Exclusive Interview: John Safran

This week we were fortunate enough to sit down with John Safran, documentarian and author of Murder in Mississippi (God’ll Cut You Down in America), which we reviewed right here, to talk about why he goes to extremes, solving crime and why he’s fascinated by ethnic issues. 

John Safran is in Perth this week for the Fringe World festival (of which we are not affiliated) performing live shows this weekend, including an extra show just added on Sunday to meet demand. Best grab your tickets soon!

As always, you can enjoy the audio (which is recommended) or read the transcript below.

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G-Funk: Today we’re meeting with John Safran. Many of our readers are in the US so they may not have a strong frame of reference for you are and what you do, so to start us off: who is John Safran?

John Safran: People would know me as a documentary film maker but a bit of a comedian to. Especially my earlier documentaries that fused proper documentary making and journalism with twists in the tail and little trickster things. Maybe in the same circle as Michael Moore or Louis Theroux, sometimes even Sacha Baron Cohen. A little bit, not totally like that. That’s what I’m known as in Australia but more recently I’ve gone off and written a true crime book called God’ll Cut You Down in America and Murder in Mississippi in Australia. I also do a popular weekly radio show where we look into religion and politics and all things ethnic and it’s co-hosted by a Catholic Priest. That’s my main stuff.

G: That would be Father Bob (Maguire) as he’s known to the public.

JS: Yep.

G: I read a quote this afternoon that called you the ‘high-brow Johnny Knoxville’. How do you feel about that one?

JS: That’s fine. That could’ve saved a lot of time – I’m the high-brow Johnny Knoxville. I’ll keep that for next time.

G: I think that came from Vulture.

JS: Yeah, that’s a proper New York Magazine section so I’m legitimate in America, not some hillbilly, some hayseed, from the deep, deep south of Australia.

G: I’m sure the US readers will be be impressed by terms like ‘hayseed’, that’s very colloquial over there.

JS: That’s why I’m connecting over there. I was listening to the writer Mark Stein on a podcast recently saying he tries to rephrase things depending on which region his little column’s going to go in, use the local colloquialisms.

G: Well, you’re off the a good start, even though we are in Perth, Australia, the readers in American will be very impressed. For a bit of background – I’ll come back to Murder in Mississippi/God’ll Cut You Down in a minute – I started watching you Race Around the World…

JS: Not to be confused with The Amazing Race.

G: No, this is the high-brow Amazing Race. I saw the Osaka segment as my introduction to the show. Then over your career you’ve looked at race and religion and these societal boundaries but you take that interest to an extreme that most people wouldn’t consider. If I can run off some examples: streaking through the Gaza strip…

JS: Jerusalem.

G: …Jerusalem, the exorcism…

JS: Yes, I got an exorcism in both Oklahoma and Denver.

G: …and what I think people found really shocking – the crucifixion.

JS: Ah yes, in the Philippines.

G: The question I have is that you go to these extremes – what is it in aid off?

JS: When you’re a bit of a comedian and a bit of a trickster two things are happening at the one time. You’re on this literal mission where you’re trying to figure something else but part of it is you’re running on this emotional energy, this kind of impulse that something strange will actually have an emotional truth if you go along with it. From a comedians point of view you like to do things that are a bit disorientating and that’s something that I love. I love that in art and the things I read, I love the disorientation. The problem is when someone corners you and says ‘why did you do that thing, that’s a bit disturbing and throws the viewer off kilter’ you don’t have much of an answer to that besides ‘I back being a bit disorientating and confusing’.

I think that’s one of the reasons why my work is confusing because it kinda jumps all over the place, even in the same series. Even in the same episode of the same series there might be three stories and one story it’s me being a bit like Louis Theroux where I’m essentially being my real self and I’m investigating something like going to a Buddhist temple. It’s funny, but it’s essentially a documentary. Then I’ll pop off to a Klu Klux Klan compound and suddenly I’m faking for the sake of the filming that I’m naive and I don’t understand that a Jew can’t join the Klu Klux Klan. When he’s saying ‘you can’t join, you’re Jewish’ and I’m like ‘what? what?’ I’m no longer the straight man in the other story, I’m more like your Sacha Baron Cohen character. So they jump all over the place depending on what I feel like.

