Ever wondered what a day in the life of a District Attorney looks like or what goes into being a district attorney in a city like Philadelphia?
Well, you won’t have to wonder long because the documentary series Philly D.A. lets you in on many of the day-to-day struggles and wins of Philadelphia’s DA and his staff.
Initially premiering on PBS through their Independent Lens series but now available exclusively on Topic, Philly D.A. offers you an intimate look at Larry Krasner from his long-shot campaign to become the DA to his efforts to change the American criminal justice system and end mass incarceration during his time in office.
But Philly D.A. doesn’t just show you one side of the story. It touches on some of the most pressing social issues of today and looks at them not only through the lens of the DA’s office but also through the eyes of those in the system, those that put them there, and people advocating for them.
We had the pleasure of speaking with the show’s co-directors Ted Passon and Yoni Brook about their critically acclaimed docuseries where we discussed everything from what inspired them to do a documentary on Larry Krasner to how the shooting and editing process went, what they hope people get out of watching Philly D.A. and so much more.
So, a huge thank you goes out to Yoni Brook and Ted Passon for chatting with me. And let’s get into the interview!
Tvshowpilot: How did the documentary come about? Why did you choose to do a documentary on Larry Krasner?
Ted Passon: I’ve lived in Philadelphia since I was a teenager. Larry had represented a lot of friends of mine who were activists. I had heard his name but I had never met him. One day a friend called and said, “Hey you know that guy Larry Krasner? He’s going to run for District Attorney!” It sounded ridiculous and impossible and hilarious!
As someone who lived in Philadelphia for many years and paid attention to criminal justice issues you just couldn’t come up with anyone more diametrically opposed to the culture of the district attorney’s office as Larry Krasner! You just can’t stress how insane the idea of him being the D.A was in the city.
We did not expect him to win but it was fascinating to see how his presence in the election changed the conversation – for the first time people on all sides were questioning the role of the district attorney in a way that has never happened before. It seemed like an interesting moment to document but we weren’t exactly sure where it was going.
When he won – not only were we shocked – but suddenly the story was much bigger and much more exciting, “Are you going to be able to change anything? Why or why not?” Suddenly we had something happening in our backyard that had the potential to send shockwaves through the national criminal justice landscape.
Yoni Brook: My previous film, Menashe, was filmed in the ultraorthodox Jewish community and so I’m really drawn to closed societies.
District attorney’s offices are notoriously opaque institutions that wield tremendous power. They’re known as “the black box of the criminal justice system”. Unlike courtrooms, no one ever gets to see what happens inside.
Now it’s worth saying that Larry wasn’t the first progressive prosecutor in a major American city. For several years before him progressive prosecutors, mainly women of color, were beginning to win around the country. Any one of them could have made a phenomenal documentary and we were lucky to film with some of them in the series. So why his office?
The boringly pragmatic reason we filmed with Larry and not one of these other prosecutors was simply that he was in Philadelphia. When we started we were a small and scrappy team with no money and couldn’t afford to film a story outside of the city.
Also as luck would have it Ted has an office across the street from the D.A.’s office and so it just made the project that much more feasible. We had to bootstrap the project for a year before we were able to raise any money from foundations and philanthropies.
Tvshowpilot: How was it to work so closely with him and his team along with the other people frequently featured in the episodes?
Ted Passon: It was fascinating to be a fly on the wall for this moment in everyone’s lives.
Most of the people we were filming kind of made their reputations on their opposition to the DA’s office and now they were being given the chance to take it over. That’s actually a daunting proposition and it’s not easy to have a camera in your face when you’re doing such difficult work.
We have nothing but the utmost respect for everyone who was generous enough to appear on camera during such a crazy and vulnerable time. Some people in Larry’s team thought he was crazy to allow a film crew into the office – we’re pretty sure Ben Waxman, his communications director, thought the whole thing was a huge mistake.
We needed full editorial control of the project, which is not ideal if your job is to craft a politic narrative. We basically wandered the halls without a minder and looked for stories to follow.
Yoni Brook: As unprecedented as it was to have a film crew inside the DA, we were actually not the craziest thing happening at the time. Larry taking over put the justice system in disarray and so a film crew showing up was just one more weird thing to add to the list.
We spent most of our time just walking around the building meeting attorneys and staff. Before we could film anything in-depth, we had to dispel rumors about our project – we explained that our intentions were to be fair and to tell stories that weren’t being covered in the daily news cycles.
For every hour of footage, we likely spent three or four hours talking to people and seeing if we could film them. We just showed up on day one and kept coming back and eventually, it seemed somewhat normal for us to be around.
Tvshowpilot: One of my favorite moments in the series was at the end of episode 2 when you contrasted the activists calling for the officers on the misconduct database to be removed from the streets with the FOP rally. And this kind of contrast and all-sides-of-the-story approach is what made me love Philly D.A. so much. How did you manage to get access to film not only Larry and his team but also everything from FOP to the activists, city officials, and more?
Ted Passon: One of the benefits of shooting in your hometown is that you are a known entity and so we had a bit of a head start in that. P
hilly is a small town masquerading as a big city and everyone is a few degrees removed from everyone else and so we could often find lines to people we wanted to meet but there were still many dead ends before we found the people who were willing to film with us but it was crucial to us to find someone from every angle in the system as best as we could: judges, police, city council, formerly and currently incarcerated people, and activists.
Yoni Brook: We went to a lot of parties. The criminal justice system is its own world, just like any other industry. There were always “going-away” parties for prosecutors who were leaving the DA’s office or community parties at police districts.
Even if we didn’t film, we would go and hang out with people – just to let them know we cared and wanted to learn the world.
We also just showed up at every event that allowed news media and so we eventually became familiar faces.
