The FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list is reserved for some of the most violent and heinous criminals in the world. Osama bin Laden, Whitey Bulgar Jr., Ted Bundy, and James Earl Ray are some of the notable fugitives to have made the list. While doing research for American Murderer, I learned that the subject of the film, Jason Derek Brown, occupied a spot on the list from December 8, 2007, to September 7, 2022. Upon seeing a picture of Jason, who sported a red hoodie and spiked hair in his mugshot, I said to myself, “This guy was on the list at the same time as bin Laden? What did he do?”
Director Matthew Gentile shared a similar reaction and decided to center his first feature film around Brown in American Murderer. Written and directed by Gentile, Tom Pelphrey stars as Brown, a charming scammer who will do anything for a quick buck. When pressed for money, Brown conducts a scheme that puts him on the FBI’s radar as Agent Lance Leising (Ryan Philippe) attempts to capture the con man. American Murderer depicts the events before, during, and after Brown’s biggest crime as he fights to stay undetected by the authorities.
In an interview with Digital Trends, Gentile talks about turning Brown’s story into a feature film, why he did not reach out to the Brown family, and what he thinks Jason might be up to these days.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Like a lot of people, I did not know a lot about Jason Derek Brown. How did you first come across Jason’s story?
Matthew Gentile: Well, you just set me up perfectly to answer your question. I first learned about the case around the time it happened. I was 14 in 2004 when the movie is set and the crime took place. Before I wanted to be a filmmaker, I wanted to be an FBI agent. I used to go on the FBI.gov website and peruse the fugitives list and just see if I could help catch a criminal for them and get the reward money. It was really interesting.
As I saw his name, his face really was what struck me, his mug shot, which we show in the film that he took at a gun store three weeks before the crime was committed. Here was this guy, a surfer dude with spiky blond hair, frosted tips, and a red hoodie. I remembered his face. He resembled Sean Penn from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He resembled Sean Penn so much that Sean’s body double has been arrested twice in the 18 years he’s been missing.
As you can imagine, the face just struck me. He stood out because you look at the FBI Top 10 list and you’re seeing guys like Osama bin Laden and Whitey Bulger. I mean menacing criminal masterminds, and then this surfer dude punk from Southern California. Something about him didn’t fit the bill, you know? So the face I remembered it.
Cut to 14 years later, I graduated film school at AFI, and I am trying to figure out what my first feature film is. I was, at the time, directing a commercial, and I was still in my apartment storyboarding. When I storyboard, I always have something on in the background. All of a sudden I had CNBC on. American Greed came on the TV and Jason Derek Brown’s face popped on the television. I was just immediately brought back like, “Wait a second. That’s the guy from 14 years [ago]?” I just remembered him, and I was like” He’s still missing? What happened here?”
That began the rabbit hole. As I started to research it and watch more and more stuff about him and read everything I could get my hands on, I just asked myself, “Why isn’t this a movie?” I would pay good money to see that movie on Friday night, a film about this guy. For a long time, I really kicked around what the movie was, but ultimately what drew me to it was there was this charismatic con man who meant so many different things to so many different people and committed this horrendous crime that he’s remembered for ultimately. But, what are we left with at the end of the day? I saw it really as a story about family and the dark side of the American dream. Naturally, it swept me up.
You have the idea, you write the script, but then, you decide to make a proof of concept first. Take me through the decision to go that route.
Well, what had happened was I was kicking the script around and anyone who works in Los Angeles knows that it can be hard to get your script read. Before I went to film school, I worked at William Morris Endeavor, which is a huge talent agency. I used to be an assistant, and I was the guy reading people’s scripts so I knew how hard it is just to get people to crack a script open, period. I was sending American Murderer as a script around. It was hard to get people [to] commit to reading it. The script is also being worked on.
I realized, though, that the best way to get this movie out there would be to take a scene from it and shoot it as a selling tool to get people to open the script and look at it. Do a five-minute scene to really show what the tone, the vibe, and the mood feels like. It was different from shorts I had done before. I went to film school at the AFI where I made two thesis films, Frontman and Lawman, and those much more were like traditional shorts that told a story and the narrative.
Whereas the proof of concept short for American Murderer was just one scene. We shot the SWAT invasion from the film. A pretty hard scene to tackle, but we did it all in one shot. I had Jonathan Groff in it at the time when he was attached to the project, and he was excellent. That short really helped build momentum for the script and got these two companies, Traveling Picture Show and Gigi Films, interested in taking a shot on a first-time director.
