American Murder director on reclaiming Shanann Watts' voice from her killer
Jenny Popplewell tells EW about telling the Watts family murder story entirely through social media posts, personal text messages, and police footage.
Warning: This post contains spoilers about Netflix's American Murder: The Family Next Door.
American Murder: The Family Next Door director Jenny Popplewell wants you to know her portrait of Shanann Watts isn't your typical true-crime documentary.
″People might be disappointed that I haven’t solved the case. I haven’t figured out why he did this″ she tells EW of the film, which centers on the 34-year-old woman who, along with her two young daughters and unborn son, were murdered by her husband, Chris, in 2018. ″We’re hearing Shanann’s story about a broken heart and understanding what happens when you love someone so much, and suddenly they don’t love you back."
Instead of assembling a roster of talking heads to recount the grim story's play-by-play, which involved a seemingly perfect marriage breaking under the pressure of Chris' infidelity, Popplewell interviewed Shanann's inner circle off-camera, and used the resulting profile as a guide on her search for a narrative inside thousands of social media videos, text messages, and more archival footage provided by Shanann's family. The final product is Popplewell's entirely found-footage tribute to Shanann's humanity, with the filmmaker allowing Shanann's words — and her words only — guide the story, even after death.
American Murder: The Family Next Door is now streaming on Netflix. Read on for EW's full Q&A with Popplewell, in which she discusses how she gained access to Shanann's phone and laptop, pieces of personal video that didn't make the final cut, and what the late mother's family thinks of the film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get the idea to tell the story using only Shanann’s social media videos, text messages, and other found footage — not talking heads?
JENNY POPPLEWELL: I first saw an article about the crime in 2018, and at that point, they’d released a lot of the body cam footage. I couldn’t believe how much was captured on camera. There was body cam of every moment, every phone call, every questioning, it’s all captured. When they released his confession in February and properly exonerated Shanann, that’s when I thought there was a complete story there, between this and everything I could see on her Facebook already…. I thought, why do I need to ask somebody to tell me what happened when I can see what happened?
You spent five months editing this together, but how much time did you spend sifting through the initial footage and text messages, and how did you get that footage?
We had pre-production to organize and curate the extensive material. In the interest of transparency, anyone can contact Weld County and ask for the body of evidence and the discovery documents. Once we went to North Carolina and met with her family, we were able to have access to her phone and her laptop. We transferred it onto a drive, and her mom just said, “Please tell the truth.” I’m grateful she entrusted us with that, because within those videos — of which there were thousands — were poignant moments, especially in the last few weeks that the relationship broke down.
How do you give a voice to someone who’s not there? As in, how did you find the narrative you wanted to tell through her posts and archival footage versus interviewing people on-camera?
I did a lot of research on her before starting. I didn’t want to make a version of her that I decided she was. So, I spoke to her different friends, her brother, her parents, and they all had clear pictures of who she was. She had so many layers. She had many trials and tribulations in her life. She was a real go-getter, almost an over-achiever. She’d set a goal and make sure she was achieving it and was very passionate about friends and family. You can see that from her extensive text messages and how much it’s all about making sure that her kids and husband are happy.
Once I learned that and confirmed it from sources that this is who she was, I looked through her material and made notes about her personality. She’s self-deprecating about herself. She knows her weaknesses and strengths…. People have misunderstood her and decided that, because she sent sharp and curt messages to Chris at this period, that he left an abusive marriage, but that wasn’t the case. They had a great marriage for eight years, and out of the blue the rug is pulled out from under her. She’s pregnant with their child and suddenly he becomes incredibly distant, and the only thing she can put this on is a falling out with the in-laws that blindsided her. It’s so superficial and dismissive to write her off as a bossy woman whose husband was driven into the arms of another woman. It’s so true of female victims of violent crime, where they’re shamed and blamed. I’m not going to let that happen to her.
Was that difficult for you, then, to include audio clips of women disparaging her online near the end of the film?
That’s out there, in YouTube groups…. It’s a method of self-protection. They want to think “How can I make sure this never happens to me?” So they start to look for signs, like, “If I’m not nagging, I’ll be ok.” They fall into this trap of looking for reasons that Shanann brought this on herself, and therefore they won’t fall afoul the same fate. One of them says, “I don’t victim blame, I victim analyze.” But it’s victim-shaming…. we don’t need to analyze victims, we need to analyze perpetrators, but at the same time, I didn’t want to give any time to Chris. It’s not his story. He’s done an inexplicably atrocious crime, and this is Shanann’s story. It’s what she knew, what was going on with her in her life before that.
There’s a thirst to understand killers, where they went to school, what was their mother like, but we learn nothing about Chris in this film. We only see him through Shanann’s eyes, and that’s where he can stay. I have no interest in interviewing him in prison. There’s no point asking him, because I don’t think he knows [why he did this]. People might be disappointed that I haven’t solved the case. I haven’t figured out why he did this, but it’s not that type of true-crime documentary. We’re not solving the case, we’re hearing Shanann’s story about a broken heart and understanding what happens when you love someone so much, and suddenly they don’t love you back.
But you do include a particularly chilling video of a presentation Chris gave years prior to the murders, where he’s giving a presentation about relationships and leaving your current relationship to pursue a new, better relationship if one presents itself.
He closed his Facebook page a few weeks before the murders because he was having an affair, and he didn’t want his social media to give him away, but he had a YouTube account and that was uploaded there. It was a presentation on public speaking he did at work, and he chose that topic. It’s quite a basic speech. He hasn’t got any depth. It’s almost like an 11-year-old schoolboy’s view on relationships…. He’s not emotionally mature on any level. This is a man who had to Google “How do I know I’m in love?” Shanann, on the other hand, as you see in her handwritten letters in the film and her analyzation of herself, she’s very emotionally mature and understands the complexities of this — including her own failings. All she can do is fix herself, but she can’t drag him to the same position. She needs him to meet her part way to fix it.
Was there any footage that didn’t make the final cut that you wanted to include?
In Shanann’s wedding video, there’s a “Mr. and Mrs.” game they play. The DJ asks them about their relationship. It was, for a very long time, in the film, but it didn’t make the final. The DJ asked questions while they sat back-to-back. He said, “Who kissed who first?” and they both put up their board, and it was Chris. He asked, “Who said ‘I love you’ first?” and I thought I knew her, I thought that would’ve been Chris, but they both put their paddle up, and it was Shanann. For me, that set up their relationship: Yes, she put up her guard as a divorcee and pushed him away because she wasn’t sure she was ready for another relationship, but she actually wore her heart on her sleeve and told him she was in love with him, wrote besotted love letters to him, told him all of her emotions, and just asked him to tell her how he felt. That’s how I want her to be remembered, as someone who tried her best.
What new layers does this film add to the case or Shanann as a person that weren’t there before?
I’m hoping she’s relatable to so many women, and that we don’t look at her like, “Thank goodness I’m not like Shanann, that won’t ever happen to me,” but rather we see that there’s a little bit of everyone in Shanann.
How has her family reacted to the film?
They were pleased. This was an incredibly difficult watch for them, and we had people for them to talk to — professionals — through the process…. They were grateful that we didn’t make this about Chris, and showed what was Shanann’s truth, what was Shanann talking about, texting to her friends — those were the important story beats, not Chris lying in an interrogation room. He’s a dishonest source. The only person we really should be listening to is the person who had no reason to lie. They were happy and pleased that it readdressed the narrative, because she’s not been given a great time in the corner of the internet where she’s shamed and blamed. I can’t make that go away. The film can’t make that go away. But it shines light on the fact that she doesn’t deserve that.