When documentary filmmaker Remy Burkel first met Sean Ellis in Oct. 2017 prior to filming his Netflix docuseries “Trial 4,” he was surprised by how calm and self-assured the Dorchester native was.
Ellis had spent the last 22 years in prison for the murder of Boston Police Det. John Mulligan. He was out on bail after a court ruling reversed his convictions of first-degree murder and armed robbery charges, but was facing the prospect of a fourth trial, one that could send him back to prison for life.
“What really struck me was he was very serene, very calm,” Burkel told Boston.com. “I’m thinking, ‘This guy spent 22 years in prison!’ I thought he’d have a lot of tattoos or something. But he was very soft-spoken, very calm.”
Plenty more surprised Burkel during the two-plus years he spent filming “Trial 4,” which debuts on Netflix today.
In a phone interview from his home in France, Burkel discussed how he thinks the “Netflix effect” may have factored into Ellis’ case, his views on corruption in the Boston Police department, and the timeliness of “Trial 4” given the nationwide protests calling for police reform.
When did you begin filming “Trial 4,” and how long did the project take?
I met Sean Ellis in October 2017 and we started filming in February 2018, all the way through to March 2020. We finished principal filming the week before the confinement in France — I’m based in Paris, so we flew back and it hit us right after. We were in confinement for part of the editing, which was strange.
What was your first impression of Sean when you met him?
I had read a lot about the case and had seen all the footage and pictures of Sean, this skinny 19-year-old who had been arrested, who looked like a scared deer in the headlights. Then when I met him, this mature, 40-something man walked in. He was a big, strong guy. What really struck me was he was very serene, very calm. I’m thinking, “This guy spent 22 years in prison!” I thought he’d have a lot of tattoos or something. But he was very soft-spoken, very calm. That surprised me.
At the end of the first episode, you also provide a list of people who refused to participate in the documentary. Who on that list do you regret not being able to interview?
There’s a lot of people. We reached out to everyone we could find who was involved in the case, and a lot of people just didn’t want to talk. I wish I could have interviewed more of Mulligan’s family.
We said, “Whoever wants to talk, please talk. We’re not trying to twist your words, we’re trying to be as objective as possible.” We had lots of people come forward, including several law enforcement officers. I let them speak their piece, the way they saw it. They still think Sean Ellis is guilty, even if a lot of the proof says he’s not, even if there’s a timeline problem in the case. But they spoke their piece and we kept it in there, because you have to if you want to be objective.
Rather than rely on janky “America’s Most Wanted”-esque dramatic recreations, you used animation to illustrate some of the more gruesome moments in this case. How did you arrive at that decision?
I had always wanted to work with animation in a documentary. It gives a bit of poetic license. When this project came up, I knew we had to show that it was a horrendous, violent crime, but I didn’t want to show it in a realistic way.
I thought animation was a little detached from how horrific it was, and it gave us a way to show different points of view. It helped give us a bit of distance from the incident, because it’s a horrendous crime. Mulligan didn’t deserve to be killed in that gruesome, execution-style way. No one does.
As a documentarian, you must do your best to remain an impartial observer, a fly on the wall. What conclusions did you personally draw from your two years working on this project?
One thing I learned and grew to understand was that people being put away for the rest of their life as teenagers, whether they committed a crime or not, that’s not going to help them or offer them redemption. It’s just throwing their life away, locking them up and throwing away the key.
Another thing I learned is that DAs have a huge, huge amount of power, and they are elected officials. People have to get out and vote if they want to change things, like people in Boston did by voting in Rachael Rollins.
The last thing is that where there’s corruption like there was in this case, it affects everything along the way. The silence of the police department — not crossing the blue line — they kept that corruption among themselves and it infected every part of the system. It made them look bad, and it made the justice system look bad.
The system didn’t work during this case, that’s for sure. It broke down and kept breaking down and no one was able to fix it until Rosemary Scapicchio came along. It took her 10 years to get certain documents for a case that started way back in 1993.
There’s even more I learned, and a lot of stuff we had to leave out. Even with eight episodes, we had to trim things in order to tell the story effectively.
As you worked on filming “Trial 4,” Sean’s circumstances dramatically changed in Dec. 2018, with prosecutors opting not to pursue the 4th trial that gives this docuseries its name. What was your original idea for how the series would be structured, and how did that change when Sean suddenly didn’t face the pressure of another trial?
It was going to be a courtroom drama. We had done that before with [Netflix docuseries] “The Staircase” and [Sundance Channel docuseries] “Sin City Law.” But we could feel the change coming on. When Rachael Rollins and a few others were elected, we felt something was going to change. The case had been pushed back three or four times, but we still didn’t expect it to change as fast as it did.
At the time, I felt that the election of Rachael Rollins and the fact that we were filming might have an impact on the outcome. We saw this with “Making a Murder,” another Netflix documentary series, a sort of “Netflix Effect.” People say “Uh oh, they’re filming this, this is going to go out all over the country, maybe worldwide. We better be careful.”
“Trial 4” comes during a year that has been dominated by protests calling for police reform and reinforcing that Black lives matter. Where do you see “Trial 4” fitting into that larger nationwide narrative?
I think it’s a very timely series. It talks about something that happened in 1993, and a conviction in 1995, so 25 years ago. There was clearly racism in this case. There was a wrongful conviction, and a theme of mass incarceration.
Now we get to today, and the question is, have those things changed in the 25, 26 years since that happened? The answer is no, things haven’t changed that much. We’re still dealing with racism, wrongful convictions, mass incarcerations.
Sean’s story is a way to tell a wider story: There are still thousands of wrongful convictions, many involving poor people of color. Sean was a poor Black kid in a poor neighborhood, and he didn’t get a fair chance at a time when it was easy to point a finger. The Charles Stuart case was another example, you just point a finger at a poor Black man in Boston to make a problem go away. That’s the story we wanted to tell, and I think we did it effectively.
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