Interview: Catherine Legge Talks “Met While Incarcerated”, Prison Wives and Love Itself

We people are very interesting beings. We jump into conclusions so quickly, judging people, gossiping, and everything else that has nothing to do with us, yet we pretend that it does. How many times have we heard stories of prison wives? Women that fall for men that committed a vicious crime? As soon as we hear that story, you don’t have to go far, just check Facebook or Twitter, all the comments being made are enough to suggest that people who call themselves “normal” do not take lightly the news circulated on TV or online.

Produced, written, and directed by award-winning filmmaker, Catherine Legge (Inside the Interrogation Room, The Enemy Within, Billion Dollar Caribou), “Met While Incarcerated” offers a thought-provoking story of love between men and women who fall each other before they get a chance to meet in-person. These women are called Prison Wives because the man they were looking for that could fulfil them, give them a home they never had in their heart, warmth and care, was in a place we normally avoid to get closer – prison.

As part of its upcoming showing on March 31 on CBC’s documentary channel, with the superb soundtrack (by Jadea Kelly who’s releasing the MWI soundtrack May 9th and ready for pre-order now on her website), I had the great pleasure talking to filmmaker Catherine Legge who gladly added insight on a world we would not know much if not for her latest documentary film.

MOVIEMOVESME: What is it that mostly fascinated you about the Prison Wives that actually inspired you to make “Met While Incarcerated”?

Catherine Legge: I suppose at first I thought differently of them. So at first I believed yeah know it was the question of why, right? It’s from… I put it to people like imagine if on your first meeting with someone, you found out the worst thing they’ve ever done. Then it’s bad, like prison bad and then you fall in love. Like that to me is just so surprising, usually we don’t get to know the people we fall in love with… their bad things, we only get to know their good things first. So that’s just a real twist. I wanted to know why and I got… as I got further and further in and met more and more people I’ve probably met, and talk to and read stories of and met in groups more than 100 prison wives, I saw the complexity of it and that they are just like all of us. They’re like all Women, they’re everything from teachers and nurses and executives and writers to people who may have met while inside themselves, people who may have criminal history, people who met through friends. They’re everybody.

MOVIEMOVESME: You met over 100 prison wives. How challenging was it to choose the ones to capture in the film?

Catherine Legge: That’s true. I mean, there are hundreds of stories and all of them within their story have pivotal moments, that’s one of things I realized, and I think I may end up having to do a series about this or a book or something because there are so many incredible stories and they all have important lessons for us, and they’re fascinating. You know, we’re fascinated with prison, we’re fascinated with love. So these were two things, that drew me in but also made it very hard to choose characters. I had… I was embedded in their world almost four years now and have more stories than I can… than I could tell in a lifetime.

So choosing these ones, I picked them because they had… each one of the characters were at a pivotal moment in their relationship, sort of a high stakes moment, and there’s a lot of boredom in the prison life, life; where you just live your life like you’re in a long distance relationship and not a lot happens. But when things happen they’re very big. I chose these three characters because of the stakes.

Journey and Ben were getting married and that was very big. Her family was not supportive and I wanted to follow that journey. Followed them through from the wedding day to a year and a half later. Journey’s parents are going to visit them in prison and they’ve been won over to the relationship.

Then I followed Angela and Michael because of the obvious stakes, in this case, he’s on death row in Louisiana, where every year they debate to either continue or restart executions, which has been on hold for the past… since 2010. Or they debate to abolish the death penalty. That’s something they deal with in their lives every day and especially in a State, like Louisiana, where an eye for eye is still sort of the standard position of those people. That is a very hard thing to do. Is to be a teacher from a nice family and educated and to live that life and know that most around you would probably want the person you love to be executed. So that said high stakes.

Then for Sonny and Brenda, obviously someone coming out of prison after 31 years, the homecoming. All prison lives dream of the homecoming. That’s the big moment when they see all their dreams coming true. I really wanted to be there for something like that.

MOVIEMOVESME: The soundtrack of your film was so impactful. I mean if you choose a different song, it would be a whole different experience. It wouldn’t be as personal… you wouldn’t care… or wouldn’t care or not care about the characters. But it felt so right with this one. It helped to draw the image of love and despair.

Catherine Legge: Oh my god. You know I’m so happy to hear you say that, because the music to me is such an essential part of this film. There are people who didn’t like how much music was in it and told me they found it distracting and I said I don’t care. As a filmmaker, I was struggling the entire time on this journey of my own, where I really wanted people to feel what they felt. I had come to see their love and I had come to feel it weakly through meeting them and knowing them and I thought how am I ever going to bridge that gap between it’s been 78 minutes between completely septically to I understand that this love is real. How will I ever do that.

