same pie. But now that I look back at my last three films, I see the themes of human connection and not making assumptions and opening dialogue, it was the only things that spoke to me.
On some level I knew it, but also I realize now that that’s the body of my work, about social issue on a personal scale. This idea of penalizing people with prison and on top of that not letting them see their families or their families seeing them, what about that is rehabilitative? There’s nothing to me about incarceration that’s rehabilitating. And it’s particularly painful when you see that lack of contact between parents and children.
Those were the themes of my last film. So if I can broaden that conversation and make people think about it and immerse them in that world in a way that doesn’t feel abrasive or threatening or fearful, it feels like “How can I contribute to help with this?” Because our main legacy as human beings is our impact on others. Is it positive, is it negative, are we actively listening in a responsible way?
For everyone that’s our main legacy, so if I can do that with my films I’m gonna keep doing it.
From left: Ernie Stevens, Jenifer McShane, and Joe Smarro
Ernie & Joe earned the ‘Special Jury Recognition for Empathy in Craft’ award in Documentary Features for the SXSW 2019 Film Festival Jury and Specials awards.
The film is currently in the negotiating stage of distribution and awaiting future festival notifications, so stay tuned for screening announcements on their social media channels.
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At SXSW 2019, the theme of mental health resonated in much of the panels, sessions, and meetups. Even in the TV and film industry we’re far from immune to these conversations about mental health. If you need a reminder of just how fragile we as humans are, check out some of those sessions below, most of which have the full recording to listen in.
The Emotional Toll of Mass Violence
Fostering Positive Psychology in the Workplace
Generation Lonely: 10,000 Followers and No Friends
Killing Ourselves Faster: The Mental Health Abyss
Twice as Nice: How to Make Happiness Stick