Documentary producer found compelling story in 1950s crime

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

When director Dan Klores told producer Fisher Stevens about his idea for a new film based on a 1950s crime with a surprising aftermath, Stevens knew immediately it was a winner. The only question was whether they should make it a straight documentary or a dramatization.

“As we researched the story of Linda and Burt, it became obvious that there was only one way to approach this story,” said Fisher Stevens in a recent phone interview. “It could only be a documentary because otherwise the audience just would not believe it was true.”

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That truth is stranger than fiction documentary is Crazy Love, which is playing at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Crazy Love is a New York tale about obsessive love and the on-and-off relationship in 1959 between 32-year-old attorney Burt Pugash and 20-year-old beauty Linda Riss. The documentary was a hit at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and won the documentary prize at the 2007 Santa Barbara Film Festival.

The film’s producer Fisher Stevens is one of the founders of New York’s Tribeca film festival. Stevens is also an actor and director with a long list of Hollywood credits. His family background is Jewish but he was raised in a secular home.

One of the things that appealed to both Fisher Stevens and director Dan Flores was the fact that this is a New York in the 1950s story.

And this is a story that stuck with people. While they were interviewing for the film in the Bronx, Stevens stopped into an old deli. He started chatting with the owner of the deli and when Stevens mentioned that the film was about someone from the neighborhood, the old man immediately asked “Are you making a film about Linda Riss?” It turned out he had met her. “Most beautiful girl I ever saw,” he said, echoing what nearly everyone had told the filmmakers.

“Dan really loves that era, and wanted to use a lot of the music of the time and all that black-and-white film.” said Stevens, referring to Flores’ use of 1950’s hits. Flores also uses black-and-white archival footage, stills and newspaper front pages of the crime coverage, to transport the audience back in time and capture the feel and look of the time period and the place.

“The story also unfolds in chronological order, so the audience moves forward in time along with the people involved,” Stevens said.

Part of why the film is compelling is that the two people involved were so good on camera. “When I first met Burt, I was surprised at how charming and likeable he was,” said Stevens. “Linda is great on camera; she’s like an old movie star. Both of them were very enthusiastic about the project.” Since the film unravels a complex relationship and series of events, they may have wanted to have their own viewpoints better understood.

Actually, the filmmakers had good luck getting other people who knew Linda and Burt to participate. “The only ones who would not participate were Burt’s ex-wife and her second husband and Linda’s boyfriend at the time of the crime,” said Stevens.

The most difficult part of making the film was deciding how and when to reveal certain information. “The story really has three acts, like a play,” said Stevens. “We had to reveal just enough at just the right point in order for the story to work.” Indeed, materials for the press caution against giving away too much information, lest the story be spoiled for the audience.

Stevens also said that they decided against having psychologists explain and analyze the two people involved in this bizarre tale. “It worked out better to have them speak for themselves, to have those who knew them talk about their childhoods, and let the audience draw their own conclusions,” he said.

Both Linda and Burt had few family ties and that may have been part of what drew them together. Revenge, obsession, forgiveness and the remarkable flexibility of human beings are all part of this remarkable saga. This is really the kind of film you cannot describe anyway. One can only say you have to see this for yourself.