“If the Evangelicals vote, they determine the election,” said pastor Ted Haggard while flashing a smile in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary, “Jesus Camp.” That same year, the virulently anti-LGBT+ pundit was outed for having sexual relations with a male prostitute, a revelation that caused him to resign from his post, yet somehow fell short of bringing his career in the church to a permanent halt. Who could’ve predicted that Haggard’s words would directly foreshadow the election—a decade later—of Donald Trump, a man who embodies none of the alleged morals espoused by his devoutly religious base? Trump is not all that far removed from Richard Scott Smith, a sociopathic conman who has seduced, and in many cases married, an untold number of women only to drain them of their savings before promptly vanishing. His Bible-thumping façade is as calculated as that of Robert Mitchum’s killer in “The Night of the Hunter,” and when asked what his favorite scriptural passage is, he can’t name a single one.
How the sisterhood of women wronged by Smith banded together to hunt him down, with the aid of a colorful bounty hunter, is the focus of Ewing and Grady’s four-part Showtime docuseries, “Love Fraud,” which instantly ranks among the year’s best thrillers. It is the latest triumph from this versatile pair of documentarians, whose collaborations have also included the Ebertfest selection “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” a rousing profile of the trailblazing television icon, and the riveting Netflix film, “One of Us,” which follows members of New York’s Hasidic community as they attempt to break free from the beliefs instilled in them. Prior to the premiere of “Love Fraud” on Sunday, August 30th, Ewing and Grady took time to speak with RogerEbert.com via Zoom about how this project brought them newfound freedom, their decision to become members of a “revenge squad” and why all women should ask men for references prior to their first date.
What are the benefits of a docuseries versus a feature, and how would this series be diminished if it were wedged into the length of a film?
Heidi Ewing (HE): We talked about that a lot because when we go into a story, we always ask ourselves what makes it cinematic. Should it be an article in The New Yorker or a podcast instead? Why should this get a filmic treatment? We tell up-and-coming filmmakers to ask themselves that question. A topic is not inherently a film. Something that happened in the past with no visual elements might also not be a film even if you are interested in it. So we are very rigorous with that exercise. The first question we ever ask is why does this meet the standard for a visual treatment. With “Love Fraud,” we really had to figure out whether or not this was a film. Is there a three-act structure that we can get to? Is there definitely going to be a satisfying ending? We didn’t know if there would be. And we had never done a series, so the format wasn’t a given at the outset.
Once we started meeting all the women, we realized that it was quite a chorus. There were going to be twists and turns and we were going to be chasing this guy with an unknown outcome. We decided that a series was going to be a better treatment for this because a lot of the things that interested us were these side stories with a lot of color. They were tangents that are often very hard to work into a film because they interrupt the narrative. It’s less about the actual format of a series, and more about the expectation that the audience has regarding a series. For whatever reason, American audiences have decided that it’s okay in a series to take a crazy hairpin turn and then hang out in the bayou for ten minutes with a character who is just full of color and makes you think. And then you can come back to the narrative. Those sorts of tangents are encouraged. You have different expectations when you sit down to watch a film all at once, whereas with a series, you can watch one episode and come back to it three days later. You have a lot of flexibility.
We started to think about all the opportunities we’d have to bring in a lot of color and explore his past and play in this genre, which we had never allowed ourselves to do before. Our films are very, very lean, and they usually come in around 92 minutes. There’s not a lot of fat on the bone, and we pride ourselves on that, we are fine with that. But sometimes you wanna loosen up, take off your shoes and run around a little bit. This series allows you to do that, and you see us doing that a lot. You see us using our voices in a way we never have before, we are transparent with the audience about how we hired private investigators and we go looking for him ourselves. If you are going to be that involved—which we would never do in a feature-length doc, it’s just not our style—you really have to let the audience in on it. We got to run around in the field and had some fun creatively with this one in a way that you didn’t see in our previous work. That was extremely satisfying for us as artists.
Rachel Grady (RG): Almost the entire second episode of the series centers on a side story involving a seafood restaurant in Wichita, Krab Kingz, that’s completely wacky. It is obviously related to our story, but it’s also just this wild, weird adventure that our invisible protagonist had, and it makes no sense. The whole thing from the second it started was this absurdist American clusterfuck of a story that we had to tell and there was no way that we would’ve been able to do that if it was a more straightforward narrative.