So, I really had to dig deep and I had Jadea Kelly, who’s the artist who sings the songs and wrote… even wrote songs for the film. She… I went to her and I knew her music and I said, bring what you have to this and she wrote two songs… brand new songs, there were two of her original songs that she’s written and then we did the amazing grace recording. So there’s five songs and they will be released as a soundtrack in May. And she’s touring them, but everyone she brought to me, I would bring to the women and we would all cry over it and say… they said this is us. Music is something that can transcend and it’s something that can bring us to that place.

I really unapologetically, decided to tell a love story. This isn’t a film where I have experts and sociologists and I have people… or even victim’s families. I chose that on purpose, because we’ve heard those stories. They’re not unimportant, but I wanted… I think in the totality of the conversation about The Prison Wives, we’ve heard a lot of one side and I wanted to bring the love story. And have the hundreds of women that I’ve spoken to say “Yes! That’s us! That’s how we feel!” And the music was central to it. So thank you so much for noticing that, because it’s everything. With the choice I made and maybe a provocative one, but I wanted it to transcend and the animation was chosen for that reason. I wanted to be able to live in moments that had happened already and see them as something romantic, the way the women did in their mind. Most of these relationships happen in peoples heads, I mean all relationships do, but these ones especially because they’re not together, they’re separated. This love that’s running around in their head, I wanted viewers to feel that. Yes so… I also went to… I found this woman online, Jodi Sandler who’s our animator. She had animated a music video. It was so touching, I thought… oh wow, it feels like love and how did you bring emotion to drawing characters. So I reached out to her as well and really in between Jadea, the composer and Jodi and myself, the three of us who have no experience in this world, and had to resolve our feelings about it, in the midst of the ‘Me Too’ movement, we all came together and said “How can we bring this love story… how can we make it full?” Jodi as well brought her artistry to it, and so it was very much a collaboration between the three of us, that just… I could not be happier with the way it came out.

MOVIEMOVESME: The film itself is more like an unconventional and irregular love story that maybe yourself, myself, or someone else wouldn’t want to go through but we all know about the unpredictability of love, right? But what have you learned about the love between Angela and Michael, between Brenda and Sonny, between Journey and Benjamin?

Catherine Legge: I think the thing that really strikes me, most about it… especially you know it happens more with people who like Angela and Michael who are likely not to have the happily ever after that they want. I think deep down inside they know that there won’t be a moment necessarily. I mean who knows, there are miracles that happen but Michael probably won’t leave prison. And so, lifer wives; who I’ve met many of, people whose partner is in prison for life without parole or on death row or longer than life sentences. They’re in this unique position of never… of having this fantasy… I couldn’t even call it a fantasy, but hope for something else other than what they have and that is so powerful. To imagine that they will never have that moment together, they’ll never do more than hug quickly and kiss for 3 seconds.

They’ll also never have the vacations or the lying around reading the paper on a Sunday, or go to a movie. Those kinds of things will never happen for them and there are people who have stayed in relationships like that for five, ten, fifteen, thirty years together. That to me, tells me so much more about what connection is really about because there’s a lot of us, like Angela said, who sit at restaurants on our phones now, not even talking to each other. I’m married I know the regular side of everyday life, and so for me the connection that these people have that they can maintain it, it really shows me that love is something that you carry in your heart and it’s always there. I think there’s such a hopeful side to the way that they live, that amazes me especially for the person in prison.

I mean you’re going to talk to Michael today, and Michael… before Angela came along, he’s in Angola prison and after the first 19 years of his life in there, he’s in himself 23 hours a day, one hour out by yourself. You get to go up five streets, three times a week and be in a cage outside. So in many ways, I mean that changed about a year and a half ago, they decided because three prisons sued the prison for torture and so the prison opened it up a bit and gave them visits that are open. So five times a year they get to hug and touch and be close but up until that point and up until she came along, he lived 19 years with almost never touching anyone. At all. Zero touch. The only person who touched him, physically, was a guard who would put his shackles on and off when he got to come outside. So for them, I just think of what love brings to their life and what her love has brought to his and it amazes me.

MOVIEMOVESME: Yesterday I had a very interesting discussion with my colleagues and they said, “Oh you know those women are crazy. How can they fall for someone who committed a violent crime?” And then I looked at them and I said, “Don’t you think somebody has to?” I think somebody has to do that “dirty job” (in a best sense possible) to fall for people the vast majority wouldn’t do otherwise. Do you think the love of Prison Wives really help cure the society by loving those for whom love was denied?

Catherine Legge: I mean I wouldn’t go that far with it actually because I think what happens… what happened with me with the man that I spoke to, is… and it sounds strange, but you very quickly get past their crime. And you just come to see them as people. And so these are people who before their crime were children and had hopes and dreams and people who loved them and if you read the article about Michael, that his best friend wrote, you know, no one could have imagined this being his life. Same with him.

And for the time afterwards, he is… people aren’t defined by their crimes, that’s the first thing that you learn. So the people who say “Oh these women are crazy.” I’ve never met a monster. All of these True Crime Podcasts talk about monsters and I haven’t met one. You know, perhaps they’re out there and definitely the way we hear about them in the media they are, but these are people… these men and they’re funny and smart and charming and kind and fully… full human beings that have so much love still within inside them. The same way all of us do.

