You aren’t prepared for the pure insanity of Netflix’s new true-crime documentary series Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist. The story, set in Erie, Pennsylvania, tells the story of a bank robbery and a man killed by a homemade bomb strapped to his neck. How did local pizza man Bryan Wells end up dying on the streets of Erie? You have to watch Evil Genius to find out more. Netflix released two episodes for review and just reviewing it threatens to spoil the twisted insanity that unfolds. Now available on Netflix, series director Barbara Schroeder and creator Trey Borzillieri sat down with The Young Folks to talk as neutrally about the series as they could.
Can you give some background on how you first heard about this story and when you thought it’d be worth turning into a documentary?
Trey Borzillieri: I started tracking the case the day it happened. Just by chance I was in Buffalo, New York, which is near Erie, Pennsylvania in August of 2003 when Bryan Wells robbed the PNC Bank. Soon after that happened, information started to trickle out that there was evidence at the scene that indicated that Bryan Wells had been put up to robbing the bank, that someone else had made him do this. A month later was when the frozen body turns up. The frozen body is found in the garage, which is located right next to the dirt road where Bryan Wells made his final pizza delivery before robbing the bank.
The FBI came up saying the two cases were not connected. That was so utterly shocking to me that I had to begin and jump into it. From that point on I was going into Erie, knocking on doors. For about a decade I was filming in Erie, interviewing, doing all I could, and in 2013 I brought Barbara on-board after having seen a great documentary that she had done called TalHotBlond and we were a team at that point, trying to get to deeper truths in the story and also in the case.
What do you think the fascination is with people and true crime, especially as we’re seeing more of an emphasis on true crime stories set in small towns like this and Wild, Wild Country?
Barbara Schroeder: I think it’s human nature that wants to solve mysteries. When you get the luxury of a storytelling format like a Netflix platform where you can dig into a story and let it play out the way it should, it allows the viewer to go along that journey, and play detective and try and get answers. In this case, yes, technically it’s a closed FBI Major case, but there were still a lot of questions that remained, a lot of unsolved aspects. The FBI still can’t tell you for sure who the mastermind was, who wrote those scavenger hunt notes.
These are all questions that intrigued us and that we wanted to give to the viewer, like “Look, here’s the journey that Trey started and we’re trying to get to the end of. Come along and watch Erie turn into Crazy Town for a couple of years.” Not just with the Pizza Bomber case, but there were other layers of other deaths involved with this. It was a staggering case. A one-of-a-kind bank heist and I think others like Wild, Wild Country, and Making a Murderer, and The Keepers, these are all journeys you can go on and you can watch them fold out in real time.
TB: When it comes to this case a great way to describe it is “stranger than fiction.” Once the audience gets used to seeing these breakthrough documentaries, they get addicted to it. You want, as an audience, things that are real. It’s almost like “real” is stranger than fiction, or real is more interesting than fiction. You just can’t help but get hooked on it.
What I love about these documentaries is these are stories we haven’t heard of. With the 24-hour newscycle, stories like this are considered more local crimes and don’t get the national coverage they deserve, or they get very brief coverage and then they’re smothered by other things.
BS: Right, and I’ll tell you my background is in investigative journalism. I’ve done other films before, but the state of journalism, a lot of newsrooms across the country don’t have investigative journalism anymore. There’s a lot of fake news coming out, so I think there’s a real thirst for documentaries like this because, not only do you get to stick with the story for awhile and watch it play out, but you also get to see the basic human instinct which is “Let’s get justice. Let’s find out what happened here,” and that’s something that the Netflix platform is resurrecting and repairing from the damage that’s been done to journalism.
I especially love how you present Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, trying to show the woman before the “evil genius.” How did you settle on how her character and the story would be structured?
BS: I’m glad you said that. We spent a lot of time trying to craft how to bring her into the story because the viewer’s experience with her – we wanted to mirror the experience that Trey had with her. He had unprecedented access to her, and ten years of verbal insults, entertainment; she could be charming at times, too. A little bit of Marjorie goes a long way, so we wanted to salt and pepper her in here because she is so fascinating. We wanted to introduce her character like in her “before” state, and as you see the story go off the rails you see how Marjorie herself went off the rails, and how her mental health went off the rails.