How were you able to reconcile your role as a filmmaker with that of a participant in the story you were chronicling?
HE: It was hard for us to make the decision to do any of the things that we did in the series. Obviously it was all legal, but it required us to ask ourselves how comfortable we were. It felt kind of unethical to just follow these women and watch them flail around and not have the resources to find this guy who is actually a fugitive. He’s a wanted man and there was a national warrant for his arrest. I’m not going to go so far as to say that it was our ethical responsibility because that sounds really heady and kind of like bullshit. But we had the power of Showtime and all these resources at our disposal as well as all of this experience. We can make things happen, and then we were going to just sideline it? Nah, not on this one, especially as women. It felt kind of shitty to do that. So we decided to go for it, jump in and see if we could help find him. And trust me, it wasn’t easy. We failed many, many times and we could really identify with the women he had targeted. He is a really slippery character.
RG: Once we actually hired a detective to help us try to find him, we had to be transparent at that point because it raises too many questions. It’s too weird. Why is a detective there with this single mom of three? We needed to just embrace that we were part of this revenge squad. We were part of it and we don’t feel bad about it. We liked it.
HE: Also, this is a sophisticated viewing audience that we have right now. When people watch reality TV, they know that it is all scripted and faked and that everyone onscreen is pretending that it is not. But when you watch a program that is referred to as a documentary series, that word means something to us and to our viewers. You had better show them exactly how the sausage is made if you are going to do stuff like this because there’s no need for smoke and mirrors. We want to invite the audience to come on this ride with us and see what we find. It was actually kind of freeing, and I hope that audiences find it refreshing and freeing that we get the acknowledgment of our involvement out of the way. That is probably the way that it is going to have to be or should be, at least for us, when we even put our toe in the genre of a true crime series. This is the way we are going to do it if we do it again.
Richard’s decision to link his plight with that of Trump, cloaking them both in victimhood, inspired me to draw parallels between their sociopathic tendencies. How does Richard’s story serve as a microcosm for the conman actions and witch hunt narrative surrounding our president?
RG: Oh my god, you don’t have to be Freud to crack that one. We know this type right now. We know the type that gets away with stuff because he lies to your face and doesn’t feel bad about hurting people and is a narcissist. We are getting a real dose of that 24/7, so he slipped right into the zeitgeist in a real bad way.
HE: Richard Scott Smith comes from a long American tradition of conmen and liars, and Trump comes from that same line. They are “film-flam” men.
RG: Americans are so aspirational, so our conmen and women are usually selling aspirations and telling us what our lives could be, and that is what he does. He makes peoples’ dreams come true for a short amount of time at a very, very high cost.
Would you say “Jesus Camp” is prophetic in how it foreshadowed the election of Trump, both in its portrayal of his evangelical voting base and those hypocrites in power—such as Ted Haggard—willing to manipulate their well-intentioned followers?
HE: The funny thing about “Jesus Camp” is that Rachel and I literally rushed to finish it. It was not ready to show at Tribeca, and we rescored the whole movie after it was even bought at the festival. We were like, “We gotta get it out! This is a moment in time!” We figured this was a short-lived moment where Bush received all the support of the Evangelicals. We did not think that it was going to last. The confirmation of Justice Alito and the monkeying with the Supreme Court was only the beginning. We didn’t realize that this was going to be a long tale. In fact, when we were making the film, we thought that it might be a blip, certainly not the rest of everybody’s life, the rest of the country’s life and the predictor of all elections to ever happen again. Of course now, we see that it was prophetic and we saw pretty soon after the movie came out where the wind was headed. But at the time, it seemed like a novelty—an important one. So that movie weirdly holds up. It’s not our favorite of the films that we’ve made, but it seems to be everybody else’s favorite. It definitely holds up, especially right now.
I’ve always felt that your method for humanizing subjects who could easily be demonized reflects how Norman Lear tackled bigotry through the character of Archie Bunker, tracing back the prejudice instilled in him by his father?
RG: People are complicated and they are more interesting to spend time with if you show them with all their complexity. We looked for that in our conman, and we found some of it, but we were unable to crack him. He never emerged as someone who you can understand in terms of why he behaves the way that he does, and that was also interesting. You can’t crack some people, and he was definitely complicated.
