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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Jul. 6, 2010 | 11:41 PM

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An Interview with Josh Zeman, co-director of CROPSEY

How did you first become aware of this story?

Cropsey was the escaped mental patient who used to snatch kids in a well-told urban legend that revolved around the abandoned Willowbrook State School, Seaview Tuberculosis Wards and Farm Colony in the middle of Staten Island. I went to summer camp next to these buildings and Barb lived not far down the road. We both played in the woods surrounding the buildings. For me, whenever we had a campfire, our counselors would tell us about Cropsey, and then take us into the abandoned institutions to scare us. Usually they would chase us with an axe - at least it looked that way to a nine-year-old.  We would go running, screaming our heads off.

When we became teenagers, the buildings were still there and still very creepy, so it was a popular place to have night time keg parties, or take your girlfriend or boyfriend after a date. The point, of course, was to get scared and make out.  When Jennifer Schweiger disappeared in 1986… that was when we thought maybe there was something to the story.

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When did you first decide to make the documentary?

Even though Barb and I grew up only a couple of miles away from each other, we didn’t meet until we were in our 20’s and had already moved off the Island. We both knew the urban legend of Cropsey and what happened to Jennifer Schweiger. I think we were both interested in the real crime as well as the urban legend, and how the storytelling of these two scenarios often overlapped, especially in a “small town” like ours.

We talked about making a documentary from our first meeting. I was working in film and writing screenplays and Barb was just out of grad school and working in social service, with prisoners. So we went to Staten Island on a Sunday afternoon to check out Willowbrook and everything was exactly as we remembered it—maybe even more disturbing because we found a lot of children’s toys and cafeteria trays strewn all over the woods. We even came upon the original playground set. The swings and slide were rooted into the soil and there was a rusted roundabout with a tree growing straight through it. After that day, we started researching the children who had disappeared from the Island.  A few months later, the District Attorney announced that Andre Rand, the man convicted for kidnapping Jennifer Schweiger, had been indicted for the disappearance of Holly Ann Hughes in 1981. They were reopening a 20 year old case. Rand was coming back to the Island to stand trial and we knew we would have an opportunity to find out whether our boogeyman was real. At that point we knew we had to make this movie.

Were any of the officials who ran Willowbrook ever brought to justice for the atrocities obviously committed there?

Not that I know of.

Why did it take so long for the place to shut down?  I’m stunned that the Geraldo report didn’t bring the place to immediate closure—not to mention lawsuits.

It was actually Senator Robert Kennedy who first discovered the overcrowding at Willowbrook. The school was only supposed to hold up to 4,000 residents and in the mid-sixties, when he visited, it was 2,000 people above capacity. There were others on the island—journalists and advocates—who tried to report the conditions there, but Geraldo broke the story nationally in 1972. It took three years from Geraldo’s report and eight years from when the New York Senator declared the institution “unfit for animals to live in” for State government to issue a decree on improving conditions at the school. In fact, it wasn’t until 1983 that the school announced plans to gradually shut down. In 1987, Willowbrook was finally closed and then a portion of the property was sold in 1989 to the City. Now it’s the College of Staten Island. I think the residents and staff of Willowbrook, and all Staten Islanders, were victims of politics and bureaucracy. It’s as simple as that.

Did the City or law enforcement do anything about the numerous squatters living below Willowbrook?

There were numerous efforts made in those days to reach out to homeless people who were living outdoors. The NYPD, local churches and synagogues, and community organizations all tried to help people who were living in campsites around the Island. Rand was apparently a known character to workers at a local soup kitchen that he frequented over the years. In the case of Willowbrook specifically, in 1987 the 365-acre facility was overgrown and abandoned. So it was difficult to locate people who were living there, especially since they could move around through the underground tunnels.

How did the “urban legend” stories affect you when you realized the truth?

As kids, I think we only suspected that the urban legend was true. When we discovered all of the connections as adults, while we were making the movie, we were pretty horrified by what went on under our noses. We were even more disturbed by the way that the Island had been neglected over the years, which really set the stage for these tragedies to occur.

What was the most difficult part about making the film?

Talking with families who’ve had to endure such terrible tragedy. We’d go home every night feeling terrible. It’s such a tough subject. I think the one thing that kept us going was the glimmer of hope that maybe our doc could reveal or uncover a clue that may lead to the discovery of one of the bodies. We really felt this was a possibility. I’m sure a lot of people who deal with tragedy hope that their input may lead to the end of someone’s nightmare. It seems narcissistic, but you can’t help but be swept up in it.

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How long did the film take to make?

The film took nine years to make. We had one of the longest pre-trial motions in New York City history, because Rand was already in jail and part of the DA’s strategy (in our eyes) was to drag the process out so maybe he would slip up and give someone a clue to something.

Were all of the local families cooperative with your project?

We received a lot of cooperation from folks, especially those who searched for the missing children. They felt that this was a significant event in their lives—that they had done something truly important—so they wanted to share their stories with us. The film is about storytelling, so hearing different versions of the events from neighbors and strangers was more important, in some ways, than talking with family members.

In the beginning, some of the family members didn’t really want to speak with us. Rightfully so—they didn’t know us or know what we wanted. I guess when we were still at it after the first year or two, they began to realize how committed we were, so they talked to us.

What has the local reaction been to the film?

We’ve been very lucky—we’ve gotten a positive response and a lot of people have come to see the film. I think when people from Staten Island see the film they remember the tragedies, but also feel good that they live in a place where neighbors came out 5,000 strong when a child went missing, and they identify with those values. The small town feeling is still very much present there.

What do you want people to take away from the experience of seeing this?

When we screened Cropsey at the film festivals, we learned first-hand that most people can recall an urban legend from their youth and most towns have spooky places that kids visit to scare themselves. We really want people to walk away with the feeling that you get when you hear a spooky campfire story. We’d also like people to consider the power of story-telling in a community looking for justice. And finally, I think we’d like people to remember that four of the five children who disappeared on Staten Island from 1972 to 1986 have never been found.

How did you first become interested in film?

My Dad owned a comic book store when I was a kid and then was really involved with the Mystery Writers of America. So I was encouraged from an early age to be a writer. When I was a junior in college I took a summer job with a producer and kind of got interested in the business. Next I got an offer to be a PA for an up-and-coming director on the set of a film that was getting a lot of attention. The catch was that I would have to leave college on the East coast and move to LA. I decided to stay in school, which was a good decision. Shortly after graduation I wrote my first screenplay called “Fresh Kills.”

What films or filmmakers inspire you?

For Cropsey, Barb and I really became inspired by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost, Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Errol Morris’ Thin Blue Line. We also read a lot of true crime, as well as short stories—everything from Edgar Allen Poe to Stephen King.

What is your next project?

It’s always been my intention to develop some of the story lines that we touch upon in Cropsey. We did a lot of research and stumbled on many interesting sub-plots. I’m currently writing a script for a feature that’s a similar mix of genre and true crime.

CROPSEY Official Website

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