TB: She’s so abrasive, so a lot went into being able to allow the viewer to take her in. [We did a lot of] audience testing to see how much people could handle her and we hope we found the right balance.
BS: She was a soundbite machine, but she could also be very off-putting. You’ll see in episode four the verbal abuse that Trey had to put up with and endure to get to the end of the story. On the one hand she would say – if she didn’t like what he said or if he questioned her – “I’m gonna sue your fucking balls off.” Who says that? And one of the next conversations she could be telling him something funny and then signing off with “love you.” I don’t know if you ever saw the movie Monster with Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos. It’s like a street person like that; they’re entertaining, but Marjorie has that added layer of brilliance and manipulation. Man, she could manipulate like no other.
I saw a lot of commonalities to her and Robert Durst in The Jinx.
Barbara, you made your debut with TalHotBlond and now you’re here. Have there been any challenges you’ve faced as you’ve grown as a director?
BS: I had to be more patient on this one. You couldn’t get answers as quickly as we wanted; you had to wait for certain doors to open, and Trey’s relationship had to pay off. You have to let them play out with people. The first one was pretty traditional filmmaking, pretty traditional reporting. This one was like a labyrinth, every time we opened up one avenue there would be another one to go down. It was really important to slow down and take stock of, “Wait, there are a lot of things here. Let’s make sure the audiences’ journey is as fascinating as Trey’s was and as mine was. Once you get into the story it becomes a mind-bending game of Clue except that Mr. Green with an ax in the living room becomes these three hoarders and a convicted child molester with these crazy devices, bombs, and putting bodies in freezers. I’d never heard of a story like this before so it warranted a lot of time and patience.
When you set out to tell this story did you two have in mind who the “evil genius” was?
TB: No, and I can say that because, remember, I started back when the case happened. You’ve seen that clip of when I go to visit Bill Rothstein at the house; that’s only two months after the case began, so there was never any built-in ideas or opinions. It was truly just trying to objectively capture the answer to the mystery. Forever, just sitting back and asking, “Why? Why did this happen? How did this happen? Where did an idea like this come from?” What it made for was a totally unique perspective on the case that’s always been here, all the way up to when Barbara came on-board [and] we started working together. It’s still a unique perspective because we weren’t just taking what had been reported or what was released in case files. We were trying to understand what was at play.
BS: Kristen, I had a lot of “Wait, what” moments. Trey would say, “Guess what I found out today?” And I would say, “Trey, guess what I found out?” We would be like, “Wait, what happened?” My career is over two decades and I’ve covered a lot of stories, interviewed a lot of criminals. This case, I’ve never been more intrigued and obsessed with a case before, frankly.
With all these crazy revelations was there a discovery that shocked you or made you feel like everything clicked into place?
BS: That’s a great question and I know the exact moment. We made several trips to Erie; it was in 2014, Trey came back and sat down in the office. He had talked to an elusive eyewitness, let’s call her that, who was making a first-time revelation that the FBI didn’t know about, that the FBI was unable to get, and he sat in my office and he was telling me what she had said. I couldn’t pick myself up off the floor. It was such a moment and I thought the viewer needs to experience this exact moment, and that’s what happens in part four because it’s new information that spins the case in a whole new direction. That was a very big “Oh my God” moment, in addition to a lot of little ones.
TB: There are a lot of trains that hit you. Barbara’s describing that. You can’t believe there’s more than one, it’s shocking. The way the story begins with such unbelievably horrific, shocking video of Bryan Wells, and to think you can get to the end and think it’s equally as shocking. We could have never come up with something like this, it’s unbelievable; and when you get to the end, if you stick in the final pieces, looking back it makes sense why the mysteries lingered for so long.
If Hollywood called you up tomorrow and said, “We’re turning this into a narrative feature” who would you want to play you and these characters?
BS; That’s great! We haven’t been asked that one yet. Trey would have to be someone whose intrepid, humble. Who would that be? We would like to put out there that Kathy Bates would make a fantastic Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong.
I love that! Perfect casting.
Evil Genius is now available to stream on Netflix.