Producing a Hit Crime Documentary for Netflix

Danny is a Brit-born Paraguayan and producer/director of multiple award-winning documentaries for major broadcasters around the world.

He’s also an old friend from film school.

His most recent high profile project is ‘Killer Ratings,’  which is the first original documentary series in a foreign language to be produced by Netflix.

Danny has always been a talented storyteller as long as I’ve known him. And here, he talks about starting his career and getting this fascinating film made. We discuss the nuances of telling a compelling story through documentary.  And Danny shares his opinion on the power of media to influence the masses.

Listen to the complete conversation in audio or read the selected excerpt below.

➤ So, we met when we were both studying film

16 millimeter filmmaking.

➤ Yep, in South Thames college. Yeah, that was in 2001. And…

We made a film. They were both terrible. 

➤ Hey, speak for yourself!

I’ll speak for myself. My thing was terrible, really, really bad. I remember reading that Orson Welles – and I’m not comparing myself to Orson Welles –  I’m just saying, Orson Welles started making a short film, which was so horrible, that he never showed it to anybody else. And then Citizen Kane was his actual first film, and he actually had to learn a lot as he was making it.

➤ And Quentin has the same story, because he had his first…

Did you just call him Quentin?

➤ Well, just between me and you. QT! He has a similar story with his first film,

By the way, did I tell you, who’s a big fan of it?

➤ Tell me! 

Brad Pitt.

➤ No!

Brad Pitt! [Laughs]

➤ Wow! Okay, let me ask you the first question I usually ask. When you meet someone new, and they ask, ‘What do you do?’ how do you describe yourself?

Well, the short answer is I make documentaries. And, and then it’s like, it’s interesting that one of the reasons that I got into making documentaries was, I thought, ‘If I go to a social gathering and someone asks me, “What do you do?”, what would be an interesting thing to say?’ And I thought, well, you know, making documentaries! And so I committed myself to that. And now, not that I go to too many social gatherings anymore, but if I do, I’m not particularly keen to talk about what I do.

➤ Okay. So, why are you not keen? Is it because of the myriad of questions that follow?

Yeah, it’s sort of a tricky one. You know, it sort of is interesting, but suddenly you find yourself kind of dominating the conversation. And, I don’t feel comfortable. I feel like I’m an egomaniac.

➤ That’s so well put, man. Because when I was working in television, it was the same. I don’t work in TV anymore. So I don’t have as glamorous a job. But yeah, you don’t want to dominate the conversation. But, as soon as you say what you do, that’s all anyone wants to continue talking about.

Yeah, I think TV and film and things are perceived, as you say, as glamorous. And then because I quite like what I do and I’m quite passionate about it, if you meet somebody who also likes what they do, then you can have a conversation. But the worst scenario is that you meet somebody who really dislikes what they do and are not happy with what they do. And then you just don’t know where to hide, because they’re telling you that. And you know, you’re not gonna kind of pretend that you don’t like what you do. 

➤ All right, I’m really curious; In the world of fiction, we create the world, right? We create the words that come out of the person’s mouth. So moving into documentary, did you feel like you lost control of your story? You’re at the mercy of whatever happens, right? You’re not controlling it. Or how much manipulation of the story can you do?

Well, it depends how you make the documentary. If you do it through a TV channel, like, say Channel Four, you go through a process where you first secure the money, right? So you get a commission. And to get that commission, you write a treatment. And in that treatment, you kind of say, this is what’s going to happen in my documentary, more or less. And that is based on research that you’ve done, right? You won’t be able to say, this is the exact thing that will happen. 

I mean, I can give you an example. So, in Unreported World – a show that I worked for, I made a lot of 25 minute films for it, traveling all around the world – you have to come up with the idea. I found a photo essay of child boxers in Thailand. And it was a pretty striking essay. They were very young, they were like, 7, 8, 9, 10 year old boys, fighting like real, you know, real fights – Muay Thai.  And I thought, ‘Okay, I think there’s a story here’. And then I read an article from the Wall Street Journal, and it was about how villagers would get money together to have their kid champion fight against one from another village. And then whoever wins, you know, keeps the money. And that was tremendous pressure for these very young children, who can suffer brain damage from the fight. So I thought, ‘Well, what story is that?’ That’s Rocky, right? So a young guy, a young child, under tremendous pressure to win. He’s going to be training, right? And then comes the fight. And you know, all this money, $1,000, which is a lot of money over there, will have been invested, and be bet on that. And then one of the kids fight. So that was the treatment. 

And I knew I would be able to find it, because there were 3000-something, there were thousands of Muay Thai child fighters in Thailand. So you write the treatment based on the article, based on the research that you’ve done and phone calls you’ve made. I’m going to follow a kid who’s going to be under a lot of pressure to deliver on this fight. And then we’ll film the fight as well. And we’ll see the outcome. And so that will be the story. 

So the main thing is like, we need to be very clear about what we’re searching for. We had a few days to find it. We need to find a kid who’s from a poor village, so the family doesn’t have a lot of money, who’s a fighter, and who’s gonna fight in the coming days – because we were only there for a few weeks – against another kid in another village. And a lot of money was going to be bet on this fight. And we had to find this. We spent three days and on the third day, we found it, we found exactly that. 

