In 2017, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had one of the highest incarceration rates of any major city in the United States. And it’s become the epicenter of a historic experiment that could shape the future of prosecution in America for decades to come. When civil rights attorney Larry Krasner mounted a long-shot campaign to become District Attorney, he ran on a bold pledge: to end mass incarceration by changing the culture of the criminal justice system from within. He shocked the establishment by winning in a landslide.
Now, the bureaucrats he spent his campaign denigrating are his co-workers; the police he alienated are his rank-and-file law enforcers. Pressure comes from all sides of a system resistant to reform. Krasner’s unapologetic promise to use the power of the D.A.’s office for sweeping change is what got him elected; now that he’s in office, that same stubbornness threatens to alienate those he needs to work with the most.
From the eye of this political storm, filmmakers Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar gained unprecedented access into Krasner’s office and behind the scenes of the criminal justice system. Over the course of eight episodes, Philly D.A. explores the most pressing social issues of our time—police brutality, the opioid crisis, gun violence, and mass incarceration—through the lens of an idealistic team attempting fundamental overhaul from within the system.
You’ve been involved in this documentary series for some time, right?
Yeah I’m a co-creator and producer/director and then, you know, cinematographer’s kind of low on the list. We started at the end of 2017 and it really kicked into high gear in 2018. When we actually got access to the district attorney’s office, we started filming every day, I think at the end of the project, we counted that we had over 550 production days.
So what, what got you started on this project? Obviously it’s a compelling subject no matter who you are, but what was unique about it to you?
I’m somebody who’s made films for several years about insular communities. A film that I shot and produced called Menashe was at Sundance a couple of years ago. And that was about the Ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. A fiction film, but shot very much like the documentary. I was really interested in sort of looking at insular communities that seemed different from us, but actually had some real common themes, universal themes, with audiences. Once I started to learn a little bit more about the prosecutor’s office and the district attorney’s office, I started to understand that this was also an insular group of people who work behind closed doors, who you don’t see on TV, who make all these important decisions. As far as I could tell, there had never been a film or a docu-series that was inside a prosecutor’s office. They usually, you know, filming Court TV and all that stuff. You don’t actually see what happens backstage, which is inside the prosecutor’s office. That’s where all the decisions that happen in court are made. So even the analogy is, if you think about the courtroom as the stage, you know, the prosecutor’s office is the backstage. It’s where it’s where the real hard work happens. So there’s a group of people who have their own community, their own language, that they speak to each other, their own acronyms, but the decisions that they were going to make in these rooms, the prosecutor’s office, are going to affect over a million people and disproportionately black and brown communities in Philadelphia, which is where I live.
You had mentioned in a separate interview that you weren’t allowed to film in courtrooms, how did that pose a challenge? Was it even an issue?
Yeah, I mean I think when we first realized that Larry Krasner was going to be the District Attorney and that we were going to be trying to tell the story of what happens in the justice system, it became this question of what we can’t film in the courtrooms. It’s just not legal in the state of Pennsylvania. And in some ways, we picked one of the worst places in the country where you can’t record audio. You can’t do anything in the courtroom. I mean, I’ve been yelled at for taking notes inside the courtroom on a notepad by the judge, it’s very restrictive. It’s too bad because I think transparency goes a long way, but it really posed the question of, “can we make this project at all?” you know, “How do we look at the guts and the gears of the justice system, if we can’t see the courtroom?” And I think this comes down to a lot of my philosophy on cinematography and creativity, which is you have to take those restrictions that you have and turn them into a creative advantage. And in this case, you know, our restriction of not being able to film what viewers typically expect, I think became our secret sauce of the project, which is that most legal thrillers and law and order shows and documentaries for that matter focus on spectacular cases, they focus on high stakes courtroom drama, and the fact is that those are aberrations, the criminal legal system in America doesn’t actually function that way. We’ve been led to believe that because it makes great drama. And we want to know the spectacular cases about the homicides and terrible tragedies, but 95% of all cases that start in a prosecutor’s office, you know, that start from an arrest, never go to court. They’re disposed of in a plea deal. You just agree to the terms because the circumstances force you to agree to those terms, so you never go to court, you never sit in front of a jury of your peers, there’s never a trial. And the fact that you have that statistic means that that’s what leads to America being the most incarcerated country on earth. It’s not one courtroom, one trial at a time. It’s the decisions that are being made behind closed doors at prosecutors’ offices around the country. And there’s more than 2,500 of them. Those decisions that are being made about, “Hey, what do we do if we arrest somebody with marijuana?” “What do we do if we arrest somebody who’s holding an illegal gun?” “What do we do if we arrest somebody who’s doing sex work, should we even make those arrests?” All those decisions kind of accumulate and that’s how you get mass incarceration, but they don’t happen inside a courtroom. So that’s really what our show focuses on. Are those gears of mass incarceration.
