Despite the conclusion of the trials of teens Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier for the stabbing of their classmate Payton Leutner, Wisconsinites are not out of the woods yet in regards to Slender Man fallout. Sony Pictures is backing an upcoming film, simply titled Slender Man, set premiere on August 28 of this year. The film announcement has caused a stir locally, due to its perceived disrespect to the families involved in the case.
In an interview with the Associated Press earlier this year, Bill Weier, Anissa’s father, called the film “extremely distasteful” and asked local theaters to decline screenings. Some have. Local theaters did not respond when asked whether or not they planned to screen the film.
To understand the outrage, it is important to be familiar with the timeline of events:
• May 31, 2014: Leutner was stabbed by Geyser and Weier in Waukesha
• May 2016: Sony began development on the film
• June 19-July 28, 2017: Footage for the film was shot
• September 15, 2017: Weier was found not guilty by mental disease or defect
• October 7, 2017: Geyser was found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect
• December 21, 2017: Weier was sentenced to up to 25 years in a state mental institution
• January 2-3, 2018: Sony released poster and teaser for the film
• February 1, 2018: Geyser was sentenced to 40 years in a state mental institution
It might seem a bit odd that the timelines for the film production and the trials intersect. While it certainly seems distasteful, and even abhorrent, it is legal. Local attorney Jason Richard offered his insight, focusing on the First Amendment.
“Think about the amount of art that has been made that we deem offensive,” Richard says. “But still, in this country, the way we view our freedom to make art and express our ideals revolves around the concept that ultimately we are going to be able to make art.
“There used to be a bunch of challenges as to the legality of obscenity. It was a huge thing that was constantly in front of the Supreme Court. I don’t think I’m going to get the quote exactly right, but it was something along the lines of, ‘You’ll know obscenity when you see it.’ That leaves tremendous room for error, but that’s our society taking the position that we’re pretty much going to let anything fly. I’ve seen obscenity where I went oof, but as far as banning it? I think the First Amendment is too important.”
That answers the question of how the movie can be created, in general. But to write, cast, film, announce, and release a trailer prior to the conclusion of the trial seems like a completely different issue. Naturally, there are loopholes.
The trailer looks suspiciously similar to what actually happened in Waukesha, but it seems apparent that the movie will take a highly fictionalized turn. Because of this, the studio is not blatantly ripping off a headline. “They’ll always argue there are enough differences, that it’s not the same,” Richard offered.
And if there aren’t any differences?
“You could make the argument to your image, to the use of your story, but you’re going to end up in long litigation against a studio with an unlimited budget for legal fees,” Richard says. The likelihood of a family independently having enough money to file a suit and go toe to toe with fancy corporate lawyers is slim to none.
As far as the overlapping timelines, Richard explained the jury selection process, which is extremely important in any case, but specifically those with such a strong presence in the media.
“Every attorney on every case has a right to pick their own jury. They’re given preemptive strikes. During those questions, there’s always questions about whether or not you could be impartial, whether or not you had exterior sources that would affect the way you ultimately look at the case. If someone’s watching this idiotic film, they’re kicked off the jury.”
This method isn’t foolproof—people often lie. But the film won’t hit theaters until the end of this summer, which is long after the trial concluded.
With many films based on true stories, it seems strange that there hasn’t been another movie in recent memory that has evoked the same “how dare they” response. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee film studies instructor and PhD candidate Joni Hayward was able to provide an example: Heavenly Creatures.
“It came out in 1994 and is based on the Parker-Hulme murder case which happened in New Zealand in 1954, so we’re looking at a 40 year gap, and it was still somewhat controversial,” Hayward explains.
This example has shocking parallels to the Slender Man case: teen girls, mental illness, a fictional world they created, and a premeditated crime to help them attain acceptance into this world. The stark difference between the approaches of the two films is that one aims to be biographical, while the other relies on shock value and a fictitious villain. Another difference? Heavenly Creatures was well-received.
“To me, it would make a lot more sense if the horror about the movie wasn’t about Slender Man per se, but based on the trailer it looks like it will be,” Hayward says. “In terms of whether a film like this could provide an ethical experience, I think it could if the horror of it was about media and media propagation as opposed to Slender Man.”
Regardless of their different backgrounds, both Richard and Hayward do not believe petitions circulating on the internet to nix the film will sway Sony’s mind, especially at this stage in the game. They also agreed that the most effective way to protest the film is to vote with your wallet and not see it. In the entertainment industry, money talks.