HE: There are very few angels and villains, black hats and white hats. That doesn’t really exist so much. Very, very rarely is there a true villain. We’re just not that interested in stories where no nuance enters the frame, and I think you see that in our filmmaking. I think you would see it if you went out to lunch or dinner with Rachel and I. It’s just striking me now that we’ll often talk about someone and one of us will say, “Man, that person is extremely abrasive and irritating,” and the other person will go, “Ah, she’s actually got some good points,” or, “I guess, but she’s kind of funny.” You would actually hear our shared aversion to stereotypes in our conversation. You cannot give a blanket statement about someone. We are more interested in those quirky bits and nuances. We are uninterested in making anybody into a demon or a hero.
There has been a lot of talk recently from people like Michelle Obama and our site’s publisher Chaz Ebert about the importance of empathy. Yet as I watched your interview with Richard, I wondered whether the degree to which I empathized with him was tantamount to how much I had been duped. What was that conflict like for you?
RG: I think you just nailed it. You’re like, “Am I getting conned right now?” He put so many question marks in your head, and that’s why we couldn’t crack him. He has a lizard brain. You don’t know what’s happening when you’re talking to him, though I think we were quite prepared since we had been speaking with other people about him for a year. We had probably talked to fifty people that knew him, that lived with him, that had been married to him, and there were certain things they informed us about that we noted when we met him. He was trying to con us the whole time we were talking to him, but it still makes you doubt yourself. When people break the contract of human behavior and the humanity we are supposed to show towards each other, it stumps you.
HE: Part of the reason why that is such a long section in the film is because we wanted to actually reproduce for the audience what it was like to be hanging out with him for three and a half hours. Any short treatment would’ve just given you the impression that we were telling you to be empathetic, or that he’s a piece of shit. If it was too short, you would’ve seen our hand. Our decision about him would’ve been confirmed, and you would’ve figured that was our takeaway from the encounter. So we decided to make it a longer chunk of the conversation so that you could experience a bit of those peaks and valleys yourself. I think we owed that to the audience to show you what it was like to talk to him. Sometimes he cried, sometimes he was conning you and sometimes he seemed a little deranged. Sometimes he was just pathetic and other times he was dastardly. We tried to really give you guys the range of what the experience was, and it was tricky. We didn’t want to lay our hand out and tell you exactly what we thought of him because we’re not totally sure.
What inspired your hauntingly abstract, collage-like approach to the animated sequences visualizing Richard’s traumatic upbringing, which may or may not be based in fact?
HE: The really dark animation is supposed to represent the inside of his brain. Rachel and I knew that we had a problem. Since a lot of the stories he shared were about events that occurred in the past and may or may not be true, we went out to try and find a way to illustrate that in a cinematic way. We don’t like slick animation or graphics. It’s just not our style. We thought the collage in all of its imperfections and quirks and things that don’t add up represented the story and the tone of the series better than any slick rendering could have. So we decided that it was a collage that we were after, but collage artists are illustrators and not animators. We were going to pair Martin O’Neill, the collage artist in England that we found and admired, with an animator and find a way to bring the collages to life. He had a good friend, Andrew Griffin, who is a professional animator, so he suggested him and we hired them together. It was “The Martin and Griff Show” from that point on, and we had a blast working with them.
Suddenly they would incorporate a detail like Victorian wallpaper in their illustrations, and we’d be like, “Alright, the inside of Richard’s head is Victorian, that’s cool.” We were really able to stretch and honestly, for me personally, it was extremely illuminating and freeing as an artist to realize that it just goes as far as your head. In a documentary, it doesn’t. In a documentary, you gotta adhere to some rules, but when you are looking for flights of fancy and imaginings and renderings of memories, you can do whatever you want and you can control it. It was really fun for all of us to get into that world because we weren’t experienced with it at all, and we loved doing it with them. Something is off about the imagery in a way that matches the series. I actually just spoke with them today because we are doing another project together, and they are so funny. They always bring out a six-foot ruler during our virtual chats, and they put on a whole show for us. They are so excited about the show premiering in England, and I’m telling them that they better get ready because I think there is going to be interest in their work when this comes out in the US. I really hope they get discovered.
