A few weeks ago, I saw an incredible documentary called Dead Man’s Line. The film tells the story of Tony Kiritsis, a man who felt so wronged by a mortgage company that he took his mortgage broker hostage to get the attention of the media to his perceived plight. He tied a shotgun to his hostage’s neck, then tied a line from the trigger to his finger, thus ensuring that, if he was killed, he would take his hostage with him to his grave.
The standoff was intense – and so is Dead Man’s Line.
Below is my interview with the filmmakers behind the film, Alan Berry and Mark Enochs.
Thanks you, gentlemen, for taking the time to talk to Books, Bullets and Bad Omens!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
AB: My name is Alan Berry and I’m the director, editor, and producer of Dead Man’s Line. In my day job, I’m a Director of Marketing for a private financial firm in Indiana. I’m an avid fan of the band Phish.
ME: I’m Mark Enochs, co-director and writer of Dead Man’s Line. I live in Indianapolis, Indiana with my wife, daughter, and our two dogs. I also share a woodshed out back with a family of chipmunks and a mama garter snake who eats mice at night. Professionally, I’ve been everything from a proofreader to an editor, and I am currently writing for a marketing platform company. Otherwise, I’m a typical binge-viewing, bird-watching, physical-comedy-loving dude.
2) Have you always been interested in true crime?
AB: I’m a fan of true stories of all kinds, especially if there is a video to back up the story.
ME: Alan and I have been friends since high school, and there have always been documentaries in our viewing queue. Whenever there was a movie that was based on a true story, we always wanted the true story, and back before reality TV, one of the best places to hunt for non-scripted, non-editorialized truth was the documentary section at the video store. There wasn’t as wide a smorgasbord as there is now, of course, so whatever we found we would consume multiple times, stuff like Incident at Oglala, all kinds of concert footage, and Hoop Dreams which I remember watching for the first time with Alan all in one go. It was such a commitment from the filmmaker and the families, and it just showed how to use film to tell anybody’s story.
True crime itself is a natural draw for me. Stories like this have a built-in drama, and I love seeing that unfold regardless of whether the stories end with closure or total mystery. So what separates a factual but flat rendering from a dynamic and intriguing one is the filmmaker, that person’s vision, and the way the narrative is built. The Thin Blue Line was an early example to us of how you can add creative elements and enhance the story without misrepresenting the facts. Coppola’s Hearts of Darkness was another early one where we could see how real life and fiction could get mixed up and merge.
3) How did you become a filmmaker?
AB: Part of the path for me in becoming a filmmaker was out of necessity. Up until 2011, I had owned and operated records stores in Indianapolis. I saw the end nearing, so I jumped ship over to video production. Which for me led to more filmmaking.
ME: In high school, Alan had a video camera, and we made comedies, real Monty Python sketch stuff. We shot a lot of the early bits in chronological order, but as we continued to come up with skits made up of more and more shots, we started editing, super primitive, but cutting together scenes was something we loved doing. It just took a couple decades for the stars to align and go about seriously making a film. In 2010, we shot “Band in a Jam” up in northern Indiana, and we learned so many critical lessons there about story-telling, stuff you’re never done learning, but I remember after half a year of shooting that film we felt like not only could we do this but we might be able to do it well.
4) Your film Dead Man’s Line tells the story of a truly bizarre kidnapping and hostage situation from the 1970s. How did you come across this story? When did you know you were going to make a film about this incident?
AB: It’s Mark’s fault. Six years ago now, we had just completed a day-in-the-life documentary of Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, and when it came time to do the next project, we did an informal survey of friends and family, wanting to know what our potential audience was interested in seeing, and then from the short list that came out of that, we rated each idea. Kiritsis rose to the top, in part because it’s an intriguing story that happened here in Indy and that many people younger than us had never heard of. Also some of the other ideas we had for a project fell through quickly. Kiritsis was the only one where we found people who wanted to talk, starting with Jack Parker, a WTTV cameraman who covered the story in ’77, held on to his footage, and was willing to share it.
