Adam Feinstein: The Caffey FamilyQ: When you watch Final Witness, it feels like watching a movie not a documentary. Was is MADE like a movie?
Filming the dramatic material was very much like making a movie, with a few big differences. We couldn’t make changes to the story just because we felt like it. This story was “written” before we came along - by real people, living their real lives. Sometimes we would hit a “story problem” – a gap in the case history, or something that one of our characters had done that was hard to understand. Faced with that, we couldn’t just rewrite! We had to go deeper, to ask more questions and try to understand it.
We did all the interviews before filming the dramatic content. As we were shooting, I was hearing the voices of the interviewees in my head. I felt a bit of pressure, thinking about them watching the show. But I soon realized those interviews were my guide into the heart of the story.
At airports, they have a system that helps pilots land planes in bad weather. It’s a sort of invisible beam that the planes all follow down to the runway. The interviews in “Final Witness” are like that. You can’t find your way through the clouds without them. Q: The whole thing was shot in Texas in the summer – what was that like?
East Texas in August was no joke. It was wilting heat. You see that sometimes in the footage – the flush in the actors’ cheeks, the realistic sheen of sweat. I remember the chicken fried steaks, the sweet tea, the kindness of the people.
I remember our morning crew meetings over breakfast, and how we tried to speak quietly. Because we weren’t just talking about a movie, we were also talking about something that had really happened here.Q: What was your favorite scene to shoot?
I will never forget filming the fire sequences. We shot at the North Texas Fire Academy, and our pyrotechnicians were the instructors. They would ask me exactly what I wanted the flames to do, and somehow they would make that happen. I never imagined one could control fire in such a way. And they were wonderful, generous people who worked with us until 3am on a Saturday, making sure we shot everything we needed. We couldn’t have done it without them.
We had set-dressed our version of the Caffey home entirely with props we planned to burn. After filming them on a real location, we moved the set into the NTFA’s fire academy’s cinderblock “burn house” where it would be consumed by flames. It was eerie and horrifying to see that happen, up close. I had sat at that table, perched on that bed, plunked out notes on that piano. It was a glimpse into hell.Q: What is your favorite scene in the finished product?
There’s a sequence late in the show when Erin and Charlie, out driving at night, find a secluded spot for romance. This scene was totally unplanned. I’m still surprised it was shot at all.
The cinematographer, Andreas Burgess, and I were actually hitching a ride back to the hotel with those two actorsKaris [-Paige Bryant (“Erin”)] and Chae [Balistreri (“Charlie”)], and figured we would do a few shots of them driving. At a certain point, we pulled over so Andreas could change the camera mount from one side of the car to the other.
While that was happening, I grabbed the camera. I’m not sure I even asked the actors to get into character, but it happened. Somehow a quirky love scene began unfolding. We didn’t say anything to each other, we just kept shooting.Q: You had to really get to know Penny in making this episode. Tell me about her.
I think Penny was a devout, private person with a warm heart. Together with Terry, she was making a little domestic paradise on their little piece of land. Their home was like an island, surrounded by woods, on a dirt road far away from everything. Penny wasn’t ambitious or worldly. But she was focused on making the best of things, right where she was. And she was very particular about how one should live. I imagine it was very difficult for her when her daughter Erin suddenly veered in a different direction. Q: What’s one thing that happened on set that you’ll never forget?
At one point, Terry Caffey asked to visit the set. I introduced him to Karis Paige Bryant, who played his daughter Erin; and Chae Balistreri, who played Charlie (the murderer of Terry’s family). Both actors – who resemble the real people closely - were terrified to meet Terry. I was pretty anxious myself. Would this hit too close to home?
I remember how gracious and gentle Terry was. I remember he thanked them, even as they were thanking him. Then Terry got very quiet. He looked into Karis’s eyes. He looked her up and down. He touched her shoulder very lightly. “Actually,” he said quietly, “You do favor Erin.”Q: It’s impossible to fit every detail into 1 hour of television. Any details you wish you could have included that you didn’t?
A ton! But off the top of my head:
The police chief who arrested Charlie Wilkinson knew him personally. If I’m not mistaken, their families were friendly. He suspected Charlie would be inside the trailer because he recognized Charlie’s truck parked outside.
The real Erin served burgers while on roller skates. It was her personal touch and brought her tons of attention. Karis our actress wanted to give rollerskates a go, but she wound up on her butt in under a minute so we stuck with sneakers!Q: What do you think makes Final Witness different from the other true crime shows?
We don’t simply recreate. We bring a world to life. It’s a show that was is designed to be watched, not just listened to. You can’t look away or you’ll miss something big. It takes a dedicated team to do this. Our crew is like a family now. They work twice as hard because they’ve been entrusted with stories that are real.
We'll never know for sure, but why do YOU think the murder happened?
For me, this story is about a girl who got caught between two different kinds of love. Erin was raised very carefully and strictly by her parents, in a religious home where life was predictable, and social life was very contained. When she got her first taste of life outside family and church - she lost her way. An older boy fell madly in love with her. She was intoxicated by the excitement of that, by feeling important, by the power she had. Penny and Terry were standing directly in the way of that.