David Crowley was many things—”a visionary filmmaker, a political activist, an Iraq veteran, a family man—what documentarian Erik Nelson calls “an American hybrid.” In 2010, the up-and-coming voice in fringe politics embarked on a film project titled Gray State. Set in a dystopian near-future, the would-be project depicted a world where civil liberties were being violated by an overly powerful federal government, gaining a mass following from an online community of libertarians, Tea Party activists and members of the alt-right when a crowd-funded trailer was released online.
If you’ve seen 2005’s Grizzly Man—a film directed by Werner Herzog, and executive produced by Erik Nelson, centering on grizzly bear activists violently killed by the creatures they loved—you know that Nelson is fascinated by portraits of insanity.
The filmmaker’s Tribeca-premiering doc A Gray State delivers on this promise, documenting Crowley’s bizarre project and the shocking deaths of Crowley and his family in January 2015, which became a source of fascination for conspiracy theorists, who believe Crowley was assassinated by the federal government he so feared.
One particularly fascinating facet of Nelson’s project is the fact that from beyond the grave, Crowley is credited as a cinematographer and composer on the project. “I’ve always been fascinated with self-generated documentaries,” the documentarian explained, stopping by Deadline’s Tribeca Studio. “A poet once said, ‘The purest products of America go crazy,’ and David Crowley went crazy, and David Crowley documented his own life, and did it in such a way that makes me feel he knew that there was an ultimate end use for the thing.”
As with prior projects, the process on A Gray State was grueling, involving a dig through 13,000 photographs, hundreds of hours of home video, and exhaustive behind-the-scenes footage of Crowley’s work which Nelson and crew meticulously dissected. “We just sort of saw what was there, and then we became familiar with this vast amount of footage, and every time, we would just make these discoveries,” Nelson said. “There’s this footage that he shot—we called it ‘The Basement Tape,’ where he’s in the basement of his home, acting out scenes from Transformers. It’s a Travis Bickle moment. It was just such an amazing scene, and he shot three of them.”
Executive produced by Werner Herzog—a frequent collaborator of Nelson’s—the legendary director was instrumental in helping Nelson retain his sanity while delving into the insanity of others. “What Werner Herzog brought to this project, for me, was a constant reassurance that I wasn’t completely crazy in pursuing this project, and the problem is if you’re looking to Werner Herzog for a reality check on craziness, you may be kind of in the wrong orbit,” he joked. “But he was tremendously supportive, and really liked the film, and reassured me that the tree I was barking up was the right tree.”
Nelson also discussed the film’s resonance, which extends beyond the political to an examination of American culture overall. “Politically, it’s a core sample of American crazy,” Nelson said. “It’s not just the politics—it’s the selfie culture, it’s the narcissistic idea that ‘I can make a Hollywood movie in my backyard, with my friends, and I’m going to sell it. I can become a YouTube star.’ It’s at the strange epicenter of all these different things that define America today, sadly.”
“It’s less about the politics,” he continued. “If Trump is the symptom, I think this film is about the disease.”
To view Deadline’s conversation with A Gray State director Erik Nelson, click above. The film will see its final Tribeca screening tonight at 9:30 EST, at Regal Cinemas Battery Park.