And then, when we started following the story of the kids being trained, it turns out that, in addition to a bet about who was going to win the fight, the two families had also made a bet that the kid was going to weigh 25 kilos by the day of the fight. It was like a supplementary bet, right? And so during those last three days, they were just doing crazy things, to try to get the kid to lose weight. So they would put, like, this massive kind of heat suit on him and make him run back and forth. Yeah, and then on the day he still wasn’t that weight. And so the guy who’s his manager, locks him inside a car and kind of shuts it down in the sun so he’ll sweat. You know, all of this is in the film and we would never have been able to imagine this. But that was the reality. 

And so that’s what happens if you’re smart with good documentary making. You want to find something that’s true, as a concept, as a premise. And then, when you go there, you want to be smart enough to find the right character in the right situation at the right moment that’s going to deliver to you things that you cannot even imagine. Reality is always, always, if you look in the right places, far more insane than something that a Hollywood screenwriter would come up with. A lot of the stories that I’ve filmed, if you were to write them as a script, people would think that’s too ludicrous. 

➤ Okay, let’s talk about Killer Ratings, because that’s probably the thing you’re most well known for. Can you tell me how that came about?

In 2009, I heard on the news, the story about a talk show host, a host of a TV program, who was accused of organizing the crimes or being behind the murders that he would then go and cover and be the first to get there. So you know, he was all over the news for like, one day. It was in The Guardian, it was in the BBC. He was like, the joke story of the day, you know, you get those international joke stories of the day, people find it very funny. And then it kind of disappeared. 

I made a note of it and my first assumption was, ‘This is a great, great idea for a documentary.’ Because it’s just very attention grabbing that somebody would do that. Second of all, because it’s a TV show, it’s visual. There would be episodes of the show that we could review, you know, to investigate the mystery of these murders and whether he did it or not. And that’s one of the other key things that you need to think about in documentaries. They need to be visual. It’s visual language, right? A lot of subjects are probably better off as books than documentaries. If you want a great documentary, you need to think, ‘What are we going to see?’ 

And a documentary story about a TV show, well, you already have quite a lot to see, quite a lot to edit with. And so I, the first thing I assumed after writing it down, was that somebody else would make it next year, or the year after. That’s what always happens, right? You hear of a great story, or you see something that’s on the news. And usually somebody who’s famous and prominent gets the commission. 

But a year passed and two years passed and then three and four. And nobody had done anything with it. And I always kept it on my list of ideas as the number one. And then I started doing the research myself. And I started kind of calling, trying to find some of the key characters from my flat in London – I speak a bit of Portuguese. And I was trying to advance the story, but it was difficult doing it from London. And then, in the year, I think 2016, I was doing a documentary for the BBC. And I promised myself that after I finished the documentary, I would head to Manaus, to the Amazon. And I would investigate that story. Because if I kept waiting, somebody else would do it. And I would just hate myself, because so much time had already passed. It had already been seven years. And what else was I waiting for? 

But the documentaries that I had done up to that point were usually current affairs. So it was usually something on the news, so that I could get money, and I could get a commission. I knew how to do that. But current affairs, it has to be current. And this is like an old story that happened many years ago, in Brazil. In another language. Who’s gonna buy this? Who’s it going to be for? Right? Like, I had a good relationship with Channel Four, we sent them a proposal. And they were like, ‘Well, this is not for us. I mean, it’s a great story. But, you know, where are we gonna get the money for this?’ Like, Channel Four is for the British public, right? And so, what we thought was that maybe it could be a feature length documentary film.

But the first thing I needed to do was to figure out if the story was true, because often what happens is that you read about a sensational story, like, this lurid kind of sensational, very attention-grabbing story and then you find that actually, it’s nowhere near as sensational as it was originally sold. Often, you know, newspapers will just reprint what they’ve heard from the wires, and the wires might just reprint what they heard from a local.

➤ And just add a little exaggeration on the way.

Yeah, I mean, sometimes it’s professional malpractice, but sometimes it’s misunderstanding. There’s all sorts of explanations why some stories are lost in translation. But very often they are. And I think one of the key things is you don’t pay a big price. If you get something wrong on print, especially for an international story, what price do you pay? I mean, if it’s quite a sensational story, you’ll get a lot of clicks. And the correction might come weeks later, if it does. So, after I finished [the BBC film], I went to Manaus.

➤ No commission? You went on your own money?

Well, what happened was, for five years, I’d been working very closely with the company, Quicksilver Media, which produces Unreported World. And so I’ve been part of their orbit for five years, I started as an Assistant Producer, when I was Producer and then I was Series Editor. And I worked very closely with the exec there, the person who runs the company, Eamonn Matthews. 

