THE STORY BEHIND the "Kids for Cash" documentary is a great object lesson for young filmmakers: It never hurts to ask.
Director Robert May was reading about the notorious scandal - Luzerne County judges sending kids to a for-profit prison they'd secretly been paid to enable - and thought it would make a good documentary.
He would know - May produced Errol Morris' "Fog of War," an extended interview with Robert McNamara that gave the former secretary of state enough rhetorical rope to hang himself.
But May didn't want to undertake the project unless he could convince at least one of the two accused judges to talk on camera.
Hopes were low. We're talking about judges, lawyered-up judges, subjects of ongoing investigations.
"We honestly thought it would be impossible. There's no way they would agree to it. Not the subjects of state and federal investigations. But we figured, nothing ventured, nothing gained."
To his astonishment, he won consent from both men - Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella. And they agreed to talk outside the presence of their attorneys.
Ciavarella was a name that May, a Luzerne country resident, already knew. He was a well-known, get-tough judge who visited high schools and talked up his zero-tolerance policy for "violence" (often mischief), and promised to follow through by incarcerating juvenile offenders.
These appearances made Ciavarella a local law-and-order star. Now, with fortunes reversed, the judge was being excoriated in the press.
"What struck me was it had become a very one-sided story about an open-and-shut case. It struck me that there must have been more to it. How did a pillar of the community turn into someone so evil, if you believe the stories?"
So he contacted Ciavarella, and made his pitch.
"I said to [Ciavarella], I wanted to hear the story told from the side of the so-called villain, and, by the way, you know that's you, right?"
Ciavarella agreed, and presented himself for a series of lengthy interviews, growing visibly older (the process took a few years), if not visibly more apologetic.
Ciavarella never backed away from his consistent belief in zero-tolerance enforcement, even among juveniles - consistency, in fact, is the basis of his defense. He says he was a zero-tolerance advocate before, during, and after his under-the-table (out of view of the IRS) subsidies.
As for May, he's done an about face.
"I used to believe in zero tolerance, but I don't believe in zero tolerance anymore," May said. "How can you as a filmmaker? You have to have empathy, you have to try to see things from another point of view. It's really the basis of a good documentary."
May said he also became educated on the sinister dynamics created by for-profit prisons.
"If a hotel has an 80 percent occupancy rate, then that hotel's pretty happy. But what if the occupancy rate is only 50 percent. I think you're pretty motivated to get that rate higher, and I think that's fraught with potential problems. I think this case is pretty clear evidence of that."