Robert Greene’s documentary opens with a 2018 press conference in Kansas City. Three men, Michael Sandridge, Mike Foreman and Tom Viviano, stand with lawyer Rebecca Randles accusing their local priests of sexually assaulting them as children. “I’m now 62 years old, and I still live with the pain” Viviano says through a cracked voice. An impassioned Foreman lowers his tone, “It is an absolute poverty that the statute of limitations is the crown jewel of the Catholic church. What does god and Jesus Christ think about that?”
That powerful footage compelled Missouri resident Greene to reach out to Randles and inquire if her clients had ever attempted drama therapy. Joined by three additional survivors [Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan and Dan Laurine], Greene set out to slowly gain the trust of each man and assist in the collaborative work of creating a cinematic breakthrough of sorts, which became the Netflix doc “Procession.”
“We worked with a drama therapist and a couple of other trauma trained supporters and therapists to create this radically collaborative experiment in scene making,” Greene explained. “Staging scenes of nightmares of moments in their lives, in some cases just showing their rituals and how they played out and the power that they have.”
Through this process, the survivors would storyboard, script, build and even star in a short film of their choosing, shot and orchestrated exactly how they envisioned. “All with the goal of some therapeutic use,” Greene said. “We wanted to get to the other side. In the film, Dan, one of the six guys, talks about breaking through the wall. We wanted to [do] that together for each other, and we also wanted to do it so the audience could see this happening, and have some sense of healing for the audience as well.”
Greene broke down this delicate and often emotional process on Variety’s “Doc Dreams” presented by National Geographic, revealing the beneficial properties of making art with those you trust.
You’ve worked with drama therapy before in the 2018 documentary “Bisbee ’17.” When did you originally find out about this therapy?
It’s interesting to frame it that way, because I didn’t know we were doing drama therapy… Our last film, “Bisbee ’17,” we were staging this large scale, recreation of a historically traumatic event with hundreds of extras in town. When watching this film someone at a Q&A [asked], “Did you have therapists there?” And my answer was completely inadequate. I was like, “Well, no, we didn’t really need them.” I look back at what we did, and it was very clear that we should have had therapists around because what we were doing was opening up all these traumatic memories. We weren’t doing it correctly.
My sister-in-law said to me, “Have you read the book ‘The Body Keeps The Score?'” An amazing book which is about how trauma is stored in the body… And that took me down a whole spiral, almost like a crisis, [asking]: “Why do I make the films that I make, why are they what they are and what can we do with this new knowledge of drama therapy?” That led me just to the press conference [with the survivors]. It was kind of like a light bulb had gone off.
I think before, I was effectively practicing unlicensed drama therapy and I didn’t know it. One of the original ideas [for “Procession”] was maybe we can actually film a drama therapy session. [It became] very quickly clear that that wasn’t possible. I met with a whole group of drama therapists, and they all basically said you shouldn’t do that and here’s why. So the way we think of it is that drama therapy influenced what we’re doing. And really, what we’re doing is finding the sort of cathartic value of making a movie together, which is beautiful in and of itself.
How did you convince the survivors that you were the right person to tell their story?
My pitch wasn’t that I can tell your story, my pitch was that we will tell it together. That is the biggest thing to say. I know that sounds like, “Well, of course you said that” — but truly, it had to be that. Part of the pain comes from power being taken away. One of the things Rebecca [Randles, lawyer] told me early in the process, as long as you don’t take their power away, as long as you listen to them, as long as you let them make choices — we should be okay, because that was what they’re still coping with. How much was taken from them and how much power was removed from their lives. So, as long as you don’t do that, that’s already a good start…
The trust was not immediately won. All six of these guys had trust in Rebecca, they did not trust [on-set drama therapist] Monica [Phinney] and they did not trust me and they did not trust [the producers] Doug [Tirola], Sue [Bedusa] and Bennett [Elliott] to start. But just that first day, it was incredibly productive, and that was step one. That trust that Rebecca had placed in us started to pay off in little ways. And then it pays off a little bit more, and then it was suddenly really exciting [Documentary subject] Ed would call me and say, “Hey, I don’t know about this.” And I would say, “Well, then don’t do it.” Two days later he would send me his storyboards and say, “Well, I did the storyboards. I don’t know if I’m going to do it, but I did the storyboards.” And i’m like “Well, it sounds like you want to do it, so you tell me.”
