You never know where life is going to take you or what pit stops you’ll make along the way. For Producer/Director Dennis Mohr, it was a pit stop on his way home from the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas that gave him the inspiration for his next documentary film, Mugshot. He stopped at gas station on his way to the airport where he picked up some local eccentricities - a pickle in a bag and The Slammer, a magazine of mugshots. He grabbed it for the plane ride home and kept it on his desk. What is it about mugshots that are so fascinating? A few months later he found a book by Mark Michaelson, Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots. And somewhere in between the modern and vintage versions, “from things that are terribly funny to things that are terribly tragic,” he found a story worth telling.
Various mug shots from Mark Michaelson’s Least Wanted collection
A graduate of the University of Windsor and Sheridan College, Mohr works behind the scenes as a broadcast technician at CBC and has previously worked in the gaming industry. Adding “filmmaker” to his list of professions, Mohr’s films are often based on photographic themes and the people who collect them. In essence, he makes documentaries about quirky people documenting quirky things. When it comes to mugshots, there was no end to the readily available slew of peculiar photos or the people who obsess over them. As a form of portraiture, Dennis finds it “the strangest form of photography!”
After his bolt of inspiration, Dennis went to Producer Charlotte Engel (Rock Yenta Productions), who he knew from her time at Bravo when they worked together on his previous film, Remembering Arthur. They reconnected and decided to coproduce Mugshot together, giving Dennis his first shot at directing.
Author, artist and collector Mark Michaelson
And so Dennis started rolling: “Just talk to somebody. Turn on the camera and just talk. Get to know them.” With less of a vérité and more of an intellectual style, he ended up filming at a 30:1 ratio (30 hours of footage shot to every 1 hour used). While this may sound like a lot, it is actually a relatively small ratio for documentary, which was helpful in making good use of a tight budget while paying everyone involved at scale or better.
The biggest challenge they had with the project was not finding interesting characters or subject matter but finding the best way to tell the story. With so many subjects, they took a cultural and sociological approach to find over-arching themes, while leaving the hot topic of ethics open for the audience to investigate themselves and draw their own conclusions. In this way, the film plays more like a scrapbook of a variety of stories. Working with Rob Ruzic to author it, shaping this narrative was largely done in post-production.
One of the other struggles the team had in getting the film made was convincing the Ontario Provincial Police to get involved. It took a year to convince them, but once they agreed all of the other heavyweights and experts they needed came on board as well. Having such strong credentials and access to information added to the film’s academic and educational value.
The OPP now use the film internally for officers and it is part of their travelling exhibit, Arresting Images. Researchers contact Dennis for its use regularly and it was featured in Ontario classrooms as part of the Docs for Schools curriculum.
Mugshot Producer Charlotte Engel and Director Dennis Mohr
The film was commissioned and distributed by TVO and Knowledge Network, with additional funding coming from the Canada Media Fund (CMF), tax credits and other funds. As well, the team employed a Kickstarter campaign, which got press in The Guardian, Huffington Post, and the New York Times.
It sold to Direct TV in the US and Dennis plans to sell it to a streaming service in the future. Filmed in Toronto, New York, Raleigh, NC and Pittsburgh, PA, the subject matter covers both Canadian and American mugshots, making it easier to distribute to our neighbour to the South.
The film screened at Toronto’s HotDocs International Film Festival, Yorkton Film Festival, FIFA (Montreal) and was welcomed at Hot Springs (Arkansas). Metro Morning, Now Magazine, Globe and Mail, and BlogTO all gave excellent reviews. And it doesn’t hurt to have author Mark Michaelson tagging you in “Take Your Own Mugshot” party photos!
Winning the Golden Sheaf Award, Dennis Mohr and Charlotte Engel
Mugshot was nominated for a 2016 Canadian Screen Award for Best Writing (Rob Ruzic) and took home the Golden Sheaf for Best Arts & Culture Doc 2014, where it was also nominated for Best Research. Dennis is proud of these accolades and that the project worked out both creatively and financially, using a Canadian crew. It’s built his reputation for future projects with his next, The Ravenite: A Very Antisocial Social Club, hitting screens in 2017 (Public Pictures).