Monday, 14 October 2019

THE ACID KING: Filmmakers talk Satanism, Drugs & Heavy Metal

Interview with Jesse P. Pollack & Dan Jones, the filmmakers behind the 2019 true crime documentary, THE ACID KING. 

What first attracted you to Ricky's tale? 
JESSE: Back in 2014, I was working on my first book, DEATH ON THE DEVIL'S TEETH, which chronicled a 1972 murder that was blamed on Satanism and Witchcraft. While researching that story, I kept hearing about the Ricky Kasso case. I read up on it and decided it was worth examining in my second book. Once I got to interview people involved in that incident, I found out that the press really mangled this story back in 1984, and it became my "mission", so to speak, to set the record straight on the myths and lies surrounding Ricky Kasso and his victim, Gary Lauwers. That book, also titled THE ACID KING, was released in October 2018 by Simon & Schuster, and this film is a direct documentary adaptation of it. 

DAN: I first heard the story from Jesse when he got the book deal going. He'd tell me more and more about it as his research went on and I realized that this was a lot deeper than a kid who sacrificed his friend to the devil. It's a heartbreaking story about a boy who was just discarded by society because he didn't fit the mold his father tried to put him into. So initially, the bullshit of the story is what caught my attention. 

Why do you suppose he was so attracted to Satanism? 
JESSE: I think Satanism offered Ricky a chance to feel powerful for the first time in his life. As a kid, he was into rock n' roll and horror movies, which already carried the "Satanic" label, so this just became an extension of that. As he grew older, it became more and more apparent that he wasn't going to live up to his father's ambitions for him, so things came to a head and Ricky was eventually thrown out of his home in the 7th grade. He was forced to sleep in the woods and public bathrooms when he couldn't find an unlocked car or a friend's couch to crash on. He survived on bagels and cheap bologna sandwiches that he bought by selling pot and LSD behind a restaurant by the high school he had dropped out of. When your existence has deteriorated to sleeping on dirt and eating warm lunchmeat on stale bread, you'll do anything to feel some form of power and control in your life. 

DAN: Ricky had nowhere to turn. The idea that Satan would save him was his last ditch effort to survive and it didn't exactly play out that way - or maybe when Ricky decided to end it, he thought he was being saved. 

Apparently after he got into Satanism, he became an amazing football player - do you think there's a coincidence there? 
JESSE: Never happened. That's a complete myth. Ricky was always a talented athlete, but if anything, his performance worsened as he got older. He was no longer interested in sports by the time he was in middle school, and between his pot-smoking and lack of athletic ambition, his performance only got worse until he eventually dropped out of school. One of the main reasons why Ricky was thrown out of his home by his father was Ricky not wanting to play football anymore. His old man wanted him to be the next Johnny Unitas and flew into a rage and beat him every time he missed football practice. One of the most gut-wrenching stories I was told while writing the book was by a friend of his who recalled Ricky pulling up his shirt to show him the bruises his dad had left on his chest by beating him with a wooden broomstick for missing football practice. What the fuck kind of father does that? It's a shock anyone was surprised at what later became of Ricky - look at the people he had for parents. 

DAN: He got into "Satanism" as an escape from sports - not as a way to get better. 

Were people happy to talk about Ricky during your research? 
JESSE: Once they realized I was trying to set the record straight and wasn't in the business of selling more myths, most people were willing to talk on the record. Some gave me information on an anonymous basis, but most were happy to be a part of this book and film project, as it helped them reclaim their own life stories. A few people weren't as happy. One of the witnesses to the murder, Albert Quinones, would only speak to us if we could offer him money and a movie deal, which completely goes against the ethics of journalism, so we declined. One of the kids who was brought by Ricky to see the body of Gary Lauwers would only speak to us if we offered him cash. When we declined, he said, "Go fuck yourself and get a real job." So, sometimes you get shit like that. 

DAN: People not one degree away from the story were easier to talk to than those that knew Ricky and Gary. There were plenty of people that told Jesse to go fuck himself. A few folks we met on the street who asked about the cameras were eager to express their thoughts on the story, as well. Nobody tried to chase us out of town, or anything - not yet, at least. 

Did anything strange happen during the making of the project? 
JESSE: For about a year, I was trying like hell to find Jim VanBebber, who directed the Kasso-inspired short film MY SWEET SATAN (1994). One lead would take me to California, another to Florida. Finally, a mutual friend - super-talented artist Cody Lee Hardin - tipped me off on where I could find him, and it turned out he was living literally only a half hour away from me. I bought the main camera we used in the making of this film at a pawn shop in that same town. I was grocery shopping there every Saturday at one point. So once I found him there, I was finally able to ask him if he would appear in the film, and luckily he said yes, because he steals every segment he's in. His interview was so intelligent, insightful, and even hilarious that I couldn't picture this documentary being anywhere near as effective as it is without him. So yeah, finding out that one of the biggest names associated with Kasso's pop culture legacy was living so close by was pretty wild. 

DAN: When we were shooting in the Crab Meadow cemetery where Ricky tried to dig up a grave, Jesse knew of a tree that Ricky carved his nickname into. We eventually found it a few yards away from the grave he defiled. You could clearly see "ACID KING" cut into the bark, weathered and worn from the 33 years that had passed. Then, Joey Slater-Milligan, a photographer who was with us, pointed out "Gary" carved into the tree a few feet below Ricky's "Acid King". This was surreal - just knowing they both stood there, together, and immortalised themselves into the tree bark long before their lives would become permanently intertwined. 