But I do take criticism and feedback and that influences some of the future stuff I do. With my book I tried to make it documentary in that it’s humorous but you read it and take it as it is because it’s the true story. I did that because the series I did before had a bit to much of what I would look at as performance art, when I’m doing something utterly strange that’s hard to explain. I felt that even people who liked me were…it was a bit off putting. I take feedback is what I’m getting at, like the UBER drivers where you get out and type into your smartphone how many stars. I take what people say and improve it for my next thing.

G: When you say your previous series, that was Race Relations.

JS: Yes.

G: That had some of the more extreme themes, being made up to look like a black man for example. I always wonder if you have a contingency plan if someone called you out and said ‘what a sec…this is a white boy wearing make-up’.

JS: Some people did.

G: Really?

JS: Yeah.

G: How did you deal?

JS: The way it was presented, all the questions I was asking people were about how you would take black things versus white things so if someone identified me they just kinda got it. Like ‘he’s doing something where he’s twisting things around’ so there wasn’t anything confrontational about it. People just got it.

G: It was very confrontational, what we saw we saw on the clip. Like when that college boy coming into the restaurant…

JS: I went behind the counter of ‘The Weiner Circle’ in Chicago, a hotdog seller which was known for there being a lot of racial contention. The white patrons would snark at the black people behind the counter and they’d snark back. It’ll start out fun but get out of control. I’m behind the counter as a black person trying to experience it all and wound up screaming at a white guy.

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G: From an outsider perspective it’s pretty funny. You talk about race and it come up in both God’ll Cut You Down/Murder in Mississippi and the piece you did for Good Weekend, another true crime story where you mention that you’re looking for the race angle. Why do you find yourself drawn to that?

JS: Well, I think the word is ‘ethinic’ – that takes the heat out of it. Race is one example of ethnicity and religion is another. I guess I’m just kind of interested and it’s usually not covered. Like in Australia we have the ABC (which is our high brow, BBC whatever) and when they talk about ethnic tensions, and supposedly they’re so interested in what’s making Australia tick now, they always really simplify it to the point of not reflecting it. Then I’m fascinated by the little worlds within worlds, the unspoken micro-tensions that are going on in little communities. I grew up and I was in this strange space where my family was Jewish but they weren’t very religious and I went to this ultra-orthodox Jewish school and saw the world’s within world’s there and tensions that were invisible to the outsiders. I like finding them.

I just submitted a story and this is a good example of what I’m getting at because I’m probably sounding all confusing. This is a recent story I wrote. There’s a place in Sydney called Redfern, a suburb, and there’s a place in Redfern known for Aboriginal Australians, where they live. Recently there was this poster that went up, a poster that some little person put up everywhere that said ‘Asians Out of Redfern’. Already that’s a bit weird. But the weird thing is if you look at the poster on face value it was like Aboriginal Australians put it up to say ‘Asians Out of Redfern’ so some said ‘ooh, that’s a bit awkward’. I went down to try and crack the riddle of what does this poster mean and who put it up. There were all these theories, like was it an outside white supremacist group trying to start trouble? Regardless of who put it up, which I never got to the bottom of, it was tapping into this thing where richer international students who were Asian were coming in and to meet local demand these housing apartments were being put up in a place where some Aboriginal people thought ‘no, that should be a place for low cost Aboriginal houses, not for these rich students’. So there was this weird little tension and it was fascinating.

I guess in Australia we’re always told that we’re getting more multicultural and more people are coming in and that all sounds like it’s an easy thing when we make out that it’s the ‘whites vs the blacks’ but it becomes this confusing thing with other little groups. It seems like something that’s not covered by other people and I bring that to the table. When you’re a writer it feels good to bring something to the table.

G: You do bring the race…or ethic…issue to table, and you cover a lot of touchy subjects. Have you ever brought something to the table that you regret?

JS: Ummmmm…yes, but I’m not going to tell you.

G: Was it aired?

JS: Yes, on radio. Usually I kind of get annoyed…it usually happens on radio because that’s essentially live. When I do something for TV I can try and be informed and go to the edit suite and edit things down and be in control of your offence. You know what you’re getting in to. On radio you can slop around and start talking about something you don’t know about and the next thing you know you’ve outraged a group. I have learned to bite my tongue, like the way to rebuild from a disaster is to – not the next week but slowly over the year – start bringing up things that rectify it. Like there’s another perspective I never thought about and I’ll bring it up. Not the next week, maybe seven weeks later…

G: When it’s cooled down a bit.

JS: Yeah.

