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Falling for Rhetoric: an Interview with KILLING THEM SAFELY Director Nick Berardini

Posted November 4, 2015

On November 18 at the Missouri Theatre, True/False and the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism (a new addition to the University of Missouri’s Journalism School) are co-presenting a special screening of the documentary Killing Them Safely. Directed by Mizzou Journalism School graduate and Columbia resident Nick Berardini, Killing Them Safely is a gripping, nuanced look at a company, TASER International, as it confronts charges that its eponymous product, an electroshock weapon, has killed people.

For Berardini, the film is the result of an all-consuming six-year journey. In August 2008, a police officer fired a taser at Stanley Harlan, a 23-year-old Moberly resident, who lost consciousness and was pronounced dead two hours later. Then an MU broadcast journalism student working at KOMU (underneath current Murray Center director Stacey Woelfel), Berardini reported on the incident. Shortly thereafter, he started production on the documentary, which took him all across the continent. Berardini learned extensive details about similar cases, acquired many hours of archival material (including deposition footage of TASER co-founders Rick and Tom Smith) and, crucially, secured an interview with TASER International Vice President Steve Tuttle, a peculiar and fascinating spokesman whose performance serves as the film’s backbone. Berardini then edited his engrossing, disturbing, sometimes darkly amusing film alongside True/False alumni Robert Greene (Actress, Fake It So Real), who is now also a Columbia resident, serving as “Filmmaker In Chief” at the Murray Center.

Killing Them Safely premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2015 under a different title, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. It received glowing reviews and was then picked up by distributor Sundance Selects, who will release the movie later this year. In early November, T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann met Berardini at Uprise Bakery to discuss his filmmaking journey.

To order tickets to the November 18 screening, visit this page

T/F: I studied in the strategic communications sequence of the journalism school, and you studied in the broadcast journalism sequence. In strat comm, they teach you how to handle interviews with journalists. You need to have three points, and you’re supposed to find sly ways to make them over and over. You know, “That’s an interesting question, Bob, but what I think we really need to be focused on is….” Meanwhile, I assume the broadcast sequence is teaching you how to break the public relations representatives, to get past those three points. I’m curious how you approached this big interview with Steve Tuttle, TASER’s spokesperson. Was he using the same technique I just described?

NB: Yes, he’s definitely in that mold of ‘here are the things we can say that are most effective.’ This is a life-saving tool that prevents the use of deadly force. That’s their very simple mission statement: “Protect truth, protect lives.” He says four or five of the same exact things over and over again. What works about rhetoric in his case is that most of the times when he has to say those four or five things, he says them in a very simple context. It’s a 12-second soundbite for the news. It’s a statement that’s issued to a newspaper. He doesn’t have to sit one-on-one with a person like me.
I didn’t go in with the goal of attack. I didn’t go in looking for “gotcha” moments. Going in, I think my biggest strength was genuine curiosity. If I tell you I want to understand your point of view, I’m going to sit there and try to understand your point of view. So I take everything at face value, and it works for twenty minutes. Over the course of a day, it becomes exhausting. Over the course of four hours, if you can only say the same things over and over and can’t really elaborate, then what are you left with?

T/F: Aside from length, how does your interviewing approach differ from broadcast journalism?

NB: If I were to do a TV news story about TASER International, I would want to go in with all the research done so that if Steve Tuttle says “A,” then I could counter with, “But that’s not true based on this thing.” But I’m making a film that is less about what and more about why. I’m more interested in motivation and process than I am in information.

T/F: I think the trailer is very clever, but I was surprised to see how it sort of throws Steve under the bus in its final seconds.

NB: These guys are true believers.They believe in this way of policing. And when you have a true believer, you have to treat them with the respect of a person going through their own thought process. Steve is a guy who lies for a living, but what is the reason behind the lie? Why does he feel compelled to lie? Because they clearly know at this point that their weapon kills people. It’s a question of what’s the biggest threat. Do we deserve to exist? Is the world a better place because we exist? Steve is not an evil person. He’s a complicated person dealing with complicated subject matter that he simplifies in his mind to protect the simplest goal, which is that we must survive because the world is better with us than without us.

T/F: You use a lot of deposition footage where John Burton, a lawyer featured prominently throughout the film, questions TASER co-founders Rick and Tom Smith. How does his approach to interviewing differ from your own?