In the show we see the FOP, the Fraternal Order of Police, sort of rallying against the new DA, and they seem to be pretty intense. Did you guys find them coming after you at all? Or were you kind of auxiliary to the fight between them and the new incoming DA?
You definitely see the Fraternal Order of Police, which is the police officer’s union, a lot in the series and we went to their union hall many times to film and there were usually other journalists there, not always, you know. I will give them credit for allowing us in the door; they knew what we were doing and they knew what this project was but they did decline to participate in any more meaningful way. The other side of that, though, is that the series does in later episodes, especially Episode 2 and Episode 6, you meet active police officers. A lot of the folks at the FOP, at the union, are retired. They’re not really representative of everyday police officers in Philadelphia. And so because of that, we put a huge amount of effort into building trust and relationships with police officers in Philadelphia, many of whom are people of color, many of whom do not support what the FOP supports, but are still part of the police department are still part of the police culture for good and for bad. We spend a lot of time earning their trust and going on ride-alongs with them, going to their homes, you know, understanding that the police are not a monolith and it’s not really fair to say all police are anything.
That’s unfortunately sort of a universal problem right now, isn’t it? That the people who represent anyone in any form of office tend to not represent their people accurately.
Yeah. And I think that this series shows that there’s a lot of different stories that are being told around public safety and crime. And certainly there is a story of individual people who are, you know, the victims of a crime, but there’s also a societal story being told about the crime. Think about most things that come on the news at 10 o’clock. It’s often, you know, what bleeds leads and something that maybe is statistically an aberration becomes just common sense. You know, this person did this thing, therefore all people who are diverted or all people who are on supervision must be that. And so I think, you know, storytellers and filmmakers in particular, including myself, I think have to really look carefully at the kinds of stories we put out there. And the ways that we tell stories because it, it can be very easy to sort of fall into old tropes and old ways of storytelling that viewers are accustomed to, and that are frankly easy. It’s not always easy to tell stories of systems and backroom policies and then connect them to people who are affected by those policies. And that’s what we tried to do in our series.
What was your shooting package? How were you able to kind of stay light and nimble for 550 shooting days?
I do a lot of work outside of this and I own larger cameras, you know, I’ll shoot on Alexas or REDs and I’ll always have like an Easy Rig for my back and all that stuff, if I’m doing handheld, or a large tripod, but there was none of that for this. There was no support for all 550 days, so I definitely got to know a really good physical therapist by the end of it. Uh, which was awesome [laughs] I totally recommend it.
I would say the whole ethos going into it… there were a lot of choices that were made from a cinematography perspective. It wasn’t “let’s just show up with a camera and hope for the best”. I think the first choice that we made was that we had to be a part of real prosecutor’s offices, which is a place where there are never any camera crews. So even before what camera we would bring we had to make sure we look the part. So every day that I was shooting, I was wearing a tie and a jacket all the time, just so that way if you looked at us and you didn’t know who we were, it was just like, “oh, I guess they’re supposed to be here cause they look like everybody else and they have a camera around their shoulder and a sound package, but for all we know, they’re like attorneys that are part of this office.” So it was just kind of fitting into the culture that I think was an important choice right off the bat. And part of that did relate to the camera. I mean, there are lots of amazing cameras out there but for us it was all about “what can I keep over my shoulder all day?” Because a lot of times in verité filmmaking it’s not actually shooting, it’s waiting to shoot or it’s shooting an entire scene that doesn’t matter. But you know, you need to shoot that to get the trust of the people, to shoot the next thing, which, you know, will matter. So, you know, a camera like the C300mkII was just kind of a no-brainer because it had a great enough image that we could use in fluorescent lighting, mixed lighting situations, but I could also keep it on my shoulder and, you know, my stabilization system was my Fanny pack because that allowed me to put it right at eye level and immerse people right in meetings. And usually I was standing up, some people were sitting down around tables and I could kind of maneuver the camera in between shoulders and heads and arms as if you were another person who was making a decision yourself. We want it to put the viewer in the mindset of what would it be like if you got to all of the sudden make decisions for a million people about the legal system. So that kind of immersive cinematography required sort of a nimbleness and just using a monopod, using a Fanny pack, you know, really being aggressive with the camera as opposed to sitting in the corner with the tripod and the long lens you’re always really in there. That really could only be achieved by being there almost every day. And because our office was across the street, we would just show up every day sometimes only for a couple of hours, but we were there.
