Television

Patricia E Gillespie on They Called Him Mostly Harmless

TV Fanatic had the opportunity to chat with Patricia E Gillespie, the director behind the compelling documentary They Called Him Mostly Harmless, which is currently airing on Max.

Our conversation delves deep into the motivations and stories that drive Gillespie’s work.

It offers a compelling glimpse into the motivations and insights of a filmmaker deeply engaged with the complexities of human resilience, the transformative power of technology, and the enduring mystery of identity in the digital age.

First of all, I want to mention how much I appreciated The Fire That Took Her and your work on that.

Thank you.

That was just one of the most harrowing accounts I’ve ever seen, and I still think about it two years later.

Thank you so much. Judy was a super special person. She made my job easy by being as amazing as she was.

It’s quite the pivot detailing her efforts for justice and then discovering the identity of a John Doe. What drives you to these personal stories?

You’re getting right into it. I guess I’m referred to a lot as a true crime filmmaker. I don’t necessarily feel like a true crime filmmaker, but I do understand why my work is put into that bucket.

I see myself as a person who is drawn to stories of people trying to become the best version of themselves in adverse circumstances. I think both of these stories live in that world. I keep using this line today. Sorry, it’s not fresh for you, but-

That’s okay.

I think about this David Copperfield, the Dickens book, this idea of whether I work out to become the hero of my own life, these pages must show. I’m really captivated by that question as a filmmaker, and I think sometimes these crime stories just, they’re a setting.

I mean this film, it’s a mystery. It’s got twists and turns. It’s a wild ride, for sure.

The thing that really grabs me is these stories of these women, the sleuths, and also, to a certain extent, the hikers trying to become the heroes of their own lives and figure out what this meant for them and what they’re going to take their engagement with the mythology and the story of Mostly Harmless, what they’re going to take that and do in their own lives.

How are they going to take that offline, so to speak? That’s really what interests me.

I guess I can see that throughline then from Judy’s story because that’s what she was doing. She was put in that situation through no fault of her own, but she was going to make the story hers versus allowing him to be the final chapter of her life.

I think a lot of people can. I think this film also shows people who are in a very, very different way living in adverse circumstances who are maybe judged or feel judged by the outside world saying, “Fuck it. I’m going to be the hero. I’m going to do the thing.”

I admire that, and I love telling stories about it.

The tenacity of people.

Yeah, I think we all have a lot of strength. It’s our choice to access it or not and to endure or to fight and stay good in the face of bad. That’s our choice, but I think we all have the stuff to do it, and I love telling stories about instances where people make that choice.

I also read that you said you were drawn to the story because of its potential to help us think more deeply about what it means to live in this digital age. How do these two things combine for you, and what do you think it means for us to live in this digital age?

I think there’s a feeling that the internet isn’t real life, but as we live our lives increasingly online, it’s becoming real life.

I mean, it’s becoming something that profoundly affects us, and we can see that certainly in this story, in particular through the stories of the sleuths, but the whole story, right?

This guy who wanted to be anonymous and whose goal was to disappear became a folk hero who really impacted people. I think we’re past the point where we can say the internet isn’t real life. The internet is real life.

That means we have to think really hard about how we conduct ourselves there because people are willing to say things they would not say to a person on the street.

People are willing to make assumptions about people that they would not make in a bar, coffee shop, church, school, or workplace. It’s something that concerns me. I think the internet has a tendency, especially social media, to become an outrage machine.

Whatever outrages you the most, whatever is the most controversial gets the most clicks or the most views, or whatever you covet gets the most clicks or the most views.

As the internet becomes real life, I think we have to ask ourselves whether we want to be motivated by those base instincts and reactions or whether we need to think a little more critically about how we behave, how we treat each other, and how we see each other online.

That, to me, is connected. The story is about people wrestling with that. The story is about the assumptions they made and the struggles they went through, and how that online pretend digital space really affected them.

I think a lot of the people in this story are people, not everybody, but I think a lot of them are people who might be dismissed socially either because of their proximity to the internet or because of any one of a number of details about them.

They might be people who are dismissed or looked down on. It was important to me to show that they’re not people who should be dismissed or looked down on, that they’re really complete, complex individuals, and that they’re more interesting than a lot of the shiny, happy people I know.

What you just said reminds me that in real life, people may dismiss the sleuths for many reasons. They may think they’re kooky because of the time they spend on the internet, or they may not have the same education as they do, or their jobs may not be the premier jobs.

The internet becomes a great equalizer because you can’t see all of that information when conversations begin. You can be who you want to be without all that extra baggage, for good or for bad.

For good or for bad for sure, I think sleuthing, in particular, is a way to get some agency. It’s a way where if you live in a world that’s told you you’re not shit, if you live in that world, you can go online, and you can do something.