G: We’ve seen a lot of work from you on race and religion as we’ve discussed, and now you’ve gone very much head first into true crime. What has prompted the sudden interest in the genre?

JS: Well, a combo of things. One was a guy, a white supremacist, who I hung out with on one of my doco series and played a prank on, he ended up getting murdered. This was after I left. And I thought ‘wow, this is weird’, this guy I spent two days had been murdered. He’d been murdered by a young black guy, and the black guy said white supremacist had made a sexual advance on him and the whole thing was just insane. I went back…that pulled me in, it was that situation that pulled me in, and I felt like I wanted to try something in a different form. That fed in to it. Documentary making, although it looks like all this guerrilla stuff, it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to get up, even if you have an idea and everyone loves it, it’s still 18 months before hitting record on the camera. This court case for the murder was just going to happen, it wasn’t going to wait for me, so there was that.

The other kind of fluke was that after the guy was murdered I’d incidentally…I’d never read true crime books before. To be honest I don’t think I even knew…if you’d asked ‘what’s a true crime book’ I’d have gone ‘is that one of those encyclopaedias on serial killers?’ I had coincidently started reading a true crime book because I’m always reading and having things around and I went ‘oh, this is interesting’. Then I read another and I go ‘oh, my god’ and started making connections in true crimes and what I’ve done in my doco work. A lot of true crime books are an outsider going into a community that they’re not part of and start poking around. I thought this is kinda like what I do, and thought I’d try it like that.

There’s a lot of dignity with books. Like, your dad’s proud of you. So that’s good to.

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G: One of the most interesting characters in your book is Vincent McGee, the main suspect. He’s out of jail now?

JS: No, no, no…

G: Back in?

JS: Yeah, he’s back in jail.

G: Have you kept up any correspondence with him?

JS: With his family, he’s hard to keep in contact with him. It was really hard to keep in contact with him when I was in Mississippi, and it was all reliant on him ringing me on my American cell phone. Now I’m in Australia and he’s in a prison cell in Mississippi it’s not very do-able. I’ve had a few phone chats and bit of Facebook back and forth with members of his family.

G: He’s back in jail, was this related to the charge or something else?

JS: The only reason he got out of jail, briefly, was because he got in a fight in prison and a prisoner took out his eye. They didn’t have the on-sight facilities to deal with that so he was off-site for a while at a hospital. I think it was even in another state or something which suggests there some specialty required to make him not die. Now he’s in a condition where he’s back in the prison grounds.

G: Getting your eye out isn’t fun for anyone, I guess…

JS: No.

G: In the book there’s a sequence of events where you’re buying the Walmart Green Dots, the gift cards, in order to facilitate your communication with him (McGee). Did you ever feel like you were being manipulated by McGee?

JS: I think so. I think I did but it’s hard to know what manipulation means when you’re writing a book because…I didn’t really figure this out until later but this whole thing with me buying him the Walmart Green Dot cards, which are like debit cards and they’re just numbers or whatever, and him demanding them and getting angry if I don’t give them to him and then me doing it, I realised that I went over to write a book and writing a book is about finding out the true character of people. This micro-back and forth between me and him really revealed him as a character, demonstrated him as a character, and also demonstrated me as a character. The fact that he was so angry and manipulative, how did that feed into what he was like with Richard Barrett, the guy that he killed – that was also about money and being ripped off.

So it was kind of like a messy way to demonstrate his character and my character, but you pay the price for that. I don’t think I mind, but people say ‘hey John, you come across as not the most ethical journalist’. It was a truthful thing about my character and also made the character interesting, I guess. I don’t know…

G: I read it as a bit of an ethical dilemma, like ‘what will you do to get your story’, but you’re very up front about it in your writing, right down to the language when he puts you on the spot and says ‘I’m being threatened, I’m going to be beat up if you don’t get this for me’. So it comes across as you being as upfront and truthful as possible – is that a real driving force in your writing?

