It’s tempting to read “Killing them Safely,” which looks at those who run Taser International, as a mere issue doc. Director Nick Berardini doesn’t see it that way. He looks at the company that has fitted police forces around the world with Tasers, allegedly (and, admittedly, most often) non-lethal weapons intended to replace dangerous guns, and finds that they’re not as on top of their product’s safety as they claim. “My intention is to tell the whole story to an audience so they understand the complete version of events, and not just the one TASER has been telling for 15 years,” Berardini told us back during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, where the film played under the title “Tom Swift and the Electric Rifle.”
More than all the facts it unearths about the alleged safety of Tasers, what really comes across in this film is its portrayal of businessmen who won’t admit failure, perhaps even to themselves. It’s almost a black comedy.
That’s the brilliant thing about filming reality. That’s where you find characters who just genuinely think that no matter what they’ve done it’s been for the betterment of the world. Then you get into the deep dive of what that psychology is. My editor, Robert Greene, made a joke that in comic book movies the supervillains think they’re the superheroes. It’s an interesting way to look at how they see themselves. As an outsider I had this perspective that I wanted to show them as they seem to be.
I’d argue this isn’t really an activist doc at all, even though it has a lot of damning intel. Can you talk about finding a shape for this story that works as a movie, not just an article or book?
We had this great paper story 2 ½ years ago. A lot of this information was out there. It’s there to read and obviously there to see. But we had this great paper story, but now it had to be a great film. And to be a great film it has to be about these characters as humans. And it has to be visual. You have to have cinematic moments. Otherwise it’s going to be a power point presentation film, as opposed to something that can stand on its own. Truthfully, there are people who have already proven they don’t care about this issue from the power point perspective. The reason I hope they care about this issue is not just so the Smith brothers [two of the heads of Taser International] reconcile their success with the journey it took to get there, but so the audience will reconcile that success. Hopefully they’ll say ask themselves, whatever they think about Tasers, are they comfortable with how they got there? Because this is, broadly, how the system works.
One thing that’s unusual is that the archive footage sometimes plays out longer than it usually would. The footage of the deposition with the heads of Taser International sometimes runs for a minute, or minutes, at a time.
Sometimes as filmmakers, as storytellers working visually, we tend to cut the humanity out of certain scenes. You’re working on a scene that’s maybe a minute and a half in the context of a 90-minute film, and you just want to punch, punch, punch. Then you look at the whole film and it’s all punches. It’s not based in reality anymore. It’s based on sound bytes and big climaxes, as opposed to getting messy and understanding how behavior works and trying to understand your characters as three-dimensional and not just roles they’re playing in a film.
One of the more striking bits has nothing to with the subject of Tasers themselves. It’s Rick Smith, the CEO, in the deposition, having a testy debate with his interrogators over whether he can have a bathroom break. It tells you a lot about how both sides get defensive and antagonistic.
That scene was not meant as a cheap shot. There are two things going on there. First off, we’re showing the pettiness involved by that point in the film, that the lawyers at that point have got him on their heels a little bit. The momentum seems to be shifting. Second, Rick, as a human being, doesn’t really understand why he’s there. At that point he doesn’t think it’s worth his time to be there. People get really defensive, and their reactions when they get really defensive — especially if they’re super-smart like Rick is — is to bring the smug into it and say, “Really? Why are we even here? I should be playing golf right now.”
They seem to be really great at deluding themselves too. They know how to skirt damning questions about how their product works, but they also might not want to admit that to themselves either.
It speaks to how well-run the organization is from the top-down. They speak in very short talking points. That’s why the [Steve] Tuttle [the VP of Taser International] interview is so fascinating, because I don’t think he’s used to having to sit down for hours and just say what’s on his mind. I’m just letting him go. I’m not trying to poke him, I’m not trying to provocative. I’m just asking him what’s going on here, because I don’t know much.
What about the issue with the police? When Tasers backfire and someone is hurt or dies, they’re the ones blamed for it. Taser International is always able to get any legal cases against them dismissed.
That’s what makes it sad to me, because the police are certainly gullible, and they deserve to be held accountable. But at the same time, they’re the ones dealing with the consequences. The Taser has slipped out from the liability and it’s mostly the police who are living with killing someone from an honest mistake, or being sued by the victims. Taser’s not dealing with that unless it’s a small number of cases that somehow found their way in front of a judge.
Tasers wind up seeming less like a permanent solution and more like a salve, and one that might have unexpected repercussions.
One of the messages in the film is it’s a critique on our societal inclinations to believe in magical and simple answers to solve complex questions in this rush to technology to save all. What that did, and not just with the Taser, but also with this federal money made available for all these other weapons, is it’s making the policymakers think about technology to solve the root cause of the problem, which is that police and the communities to a large extent don’t feel like they’re on the same side. You don’t, for example, solve the problem with bodycams. Taser [International] is now using that pre-existing relationship in such a smart way, because they’re saying video monitors will exonerate you. But with video cameras, that perspective is subjective. Video is interpreted subjectively. When we have that point of view, then whoever’s investigating that video and whether or not there’s going to be consequences, makes it easy to take the point of view of police officers. You feel like you’re on their side and not on the community’s side. You want to believe they’re going to fix the problem, but are they really going to fix it? Again, they’re just turning to more stuff. And that makes me sad and makes me wish we’d address that in a much more evolved way than we are doing.