So, would I say that someone needs to; No. I would say… there’s… the statistic is there’s three million in prison and in North America and each one of them has anywhere from one to five people who love them. My whole point is this isn’t them, it’s us. This is all of us. Once… especially in the U.S. once you start talking to people and since I made this, you know people will come to me and say “oh well you know, my dad was in prison for a little while.” Or “My brother was in prison for a little while.” And they start to open up about something that’s highly… those people love their father and their brother and their cousin… and their best friend. So they’re… they deserve love just like anybody else. What I would say to people, who said to me like “They shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with these women outside.”, “They shouldn’t be allowed to connect.”, “They shouldn’t be allowed to have these relationships or get married.” I say to them, how little would you let them have?

Like what would be okay with you. That this person who’s committed this crime and paid so far 20 years of their life for it, how little would you allow them? And that’s what I would ask someone who wants to take that position, that if they get to be the decider, what would be okay with them, because we have people throughout our society right now, who are not paying for their crimes. People who have zero accountability and people who have lawyers to put forward their condition and they don’t have to answer for anything in their past. And these men are paying with their lives and so what more can they do.

MOVIEMOVESME: Well, we don’t have to go far. Just look what happened in the United States, the case related to Jussie Smollett, like how come he was released, and not just released – his criminal record has been wiped out. Or Manafort that got four years of prison and time when someone else with less money will have gotten forty years.

Catherine Legge: That’s right. And as you know, Brett Kavanaugh as Supreme Court Justice (laughter), he was creditably accused of sexual assault. He’s been appointed to one of the most powerful positions in the world. He hasn’t been convicted of a crime but it’s just hard to rationalize what accountability means and what… when you someone who has… who pays for thirty with their crimes and they’re terrible crimes, I would never take that away… I’ve talked to a lot of victims and families. I would never minimize the pain and hurt these people have caused, but accountability is another question and these people are paying with their lives and they’ve also said… Ben says when he gets his degree, he said “The most that I could do, is change my life.” “Like I can never take back my crime, I can never account for it with the victims that I’ve left behind, but I can change and it’s the most I can do for them. And I will.” And I mean… what else could we ask?

MOVIEMOVESME: You’ve been going through this love story and we just spoke about prison and we’ve spoken about accountability. Do you believe that prison actually corrects people? Or they make them worse?

Catherine Legge: It’s an interesting question because I think it’s probably a bit of both. Like Sonny, comes out of prison and says, the first thing he says after 31 years behind bars is “Prison saved my life.” And he didn’t have to say that because he was out (laughter). He could have said a lot of other things. Many people statical go into prison and their males in their… you know from 17 to 25 years of age… commit most crimes. They go into prison some of them for life. Because of something that they did at that age. I look at it and say, “Did prison save someone or did becoming forty save someone?” You know, I’m not the person, in my forties that I was in my twenties, and you know I come from… grew-up with a nice life in Canada. Many people I know could’ve been the same people through the slippery slope of crime or addiction or whatever, are at the root causes of people committing crime.

I think prisons a terrible place, I will say that, it’s violent, it is… the way that the system is set up doesn’t incentivize changing your life. The fact that these men, have done it, came from them. It did not come from the system. Do people need to be removed from society, yes and these men would say that they did. They needed to be removed from society, and they needed to go to prison for their crimes and they needed to be forced into account. I don’t know what caused their change but most of it, I think came from inside them. I suppose… and I’m not answering this very well, but I guess that I think that people change themselves. And a lot of it comes from growing up and growing out of a criminal mentality or even just growing up. And seeing the world differently than you do when you’re in your twenties and maybe addicted to drugs.

But anyone who thinks prison is a vacation and these guys are getting off easy, they’re not. It’s terrible. I think actually, fundamentally I think prison is really traumatizing people who probably were already traumatized in their life. And I don’t think that you know people coming out after this amount of time are prepared for the world, I’ll say that. That a lot of the prison wives talk about reentry and homecoming as being very challenging. A lot of people come out of prison with post-traumatic stress disorder, because of the conditions that they live in. And they’re coming into a very fast moving world that is completely different than when they left.

MOVIEMOVESME: What is your takeaway from this story?

Catherine Legge: My main take away would be that we’re not that different and I think we have mentally and even fewer our fascination with crime and punishment. We’ve really separated ourselves into this category of us and them and it’s not real. It’s fabricated. So I would say to read the headlines and understand the horrors of the things that we see in them. But the underlining fact is that these are human beings and I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s true and they have people who love them and these people who love them, have never done anything wrong. We shouldn’t stigmatize them, we shouldn’t stereotype them, we should imagine that they have hopes and dreams, they have love for each other that is just like the ones we have for the people in our lives.

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