The fanny pack maneuver is something that I feel like a lot of people are basically leaning on nowadays. I was talking to Jenna Rocher for Frame & Reference, she shot the Billy Eilish documentary, and she would use a Cine Saddle, which are relatively expensive, but, you know, that was like her back brace or, you know, the little hip situation.
Yeah, I don’t actually remember the brand, but I think I got mine at a yard sale. I know that it had like, a nice kind of platform that you can rest the camera on.
Were you on one sort of all-around zoom or did you stick with primes or something like that? Cause we whole series does have a very consistent look.
Yeah. All the interiors and most of the exteriors were shot with like, Canon zoom lenses, like 24-70mm and the 70-200mm, just the stock still lenses, because they were the smallest that we could use. They’re not the best lenses if you’re trying to do controlled moves and do lots of stuff, but in terms of like, low profile and lightweight, that was the best choice for us. And then a lot of the exteriors are shot on a RED with some vintage Canon glass. I want to say like a 150-600mm that was rehoused here at Expressway in Philly. And that was also intentional, you know, it’s a it’s an eight part docu-series that was released in 2021, but has no drone footage in it [laughs] and that’s very intentional. I have a lot of respect for drone operators and I’ve used them on other projects, but I really wanted this project to feel, you know, more like a classic cinema verité documentary that you’re really in there with the people and you’re not, like, looking down on them. You’re not hovering between places, you kind of have a humanistic perspective which meant, you know, looking at documentaries like Primary looking at Salesmen, looking at War Room from the nineties, looking at Streetwise, looking at those films and how they really gave you a sense of space and perspective through compression of long lenses. And so we were always looking for ways to show Philadelphia, not through like super wide drone shots, but through layering.
Well, and especially too, if you’re series of sort of tangentially about the police, the helicopter shot may not be the correct angle [laughs]
We definitely sometimes did car mounts and other things like that later in the series, but with the RED system I think we needed a PL Mount to work with that lens. It was good for those to shoot at 4k, whereas the rest of the series was shot at 2K.
So was that just a resolution choice or was it also like, the dynamic range of the of the RED that kind of made it better for the outside stuff?
I think it was just like a slightly different look for the outsides of the buildings. The tricky thing about shooting a lot of the series inside office buildings is you just have very limited control of what you can do. So a lot of the series takes place in the same, like, six conference rooms. And so we became very adept at saying like, “okay guys, you guys are going to have a very serious meeting right now about deciding if this person’s going to be released from prison, do you mind if we turn off all the lights and open the shutters? [laughs] you know “before you have that meeting, can we do all that?” There was no other way to like, pre-light or leave stuff there. So the outside had to take on a different role to kind of give you a breath, quite literally, after being in these tense rooms.
I’m sure they didn’t want you up there like “Hey, we’re just going to hang a big thing of diffusion in your office. Can you leave it there for like three years?”
I know I definitely did it a few days. I definitely had paper lanterns and other stuff for a couple of days and I just said “This is ridiculous. I gotta… we can’t do this.” I tried it, I definitely would’ve liked to have done it, but I think I think at the end of the day you kind of build an aesthetic that is consistent and because we were consistent across it helps and there was like a logic, you know, for the viewer in that respect.
Speaking of the sort of aesthetic, there’s kind of a (and I didn’t watch this show really but) “Newsroom” kind of coolness to it, at least at the beginning and in the promos. Was that done in camera? Was that more in the grade?
