‘Off The Rails’ tells the remarkable true story of Darius McCollum, a man with Asperger’s syndrome whose overwhelming love of transit has landed him in jail 32 times for impersonating New York City bus drivers and subway conductors and driving their routes.
Over the next three decades, Darius commandeered hundreds of trains and buses, staying en route and on schedule, without ever getting paid. He attended transit worker union meetings, lobbying for better pay and working conditions for a union he didn’t belong to.
Although Darius has never damaged any property or hurt anyone in his decades of service, he has spent 23 years in maximum security prison. Darius’ recidivism embodies the criminal justice system’s failure to channel the passions of a harmless, mentally challenged man into a productive career and purposeful life.
Anticipating ‘Off The Rails’ Screening at 2016 Hot Docs, we spoke with the film’s Director Adam Irving on Darius treatment while in prison, his approach to formulating a documentary narrative, stylization techniques and much more. ‘Off The Rails’ screens in Toronto on May 4, 6, 7, and 8.
Find more information and tickets to ‘Off the Rails’ at 2016 Hot Docs HERE
How were you first introduced to Darius’ story? Why did you want to take on this story at the feature length level, especially given it is your first feature film?
I was watching a Youtube video of a man filming a train go by. You can’t see the man but you can see the train and he is clearly enthusiastic. I noticed in the comment section that wrote he was such a FOAMer. I had never heard this term. I looked it up and learned it is a derogatory term for someone who gets so excited about trains they start to foam at the mouth upon seeing one. In the UK, for example, they are called Trainspotters. They are usually men on the autism spectrum who live with their parents and who are really into trains. In reading about FOAMers, I read about Darius McCollum. When I read his Wikipedia page, I was hooked from the first line. It mentioned that he had Asperger’s, he’s spent 20 years in prison, he’s never hurt anyone or damaged any property. It had a ‘Catch Me If You Can’ feel. I love films about imposters. I am a very honest person and I can’t lie, so I am always drawn to imposters, even if they are criminals.
I also love stories about New York City. I used to live there and I took the subway every day. In fact, right here behind me, there is a poster of an old 1920s subway map. I have taken the subway in 51 cities around the world.
Lastly, crime films are hot right now, especially in the US. Darius falls in this gray area because he did do all the crimes and freely admitted to them, but there is still something wrong with him spending all this time in prison when he has never hurt anyone.
Did you pay mind to the criminal justice element of this storyline when you were first developing the narrative?
To be honest, I didn’t think about it that much. I knew it was in the background but it wasn’t until I spent over a year testing it with audiences when I realized that people are sympathizing more with this human story of injustice. Whereas, when I first started it, I envisioned this quirky and fun film. Once I started getting deeper, there was a point where people understood what he did, but there was no second and third act. That’s when we realized that to make it feature length, we had to add that social storyline and approach, asking where Darius story of injustice falls in what else is going on in the US. That is the point where I started interviewing his lawyer and the US District Attorney’s, shaping the film so there was a legal arc on top of his human arc. It became a darker, deeper, and sadder film, but it is also a stronger film.
There is something about the personal nature of how you present Darius, especially his relationship with his mother. Just the change in tone of her letters from when Darius first arrives in prison to how she sounds 20 years later…
There is a scene in the documentary ‘The Kid Stays in the Picture,’ where Bob Evans talks about ‘The Godfather’. He mentions that when the film was first released the studio felt it was missing the family element. It had all the fun gangster stuff and everything that appealed to men but it didn’t have that classic Italian family feel, so they reshaped the film and it became the classic it is now. Not to compare my film to ‘The Godfather’ but our film was the same. It didn’t have too much heart in it.
I had this late discovery a few months ago, where I met with Darius’ mother in North Carolina and I found this treasure trove of 35 years of letters between Darius and his mother. I took them to my hotel room and read all of them. Some of them just broke my heart. I realized that every Christmas he was away from his mother and, his whole life he was trying to get back to her. She was the one person that could give him the love he needed. Sometimes in a documentary, filmmakers will script these kinds of things, but these were real. My editor said that even if we didn’t make the Sundance deadline, we had to squeeze these letters into the film.
When you first approached Darius, how open was he to be a part of this project?
Darius loves attention and was rally happy when I approached him. In fact, he mentioned that I was the 27th filmmaker to approach him, which was a bit discouraging. I wonder what happened to these other 27 filmmakers. Why couldn’t they finish the film? As I learned, most of them didn’t have the money or resources to go out and make the movie over the long haul, which is what this story required. I was so determined to make this film so finding out I was the 28th filmmaker lit a fire under me. I told myself that I would be the one person who would finally make the film. I realized I could do it if I just stuck with it, so I shot as much b roll and interviews as I could waiting for Darius to get out of prison.
We didn’t talk too much about my vision for the film. He is a movie buff but is into those 90s action movies. He is not reading Film Comment or Cineaste. That is how he envisioned the documentary, like he was Superman! He wanted to the movie to be called ‘Catch Me if You Can 2’. Still, though, he was very open to work with even when I told him that some aspects of the film may get dark and he may not like how he was being portrayed.
Did you know there will be a Hollywood movie called ‘Trainman’ about Darius? It will star Julia Roberts as his lawyer. Darius is super thrilled about this. He has an ego and he is not afraid to admit it. When he goes to prison he asks for the articles written about him, especially if they have his picture. He puts them on his cell and show off to all the guards. When he’s on TV, he has the guards turn the news on so everyone can see.
Over the course of his life, Darius trajectory of incarceration has lead him from small jails to Rikers Island. Now, Rikers is a very controversial place, where conditions are frequently portrayed in the media as being quite deplorable. Did Darius ever speak as to how he felt he was being treated while incarcerated at Rikers Island?
That was probably the most disappointing lack of feedback I would get from him. Whenever I inquired about it I never got anything I could use in the film because it was so underwhelming. He would just say he wasn’t scarred and that he got used to the conditions. He talks about it as if he was waiting in line at the DMV, like, it’s not great but he has to do it.
What reactions were you getting from the MTA over the course of filming?
Well, as you can imagine, I wanted the input of the MTA. If I were to consider myself a journalist, I wanted to present a balanced film and get their perspective. Their response to my inquiry was very formal and business-like. It read “We are very familiar with Mr. McCollum. We have never and will never have any comment on him”. This captured their attitude quite well. He is a pain in the ass for them and they dont want to acknlqoedge him. I think they are smart enough to know that they would ultimately come off as the bad guys. The only voice of the MTA had to have his face blurred. He would have lost his job just for speaking on the matter, and he wasn’t even defending Darius. He was just speaking on the story in general. It’s too bad they wouldn’t comment because now the MTA looks even worse. They are actually trying to go after Darius money from the Holywood movie deal stating that he can’t profit off crime.