If you wanted to be a detective and the world thwarted you from that goal for this, that, and the other, you can be a detective online. You can go help solve a case. You can make somebody’s life better, and there is a great equalizer element to it.

On the other side of it, besides those dangers of the outrage machine, it’s also a place where you can grab a good bit of agency for yourself if the world has robbed you of it.

Right, and then, first of all, let me ask you this. Which surprised you more, that Vance was able to completely disappear online as we know it today or that the sleuths, without having that, were able to find him?

Neither of those things surprised me. What surprised me or fascinated me was watching people go through this transition between who they thought he was and who they found out he really was, who they found out Mostly Harmless really was.

I don’t want to spoil it, but you don’t get to see that a lot. We know that the online version of someone is not necessarily the complete story of who they are. We know the person we meet in person may not have that personality online.

We get it, but very rarely are we forced to confront the difference between those two things, and I was most captivated by the different ways in which people reconcile that. In terms of the more brass tacks of that, look, I think it was really hard for Mostly Harmless to do what he did.

I think it was really hard to disappear. I think it was very much connected to who he was in life that he was able to be so successful at disappearing. I think it’s an interesting story that shows it’s more impossible than ever to disappear because he did a really good job.

If it wasn’t for the science Othram used and the information that was quite literally in his bones, they might not have ever found him. The sleuths ultimately got the hit that solved this case, but without the information, Othram was able to give them through the autosomal DNA, I wonder if the case would’ve been solved.

Right, but at least they had that. Through the film, through everything else, they had the ability to come in contact with that DNA and take their search a little further.

For sure, I mean, they crowdfunded that. It was a massive effort. Othram, the company that features in the film, has a crowdfunding platform called DNA Solves, where you can contribute to other cases.

I also just want to take a moment to mention a lot of times, these cases get solved by visibility, whether that visibility leads to crowdfunding these cases or whether that visibility leads to the right person seeing the missing person’s poster and calling in with the right piece of information.

Visibility is a big part of what solves these cases. Mostly Harmless got a lot of visibility because of who he was. He was a relatively good-looking white guy found in a very mysterious circumstance, and there was a perception that this shouldn’t have happened.

No one should be found unidentified deceased, no matter who they are or what they do. Everybody’s family deserves closure. Everybody deserves the dignity of being identified.

I do hope that this story encourages people to look a little deeper at the issue of unidentified deceased people in this country. There are thousands of them waiting to get their names back and go home, and not all of them are as likely to go viral.

They’re not youngish, relatively good-looking white men found in super mysterious click-baity circumstances.

Some of these people are, you have immigrants. You have sex workers. You have people of color. You have the LGBTQ community, all of which have an unconscious bias in society, and those things may not be getting shared. They may not be getting the visibility.

They may not be treated with the care and the feeling of tragedy that each one of those cases deserves because they were all human beings, and they were all loved, and the circumstances of the death or who the person was in life mean very little.

Everybody deserves that dignity, and their families deserve it too.

Did who he was wind up changing the direction of your film at all in the way that it started and the way that it ended?

I came to the film when they had already identified him. I think that was a big part of why I was interested in telling this story because I was very interested in that twist of who we think someone is versus who they work out to be and what that means.

There are some complicated questions about whether if a person does bad, they are all bad. There are some complicated questions about who deserves help. There are some complicated questions about who are we helping? He’s passed away from the very beginning of this story.

Is it really him who is being helped, or is it his family? Does his family deserve less help because of who he was in life? I think there are a lot of really complex questions that, to me, feel timely just in that real surprise.

Definitely, my last question for you is I saw in the Daily Mail yesterday they’ve pretty much shared every single aspect of the film online.

It sucks the life out of the shebang of people watching it. Does it bother you when people go a little too far in their coverage so that the joy of watching what you’ve produced is lessened a little bit?

There are many spoilers out there.

Of course, selfishly, as a filmmaker, I would love people to go into this film reading as little as possible, experience the ride, and then go back and listen to the chorus of journalistic voices that add so much dimension to this that we just can’t squeeze into 90 minutes, right?

That said, I think although the mystery at the spine is the spine of the story, I think the characters are really what brings it alive, in my opinion. I think getting to know the people that surrounded this case is a worthy experience and a treat.

I think people will find a lot more than the cut-and-dry narrative structure and the, “Oh, we got a name.”

I think the story just in and of itself is so much deeper than that, and what these people did is even more interesting than the mystery at its core.

That’s what I think. Be wary of spoilers, but don’t consider the whole thing spoiled if you know the ending because I think we have a lot of surprises in store for you.

You can watch They Called Him Mostly Harmless now on Max.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on X and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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