I also read that you didn’t consult the Brown family during this process. First of all, why did you decide to not consult the family, and did they try to contact you during this process?
During the process of making the movie, no they didn’t. My reason for not contacting the Brown family or really most people who are portrayed in the film — it’s not just them. I didn’t contact Lance Leising either — because I had so much information. There was so much out there about this case and the story. I feel the film is pretty compassionate toward the family. That’s my feeling.
But that said, when you were in the position of being a screenwriter and a director and you are trying to tell a story, I was not striving to be accurate with this film. That was never an intention of mine. It’s true crime fiction, which is a good way to categorize it. It’s not a documentary. Some documentaries blur that line as well. I was never trying to be completely accurate. I was trying to be truthful from an emotional standpoint.
I chose not to contact them [the Brown family] because I didn’t want them to filter my lens on this character of Jason Derek Brown because this is a very complex, layered, contradictory, paradoxical character. And so I wanted to be able to look at him in as unflinching of a way as possible and how the good aspects of him and as well as the bad, which there are probably more. I wanted to really show that in full, and I felt that talking to family or people really, really close to him, could get me looking at it a different way. I wanted to stay out of that so that was my reason.
Tom Pelphrey is at the center of the film as Jason, this boisterous, animated con man. How did you and Tom build this character together, especially if you weren’t consulting the family?
As I said, there was a ton of research that was done on the project. There was a lot of information out there. This story was covered very well. American Greed, Dateline. There have been books written about it. There were articles nonstop. I mean there are a lot of accounts. I did do interviews with some people who I won’t name because I don’t want to out them. I did conduct interviews with people who knew them [the family] and him. [Interviewees] Gave me some great stories and anecdotes and research. There are composite characters who are based on those people.
The script was worked on for a very long period of time. Part of what the movie’s about too, by the way, is testimony. One of my favorite films, [Akira] Kurosawa’s Rashomon, is where you see multiple people giving a different account of the same thing that happened. That’s what American Murderer is. It’s all these people giving their accounts of a person that’s tricky and contradictory as Jason Derek Brown. He meant so many different things to so many different people, and that’s what I think makes him so interesting. It was always about seeing Jason through all these multiple perspectives.
When Tom came on, and I think Tom did a really incredible job bringing Jason to life and embodying him, it was a challenging performance. It’s a tricky line you have to walk, but Tom is very skilled and very nuanced. He understands character really well and had all the right things Jason needed. He had the charisma, the physicality, the ability to be gentle, and the ability to be sociopathic and scary. That’s why I think he’s such a great actor. Tom really went with what was in the script. I know [he] did a lot of his own research.
Keep in mind, we also had a lot of stuff on Jason. We had a lot of photographs of him. We had a lot of video footage, some of which is recreated in the movie, from surveillance, from the boat party that we recreated. That was a real video Jason made. Jason put a lot of images of himself out there into the world. In many ways, he was an Instagram influencer before the thing existed because the film is set in 2004.
The image Jason was putting out there, I think, gave Tom and me a lot to work with. Actually, I just watched an interview he did promoting this movie, and he was talking about how those multiple perspectives on Jason that were in the script helped him form his character. How his sister saw him, how his mother saw him, how his brother saw him. I never knew that until I saw the interview a day ago.
Tom really got it. He really understood Jason on a gut level. We worked together quite closely. We did a lot of Zooms. It was shot in the middle of a pandemic so we didn’t have rehearsal space. We did a lot of Zooms where we go through the script and strip out all the action lines. He and I would ask questions and talk about things and really question how we were portraying him. It was important to him that we weren’t looking at Jason, or at least in the terms of how he’s playing it, as a sociopath where he’s judging.
I think he approached this like a wounded immature manchild who miscalculated. In his [Jason] own mind was desperate, even though that mindset was completely wrong and horrible and horrendous. So Tom played it, I think, in that way. I think that’s why people get really engaged by the performance because he’s such a great actor, and he understood how to ride that line very carefully.
What do you think Jason is up to these days? Is he alive in the states or out of the country?
Well Ryan, as he promotes the film, keeps saying, “Let’s go catch this guy because he’s probably still out there.” There’s a good chance he is. He has been hidden for a very long time. It’s been almost 20 years so I think we may never know because his father also stayed in hiding. I mean if enough people see the movie and someone recognizes him, they will.
I think he’s obviously done a very good job of hiding under the radar. If he is around, he’s probably living somewhere very low profile and able to convince people that he’s completely someone else because he was very good at that. As we know, he was a very convincing person so nothing would really surprise me. [Laughs]
American Murderer is available on demand and on digital.
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