ME: So some of it is Jack’s fault, and we are so grateful for that. Another reporter, WRTV’s Linda Lupear, also shared footage and her account. When we were trying to come up with the next project, this was the one with this great historical Indy angle that came to mind for me. We were in the 2nd grade when the incident happened, but I recall watching the footage as it was replayed during the summer of 1977 on local TV as the court proceedings got underway. That image of Kiritsis and Hall and that wired gun had stuck with me for 35 years.
(Tony Kiritsis and his hostage, Richard O. Hall. Photo: John Hilley / Associated Press)
5) Was it difficult to get people to talk about the event?
ME: Yes. Short answer is yes. We both have real jobs, the ones that pay our bills, so scheduling convenient time isn’t always possible, and then of course, some people just aren’t comfortable being on film, or, in a few cases, on the record.
But of the 40+ interviews we did conduct, the vast majority were eager to describe what they’d witnessed. And not for attention-seeking purposes. There was nothing like that. People were just ready to put their recollections on the record once and for all. This was a one-of-a-kind event in these people’s lives, something they could document in one final work and pass on as local history to the next generation.
6) What do you think really drove the kidnapper, a man named Tony Kiritsis, to undertake such desperate measures? Was he a genuine “working man who’d had enough”, or just a narcissist?
ME: Kiritsis sawed off the barrel and stock of a shotgun and then took a man hostage with it. That’s a crime. There’s no way to get around that.
Did the mortgage company steal Kiritsis’ land out from under him? No. There is no evidence that Meridian Mortgage did anything so overtly illegal in their loan agreement with Kiritsis.
Could Meridian Mortgage have manipulated either Kiritsis or prospective buyers so that Meridian Mortgage could foreclose on the property and then resell it at a great profit? Yes, they could have.
There is no direct proof of that, but one thing I’m convinced of is that Dick Hall was only indirectly involved with the Kiritsis loan. He had been in the office when Kiritsis had come in. He knew Tony well enough to talk with him. On one occasion, he sat in on a heated argument between Dick’s father, M.L. Hall and Kiritsis, but that was it. Dick’s main error was showing up at the office that morning, a mistake none of us would ever have seen ahead of time.
Did Tony feel that M.L. Hall had done something to swindle his land away from him? Yes, he truly believed that. But the way he went about addressing the problem was to flip out and fantasize about revenge, and yes, some of that is because as a narcissist, he had a lot of trouble facing his flaws. But that’s not to say Kiritsis was a bad person. There are hundreds of examples of his generosity and good-natured camaraderie. Tony was an open book in many cases. He got things wrong, but he rarely lied. What he couldn’t face was losing that land. There was no Plan B. Everything past 1977 depended on that land and what it represented to Kiritsis. Think about losing your future. You still can’t wire shotguns to people’s necks. That’s not a solution, but I get the motive.
7) Your film tells the story perfectly: matter-of-factly, without too much background, letting the participants and news video archives tell the story in the moment. It reminded me of some of Oliver Stone’s better films. What techniques did you employ in constructing that intensity on the screen?
AB: I wish I could say I use some fancy techniques when I edit, but I don’t. One of my assets is that I have seen thousands of documentaries, good and bad. So when I’m going through cuts, I keep working it until I get that “Oh yeah, that works” feeling. That gut feeling that makes you want to go show it off. The next crucial step was to have Mark watch it to validate that my ego wasn’t just agreeing with itself. Mark has an excellent eye for crap, and our friendship is strong enough where he would tell me when my work was not up to par. Once it passed Mark’s crap test, the process would start over. Long story short, it’s a process of create, review, analyze, improve.
8) Where can people watch Dead Man’s Line?
Amazon and iTunes
9) What are you working on at the moment?
ME: Fiction. Podcasts are an intriguing idea too.
AB: Trying to become a roadie for Phish and other various video projects.
10) Where can people keep up with your work?
And finally, my standard questions:
11) Your top 3 films?
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
12) Your top 3 books?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Think and Grow Rich
How to Win Friends and Influence People
Rebel without a Crew
13) Your top 3 songs?
Could never pick 3 songs. Instead:
Queen. 2)Tool. 3) Iron Maiden.
1) Phish. 2) Frank Zappa. 3) The Rolling Stones