Last year, I chronicled the saga of Michael Morton, who was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, Christine, in 1987 and was later exonerated by DNA testing after serving nearly a quarter century behind bars.
Shortly after Michael was freed in 2011, he was approached by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Al Reinert. The two men collaborated on An Unreal Dream, a feature-length documentary about Michael’s odyssey through the criminal justice system, which premiered on Monday at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin. (There are additional screenings this week on Wednesday and Saturday.) Reinert, who was a staff writer at Texas Monthly during the seventies and wrote some of the magazine’s finest stories, made the Academy Award-nominated documentary For All Mankind, about NASA’s Apollo program. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Apollo 13, for which he was again nominated for an Academy Award. Reinert was kind enough to sit down with me to talk about bringing Michael’s story to the big screen.
Pamela Colloff: Why did you want to make this film?
Al Reinert: Michael went to prison for 25 years for something he didn’t do, and he not only survived that experience, but he emerged from it a very humble, gracious man. I found that very compelling. I could not imagine myself being able to do that. It was apparent from the very beginning that Michael’s story is just an amazing human story, but it became more and more fascinating as the project went on. The goal really was just to not screw up telling it.
PC: You said the story became more and more fascinating. What do you mean?
AR: It was a combination of learning new stuff and events evolving as we worked on the film, particularly the whole Norwood saga.
PC: Let me make sure that readers know what you’re talking about. A quick summary: In 2011, DNA testing of a bloody bandana that was found behind the Morton home led to Michael’s exoneration and months later, a murder indictment against a drifter named Mark Alan Norwood. But Norwood hadn’t been indicted yet, or even publicly named, when you began working on this project, right?
AR: Right. [Investigators] had already identified Norwood, but nobody knew it. There were hints and suggestions that they were on the trail of the real killer, but at the time I got started, none of that was public information.
PC: Michael has been outspoken these last few months in advocating for legislative change, but I think he was keeping a low profile when you first began working on this film. What were your first impressions of him?
AR: Well the truth of the matter is when I first met him, he was still pretty reserved. He had not been out of prison for very long and he was—what’s the right word? Not “suspicious,” but he was definitely keeping his distance from people.
PC: Did you worry that he was too reserved to be the subject of a documentary?
AR: It’s always about building trust, which is a process, and I’ve done it before. I think if you’re honest with people, that opens doors for you. I was confident that as long as I was honest with him—and I was—that we would get there. It didn’t happen instantly. It went on for months. But that’s journalism, you know?
PC: How long did you spend talking to him before you turned on the cameras?
AR: Well, I first met him in January of last year, and we put him in front of a camera Memorial Day weekend. So five months.
PC: Tell me about the decision to film him in the Williamson County courtroom where he was tried and convicted.
AR: I knew from the beginning that I wanted to put Michael in a courtroom, in the witness stand, for the main interview. That just felt appropriate to me. So our cinematographer and I drove around Texas looking at different courthouses. But that old courtroom in Georgetown turned out to be perfect. As soon as I saw it, I knew that’s where we had to shoot the interview. It’s one of the most beautiful courtrooms I’ve ever seen. There’s all this beautiful, gleaming oak wood and natural light and a balcony. It’s a classic, old, American courtroom.
PC: It is really beautiful, which is strange to say about a place where such a horrible injustice happened. I’m sure it was jarring for Michael to be back there.
AR: He kind of froze when we first got there but then he gradually opened up as we began to talk. I put Michael in a chair right dead center in the well of the courtroom just like the poor guy who was on trial in To Kill a Mockingbird.
PC: My favorite thing about film is that you interviewed some of the inmates he served time with. Why was that important?
AR: I didn’t want to tell the story of how the lawyers got Michael out. I wanted to tell what had happened to Michael. To me, it was apparent from the beginning that those 25 years in prison were the heart of the story. I needed other people besides him to talk about it. I tried to find guards, too, and I did. I found prison officials who had stories about Michael, but they weren’t allowed to talk to us.
PC: Without naming names, what did they say to you off-camera?
AR: It is no surprise to them that some of the inmates in their prisons are innocent. They can’t really treat them any differently, but it does kind of weigh on their consciences. There are people in prison that should not be there, and they know it as much as anybody else. They know the system’s not perfect.
PC: I corresponded with some of Michael’s friends in prison, but I never met them. What can you tell me about them?
AR: I think the friends that Michael made in prison were not your