Beginning as a rather conventional documentary – at times so familiar we fear it will play like formulaic television – The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne soon finds a matter-of-fact style that nicely reflects its subject. A career jewelry thief, Doris Payne (born 1930) has used swift methods while never losing a kind manner (though likely a mask), which filmmakers Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond reflect in their swift, down-to-earth tone. Much of this may result from the team’s lack of a budget, about which they discuss below. And yet after viewing, we can’t imagine a different handling of Doris’ story: accounts of her set-backs, criminal mastery (she has taken over $2 million in jewelry), and recent trial (which shapes the narrative). She’s the type of figure that necessitates documentary study. Choosing not to “reduce her to clinical diagnosis,” the filmmakers deliver a humanistic portrait ready for viewer analysis.
Film International interviewed Marcolina and Pond over email about their one-of-a-kind subject, the journey throughout this project, and rewards and challenges of working with her.
How did you first learn of Doris’ story?
Matthew read about her story in a newspaper while she was in jail for another crime; he went to see visit her and asked if she would consider a documentary about her life, and after several months of visits with Doris telling her story, she was released, and shortly thereafter we began filming in earnest.
How receptive was she as an interview subject? Did she change after one of you confronts her on camera (about her giving your name to the police)?
Doris is a chameleon, on and off camera. She was (and continues to be) as charming, sweet, and lovely, as she can be manipulative, cunning and shrewd – and sometimes all in the same hour! She was much more receptive about recounting some of the tales of her past, where glamour and jet-set travel were involved, but when it came to her personal life, and particularly her kids, she was reticent to open up, mostly we think because she regretted some of her parenting decisions.
The scene where we confront her about being used as an alibi didn’t change our relationship with her. Although there was tension that day it wasn’t out of the ordinary and we learned quickly to roll with the punches. One of the things we came to admire about Doris is her ability to live in the moment. She doesn’t take life, jail, or laws prohibiting jewelry theft, for that matter, too seriously, and doesn’t dwell on conflict.
How much did you learn about Doris’ story and crimes while filming? I’m especially curious about the details of her largest theft.
Not surprisingly, Doris was often coy and vague about many of the details of her criminal past, and at times it was like pulling teeth to get her to speak about her past. Naturally, as a career criminal, we were suspicious of anything and everything she said. So when we eventually obtained her FBI records we were shocked to see her files that backed up much of what she said, and more, in black and white.
We spoke with her lover’s daughter – a former Pan Am flight attendant – off-camera; she flew internationally and was with her in Europe; unfortunately, she didn’t want to speak on camera and so we were limited to Doris’ interviews, newspaper articles, and the FBI archive in telling her Monte Carlo caper.
What documentaries were inspiring to you?
Matthew Pond: Films made for an audience (rather than films that indulge filmmakers); entertaining documentaries, great character studies, like the Maysles Brothers’ films (Grey Gardens, Salesman), To Be and To Have, Paris is Burning, and A Piece of Work (about Joan Rivers), all resonate.
Kirk Marcolina: I love docs which peel back the layers of unique individuals, films like Man on Wire or Searching for Sugarman. When I first read about Doris and her history, I was blown away. I thought it was incredible that there was this sweet-looking, grandmotherly woman who’s made a life out of stealing diamonds. I immediately wanted to know what makes her tick. What we found beneath the headlines was even more fascinating than I could have imagined.
Discuss your precautions while filming her shopping – for example, how you handled an onscreen theft from a street vendor!
We regret including that scene now, since almost everyone who talks about that moment assumes she took the jewelry from the street vendor when in fact she was joking, and didn’t steal anything. We thought it was a nice moment that illustrated the fun side of Doris character, which is why we included it. But what we thought was obvious to us turned out not to be so clear. As Doris’ attorney would say, assumptions can be flawed!
It sure looks like she steals it in the film. Can you discuss how you encountered the connection to her as a trickster figure in the African American tradition?
