Director's Chair: Robert May - 'Kids for Cash'
Issue: June 1, 2014

Director's Chair: Robert May - 'Kids for Cash'

Kids for Cash ( is an independent documentary that looks at a scandal that came to light in 2009, in which a small-town Pennsylvania judge imposed harsh sentences on children with the idea of keeping them in line. Under the reign of Judge Mark Ciavarella, more than 3,000 children were ripped from their families and imprisoned for years for crimes as petty as creating a fake MySpace page. When one parent dared to question this harsh brand of justice, it was revealed that the judge had received millions of dollars in payments from the privately-owned juvenile detention centers, where the kids were incarcerated.

The film is now available on VOD, and here, filmmaker Robert May discusses some of the challenges he faced in putting the film together — a process that spanned five years.

POST: You picked a very ambitious project for your debut. What sort of film did you set out to make? 

ROBERT MAY: “While I’ve produced a number of narrative fiction and non-fiction films, I had no idea that this project would consume five years of my life. I now have a comprehensive understanding of what it’s like to be a producer, director and editor. I wanted to tell the story from both the villain’s and victim’s point of view, which was daunting at times.  Our shooting days were long and emotionally draining. Often, we would be shooting one of the judges in the morning and one of the kids in the afternoon.”

POST: You’ve worked with so many top directors, including Errol Morris. What’s the most important thing you learned from them as a rookie director?

MAY: “I’m grateful to have worked with Steve James (STEVIE, THE WAR TAPES), Errol Morris (THE FOG OF WAR) and Tom McCarthy (THE STATION AGENT), and was influenced by them all.  I think the main take away for me was their tenacity, passion and working toward being as exacting as possible. I never set out to direct Kids for Cash, but was encouraged to do so by many of the folks I worked with over the years. I’ve been passionately involved with all of our projects, which is critical when you face long arduous days… and years.”

Filmmaker Robert May

POST: Did you ask for advice before taking this on? 

MAY:  “You bet. Initially, I was looking for someone else to direct the project, but throughout those discussions I started to get encouragement to take it on myself.  I also had a great group of collaborative supporters who really loved the project and were willing to help and give notes.  If anyone of them would have said I would be on this same project for five years, I may have re-considered… just kidding! I also had a great producing partner (Lauren Timmons) who I’ve worked with for many years now.”

POST: What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together and how tough was the shoot?

MAY: “We needed to figure out what devices were necessary in order to keep the film from feeling like just a bunch of talking heads. The attic/village set up came from spending so much time with the kids and families who are in the film. The kids lost their childhood and they viewed themselves as much younger than they were. The idea of creating a world as they saw it, within a secluded and comfortable place (their attic) seemed like a good option. We also created the juvenile file device, since basically their entire young lives were contained between the covers of a six-inch oversized file folder.”

POST: Did you shoot film or digital?

MAY:  “For most of the project we shot with two Sony Ex3 HD cameras. The attic/village and judges chamber were shot with a Cannon 5D DLSR. The juvenile files were re-created then scanned by a Cruse CS285 ST fine art scanner, which produces a file up to 2GBs in size — more than 20 times larger than the data capture of a standard digital camera.  This allowed our animator to take full advantage of creating the moves around and pushing into each file document.”

POST: Did you do a lot of storyboards?

MAY: “We storyboarded the entire attic/village and judges chamber shooting. I wanted it to feel as if the camera was floating within these areas as if they were preserved in amber, suddenly abandoned by the kids and the judge respectively. I also wanted each of these worlds, which represented the world of the villain and the victim, to have a similar feel.”

POST: Do you like post?

MAY: “In non-fiction/documentary, post never seems to end, well editing anyway.  We were editing for just over two years. We had a number of editors working together on the film, including myself, especially during the last year. We started with 600 hours of interviews and b-roll. We had so much footage because we were following an active federal prosecution and we had no idea at first where the story was going. In the end, there were many secondary characters that we followed but were not critical to what we determined to be the most compelling storyline — Power vs. Kids. All of our interviews were transcribed, making the process more streamlined and organized. It’s interesting in that in non-fiction/documentary, you’re actually writing with words that have already been spoken. So when you edit, it’s a matter of selecting the right words to tell the story, placing them in the original order and without changing the context of their original meaning.”

POST: Where did you do the post? 

MAY:  “Our post work was completed in Los Angeles. We mixed at Audio Head on The Lot, but worked with Doug Salkin and Ken Peltan (now at mOcean LA) for color correction and final outputting.”

POST: The film was edited by Poppy Das, who has edited narrative fiction, documentary and reality TV. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked?

MAY:  “We selected Poppy because of her experience in all three areas. I really felt that we needed our film to transcend beyond talking heads and also bring in a bit of what audiences have come to think of as a “documentary” film. Today, a documentary must entertain as well deliver an uncovering or a point of view about something. Poppy’s initial organization in creating string-outs for each character was invaluable to the process. Between those string-outs and the transcriptions, we were able to create an inventory of various story points that we would go to regularly to select who would deliver a particular point. Still, the balance of the judges and kids story was extremely delicate. We did a fair amount of research screenings to help understand this balance for an audience. I’m very please with where we ended up.”

POST: Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker? Where did you do the mix?

MAY: “Our ending song ‘Creep’ (Radiohead) performed by Scala & Kolancy Brothers, was in my head five years ago when I started the project. I always wanted a children’s choir to end the film with and I felt that ‘Creep’ really spoke to both the villain and kids. I think that song sort of set the tone for the film. From there we were lucky to get our first choice for composer — Michael Brook.  He was not only great to work with but looking back, I can’t image the film without his music. Our sound design was created by Dean Martin Hovey (SoundWell LA) and mixed at Audio Head at The Lot. I wanted the film to have a sound atmosphere just like a narrative so we utilized some musical tones created by Michael Brook as well as various drone sounds created by Dean. In the end, I think that the music and the effects worked nicely together.”

POST: Did the film turn out the way you hoped? 

MAY: “The film actually turned out better in many ways. For example, there are very few stories that are told from the villain and victims point of view, and we’ve had a lot of compliments from critics and others about that. But perhaps more than anything, the film reaches people on a raw emotional level so much so that I’ve seen a vast array of people get caught off guard on how affecting the film is for them. I’m not just talking about regular filmgoers and parents, I’m also talking about judges, prosecutors, and members of Congress.”

POST: What’s next? Do you want to direct again?

MAY:  “I’ve been approached to produce a number of projects and I’m also in discussion about directing a narrative too. It’s all pretty exciting at the moment but I’m taking a bit of time to decide what’s next.”