NB: The movie is about this company—its history, its rise, its controversy and where it is today—and for the movie to work, they need a good adversary. The lawyers are great adversaries. They’re the only thing that truly threatens the company. When you listen to their interviewing style, you realize they’re there because they want to win. They do amazing work, but they wouldn’t sit there if it was a bad case. They’re taking cases they’re pretty confident they’re going to win. When they’re questioning, they’re trying to prove a very technical or specific point in legalese in order to win a case six months down the road in trial. To prove negligence. I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m trying to enlighten myself and the audience to a way of thinking, to a point of view that they’re not familiar with, that’s different from their own. The styles are different because the intentions are different.

T/F: When you were studying the lives of Rick and Tom Smith, did you find a way to relate to them on a personal level?

NB: Yes, there’s definitely a tunnel vision aspect to both of us. In many ways, this movie is a commentary about all of us. It’s about the way we see ourselves—the best version of ourselves—versus what we really are. And I constantly experienced that disconnect with my film. For years, I told myself this movie is going to be amazing for all these reasons. And you think that way because the sheer panic that sets in when you realize it’s not going as planned could put you on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Especially when you’ve put, like I have and like they did, your life into something. In order to deal with the collateral damage they created, TASER International started telling little lies that became much bigger over time. Once the consequences were no longer hypothetical, there were two ways out: own up to it, face it and admit that you made a mistake, or cling to the best version of yourself, that idea that you had when you started.

T/F: You started this film as a reaction to a very upsetting local news story. There’s been a lot of reporting on TASER International in the years since.

NB: The film is still timely and relevant. It’s not because policing issues are at the forefront of the news. This is a story that’s as old as human beings. It’s about the promise of technology, the promise of innovation, the desire to want things to succeed before we’ve fully through the consequences of those things because they’re new and the consequences are hypothetical. This is the ultimate absurd example because it’s an electric weapon. It has the most clear hypothetical ‘what can go wrong’ questions attached to it.
The film is also about what you do when you’re at this crossroads and your livelihood and your way of thinking is on the line. And why do we constantly take things at face value from the people who have the most to lose? That’s what most blows my mind. I don’t want to say everyone believed them, but the law enforcement community jumped on board with the company right away. And the company was the only one providing information about their product. Obviously they had the most to the lose yet were somehow the most trustworthy. I just don’t get it.

T/F: Killing Them Safely explores different problems, but it doesn’t offer any solutions.

NB: The traditional way of making an issue film, and what distributors typically want, is to offer the simplest presentation of that issue so people can then get active, sign a petition and feel good about themselves. There are films that should use this approach. But the problem with making a movie like that is that movies should be three-dimensional. They should be more than just bullet points. And what makes that impossible with Killing Them Safely is that it’s partly past tense. It’s retrospective. It’s about something that has already happened and the consequences of what’s already happened. There’s no way to rally the troops and take 500,000 tasers off the streets in the United States. That’s not possible. The movie is not going to make the same mistake by offering a simple solution when there isn’t one.

T/F: But do you want the film to have any sort of social impact?

NB: I certainly do broadly. I’m no anti-capitalist, but we’ve taken capitalism to this extreme now where we’re surprised when the actor with the most to lose acts in self-interest. And it’s not just the general public being surprised, it’s the fact that our regulatory system for something like tasers is basically the product liability system. Which inherently means someone is going to die before anyone does anything about this thing. This is an electrical weapon, it’s not a Lego. This is a weapon used in violent situations and yet it’s regulated the same way a toaster is. That goes back to an attitude of victim-blaming that we have and a distrust of the tort system that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. While there’s excessive litigation between individuals, corporations have insane protection from lawsuits. People have no idea how difficult it is to bring a product liability case and be successful. And it has to be that way because the system has to inspire ingenuity. Because most people aren’t making weapons, most people are making other products.
I don’t think there’s some sort of broad overhaul that needs to happen; taser is a very niche product. But I also think the film is a condemnation of the way we place trust in those acting in self-interest when they’re operating under the guise of business, job-provider, life-saver. We just fall for rhetoric way too easily. So it’s more about a general skepticism about people whose job it is to be skeptical— police administrators, politicians, city council members when they buy these weapons — than it is about writing a law that could prevent this sort of thing.