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 usual convicts. He says that his best friends were murderers, and I don’t think it’s necessarily because they were murderers, but because they were not career criminals. They were people that did something really stupid on a bad day. They all committed horrible crimes and they admit that they committed horrible crimes and that they deserve to be in prison. They don’t like it, but they understand why they’re there.
PC: I was blown away by the archival footage you had of some of the Texas prisons from the eighties. I hadn’t really thought about how loud and crowded prison is until I saw that footage. It was really eye-opening.
AR: We were very limited in what we were allowed to film when we did go interview the guys who Michael was friends with in prison. We could not go into the cell blocks or the dining hall or the prison yard, which were the places I most wanted to film. So we searched long and hard for archival footage of life in prison that was from the same period that Michael was there. And we found a couple old reports from local TV stations whose camera crews had been allowed inside in the eighties. In those days they would let you film everywhere.
PC: One of the most moving parts of your film is when Michael’s son, Eric, tells his side of the story. Am I right that he did not initially agree to cooperate?
AR: When we began this project, Michael’s own relationship with Eric was pretty up in the air. It’s still an ongoing process. I invited Eric to the shoot in Georgetown over Memorial Day weekend and I kept in touch with him. I copied him on a lot of email correspondence with Michael. I just tried to let him know what we were doing and that I wanted him to be a part of it, but you can’t force stuff like that. He did finally agree to talk, but I don’t think we actually interviewed him until September.
PC: Was he hesitant when he sat down to talk to you?
AR: Once he decided to do the interview, he was amazingly candid and vulnerable. One of the most powerful points in the movie is where he talks about getting letters from his father in prison, and he said it was like getting letters from a person that didn’t exist. As Eric grew up, Michael was not really part of his life. He would go to prison twice a year for maybe an hour-and-a-half to see his father. That was the only connection he had to this man. Michael wasn’t a real person in his life. And Eric tells it that way. He doesn’t try to pretty it up. He’s very honest about how he felt growing up and how distant he became from his father and how he decided to cut off their relationship. And while that was incredibly painful and traumatic for Michael in prison, it’s also understandable that Eric—who was out in the real world, growing up, going to school, playing basketball—didn’t feel a connection to this man that he saw for three hours a year. Eric tells that so candidly and emotionally that it really gives great power to that story. I didn’t know what we were going to get from Eric when we actually did the interview. But it was just heartbreaking.
PC: Was there anything you wished you could have put in the film that you weren’t able to get?
AR: I would’ve loved to have interviewed more prisoners and some of the guards. The one thing I think we could’ve dug deeper into is those prison years—both with Michael himself and with the people that he knew in prison. I think you could make a whole movie about Michael’s 25 years in prison.
PC: I got the sense when I interviewed him that there were some things about his life behind bars that he didn’t want to talk about.
AR: There were times when we were interviewing him about his time in prison that he got very uncomfortable. I think there are things he doesn’t want to talk about or remember, and that’s understandable. He’s writing a book now, so I’m hoping that maybe he’ll go a little deeper into that. Those prison years were territory we uncovered as best we could, but I think there’s still more there. I mean, this was not some penny ante jail he was in. Michael was in maximum security the whole time he was in prison. And that’s a strange world. I’ve wondered what I would do if I were put in that position. It really scares me just to think about me being in there.
PC: I love the title of the film so much. Where does “An Unreal Dream” come from?
AR: The full quote, which Justice Learned Hand said in 1923, is “Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.” Back in the early days of this project, I read Barry Scheck’s book “Actual Innocence,” and Scheck included that quote in the book. I thought that sounded pretty good. Michael had an unreal dream—an unreal dream for 25 years of his life.