How docuseries Philly D.A. is giving an inside look at America’s criminal justice system
Published on January 29, 2021
In tribute to teams that bring movies to life, we're talking with producers, directors, writers, editors, and other crew members to learn how they collaborated and completed their films despite the challenges of pandemic lockdowns. Today, we’ll hear from Yoni Brook, Co-Director, Producer, and Cinematographer of Philly D.A., which premieres February 2 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
The aptly named docuseries follows the unexpected path of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a political outsider seeking to reform the criminal justice system in a city with one of the highest incarceration rates in America. Using rarely seen behind-the-system footage from Krasner’s office and beyond, the docuseries gives an unfiltered look into the social and political issues that have uniquely plagued the US for decades.
Dropbox: I’d love to start by talking about the origins of the project. What first attracted you to the idea of a documentary on Larry Krasner?
Yoni Brook: The project began when Larry Krasner was running to be D.A. I live in Philadelphia. My creative partner on the project, Ted Passon, also lives in Philadelphia, and we'd heard about this person running to be D.A. ‘Stunt’ is maybe too strong of a word, but it didn't seem like something that was really going to happen. This person who made his career suing the police department 75 times didn’t seem likely to become our city’s top law enforcement officer. He seemed like an outsider making a political statement rather than actually run to win.
We started filming it thinking maybe it'd be a short film, something happening in our backyard. But once he won the primary and then general election, we realized, oh my goodness, this is going to be one of the first times that a complete outsider has taken over the most powerful law enforcement agency in a major metropolitan city—and one with one of the highest incarceration rates in America. We didn't know how to make a movie about this. We didn't know how to make a movie inside a prosecutor's office that has detectives guarding the doors.
We didn't know how to do it. And it helped that Larry Krasner didn't know how to be a D.A. yet, either.
"This is stuff that you never get to see, because the prosecutor's office is a black box. Nobody would let you inside one before until Larry Krasner." —Yoni Brook
We were figuring it out alongside each other for the first couple of months: negotiating our access, making relationships within the office, showing up every day and figuring out what kinds of things we would capture and what things we couldn’t. We can't film in courtrooms in Philadelphia—the bread and butter of court TV and true crime dramas. We would never get to see that. So we tried to embrace that limitation, and figure out what can we actually see? What we could see inside the DA’s office is what you've never seen in any other show—the actual gears that make the justice system work. What are the policy decisions that inform how many people get arrested, that inform how many years someone goes to prison, that inform whether somebody gets the death penalty? This is stuff that you never get to see, because the prosecutor's office is a black box. Nobody would let you inside one before until Larry Krasner.
It sounds like you intuitively sensed that this is a moment in history that needed to be captured. I'm curious, when did you wrap production?
We still haven't wrapped actually. Sundance is showing two episodes, but we have eight episodes in the series, so some editing on the latter episodes is continuing. The storylines we filmed all culminate in late 2019, early 2020. We did film through the George Floyd protests, partly because we tell the story of police violence in our series. We wanted to see how this cultural moment would would affect it.
Was it motivated by the Black Lives Matter movement and the events you were seeing in the news?
A lot of the things that Larry Krasner was talking about in 2017 seemed a little bit shocking. At the time, there had never been a politician who ran for that office in Philadelphia who would say that the criminal justice system is racist, point blank. Now in 2020, it almost seems like a given. So it felt like we had to close the loop on the cultural conversation. The progressive prosecutor movement began before Larry Krasner won and has continued to grow and evolve since we started filming, in other cities like Boston, Dallas, and Los Angeles.
I’d loved to talk a little bit about your collaborative process. How did you and Ted meet and begin working together?
We both live in West Philadelphia, a mutual friend who's an editor introduced us and we went on a bike ride together to an old cemetery. I think that was like five, six years ago, when I first moved to Philly. Ted knows a lot about Philly. He’s lived in Philly for a long time, I'm a more recent transplant. Ted's deep knowledge of the city, and having family members who’ve been incarcerated, is crucial to the show’s sense of connection with the city. The other key team member is producer Nicole Salazar, who moved to Philadelphia for over two years to help us tell these stories and expand beyond the walls of DA’s office.
