Lone Star Film Festival Insight

Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest examines one prisoner's harrowing ordeal

Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest examines prisoner's harrowing ordeal

Editor’s note: CultureMap has partnered with the Lone Star Film Festival to publish a series of filmmaker interviews conducted by LSFF organizers.

The documentary feature The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest screens at the 2014 Lone Star Film Festival on Friday, November 7. Mark DeFriest was condemned to Florida’s worst prison after a lone psychiatrist reversed four court-appointed psychiatrists and declared DeFriest was faking mental illness.

More than 30 years later, DeFriest is still struggling to understand how to survive a rigid and unforgiving system, while his remaining supporters forge an unlikely alliance to argue for his freedom in front of the Florida Parole Commission.

Director Gabriel London and editor Nick Clark spoke with Lone Star Film Festival organizers about the making the film, including how they gained such intimate access to their subject.

Lone Star Film Festival: Your team had such great access to Mark, including extensive excerpts from his personal journals. Was he open with all of you from the start, or did that come from trust built over time?

Gabriel London: Mark has a way about him that is very matter of fact, and that made it possible from the start to get hold of what might seem like very intimate pieces of his story. In fact, the letters were really how I first got to know Mark, and though they were dark and in ways otherworldly — describing day-to-day life on Florida State Prison’s X-wing — the person I corresponded with and later met was very much like, “Sure, go ahead. If you think it’s gonna help anybody.”

He really saw himself as being beyond help, but that proved not to be the case, either.

LSFF: The animation in the film is so well-done. Who was responsible for those segments, and, as the editor, can you explain the process of incorporating them?

GL: The animation was done by Thought Cafe, a Toronto-based studio that does a lot of “social impact” and cause-based work, and given that's what my company Found Object does with short documentaries, we knew their work. They were a full studio capable of dealing with our large variety of materials from archival footage to court files, and finally, of course, the large amount of animated sequences we wanted to do.

Nick Clark: The animated sequences were a collaborative process. Each one started with a “radio edit,” or version of the scene cut using interview bites, sound effects and whatever raw visual materials we had at our disposal: documents, photos and other still images used as placeholders. I still remember doing a Google Image search for “prison lunch tray” to slot into one sequence (not advisable outside of a purely professional context).

Those early versions gave us a sense of pacing, rhythm and tone, which we then handed off to Thought Cafe to really bring to life visually. They would go to work and send back storyboards, then basic animatics and finally fully animated sequences. At each stage, we cut that material back into the film, sometimes tweaking timing or shot order as their work influenced our editorial decisions.

LSFF: What is the current status of Mark DeFriest? Do you think that this film impacted Mark’s fate in any way?

GL: Mark’s next parole hearing is November 19, and we’ve seen audiences really getting engaged after each new screening. I brought the film to Tallahassee over the summer to show the Parole Commission, and my sense is that they are looking carefully at what can be done to find a solution in Mark’s case. There is a long way to go, but the film itself — the camera’s focus and my involvement — has helped to catalyze a tangible change from hopeless to hopeful in Mark DeFriest.

His behavior has improved, and the prison system has taken notice by giving him a lower security level and opportunities to learn and work. Now we’ll see if the Parole Commission rewards that with a new opportunity for freedom.

LSFF: Overall, this film seemed to be more than just a profile of Mark DeFriest, also emphasizing some of the injustices within the Florida penal system. Was that tone planned from the beginning, or did it develop as your crew learned more about Mark?

GL: The story just lays bare many of the issues tied up in prisons today. Mark’s treatment touches on many themes you hear about: the treatment of the mentally ill behind bars, long-term solitary confinement, and longer and longer sentences. I think one story can be a window on a whole world, and that's potentially the case here.

LSFF: Nick, you worked on this project for a long time. Can you talk about your role as editor and the challenges in seeing such a thorough project through to completion?

NC: I first came onboard in 2009 to cut a fundraising trailer for the film. Much of the footage had yet to be shot, and the animation as it appears in the completed film was still just a twinkle in Gabe’s eye. But even at that stage, it was immediately clear that this would be an editor’s dream in many ways: mind-bogglingly good material, an eminently important story, and the fact that we were conjuring Mark’s past through animation and other means offered creative opportunities that just wouldn’t have been possible in a film that was more traditionally or formally rigid.

There were certainly challenges along the way — staying clear-eyed and objective enough to re-edit or completely re-imagine scenes that were originally cut years prior one among many — but ultimately it seemed impossible that I would do anything but hold on for dear life until the thing was done. It’s unusual for a project to retain a single editor throughout such a lengthy post-production process, and I’ve always been grateful for that commitment and trust from Gabe.

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The 2014 Lone Star Film Festival takes place November 5-9 in Sundance Square in Fort Worth. For more information, visit the festival website.

The Life and Mind of Mark Defriest
The Life and Mind of Mark DeFriest screens on Friday, November 7, as part of the 2014 Lone Star Film Festival. Photo courtesy of Lone Star Film Festival