JS: Yeah, definitely. For this book for some reason I wanted to be as honest as possible while I was there and in the telling of the story. So when I was over there I was trying to be really up front and frank with everyone. For example, with Vincent McGee in prison, he was going ‘Listen! I’ll tell you, but this book can never be published in America! I’ll tell you the story but it can only be published in Australia’. I was so desperate for this story and he was in such a vulnerable position. In reality I could have told him anything and gotten away with it. It’s not like this poor guy who’s locked in prison for 65 years over in Mississippi while I’m in Australia is going to be able to get his act together to sue me. I could have got away with just lying to him but I thought that with this book I was going to be upfront with everyone so I said ‘listen, I can’t promise you that. It’s not how books are published, I’m not the publisher’. So I was up front with everyone there and in the telling of the book. I did learn telling the truth makes things simpler because telling a story is hard enough and if you tell the truth. Even telling the truth in order. Later on you can start chopping up the book and saying that this groups with that but for the first draft telling the truth in order makes it simpler. You’re putting limits on yourself and putting limits on yourself makes you churn it out quicker.

G: It was a really good story. You put a note at the end inviting people to tip you off to other true crime stories. Do you have something lined up?

JS: Definitely for Good Weekend, which is a magazine in Fairfax papers here in Australia and the stories are online. I’ve got a contract with them where I have to deliver feature stories to them. I think I have to do 20,000 words and I’ve done 10,000 so far. A story’s usually 3000 or 4000 words each. I’ve done four stories and they’re about crimes or kinda-sort-of crimes and I get lots…actually not lots…actually, yeah, probably lots. Even a couple of hours ago I was speaking to a guy who’s a prison guard who just told me a story and I’ll be following that up. It’s really weird when, even in Australia, you get lots of murders and things don’t get traction. There’s so much going on and some things just don’t get traction. Absolutely fascinating stories that could be the ‘dingo got my baby story’ but isn’t. They’re all out there and it’s strange…some of them you start investigating a story and you ask ‘why isn’t this famous?’

G: When you said on Facebook that you were coming to Perth, this was a few days ago, you solicited suggestions, did anything come out of that?

JS: Yeah.

G: I skimmed through and there was the Claremont case…

JS: No, some people sent me private messages and whatever. There’s one or two things…not on my trip here. Usually to do these stories I have to go to the place for at least four days and get lost in it full time and because I’m here doing my live show at night it doesn’t really work for that. But I’m catching up with someone tomorrow who might give me some leads for something…who knows?

G: I hope that goes well for you. I just have two more questions about your earlier work before we wrap up. I put your name into YouTube today…

JS: Uh-oh.

G:…and one of the first hits…

JS: Uh-oh.

G:…was the Ray Martin scuffle. Has that haunted you?

JS: I think that’s haunted him more than it’s haunted me. For your American listeners he was like Dan Rathers or someone…but not like Dan Rather.

G: He was the big current affairs guy at the time.

JS: Yeah, he was the ultimate current affairs guy in Australia. He was the most famous, on the biggest channel, on a show called A Current Affair and the show was widely criticised for the foot-in-the-door journalism and I turned the tables on that and turned up to his doorstep pretending to be a loud mouthed journalist, and I was complaining about him slacking off at home and not going to work on time…

G:…going through his trash…

JS: Yes. One of the famous stories at the time that his show did was about young people being lazy bludgers and all that.

G: For Australians, that’s the Paxton family if you remember them.

JS: This was…I don’t really blame him for getting annoyed because on top of me being annoying to him, even though it was satirical, he really should watch out for how much he acts all innocent about what his show has done to people and about how wounded he is by a comedian showing up at his doorstep. There’s horrible things. There’s a show called Media Watch that looks at the bad things the media does and they’ve got a pretty long shit list about all the things A Current Affair did. Anyways, I think he’s still annoyed by it. I did it before there’s all these shows where he could get where I was coming from, before Johnny Knoxville, and I think it was fair enough that he got confused. I think he’s more annoyed that when he does an interview someone always asks him about it, so he’s kinda been cursed by it way more than me.

G: To be fair he got pretty rough.

JS: Yeah, he did grab me by the collar.

G: I never thought I’d see one of the Paxton kids try and break him up from a fight. My last question: I teach film making to teenagers and I do a documentary unit, and part of that is John Safran vs God. I asked them if they had a question…

JS: Here we go…

G:…how much do you exaggerate the high pitched rant voice?

JS: I’m going to try and keep that…my voice is like a weird curse plus benefit…

G: Is it deliberate when you go into your rants?

