This is the first part of Christopher Campbell’s interview with Ryan White about Assassins (see the second part here), in which they discuss the dangers involved in making the documentary.
Most true-crime documentaries involve insignificant stories. That’s not to say they’re unimportant or any less tragic, but in terms of their scope, they tend to deal with crimes that matter to only a few people who are involved — that is, until the films or docuseries expand their interest to a wide audience.
Ryan White has been tackling bigger stories, or at least those with a larger scope than merely a case of murder and whodunit. His 2017 Netflix series The Keepers and his 2020 feature Assassins (now available from Greenwich Entertainment) both ultimately veer into the territory of conspiracy and organized cover-ups with international reach.
Of course, that means that there’s a higher level of danger to the projects. The greater the magnitude of the crime being exposed and the more people involved can lead to numerous and substantial threats. Or they might just pose the potential for intimidation, which is enough to make one wary of participating in its production or distribution.
In 2020, we saw concern from the film industry about two documentaries with geopolitical intrigue and liability: Bryan Fogel‘s The Dissident and White’s Assassins, which deal with the deaths of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Kim Jong-nam, respectively. Both films had trouble securing distribution deals despite their acclaim and their appeal.
For those unfamiliar with the Kim Jong-nam assassination, in 2017, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was killed out in the open at Kuala Lumpur International Airport by two young women who smeared a VX nerve agent onto his face. Both women claimed they thought they were committing an innocent prank for a reality TV series.
Late last year, I talked to White about the making of his film, why it’s been a risky endeavor since the start, and why even though it was his least enjoyable project yet, he’s not giving up on making documentaries of its sort. I’ve broken up our conversation into two parts, with this first one focused on the hazardous side of Assassins.
The idea of doing a film about the Kim Jong-nam assassination was brought to you rather than originating with you. How did that happen?
Like most Americans, I remembered the headline for a day. And it being bananas. I remembered the detail of two female assassins and the LOL sweatshirt, and then I don’t remember anything. I didn’t know the back story. I didn’t know what happened to the women.
I think that’s because Trump had just taken office when this assassination happened [in February 2017], so there just wasn’t the real estate in the news media — even though it’s one of the biggest political assassinations of our lifetime.
Doug Bock Clark, the journalist who wrote an article in GQ magazine [about the story] approached us soon after The Keepers came out. He said, “All these filmmakers are trying to option this article that I’m writing that’s a deep dive investigative piece into why these women assassinated Kim Jong-nam. Would you jump on the phone with me?”
He had seen The Keepers, and we happened to have gone to the same university — we didn’t know each other, but he had heard that I was a documentary filmmaker coming out of Duke.
So, I jumped on the phone, read the article, and the story was even more bananas than I had realized. A few weeks later, I was on a flight with Doug to Malaysia to start exploring and meet all of his sources and meet the legal teams.
I took my camera with me, as I always do on an exploratory trip, and that trip in Malaysia was so compelling and crazy that I came back knowing that we would be making a film about it.
How did you know that you were the best person to tell the story?
I don’t know if I would ever make the argument that I’m the best person to tell the story. I think I’m very lucky in the sense that Doug picked me to tell the story with him. I think it would have been hard for any filmmaker to make this story without Doug and the connections that he had made. Or they would have been coming in very, very late.
The connections that Doug had made, not only to all of the sources that were a part of the recruitment of these women into this bizarre plot but also to both women’s defense teams and to the women’s families — by the time I came on the scene, he was able to lay that all out for me. So it was a massive step up. A huge part of our job as documentary filmmakers is winning trust. And that can take a year or more. Doug had already put in that legwork.
I feel like the central story of The Keepers, which is who are these women and what led them to this moment, is very much in my wheelhouse and the kind of film I enjoy making. The larger geopolitical part and the social issue part and the historical part of the Kim regime are more outside of my wheelhouse.
So, at least for the first year, my film was so much more focused on the micro of the two women and the trial. Then, as we started editing, we realized that we can not tell this story fully without giving people a picture of the larger geopolitical forces that spun this web that the women had gotten trapped in. That was exercising new muscles for me.
It’s part historical, tracing the roots of the Kim regime. It’s definitely geopolitical by the end when all of these massive foreign governments are doing backdoor diplomacy. That was a new type of storytelling for me.
Did you expect it to be such a dangerous film to make?
I was coming off of The Keepers and did the Dr. Ruth film as a kind of palette cleanser, so I was making Assassins at the same time I was making [Ask Dr. Ruth], and that drove her absolutely insane — because by that point she was like my surrogate grandmother — the fact that I was stepping back into a dangerous world and upping the ante.
The Keepers had been the Catholic Church and the Baltimore Police Department, which can be quite threatening, but the North Korean regime… Dr. Ruth just did not understand why I would be making that decision.