Matthew was discussing the film with a friend who had studied Trickster figures in African American Literature, and she introduced us to the Professor (Richard Yarborough of UCLA) who appears in the film. We made a conscious decision not to be overly didactic in the documentary, and avoided for the most part speaking with academics, psychologists or other talking-heads because we wanted to let Doris narrate her own story and not be reduced to a clinical diagnosis, especially by someone she had never met. However, we felt the Trickster figure placed Doris in a broader context that made her behaviour a lot more understandable.
Were you concerned with making this a story about the injustice against her? I see that you feature her male counterpart, whom some may read as a pimp figure, and her marginalization that lead her to a life of theft.
Doris’ own personal narrative, of a young poor black girl who embarked on a life of crime to help her mom, flies off her tongue automatically; she’s told the same story for decades, and we’re sure it’s part of her own version of her truth/self-identity. While it may be convenient and contrived, the objective truth is she was a poor black girl born during a time of racial segregation, and it’s clear that if she wanted to escape that poverty-stricken life, she had to cut some corners. Her male counterpart and lover was a white man, and while they were romantically involved in the 1960s there was a law banning them from marrying because of their races. None of this excuses her behavior or criminality, but we felt contextualizing her life like this makes her motivations a little easier to understand.
Ultimately, we feel the greatest injustices against Doris were caused by Doris herself. We tried to illustrate the consequences of her life of crime by showing that her choices as a parent, amongst other things, are indicting of her character. By the end of the film, it’s clear Doris hasn’t been entirely honest and we leave it to viewers to reflect on the meaning of truth and justice.
How would you handle the film if featuring her recent trial wasn’t possible? Would you say that your film relies on this for narrative shape and suspense?
We didn’t start out knowing about the trial that we followed in the film. We were just fascinated by Doris as a complex human being and thought her life would make a great portrait. Once we learned about the trial, we knew it could make a great throughline for the documentary. The trial allowed us to use conventional dramatic elements to create a narrative structure from which to weave her larger life story, but it also allowed us to reveal more of Doris’ character in the way that she reacts to the court-case. Her guilt or innocence was always a mystery to us – clearly she’s a career criminal who has lied for decades, but we felt some of the evidence against her was dubious, and the fact that she turned down a three-month plea deal to risk five years in prison (at 80) just didn’t add up. It was quite a shock to us when she confessed in jail after boldly professing her innocence for the past year. We felt conned. But we then realized the trial material gave us the opportunity to share our emotional experience with an audience. We wanted viewers to feel as conned as we did, and we did our best during the edit to create the Doris Payne experience for an audience. Without the trial, the film we would have needed to handle her story a lot differently and create more of a poetic character study.
We’d like to hear about the most rewarding parts of making the film, and of talking with Doris.
KM: I never thought I would become friends with a jewel thief, but I did. It’s hard not to fall in love with Doris. That’s one of her biggest strengths. She knows how to charm and disarm anyone. We wanted to give that same experience to viewers. So even though you know she’s a thief, you still are cheering for her.
MP: Doris is charismatic, charming, and frankly a lot of fun to be around, but she can also be demanding and mercurial. It was challenging making a film about someone with such varied character traits, and in some ways just finishing the film seemed like its own reward! Doris is clearly a flawed person, but when we met her she was already in her late 70s and like so many elderly people, she was happy to share stories about her life lessons; listening to her theories on dealing with disappointments and successes was instructive. She and her friend Jean (now deceased) both had wicked senses of humor and loved to tell jokes. There was often a lot of laughter when we were with them, and I’d say that was the most rewarding part of making the film.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We wish we’d had a budget for the film! We started off filming to make a pitch-tape to get funding and things kept happening in Doris’ life, so we kept filming – and charging everything on our credit cards.
We would have chosen animation instead of recreations to illustrate her past, as we feel they would have better represented Doris’ unorthodox sense of reality. Eventually we got to the point where we felt like we just needed to finish the film. And so we did.
The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne is playing, through June 10th, at New York’s Film Forum.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview Editor of Film International. He teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ and is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012).