RG: She is a no-brainer documentary film character. She is exactly the same off camera as she is on camera, and that’s always a good sign of someone who is going to really deliver. It’s not an act, although she seems imaginary, and she was so passionate about catching this guy, she really was. For some reason, she had a bee in her bonnet over him. She thought he represented every piece of shit guy that has ever existed. Carla was a very wonderful quarterback for women that had never done such a thing—us included—so she was a great leader of the revenge squad. She is good at what she does while being totally irreverent and kooky as all get out. She was a great discovery.
What can be done to stop people like Richard from walking free and hurting others, apart from making a galvanizing docuseries about him?
HE: I was going to say make a series about him! [laughs] Look, law enforcement is not going to help women in these situations. It’s got a terrible track record, and it’s inherently sexist. If you dated a guy that scammed you, no one is going to help you. You’re on your own, so women need to be hyper-careful and men need references. You need three references before you go on a date with a man, and you need to call multiple people. It’s so crazy that people can invent whatever stories that they want, so sadly, defensive dating is a necessity.
RG: It’s such a bummer!
HE: Of course, I’m married and I shouldn’t be giving dating advice. I haven’t dated in so long, so I should shut up. But I think men need references and a resume before you go on a date with them because this shit is happening left and right willy nilly. And let’s be honest, there are hardly any female con artists. It’s not in the DNA of a woman to do it. There are some outliers and I’m sure people will find them and tweet me about them. Alex Gibney did that great film about Elizabeth Holmes. She was an amazing con artist and villainous character and I loved it. But this sort of crime is mainly a thing men do to women, and I don’t know what people are supposed to do. Everyone wants to fall in love, Matt! Everyone wants to go on that motorcycle ride around the lake.
RG: I mean, think about dating now in the midst of COVID-19. How the fuck can you meet anyone except for online? It really sucks. We need a vaccine so that people can have love.
HE: But listen, we didn’t have COVID-19 when this guy was operating. People were already online most of the time. I don’t know if meeting a guy in a bar will make you any less prone to getting conned by him.
Do you hope this film will get viewers thinking about how Richard, and by extension Trump, are symptomatic of our society’s systemic ills enabling privileged men to evade prosecution?
HE: I think people like the easy way out. People like short cuts. They don’t want to do the work or read the briefing book. If enough people succeed by failing upwards, if enough people can lack credentials and get somewhere, that’s catchy and then I think everybody wants it. Skip the hard steps and just get the thing that you want. With Richard Scott Smith, he’s all about flowers and small talk and a bunch of film-flam business. He’ll say, “Okay honey,” and, “Whatever you want baby,” and, “I’m listening to you.” He doesn’t put the work in to actually get to know someone. He’s just got his words and his methods and it reminds me a lot of our president, of course. He’s not really putting in the time. I don’t really know what’s wrong with our society—obviously a lot—but there are definitely parallels to be drawn there that are pretty chilling.
I feel as bad for the women in “Love Fraud” as I do for the children and families who are being conned in “Jesus Camp.” I wonder whether any of those kids still identify as Evangelicals.
RG: Most of the kids who were featured in the film are still religious.
HE: Except for Andrew who, in the film, was already leaning the other way. Other than that, I know Tory went to a Christian college, and I think she got married.
RG: Levi is going to be a pastor.
HE: In a way, “One of Us” was our follow-up to “Jesus Camp” because it focuses on people in their twenties and thirties who’ve decided that the belief system they were born into is not for them, and they are exiting that orthodoxy. It might not be evangelical Christianity, but they are trying to exit it all the same, and so for us, those films are nice companion pieces.
I agree. Those films—like all of your work—breed understanding rather than hatred. Do you feel documentaries can play a role in healing our divided nation and ultimately bring us together?
RG: I think so. I think it’s the best that we can do. I can’t do more than that.
HE: We wouldn’t meet a person like Carla Campbell just walking down the streets of New York. We wouldn’t think about someone like her unless a filmmaker or a storyteller could bring that person into your home. Storytelling provides you with the knowledge of people you wouldn’t otherwise have met. Rachel and I never say things like, “Films can change the world.” We were never those people. You affect one person at a time. Someone will have seen your film once, and it may have stuck with them in some way. You can learn lessons and you can be illuminated by things. Our work will affect some people in certain ways and it won’t affect others. It’s just like a crap shoot. You put something out there and you see who takes what from it, and we’re satisfied with that.