So, yeah, I definitely felt the danger from the very beginning. For Doug, North Korea is his beat. From the start, he was explaining to us what it’s like to cover these types of stories. And he had been on the ground investigating this for a year, so he had already faced many threats or people telling him to back off.
I knew that I was moving into a world that was perhaps unsafe, whether that’s our physical safety as a film crew — obviously, this was about an assassination that happened to someone in a public place, in an airport — or to our cybersecurity. We took massive precautions while making this film. Things I’d never done. We had meetings with the FBI. In fact, some of the same FBI agents that handled the Sony hack advised us on this film.
A lot of times, I felt like I was living in an espionage film. Especially alongside Doug. The way he takes precautions not to get hacked, like taking our cellphone battery out during meetings or using burner computers the whole time. The whole film was edited — everything, not just edited — offline. Any time we were doing something with the film, it couldn’t be on computers that were connected to the internet or email or we risked hacking.
For me, that was a total education in this type of underbelly espionage world. You start to wonder if some of that perceived danger is paranoia. Once you’ve been covering this story for two years in Malaysia, you can have this feeling of people following you or everything that you send being looked at. It’s hard to draw that line in what’s a valid concern of danger and what becomes paranoia because you’re telling a story that feels dangerous.
It was never a comfortable film to make in that sense. It was the least fun film to make that I’d ever made. I can’t even remember a fun moment of making this film. On The Keepers, I had fun at times. This one was much scarier.
While watching the film, it’s sometimes easy to forget how big the story is, though, because it’s primarily about these two women on trial.
I think it’s because the people whom we were following were the only ones telling the truth. The Malaysian government was out to ignore the political angle from the beginning. They weren’t even willing to talk about North Korea. That wasn’t coming out in the courtroom. At all. To the very strange extent that they wouldn’t even name the North Korean suspects or call Kim Jong-nam by his real name.
The only people shouting from the rooftops that this was North Korea and that these women are the fall guys were my main characters, their legal teams, and their families. That’s also where the danger was felt because everyone was saying these lawyers are putting themselves at the center of a firestorm. Their safety was really in jeopardy.
Or these women or their families who may be innocent were really in jeopardy because they’re the only ones saying, “No, we didn’t do this.” It was less at times that I felt in danger.
Were you surprised that it was difficult to find distribution for Assassins?
It was not surprising at all. We knew we were taking on a story that Hollywood was not going to dive into because of the Sony hack. I totally get that. I’m fearful of the Kim regime, as an individual covering this story, so I totally understand media companies being afraid after what they saw with the Sony hack.
It’s unfortunate. I think this is the type of true-crime story that before the Sony hack would have been on any streamer and played like gangbusters. I’ve just been very spoiled in my filmmaking career to have huge companies behind me for the last five or six films. There’s kind of an exciting factor to this one, maybe because it was so scrappy, the way we made it. We always knew the danger was going to be a factor for companies looking at it.
It’s kind of like a throwback to the beginning of my filmmaking career when you don’t have a massive distributor behind you and there’s this sort of challenge of how do we make people aware of this film when it’s not going to have a massive platform.
Greenwich is a great distributor, and they were very brave for taking it on because there are a lot of companies who said, “We love your film, but no way.” I know it’s the kind of film that would spread by word of mouth if people had an easy way to see it. So I’m kind of hopeful that that can still happen, that there can be a word of mouth vibe with this film.
Are you looking to make an easier or safer documentary next?
I love the balance of something that is very dark and investigative and adrenaline-pumping with what I call my palette cleaners. At the same time that I was making The Keepers, I was making a film about Serena Williams. I’m a massive tennis fan and a massive Serena fan, so I was constantly going between the darkness of Baltimore and then I was on tour with Serena, so I’d be with her at Wimbledon or in Paris.
I love that balance of being able to move between those two worlds. I can’t do just one or the other. Right when I get too far into one, I’m craving the other. So, coming out of Assassins, it’s the exact same way. I have a few projects. A ton of projects stacked up during COVID, and there are definitely a couple of palette cleansers in there that I think are a little more fun for me to make, or a subject or a topic that I love.
But also by the end of this year, after sort of purging myself of all of the danger and darkness of Assassins, I’ve started taking on two projects that definitely have that investigative, dark, heart-thumping kind of thing. I feel like I’m always going to be like that in finding the balance between those two kinds of tone.
But maybe nothing as dangerous as Assassins again…
I’m doing one about space. I guess you could say that’s dangerous in a different type of way, in a solar system way. My mom is thrilled that I’ve reached the pinnacle of danger in her eyes and can only move backward from that now.
Assassins is now available to rent or buy digitally. Check out part two of this interview, focused on the surprising ending of Assassins.