This is the second part of Christopher Campbell’s interview with Ryan White about his documentary Assassins (see the first part here), in which they discuss the surprising ending. That means this piece includes SPOILERS for the film.
One of the most thrilling aspects of documentary filmmaking has to be when events go differently than expected. That’s definitely one of the aspects I appreciate the most — particularly if the filmmakers let the story unfold for the audience as it did for them. Of course, it’s better if the twist is a positive one, especially when lives are at stake.
The full story of the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s brother, Kim Jong-nam, in 2017 and the outcome of the trial of the two women (Siti Aisyah and Đoàn Thị Hương) who allegedly were duped into committing the murder, is relatively unknown in the US. Director Ryan White was able to capitalize on this unfamiliarity for the narrative structure of his documentary Assassins, resulting in a film that is more suspenseful and surprising than your average nonfiction feature.
Below is the part of my interview with White where we discuss the creative and ethical decisions made in the crafting of Assassins, which plays out like a real-life spy movie mixed with a courtroom drama. I have to put another SPOILER WARNING (yes, true stories can be spoiled) because White does, somewhat reluctantly, address the film’s ending.
True-crime stories like this tend to be given the limited series treatment these days. And The Keepers was such a popular docuseries in the early years of the trend. Was Assassins ever intended to be a longer-form project?
We were making The Keepers for years before The Jinx or Making a Murderer came out. So we also weren’t imagining it as a series because the format wasn’t really a thing [yet]. Then those two series came out and we realized we had access to this new format, which I do think was the right one for The Keepers.
On this one, we battled that hard. There was a lot of interest in making a series out of it, but my producing partner, Jess Hargrave — who is my best friend since we were little kids, and we’re always very in tune with one another normally when it comes to story — we were hellbent [against doing it as a series] from the beginning. Even though our bank accounts would have really appreciated a series much more.
We were hellbent that this would make a much stronger three-act feature. Part of that is that the biggest part is story but a part of that, too, is access. Malaysia is so far away. Baltimore was two flights [for The Keepers], which was annoying, and we would be taking redeyes in the middle of the night, but we could get there in six or seven hours. This took me thirty hours to get to.
It’s very hard when you’re covering a trial, which is totally unpredictable. You get an email from a lawyer a day or two before something’s going to happen. Then I had to make my way over to Malaysia and always make it on time. So coverage alone was a challenge.
Yet we had a lot of interest when we started taking it out saying, “This is such a great true crime story, true crime on a geopolitical level, have you thought about a series?” And we were always saying in those meetings that we think this should be a three-act film and we’re not willing to veer from that.
Speaking of things being unpredictable, I don’t know if you want to talk about spoilers, but can you talk about how the story went in a different way than was expected?
We were definitely expecting an execution. That’s not because I was deriving that. That’s what everybody on the ground was telling me. Anyone in the Malaysian legal system. All of the journalists on the ground. [Writer/producer Doug Bock Clark] said that from the very beginning even before we started the film. These women are going to be executed.
We were very skeptical even from the beginning whether the women could be telling the truth. I knew it was going to be an interesting film regardless of whether they were telling the truth or lying, so I was making the film regardless. But the more we made the film, the more we started realizing that they might be telling the truth. — the more we saw evidence corroborating [their defense] and the lack of evidence showing they had any awareness they were working with North Koreans or that they were about to kill someone.
Then it was a real ethical dilemma, as filmmakers, where we’re covering this story where we think it might prove their innocence and then the ending is going to be them dying? Who would ever want to watch that? And is that even ethically responsible to put that story into the world?
But we were so deep into it that the idea was, well, if we’re cutting while we’re making it — which I kind of always do anyway — let’s cut fast, and let’s be prepared for the ending, which would be the conviction. And let’s have the film ready to go. Even if that didn’t mean a film festival, let’s have the film ready to go after the conviction in the hopes that, as the lawyers were telling us, there would be a very short appeals process before the hanging. Then we could get the film out and maybe spread the word and start some international attention on this case.
Thankfully, that’s not the way it played out for many, many, many reasons. Mainly for the women’s lives, but also for the path of this film. I would never call it a happy ending, what happens with this film, but we never expected even a semi-happy or bittersweet ending. We expected the world’s darkest and saddest ending.
I’m always careful in these interviews to say what happens because I think one of the benefits of this film is that because the Trump presidency was so crazy for the last three years, no one in the US knows what happened in this story. It’s an opportunity to tell a true crime story on the largest geopolitical level where people don’t know the ending. Which is so rare as a filmmaker.
But what I will say is the ending was SHOCKING for us. Some of those final days in the courtroom, namely one of those days, was the most surprising day of my life. In my filmmaking life. Because it was the opposite of what anybody — the lawyers, the families, the government, even the judge — was expecting to happen. It was shocking.
I want to talk about the fact that you were editing as you went, then. Did the film change at all from that assembly cut afterward? It’s still chronological for the most part, so probably not?
That’s such a documentary writer question, which I love. That was a huge struggle. Do we reveal from the beginning that we had access to these women and that they are alive? I wouldn’t say that changed a lot during the film. I think we would have edited it totally differently if this had been a well-known story to audiences.
But I was the same. I didn’t know what happened to this story until I started documenting it. Then, in telling my family and friends what I’m doing and everyone’s saying, “Oh, I kind of remember that.” By the way everyone has some crazy version of what happened. “Oh, those women with the poisonous darts.” “The poisonous lipstick.”
We had such an opportunity to play with suspense. And create a real thriller. So that’s the way we edited it. That’s a difficult way to edit a film because you’re kind of holding onto your main characters in a way that’s — normally in a documentary you want to show your access from the very beginning.
It had to be a choice. Do you show your access to characters, or do you hold that until the end to keep people on the edge of their seats and make them go on the journey that you were going on? We chose the latter. But it was a constant conversation in the edit room.
It is true that my access to the women didn’t come until the end of the film. I never had access to them while making the film because they were on death row in solitary confinement. So had they died, you would never have even gotten their point of view. It would have been lost to history because they had never told their story.
I didn’t meet the women until they were both released, but we just edit their voices earlier in order to give some sense of what they said happened. It’s an interesting ethical dilemma, though.
Assassins is now available to rent or buy digitally on your favorite PVOD platform. Be sure to read the first part of this interview, in which we discuss the dangers of making the film.