What was the hardest aspect of this project? 
JESSE: Editing. This film was shot on a shoe-string budget, so we didn't have the luxury of using 4K cameras with expensive lenses on them - or even 16mm, which I honestly would have rather shot it on, if only for aesthetic purposes. Our second unit, run by the amazingly talented Rusty Tagliareni (Antiquity Echoes) and Sommer Jonez (YES, NO, GOODBYE), had better equipment than Dan and I were using for the main portion of the shoot, so those scenes were easier to edit, but the rest of the footage was a pain at times. Due to the low budget, we had to use DSLRs and consumer-grade lenses, and learn how to calibrate them on the fly. I grew up making short films on Super 8 and VHS-C, so a lot of this stuff required a crash-course in modern digital filmmaking for Dan and I. We literally went to the YouTube school of filmmaking for about three months during pre-production, which was pretty helpful, but we still made some mistakes. A few times, we were accidentally shooting 30 fps on the B cam while the A cam was shooting 24. If you know anything about editing, you know that to fix this, you have to render the 30 fps footage down to 24 fps in post, and it makes motion look jittery and fucks up the audio synchronization - which was a major issue, as we muted the camera's mic when we shot, due to us using lav mics. We spent a LOT of time fixing audio sync errors. Also, lighting and monitors became really tricky. We'd spend 30 minutes lighting an interview subject and it would look great on the HD LCD monitors we were using, but once we got it into the editing bay, we saw a ton of digital noise. So, we had to go in with special software and "de-noise" a few segments. In some cases, it was barely noticeable, but in others it was a little more obvious, so that led to some frustration - but no one complained about it at the premiere, where it was blown up 50 feet high, so maybe we're just being hard on ourselves for not making a pitch-perfect $6,000 first-time feature. 
DAN: Getting to Long Island. I nearly missed my flight. 

JESSE: I would have fucking killed him. (Laughs) Someone would have been making a true crime documentary about ME! 

Do you think heavy metal had a hand in the murder, or was it just a deadly cocktail of circumstances? 
JESSE: The murder of Gary Lauwers had nothing to do with heavy metal. I know Ricky Kasso has been adopted as this pseudo-antihero by the heavy metal community due to the historical revisionism that was hocked by the tabloids and the trashy exploitation paperback written by that plagiarizing hack, David St. Clair (1987's SAY YOU LOVE SATAN), but in reality, the heaviest music Ricky listened to was Black Sabbath - which is considered "oldies" by today's standards. Ricky's favorite bands were The Who, Frank Zappa, and The Grateful Dead - hardly the frothing-at-the-mouth thrash rockers that the media would love to blame this stuff on. Ricky was an abused, mentally-ill, drug addicted child who finally snapped after one-too-many bad days. I'm not trying to justify or downplay what he did to Gary Lauwers, but I have to reject this media lie that's been perpetuated for almost 40 years now - he wasn't some maniac who sprouted from the ground, ready to kill because Ozzy Osbourne and Anton Lavey told him to. Ricky Kasso was an abused kid who needed serious, professional help, and instead got a lot of "tough love" bullshit from his parents and teachers, and we all know what happened next. 

DAN: I'd say it was more the drugs and lack of support Ricky had from his family and community. The idea that music influenced his actions is dishonest and a scapegoat. 

What can viewers learn from this documentary? 
JESSE: Hopefully viewers will learn how this tragedy was exploited by a scoop-hungry media, and the after-effects of it are still being felt today, especially in Northport. This incident helped kick off a worldwide moral panic that cast children as literal supervillains in a religious culture war. For decades, cops got their jollies branding kids - usually ones from a lower economic bracket - as "Satanists", and went about harassing them needlessly. Parents saw this shit on Geraldo and Oprah, and turned their children into virtual prisoners inside their own homes. Lives were ruined by this. God knows how many teenagers committed suicide due to the pressures inflicted upon them by their parents and society in general during the Satanic Panic, and who knows how many innocent kids were convicted of crimes they had nothing to do with. Look no further than the West Memphis Three. Hopefully parents will watch this film and love their kids a little better - and take what they read about children in online or in the newspapers with a boulder of salt. 

DAN: Hopefully the truth that Ricky was just a damaged kid with nobody to offer him actual help - that it wasn't just the devil and heavy metal. 

Do you think Ricky was evil? 
JESSE: Ricky Kasso made a series of horrible choices that can never be undone. However, if he hadn't been failed by his family, his teachers, and his friends, I think he - and more importantly, Gary Lauwers - would still be alive today. That's the biggest tragedy of this whole story - it was completely preventable. 

DAN: Ricky wasn't "evil"; Ricky was lost. Ricky didn't have a home or family near the end of it. He couldn't go home. 

How did the collaboration process develop between you both while making the film? 
JESSE: Dan and I have been creative partners since we were 19 years old. We started out writing short stories together and eventually moved on to podcasting and filmmaking. Every step of the way, we worked together on selecting the right equipment to fit within our budget, where and when we would set up a base of operations while filming out on Long Island, and how to structure each scene once all of the interviews and B-roll were shot and in the can, so to speak. We both had film "bibles" - notebooks we used for notetaking and transcribing interview footage - and we coordinated the data from both of those books to make the best scenes out of the material we had. It was a really great collaborative process and I hope we can continue creating worthwhile work for years to come. 

DAN: We're both very comfortable with one another in the sense that we both know our individual skillsets. Jesse ran the interviews since he knew what to talk about, whereas I set up all the cameras and the technical aspects of the shoot. It was a pretty painless go around on our second trip to Northport. 

Where can viewers see the movie? 
JESSE: THE ACID KING will be available to view on Amazon Prime this fall - stay tuned. 

DAN: We will eventually have a physical media release too - because physical media will never die.