Inside the making of Netflix's Aaron Hernandez doc series, from new revelations to jailhouse tapes
- The director of Netflix's "Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez," Geno McDermott, spoke to Business Insider about the making of the documentary series and the process of getting interviews and footage.
- McDermott talked about being unsure if Hernandez was behind the gun for all the murders he was charged with.
- McDermott shared his thoughts on future docs about Hernandez and working with Netflix.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Netflix's latest documentary sensation is the three-part "Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez" (now available on the site), which is a gripping look at the former NFL star who, while being a fan favorite playing tight end for the New England Patriots, was also linked to three murders.
Directed by Geno McDermott, "Killer Inside" uses archival footage, security camera surveillance, courtroom proceedings, interviews with people who knew Hernandez, as well as jailhouse phone calls made by Hernandez, to piece together the life of the gifted athlete and what led to his downward spiral.
After the Patriots drafted Hernandez in the fourth round of the NFL Draft in 2010, he rose to prominence in the Patriots' Tom Brady-led offense, which included a trip to Super Bowl XLVI in 2012 (in which Hernandez scored a touchdown in a loss to the New York Giants). Hernandez was thought to be another diamond in the rough found by coach Bill Belichick, as he was awarded a 5-year, nearly $40 million contract with the team in 2012.
But Hernandez's life imploded the following year when he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder of Odin Lloyd, the boyfriend of his fiancée's sister. Hernandez was later charged with the murder of two men in a 2012 Boston drive-by shooting.
Hernandez became front-page news coast to coast. Could an NFL star also be living a double-life as a murderer?
In just over three hours, "Killer Inside" maps out what police found and what they believe to be Hernandez's involvement. But that's hardly it. McDermott weaves in Hernandez's youth in Bristol, Connecticut, which included watching his mother be physically assaulted by his father (a star high-school football player), and Hernandez being molested by an older child, according to his brother, Jonathan. McDermott also tracked down Hernandez's high-school teammate, Dennis SanSoucie, who said he and Hernandez had a sexual relationship, adding to the tabloid speculation that Hernandez was gay (SanSoucie also recounted their relationship to The Boston Globe's Spotlight team and Hernandez came out to his mother in prison, according to Jonathan Hernandez's book). Then there's the theory that Hernandez's behavior was triggered by CTE, brain trauma caused by a lifetime of playing football.
The public will likely never get a complete account of Hernandez's story and motives, as he committed suicide two days after getting a not guilty verdict in the 2012 drive-by murder case (he had previously been found guilty of the murder of Lloyd). He was 27 years old.
Business Insider spoke to McDermott about how an 87-minute documentary on Hernandez he showed at a film festival led to Netflix turning it into a doc series, the interview he wish he landed, and why he's not convinced Hernandez was the gunman for all the murders he was accused of.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jason Guerrasio: It sounds like you got involved in 2017, which is around the time the second trial was starting. Aaron was already found guilty in the Odin Lloyd case.
Geno McDermott: Yes. I had started this company called Blackfin and I was 28 years old at the time. Just bootstrapped it and selling projects here and there. So my agents at WME said I should come to meet these two writers who had been doing a book on Aaron Hernandez. But they couldn't sell it, for whatever reason. So in January of 2017, I met with Dan Wetzel and Kevin Armstrong (who are both interviewed for the series), and they had been following Aaron Hernandez all the way back to high school covering his football career. They also reported the first trial. We decided to partner.
What was interesting about the second trial was that it seemed everyone had forgotten about Aaron. He was already a convicted murderer so the thought was he's a thug, he's got a bunch of tattoos, it's par for the course, we're over it he's going to be convicted again and spend his life in prison. So I was fascinated by that. I couldn't believe that everyone had dropped the story and these guys couldn't sell a book on him.
McDermott: Right. I was just so passionate about the story I decided to self-finance it. So we started getting interviews. We also were able to tap into the courtroom feed of the second trial. Our goal was to eventually interview Aaron Hernandez.
Guerrasio: From the start, are you building a strategy on how to get him on camera?
McDermott: There was no way we were going to get him on camera before trial and while he's on trial, so we were going to wait for the trial to end and then approach him. So in the meantime, let's go out and get as many interviews as we can get. We start calling everyone we could in Aaron's life. Whoever was willing to give us an interview, on a moment's notice we flew to interview them.
Guerrasio: Who were the early people you got?
McDermott: Stephen Ziogas [a childhood friend of Hernandez]. Mike Massey, Odin Lloyd's best friend. Carol Bailey, who was the neighbor in the flop house. We just started chipping away. Getting whoever we could get. And I think being in that courtroom and having the footage from the feed, that gave us another big amount of material.