JS: No, I don’t think so. If it’s deliberate it’s me on a subconscious level thinking it’s funny, going like (I literally have no idea how to type the noise John made here, listen to the audio at 26:50! – G) like that. I’d say subconsciously deliberate for comedic effect rather than calculated or something like that. I’m trying to hold it back down because it usually sounds squeaky enough without me squeaking. But then the other side to it is people find those rants funny! If I’m on Triple J (youth alternative radio where John hosts ‘Sunday Night Safran’ – G) screaming at the priest people find my voice grating but they find it funny to. It’s much harder being funny…it’s kind of like a gift and a curse at the same time. I am trying to pull it in. I did a six part radio series called ‘John Safran’s True Crime’…

G: The podcast.

JS: Yes! Which is about me interviewing these true crime writers and for that I tried my hardest…and I think that works to. I will be trying to turn down the treble.

G: As an audience member I make the mental transition, and the change in the voice spurs me on to say ‘we’re on a serious topic now, we’re not talking about how pissed off we are at Scrabble’, we’re talking to some pretty big names in the true crime genre. And you got some huge names on that show, you got…the name escapes me, the author of The Strange Beside Me

JS: Ann Rule.

G: How did you pull her in?

JS: I don’t know. When I was writing my true crime book, or even before hand, I just read book after book after book and just became addicted. I was buzzed when we got Ann Rule, we got John Berendt who wrote Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We got Joe McGinniss who wrote the controversial Fatal Vision, which got slammed by other people as being a fake…not a fake but he did unethical things in it. He passed away recently so that must have been one of his final interviews.

G: That became the basis for the Killer and the Journalist?

JS: The Murderer and the Journalist…or The Journalist and the Murderer, one of those. And just last year or the year before Errol Morris the documentary film-maker put out another book about the case.

G: He takes a very different view, doesn’t he? Errol Morris being the name that he is a lot of people will get behind that.

JS: Yeah. I’m really suss on true crime writers who think they’re going to find the evidence and definitively solve the case. I just don’t think that happens very often.

G: Do you find people have that expectation of you? I mean, the Claremont Killer case in Perth, Perth is the smallest city there is and a serial killer being active was such a big news story for us and we got no closure on it. Do you have people coming to you with such cases and saying ‘what can you do about it?’

JS: Oh, if I felt a person was going to think that of me I’d really hose down expectations. I always like to find the things that are hovering around the case rather than assuming I’m going to solve the case. I think this is the trick true crime writers or crime documentary writers do, right? If you think you’ve read a book or seen a film were this has been solved, this injustice has been cleared up it’s because the writer or the film maker has made it, rather than being a small story, they’ve made it a bigger thing, like a bigger political thing. Like ‘why is this Muslim person in jail, he shouldn’t be in jail!’ and they really thump, thump, thump you over the head with that, and you’re convinced that this author has now come up with this truth that this guy doesn’t deserve to be in jail but all he’s really done…he hasn’t brought these fingerprints to you, the reader or watching of this film, these fingerprints that definitely prove this guy didn’t do it, he’s just asserted it so much that you’ve been convinced this is the truth and, thank god, this book has a neat ending tied up in a bow.

Although maybe I’m just jealous because I never solve any of the goddamn crimes I go out to investigate.

G: Not yet.

JS: Not yet.

G: We can still do that.

JS: I would love to but I just don’t think it’s going to happen.

G: Going out with the mindset that ‘I can solve this’ isn’t going to help the process, is it?

JS: Yeah, I kinda…in my book, in the American edition there’s slight changes. None of them are really pushed by the editor, just more my kind of doing one more draft. In the American version I tried to this ending in where I say ‘listen: this is what I think happened’. Then I kind of said what I thought happened, but no-one was satisfied with that, like ‘how come there’s now ending?’

G: I thought that was a really good addition, it was a sense of closure, not on the case but on the story. And I almost forgot to ask…so Murder in Mississippi became God’ll Cut You Down, what prompted the change?

JS: I think to non-American ears the word ‘Mississippi’…we don’t hear it all the time and it’s quite a striking word because it evokes such things in our imaginations all across the world. Murder in Mississippi sounds really strong to non-Americans, but in America if you get Mississippi, Mississippi, Mississippi all the time Murder in Mississippi sounds really bland. The editors were polite. they never quite came out and said ‘John, you have a bland title’. They politeted around the subject, so it became God’ll Cut You Down because I make a reference to the Johnny Cash song in the book. I like that title.

G: It’s a very striking title, but it doesn’t have the alliteration this one has. I think we’re wrapped up. Thanks for coming down and thanks for coming to Perth for the Fringe Festival.

JS: It’s great, it’s good to be here. Thank you.

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Photography Credit: Prints Charming Perth