Tvshowpilot: You filmed the series over the course of three years. You must have acquired so much footage. How hard was it to narrow it down and shape into the 8-episode series that is Philly D.A.?
Ted Passon: We never did a final count but it’s over 850 hours of footage. Editing it down was a massive challenge. We were editing for a few months before we realized that our initial game plan was impossible.
We originally agreed to make a five-episode series for PBS but when we started putting it together it became clear that we needed much more time and it eventually ballooned to eight hours.
We really wanted to avoid the trap that so many series fall into by stretching out the story to fill time but we may have overcorrected in our estimate and the stories had no time to breathe. The choice was either to cut stories or add time and thankfully PBS/Independent Lens and Topic all came together to help us tell the full story we wanted to tell.
Yoni Brook: We originally thought the series would have more stories that spanned multiple episodes but we also realized that our stories are so dense that we really needed a structure that had a simpler series-wide through story and conclusive episode arcs.
We were constantly changing the stories and moving things around. We had a team of five editors and two assistants. Thankfully everyone was willing to pass scenes around to each other and change things around regardless of who touched the footage originally. It was a very difficult process and took a long time to crack.
Tvshowpilot: From IndieWire calling it one of the best shows of 2021 to Time.com including it on the list of the best TV shows of 2021 so far, Philly D.A. has gotten a lot of recognition. Why do you think Philly D.A. resonates with people so much?
Yoni Brook: It’s been just so mind-blowing to see the reaction to the series! We believed the story had major national significance but we weren’t sure the nation would agree.
What we’ve seen is that even though these stories are very specific to Philadelphia, the issue of mass incarceration is impacting the entire country. We have people constantly tell us how they see their city reflected in our story, that it resonates even beyond issues of criminal justice.
We became the first docuseries to premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and the series aired on BBC Storyville in the UK. Outside of the US, people tell us they see their political system reflected in this story of trying to change an old institution.
Everyone has fantasized about taking over a powerful bureaucracy and bending it to the will of the people. Our docuseries is a story where you can see it happen in real time.
Ted Passon: We also really wanted the series to be accessible. We wanted people to have an easy in-road into these complicated issues.
Tone was also incredibly important to us. The issues we were dealing with in the series are very heavy but we wanted to be sure not to weigh down the audience so much that it was going to exhaust them. We didn’t want to make a show that you aspired to watch but were always too exhausted to get back to. It was a constant mission to expand the emotional range of each story and find humor and joy as well as hardship and anxiety.
In addition to being more dramatically satisfying it’s much more true to life than focusing only on the darkest and heaviest moments.
Music played a large role. We had a rule early on when we brought on our amazing composer, Dan Deacon, that there was to be no “sad piano” music. Music was also a way where we could either amplify or contrast the emotion of a scene and it gave us more options to help take the audience on a journey.
Tvshowpilot: What do you hope people take away from watching Philly D.A.?
Yoni Brook: If nothing else I hope people learn who their district attorney is and pay attention in their local elections.
There are over 2,500 district attorneys around the country and many of them run unopposed in very low turnout elections. It’s important for people to demand what they want in these races.
People need to understand that these DAs are more than actors in a courtroom, but have broad policy powers that are unchecked. We need to ask them what sentences are offered, what crimes are punished, and are they being applied fairly?
Ted Passon: One of the things that was exciting about making this series was that so often when you see stories about people creating change in history it’s often focused on the big wins. The stories paint a much easier and simpler portrait than the people on the ground experienced.
I think it’s common for people to work for change and feel like if it’s not happening faster or if there are setbacks than there is something wrong with them. The truth is that it’s exactly how change happens. The bigger the change – the harder it is. It’s never a straight road. It’s always one step forward and two steps back and so I hope this story can create more visibility around that inspire to keep going even when it looks like things are moving to slowly.
Tvshowpilot: What was your favorite thing about working on Philly D.A.?
Ted Passon: I think I’ve equally hated and loved every part of the process at some point or another but probably the greatest joy of working on the series was getting to meet some amazing people who were willing to let us into some very vulnerable moments in their lives.
Sometimes you’re sitting with someone and you realize they are trusting you with capturing an incredibly vulnerable and important moment in their life and it just feels like the biggest gift anyone can give you. Sometimes I just can’t believe the moments we were able to experience. That kind of generosity really bonds you with a person.
Tvshowpilot: On a lighter note, here on the blog, we’re all about TV shows, so, what is your current TV obsession or a TV series you think everybody should be watching right now (besides Philly D.A. of course)?
Ted Passon: Well I definitely think everyone should watch, Worn Stories on Netflix, based on the brilliant book series by Emily Spivack. (To be totally transparent I did direct a few episodes!)
Lately, I’ve been getting sucked into, Physical on Apple TV and The Underground Railroad on HBO Max. However, I’m in catch up mode because we were so busy the last two years that we didn’t get to see much so some slightly dated titles that it seemed like didn’t get enough love to me were: Little America, also on Apple TV, a beautiful series about immigrants by Alan Yang who I think is pretty much a genius.
I Am Not Okay with This on Netflix, an amazing queer coming of age show that I am so sad is not getting a second season – a total travesty.
And if you like shows like Philly D.A., that are about people trying to change government from the inside out, The Great on Hulu was really well done.
Tvshowpilot: And to end things off, what’s next for you? Any new projects you’re working on that you can share?
Ted Passon: Unfortunately nothing we can talk about!
So, there you have it, our interview with Philly D.A. creator and director Ted Passon and his co-director Yoni Brook where we talked about everything from the process of creating Philly D.A. and what they hope people take away from watching the show to their current TV obsessions.
Catch Philly D.A. on Topic now and make sure to follow the two creators to keep up to date with all of their future projects by checking out tedpasson.com, yonibrook.com, and following Ted and Yoni on Instagram.