It was just that on and on and on, and and by the time we got to the place where we [were] really filming the big scenes, I think we were ready. We were feeling safe and strong and we were feeling like a family, a machine almost. We’d built the calluses that we needed.
How did you get everyone interested not only in cinema and producing storyboards and a script, but a movie that’s centered around one of the most private and horrific moments from their past?
Every room we metaphorically built had several doors — you could always escape; you could always leave. You were never locked into this process. It wasn’t like, “Hey, you got to trust me because you’ve now signed over your life rights. And if you don’t want to do this, so sorry.” Trust was never built in one sentence or one picture or moment, it was built over continuously seeing it. And then we started seeing results, which you see in the film… Ed said, “Hey, I don’t know, maybe it would be cool to go back to this cathedral, where I haven’t been in 35 years and there’s this bell and I’d love to ring that bell one more time. Can we do that?” And we said, “Okay sure, let’s do it.” And then the guys said, “You know, I see what’s there. That was amazing, maybe I can do that for myself.” Because let me be very clear, they wouldn’t have done it without each other, and they wouldn’t have done it without the camera being present.
And so, because that camera was present and because that brotherhood is starting to be created, it’s like, “Well, now I can think about someone actually seeing it. If you can see me ring that bell at my church, then maybe you can do the one thing that you’ve been needing to do.”
I don’t know a lot of directors who would relinquish that power. How did you find that balance of getting what you needed in order to tell the story, and balancing the emotions and realities of the people that you’re filming?
This is my seventh film. I’ve been working with the same team for a long time and we are a family, for good and bad. Sometimes we fight like a family and we love like a family, and we take care of each other like a family… so that produces a lot of confidence that allows you to give up power.
I think early in my life, maybe I thought, “It has to be my ideas,” but that’s not why I’m in documentary. I could’ve edited fiction films as well, [but] I I just don’t have as much in common with that world. It’s because i’m most excited when someone else has an idea, and then we can try to make it work. The confidence, though, doesn’t come from the the directing process or during the filming process. That’s rough on me, that is emotionally very trying. I can be very spastic, I can be very concerned, I’m thinking, “We have this location for three hours but Mike might need it for eight hours.” I took a lot of emotion on from the guys there. I said at one point to my son, who appears in the film, “Are you worried about this? This is a strange thing for me to be making.” And he said, “Well, I’m worried about you, because their happiness is in your hands.” The whole time I was having nightmares and stress and all this other stuff navigating all that and very much leaning on the team, these people that I love dearly that we were making the film with.
But it all came down to the fact that I knew I could edit this film, I knew that. When all of that stress goes away, I have the footage, I know that I can do this and I knew also that I could incorporate their ideas. We showed multiple cuts to the guys and they gave a lot of feedback on the film. Some of them saw more cuts than others, based on how much they wanted to go through it in terms of helping with the edit. But the confidence doesn’t come from the filmmaking side, it honestly comes from the fact that when all the dust settles, I will take this into my editing room. I will take all this footage and I know what to do.
There are a couple of times that the survivors and others working on the film set said, “I don’t want to retread how this conversation has been filmed before.” What did you want to avoid in regards to how sexual abuse and abuse, especially within the Church, has been portrayed in the past?
I think it starts with Ed’s line, “Cut to the weepy dude in the corner, golf clap.” His whole way of describing what he’s afraid of, it’s such an indictment of the way this story has been told, and the way that we’ve received it in the public… The person doesn’t matter, the individual human being doesn’t matter. He is the weepy dude; he is the sad, old man who is broken and damaged. And you’re cutting to him in his most vulnerable state and then, golf clap. Golf clap is you the viewer and me the viewer basically saying, “Oh that’s so sad, okay i’m going to go about my day.” The film is not about what happened in the past as much as it’s about trying to cope with it and move forward to the future…
The stories of how they actually manipulated the children are really important to hear. But we’ve heard versions of it before, and I would almost prefer to let the guys tell these things [on] an individual basis for people who have seen the film. To me, the difference with what has been done and what we’re doing is, this is about moving forward. Fixing it is not possible, but catharsis can be possible. Healing can be possible, even if making it all go away is never going to happen.
What was taken from these boys can never be given back, but we can absolutely work together and create something new that’s not about what was taken, but about what we can do in the future.
“Procession” is currently available to watch on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed.