Minneapolis filmmaker tackles Jacob Wetterling case
The scene, shot in November 2015, is painfully intimate.
Jerry and Patty Wetterling stand in the middle of their kitchen in St. Joseph, going through their notes as they prepare to address the media for the first time after authorities had arrested and named Danny Heinrich as a "person of interest" in their son Jacob's 1989 abduction.
While dozens of news reporters and photographers wait outside, documentary filmmaker Chris Newberry films a friend of the Wetterlings as he enters the kitchen.
"OK, we've got about a minute," the friend says, as he pulls the couple in for a hug. "We're going to get our heads together here. You guys are going to go out there and knock their socks off — or whatever you're supposed to say."
The three chat for a minute, and then the Wetterlings head to the front door.
"All right. This was my big idea," Patty Wetterling says as they walk outside. "I don't know if it was a good one or not. ..."
The couple, holding hands, backs to the camera, can be seen walking down their driveway to a waiting scrum of TV cameras, lights and news trucks.
Says Patty: "I hate this long driveway."
Newberry approached the Wetterlings in 2015 to pitch a feature-length documentary that would chronicle the circumstances and impact of their son's case. He got the idea, he said, after reading and listening to stories on the 25th anniversary of Jacob's disappearance.
Eleven-year-old Jacob was abducted by Heinrich on Oct. 22, 1989, while biking with his brother and a friend in St. Joseph.
"There was a push (in 2014) to get the case solved, and they put up billboards around Stearns County with the age-progression images of Jacob, and the words 'Still Missing' were across the billboards," Newberry said. "When I saw that on the news, that sparked my interest. I was, like, 'Let's do this.' "
Getting the Wetterlings' blessing was key, Newberry said, because "I wanted to hear their story."
The focus: telling the mystery
It took several months to gain the couple's trust, he said. Once they gave their OK, Newberry began researching and filming.
"At that point, I thought I was making a film about an unsolved case — a big mystery, a big open-ended mystery," Newberry said during a recent interview at his film studio near Loring Park in Minneapolis.
"It was never meant to be, 'Well, I'm going to be the one who solves this,' " Newberry said. "There are some great documentaries that are like that out there — where they dig up things that move toward getting a crime solved — but that was never my intention."
Newberry said he wanted to explore the "ripple effect — the bad and the good" of Jacob's abduction and the impact that ambiguous loss and uncertainty had on the Wetterlings and the state of Minnesota.
"It was like this really painful vacuum — not knowing what happened to him," Newberry said. "That's the movie I thought I was going to make."
Arrest changes everything
Those plans changed abruptly in October 2015, just a week after the Wetterlings signed off on Newberry's project. Heinrich, of Annandale, was arrested at his house on Oct. 29 on charges of receiving and possessing child pornography.
"I was communicating with Patty about doing our first sit-down with the cameras rolling, and then the news broke," he said. "For the family, friends and everybody involved, it totally turned the world on its side."
Newberry said it was a coincidence that his first day of filming was the day the Wetterlings addressed the media for the first time after Heinrich's arrest. He filmed, for instance, Patty Wetterling baking chocolate-chip cookies for members of the media waiting outside.
Newberry said he had to quickly switch gears as news in the case broke.
"Instead of a reflective documentary with a lot of talking heads, it became more action-oriented because things were unfolding right in front of our cameras," he said. "There's this FOMO (fear of missing out) for documentary filmmakers, this terror that you're going to miss the moment. That's something that hangs over us all the time, in all the films we make, but that was very pronounced at that point."
Abduction's impact on us all
Newberry, who grew up in Minnetonka, was 14 when Jacob was abducted.
"My mother and I would watch the 10 o'clock news every night together and then 'Cheers' afterward," he said. "It was leading the news every night."
Prior to Jacob's abduction, Newberry and his friends would often bike to the 7-Hi Shopping Center and play arcade games.
"I can't say that I was one of those kids that my parents — after Jacob was abducted — immediately were like, 'Oh no, you're not biking around without supervision,' " said Newberry, who has two young daughters. "But it's hard to miss the fact that my childhood at the time is so different from the way I approach parenting ... and I think that's echoed by everyone I know, and a lot of people do attribute it to Jacob."