Yeah, that was all done with Natacha Ikoli, the color grader who I worked with. We actually did that remotely, which was an interesting challenge, working with her cross continents but with you know, matching monitors and, you know Resolve systems and all that. She helped figure out all that stuff. I wasn’t doing anything on camera except trying to make sure that, you know, we were going to capture the footage we needed and that the stuff was well lit. She really helped us dial in a look that felt appropriate for the different environments. You know, cause as the series goes on, you’re in the DA’s office, you’re in a police precinct, you’re with a city council person you’re outside of a prison with somebody being released, so each of those environments needed to have a slightly different look to them. Also at different points in the series your relationship to those places is different. Like sometimes you are an outsider to that office, the district attorney’s office, just like the characters. And sometimes you’re not, sometimes you feel like this is a comfortable place for me. So we were, you know, always trying to play with that in subtle ways that felt authentic to the material and the place, but also has some kind of emotional relationship to the theme of the episode.
Yeah it looks fantastic. Did you have a hand in the editing of it at all or was that pretty much like you’d come in for notes and then move on?
I wish I wish I did the second one I would have been a lot saner [laughs]. Unfortunately it was the former where, you know, we had a crew of amazing editors, I want to say five editors across the series working on multiple episodes and then, you know, between myself, my co-director Ted and then co-series creator, Nicole Salazar, we would each kind of divvy up primary responsibility for an episode. And that would mean, you know, working really intensely with editors on crafting the scenes. Sometimes editing myself to try things out but it was really all being driven by that team of editors and then probably four or five different associate editors who were helping us just make our way through all the footage which was pretty insurmountable at times.
So you edited in Premiere, I’m guessing?
We edited in Premiere. Yup.
How were you working together? Were you using Productions or anything like that?
We really started editing in the pandemic and that was a very unique challenge because we had all been in Philadelphia before that. And part of the special sauce of making the docu-series is that our office is across the street from the District Attorney’s office so we could go from shooting a scene, pop it in to Premiere for me (or with an editor) to see if it worked, and that was how we did it for the first year and a half. There was immediate gratification and it helped us kind of iterate and know what was working and what didn’t work. But once the pandemic hit we had to build an edit team and we couldn’t do it in Philadelphia. So I think the silver lining to that was that we got to work with really great editors who are not in Philadelphia; folks in New York, Chicago, LA, we were all over the place and some of them I’ve never even met in person after all this time, spending months with them on the phone every day, on Zoom every day, and so just building that creative relationship and looking at all the footage together was, was, was really tricky and then doing it in a way that was like seamless. So that way people weren’t reinventing the wheel every time they got a new episode was I think part of the challenge in the edit.
So we were building sequences from the beginning, like “this is every shot of the hallways and this police station”, and “this is every time this character leaves their house and goes somewhere else” You know, we had these sequences that we had been building and updating and I believe what we were doing is putting them into Productions. So that way they would be sort of constantly updated. Like we could shoot something new, a new city scape of the skyline, and that would get thrown into a sequence, and then that would propagate into all the editors projects so that they knew what was what, and we had like a backend server supporting that so that the footage would also migrate onto their local hard drives.
Gotcha. So you had a central sort of storage hub that everyone was accessing and then saving copies to their own computers.
Yeah, exactly. We had an incredible post producer, James Doolittle, who was managing that process, making sure that all the drives were being mirrored, making sure that that people were remembering to update their project files [laughs] to what was on Productions, cause there’s always that human element of like, you can have the most beautiful synced back-system, but if people are just doing what they always do before this was all built, it doesn’t help a lot.
Saving to Desktop ‘untitled_v1’ or whatever
Yeah exactly. You couldn’t do that anymore. And then that was a good thing cause it kept all the files fresh, but it just meant that there had to be a little bit more producing involved along the way. That was all changes for me.
You’re actually the first person I think I’ve talked to, I could be wrong, who’s actually used Productions. Did you find that a pretty easy transition off of, ya know, whatever your general workflow was before?
Yeah. I mean I didn’t use it that directly in the work that I was doing, but I would say from a project perspective, I think hearing from editors who were using it, it seemed to flow pretty seamlessly into what they were doing in Premiere. So it wasn’t like a new thing for them to learn as far as I understood.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to me Yoni, I really appreciate it!
Yoni Brook is a twice Independent Spirit-nominated cinematographer and producer. As a director, his films have screened at the Berlinale, New York and Toronto Film Festivals, True/False, and IDFA. For PBS’s POV series, Brook co-directed Bronx Princess (with Musa Syeed). Brook co-directed The Calling, a four hour series about young religious leaders for Independent Lens. His directorial debut A Son’s Sacrifice for Independent Lens, won Best Documentary Short at the Tribeca Film Festival.