And shortly after I was named Series Editor, we were looking for stories and I said to Eamonn, ‘You know, one of the greatest stories I know of, I don’t think we can make it for Unreported World, but I’ll just tell you,’ and I kind of gave him the pitch. You know, ‘There’s a guy who had a TV show, and he was killing people to show them on his TV show for ratings.’ And he just turned around, and he said to me, ‘That is the greatest story I’ve ever heard.’ And like, this is a guy with five BAFTAs, right? He knows his stuff. And the next thing he said was, ‘Why don’t we do it?’ 

But you know, he was also as puzzled as myself exactly how, because we had already pitched it to Channel Four. So when I said to him, I’m planning to go to Manaus, no matter what, you know, in two months to research this and see whether it’s a story, he said he would invest, he would fund that trip. 

And so, in January 2017, I think it was, I went there. And I started speaking to the police. I started speaking to journalists, I started speaking to all sorts of characters. At the same time, I was trying to find out, can we get old episodes of the TV shows? Can we track them down? Can we get the legal kit? What can we get? Can we get all the press reports? So one month of just investigating. And so the first thing I found was that the story wasn’t settled. Right? You would go to one group of people, and they would say, ‘Oh, the guy was so guilty. The amount of evidence that was found against him was overwhelming.’ 

➤ Where was the guy at that point?

You haven’t seen it yet? He’s dead. He died. 

➤ Oh, you didn’t say that part. Okay, how long before you started did he die?

He died while the case was happening, in 2010 – spoilers for anybody who hasn’t seen it. Maybe you should watch it Tan!

➤ I should and I will. If Brad Pitt endorses it, I mean, I should watch it!.

Oh, there you go. Obviously, me making it is not a powerful, compelling enough force. But Brad Pitt liking it, is! I get that I swear, I get that. [laughs]

➤ So, yeah, please continue! People were saying…

Yeah, one group of people would say [he was obviously guilty], and then the other group would say, ‘No, this was just a whole conspiracy. These were all lies, because his political enemies wanted to bring him down.’ And both sides were very compelling. 

And then I went to one of the newspapers. And I asked them, ‘Could you just give me all the news articles that you’ve written on the subject?’ And there was an editor who very kindly, she had to do it manually – they don’t have a system to do it where you just press ‘Enter’ – she did this massive favor. It took a few weeks, but she got all the articles in one massive document. And so I went to the hotel, and I sat down and just kind of read it. And it read almost like a thriller, like a novel. And, you know, you just put it chronologically, and there were just so many twists and turns to the story. It was a bit like, you know, their OJ Simpson – not in Brazil but in the Amazon. It was this huge story that every day or every other day had a real life plot twist, which changed everything you thought up to that point. 

And so I realized the story was true. The first thing I would ask people, ‘They were accusing him of killing people for ratings. Is that true?’ ‘Yes. That’s what he was accused of.’ Because that was very important. I was just very fearful that actually, they never really accused him of that or that was just an embellishment. No, he was accused of that. And suddenly, the story, not only was it true, it’s far bigger and crazier, and more insane and more full of twists than I could have ever imagined. And now the problem was that there was too much story. Too many things happened over the two years. 

And right around that time, I think, a week before I left, I had mentioned the story to a reporter Marcel Theroux, who’s the brother of Louis Theroux. They both make documentaries. I went with Marcel to India, to make a documentary – he’s a great guy. And I mentioned my story to him. And he mentioned that his wife works for this production company. And so she mentioned it to the exec there. And so a week before – I’m about to leave – the exec Dinah Lord calls me and she says, ‘I’ve heard you’ve got this wonderful story.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, actually, I’m working with Eamonn Matthews. And I’m about to head out.’ And she said, ‘I have a meeting with Netflix this Friday. And we’re pitching ideas. Would you like me to pitch your idea?’ I said, ‘yes.’ And so she went on that Friday. And you know, of all the ideas, the only one they were interested in was Killer Ratings.

They just loved it. It worked really well because at that point, we didn’t really know who was gonna fund this. We had spent some time talking to people more from the motion picture world about the possibility of making a feature length documentary. When Netflix came into the conversation, we’re like, ‘Oh, that’s probably better.’ And for Netflix, Brazil is their second largest market, and growing. So Netflix is trying to find powerful original content, or Brazilian stories in Portuguese. And for us, what was once a big problem – the fact that everything is in Portuguese in the story – for them was a big benefit because they’re trying to enter markets all around the world. And they want content that works for the people in those countries. And so everything came together at the right time. 

And you know, we had meetings with Netflix. And I told them, the problem was that we just had too much story. And they said, ‘Well, why don’t you do a series instead of doing just a one-off?’ And the moment they said that I was like, ‘Yeah, of course! That’s what we should do’. And then I took this story, and I split it up into seven episodes. And every episode finishes with a plot twist, like a real life plot twist. Yeah, we actually had more real life plot twists than we included in the series. There were some subplots that had to be dropped, because the story just became too big. And so that was one of the biggest challenges, just trying to make everything clear, because like, the guy was accused of 15 murders. And they’re all very complicated. Every single one of them had its own complicated story. Yeah, so that that’s how it happened. 

Once Netflix got involved, we cut a trailer, showed it to them, they were very excited with that. I think we met them first in March, April, and we were in pre-production by October.

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