A film career in the making
Newberry, 43, of Minneapolis, graduated from Minnetonka High School in 1993. He said he and friends often made films for class projects.
Once, for a film on medieval torture for an English class, Newberry and friends burned one of his sister's Barbie dolls. "It was called 'Torture and Punishment,' " he said. "It was very academic."
He put on Roller Blades "to try to get the dolly effect — like a smooth-moving camera" while making a film for French class at the 7-Hi Shopping Center, he said.
Newberry went to Northwestern University, where he majored in computer science, but continued to make films. He has a master's degree in filmmaking from Goldsmiths, University of London.
His film "American Heart," which profiled the work being done at the Center for International Health in St. Paul, won an Emmy and was broadcast nationally in 2015 on PBS's WORLD Channel. His work also has appeared on the PBS series "Independent Lens."
He also is working as a producer and cinematographer on Norah Shapiro's documentary "Time for Ilhan," which chronicles the historic 2016 campaign of state Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, the first Somali-American woman to hold state office in the U.S. "Time for Ilhan" will be released in 2018.
Portions of film to debut Dec. 7
The Jacob Wetterling documentary, which is as yet unnamed, should be finished in 2019. Parts of the film will be shown Dec. 7 at an event sponsored by the Marine on St. Croix Film Society.
Newberry, who received a $10,000 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board as seed money for the documentary, said he plans to spend next year doing "nose-to-the-grindstone" editing, conducting more interviews and fundraising.
"There are still people on my wish list, or people whom I interviewed before Heinrich confessed, and now I want to go back and talk to them again," he said.
Newberry was the first filmmaker to approach the Wetterlings with a request to make a documentary, Patty Wetterling said.
"He came well-recommended," Patty Wetterling said. "He said he wanted to explore the ripple effect that Jacob had had on other people's lives — his legacy, already at that point, and that sounded nice to us."
After Heinrich was arrested and "everything changed," Patty Wetterling said, the couple thought about taking a break from filming. "We didn't know exactly what we wanted to do."
But Newberry persuaded them to continue with the project, Patty Wetterling said. "He still believed that the intent of the movie would be to show Jacob's impact on other people's lives and the work that still goes on," she said.
On a recent weekday, film editor Erica Ticknor worked on the documentary in the film studio. She spliced scenes of Patty Wetterling addressing a crowd in Redwood Falls, with interviews with Alison Feigh, program manager for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, and Joy Baker, a freelance writer who helped bring new attention to Jacob's case in 2010 when she started researching and publishing blog items on similar attacks on teenage boys in Paynesville between March 1986 and the summer of 1989. Paynesville is about 35 miles southwest of St. Joseph.
"We're working on an impact scene to show the good work that is being done in Jacob's name," Newberry said.
Ticknor had her work cut out for her.
"I have about almost 12 hours of material, and I have to get it down to 12 minutes," Ticknor said.
Newberry said he expects the final version of the documentary to be 80 to 90 minutes long.
Trying to capture story's impact
He said his goal is to tell new dimensions of the story and "its societal impacts, the personal, emotional story of what this meant for the family and for a guy like me, who's just another Minnesotan, who was really affected by it from a distance."
One question he said he'll be tackling is why Jacob's case captured the hearts and minds of so many people for so long.
"When I ask people, one answer I get a lot is: Jacob's photo," he said. "There's this kid with this smile and those eyes — more than anything, what has stuck with me over the years is that image of Jacob. As humans, we identify with faces. There's an emotional connection."
The details of the crime — that Jacob was abducted by a masked stranger who came out of the woods on a dark night — and eyewitness accounts also contributed to interest in the case, he said.
"It is like this terrible, scary scene if you play it out in your head," he said. "Part of the reason we have all those details is because of these two witnesses. A stranger abduction is astronomically unlikely, but add on top of that two witnesses, and it's very rare. I'm sure there are other cases, but I can't name one."