I'm always curious about partnerships and whether personal chemistry and rapport are more important than the complementary technical skills, or whether it's some blend?
I think it's a blend of the two. There were certain things that I like to do that Ted didn't like to do. I would really like to go and ingratiate myself to the folks that Larry Krasner fired or didn't like. I’d go to their going away parties to try and meet them and understand why they hated Larry Krasner. Ted didn't like that stuff as much.
But Ted has been visiting prisons for 20 years, and had a great rapport with folks who were incarcerated. I think he drove across the state of Pennsylvania, which is like an eight hour drive, five times for one story about a juvenile lifer in our series. His commitment to doing that is incredible.
Technically, I have a background in cinematography. I was primarily responsible for setting the look for the series, figuring out how to shoot these policy meetings in ways that didn't look boring, that made you feel like you were in the room and not on a surveillance camera.
Ted was running sound. Even though Ted's not a professional sound recordist he would use his boom almost like a conductor, sometimes pointing things out to me to record them. One interesting technical note, we almost never used any microphones on people. Wearing a wire in law enforcement is a thing. So we would always have to turn the camera off when they were talking about something sensitive, or we had to leave the room and we’d just move the boom away so people knew we weren't recording. That helped engender trust with folks as well.
How have how you managed to continue the production process during lockdowns related to the pandemic?
Well, our office is totally empty right now. The thing about this office is you can look across out the window, you can see the DA’s office right there, and we're right across the street from Larry Krasner’s office. That proximity is key, it enabled us to be in his office nearly every day.
Now that lockdown happened, it's been painful for us to not all work together in the same room here in Philadelphia. But the silver lining is that we've gotten to expand our talent pool. We’re working with incredibly talented editors in Los Angeles and Chicago—expanding the talent pool has been great. Our composer, Dan Deacon, is in Baltimore. Our colorist is in France right now, and we're working on the color remotely with her. That’s been a big shift.
We have so many collaborative tools at play right now to make it work. We’ve been using Dropbox from the beginning as a central place where we could keep all of our archival material so that as we added stuff, people could see what it was. It was also a place where we could put like dailies of raw footage to share amongst the team without having to go into our hard drives. We also have a lot of sensitive footage, so it needed to be secure.
What are the things that you've learned in the process of making Philly D.A. that you would carry forward into your next project?
I've learned in this project to be flexible and adaptable to what the material is saying and what it wants to be—but also not too flexible. Because a lot of times, if you just let the stories take you where they want to go, things have dead ends, things don't present themselves, and we’d have to go and find other characters or other sides of the story. We didn't just stay in Larry Krasner’s office. We go and talk to police officers, defense attorneys, people who are incarcerated. If we would have just stayed with the access that we had, that would’ve felt like really unique on its own, but we would’ve missed out on seeing the 360 view of what dominoes are falling. In a sense, I learned to fight for the access that you can get, but to not be satisfied that that's the end of the story. The story is always told through other viewpoints, and to push myself to go get them because whenever we went and got them, it made what we had shot in the DA’s office even better.
"Now that lockdown happened, it's been painful for us to not all work together in the same room here in Philadelphia. But the silver lining is that we've gotten to expand our talent pool." —Yoni Brook
What would you like the audience to take away from watching this series?
One of the core takeaways from this series is actually something bigger than criminal justice issues and mass incarceration—it's about the capacity to make change. We have so many bureaucratic legacy systems in our world right now that it can feel daunting to try and chip away at them. What's the point if they're going to persist, even after us? One of the key takeaways of the series is that change is possible. It's messy, and it's not without bumps in the road.
But if people can look at what's happened in Philadelphia, and see that they too can be outsiders that make change. That can be applied to the myriad of other intractable problems that we face right now. In this political moment, we need stories of not just people who get elected, but people who then do the work. That’s one of the key key reasons that we made this series.
It looks like it's going to be available on PBS. When people can look for that?
It'll be on PBS Independent Lens this spring! And then it'll live beyond that on TOPIC via streaming platforms like Apple TV and Amazon.
To check out the Sundance Film Festival’s new online platform, visit festival.sundance.org
To read about the making of this year’s films, visit our Sundance 2021 Featured Collection.