May 29, 2024

In “The Ringleader: The Case of Bling Ring,” director Erin Lee Carr revisits the infamous group of Calabasas, Calif. teenagers responsible for burglarizing the homes of celebrities including Orlando Bloom and Paris Hilton. But instead of merely rehashing the splashy story, Carr focuses on Rachel Lee, the alleged ringleader of the Bling Ring, who has never spoken to the media about her role in the 2008/2009 crime.

It took the director 12 months to convince Lee to sit in front of a camera and tell her side of the story. Initially, Lee wanted to do a podcast to maintain her anonymity, but Carr said no. The response was understandable given the director’s track record for making docus, not podcasts, about juicy true crimes. Carr’s credits include “Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall,” “I Love You Now Die,” and “Mommy Dead and Dearest.”

Ahead of HBO’s Oct. 1 premiere of “The Ringleader: The Case of Bling Ring,” Variety spoke to Carr about unreliable narrators, sensational crime stories, and steering clear of independent filmmaking.

Why do you think Rachel agreed to speak with you?

I’ll be careful speaking for her, but she said that it didn’t feel like the right fit until she met me. I think that there are a lot of people that she felt were energetically wanting to take things from her versus give. I make my career in carefully studying complex women, and this is absolutely a part of that inner mandate that I had for myself. So, the body of work really mattered. It maybe didn’t matter to her, but my astrology sign mattered to her. I’m a textbook Aries, and I think she felt we would get along and make something good together.

Did she know you were going to ask her some tough questions?

I told her, “I’m not going be easy on you. This is not going be a fluff piece. This is going to challenge you on what you did.” By the way, this was a crime with victims. I think a lot of people do not feel bad for the celebrities who were the victims of this crime because they have so much stuff. But that’s not what happened here. These people were incredibly violated. And while this is a really interesting story, it’s not lost on me that there were real victims.

You catch Rachel telling lies a few times in the film. Did you want to include those lies to make sure that the audience knows that she is an unreliable narrator?

There was a third camera angle that was inverted, and when I felt like she was lying to me, I went to that angle. She is an unreliable narrator in the sense that she was telling lies for so long that she didn’t really know what was a lie and what was the truth. And that’s why it’s important to do these deep dives many, many years later and then set the record straight.

You were in touch with the other members of the Bling Ring, but none of them were featured in the doc. Why?

I might get some flack for that, but for me, it was so done. When I was making this doc, there was a different project in the works that was going to feature two of the main (Bling Ring) characters. Also, I had so much of what the other members besides Rachel had said in archive.

As you just mentioned, there has been so much coverage of this crime. What made you want to make this doc?

One of the things that I cared a lot about was talking about teenage friendship and how it can go south. So ultimately, this is a portrait of celebrity and excess and greed and avarice and wanting what others have, but it’s also about codependency. I believe that these two kids (Rachel Lee and Nick Prugo) were incredibly codependent and fed off of one another’s insecurities to sort of egg the other one on. I think it took two people to commit this crime. Had it been either one of them on their own, I don’t think it would have happened.

You have an eye for sensational crime stories. How do you know when you found a good topic for a doc?

I call it the “what the fuck” factor. Say that you’re at a party, and people are asking, “What are you working on?” And then when you tell them, they are like, “What the fuck?” and they want to know more. So, in this incredibly crowded ecosystem that is television content, I need to do myself and the networks that I get to work with favor by creating things that already have like a built-in audience. Either it’s juicy, and there’s more to the story, or it’s very disturbing, and you really want to know more, or it’s something that’s literally ripped from the headlines, and you’re able to do it in enough time so that it feels like people are consuming the content that they want.

Unlike a lot of doc filmmakers, you aren’t worrying about who is going to buy your film because your docus have all been commissioned by a network or a streamer. Has that been a conscious choice?

I’ve never done anything independently. One time I was talking to Chris Smith and he was like, “Why don’t you own any of the things that you make?” I said, “I’m not doing that. I’m not giving my own money out. I would never.” It sounds like such a privileged thing, but I would never think of it. I could never finance a project on my own. That said, I have enormous respect for those who do it, but for now, I’m happy to keep making things for people.

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