Guerrasio: But then Aaron commits suicide.
McDermott: Well, before that, Jose Baez did a great job and Aaron was deemed not guilty. That was the first big bomb. Everyone's minds were blown. Then him committing suicide days later, that was the mega bomb.
Guerrasio: Did you even get off the starting blocks of trying to get him for an interview in that time from the trial ending to him committing suicide?
McDermott: There were so many press requests happening, we stepped back. Maybe a month later or two months later we would have started our outreach.
Guerrasio: So you weren't even close to the ask when he died.
McDermott: No, I don't believe so.
McDermott: Yes. I submitted it to 12 different festivals and we got denied to every single one except for Doc NYC. I had thought that the film was just going to die on the vine.
Guerrasio: Netflix has someone at the fest tracking it?
McDermott: Yeah. My goal in making it, my dream was to make something that was good enough to be on Netflix. I was always going to go with them. They saw it there. And the thing with festivals is they really want stuff to be under 90 minutes, so that's why it was 87 minutes long. There were a lot of text cards to explain things. But there was a lot more to explore.
Guerrasio: So "My Perfect World" didn't have Aaron's calls from jail and other things?
McDermott: Didn't have the jail phone calls, Dennis SanSoucie, a lot of stuff.
Guerrasio: Your pitch to Netflix is basically, "This movie is just the tip of the iceberg."
McDermott: Yeah. So talking to Netflix we agreed it should be a doc series.
Guerrasio: Now with Netflix backing you, do you go back and try to get Aaron's fiancée on camera, and his mom, and others?
McDermott: Yeah. We reached out both during the making of the film and the series to everyone two or three times. Every family member. Every friend. Anyone we could find in our research.
Guerrasio: Even Alexander Bradley, the person in the car with Hernandez for the drive-by shooting, that Jose Baez suggested in the trial was the actual shooter?
McDermott: We may have. But we had footage of him on the stand.
McDermott: Honestly, I still don't know. It's our job not to make those types of decisions in the series. Our job is to present all the facts and present all their perspectives and for the viewer to decide. We wanted to get as many people's perspectives as possible.
Guerrasio: Having said that, did it frustrate you that you never answer the "why" question in this? You build all this up but there's never a clear answer of why Aaron did all this.
McDermott: I think the "why" is what fascinates me and fascinates America about this topic. Most true-crime stories have a definitive ending: "This is the motive." But with the Hernandez true-crime story, it can be one of many things, and every time you put your finger on something, then something else pops up. It seems the story is still unfolding. There are still details. I wasn't frustrated by that, it was more I was fascinated by that.
Guerrasio: How late in the game did the Hernandez jail calls come into your possession? Did you have a cut where there were no Aaron calls?
McDermott: After we put the movie in festivals is when we started getting access to the phone calls. So when we went from scratch with Netflix we had them. But you had to be persistent. With the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests, they are frustrating because with your request letter you have to write it in a perfect way otherwise they reject it.
Guerrasio: Doing some digging, I found in the calls Aaron made from jail that he talked about wanting to go back to the NFL, being angry about the gay accusations, being mad that Belichick didn't have his back, why did stuff like that not make the cut?
McDermott: I feel like with a story like this you could go on forever with those 900 calls. We felt we could tell the story in around three hours, so that was the guideline we put ourselves under. A lot of these true-crime series get accused of being too long, so you're trying to find the happy medium.
McDermott: Exactly. We could have spent entire episodes on those court cases. They went on forever. You had to truncate them and present what you feel the viewer needs the most to know the story.
Guerrasio: Looking back, is there a person you wished you got to interview?
McDermott: We really wanted to interview Jonathan Hernandez, Aaron's brother. Obviously, everyone in the Hernandez family and his world has been reached out to a thousand times, so we were trying to be respectful of that and doing it the right way. But it would have been great to have his perspective in there.
Guerrasio: Did he stonewall you?
McDermott: No. He was very respectful and said, "Thanks for your interest, I just won't participate at this time." He was super nice and professional.
Guerrasio: You say that it seems this is a story that won't go away. Something new always comes up. Do you feel you can tell more or is this the definitive story?
McDermott: I think there's always more story to tell. I fell this is the definitive doc series on the topic, but it's hard to predict the future. But we're really happy where we landed and the response has been insane.
Guerrasio: So if Netflix called tomorrow and asked, "What else you got on this?" You're not hanging up the phone.
McDermott: [Laughs.] I don't think any filmmaker would hang up the phone on that call.