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The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

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As Doris stands trial for the theft of a diamond ring, we uncover the secrets of her trade and what drove her to a life of crime. The film reveals how Payne managed to jet-set her way into any Cartier or Tiffany’s from New York to Monte Carlo and walk out with small fortunes. Doris is exposed as a rebel who defies society’s prejudices and creates her own version of the American Dream.


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Running Time: 74 min.
Subject(s): American History, Biography, Crime, Law and Justice, Personal Story, Society, Women
Language(s): English
Director(s):
Producer(s): Kirk Marcolina, Matthew Pond
Production Company: TreeHouse Moving Images

Press

  • Nobody can tell a story like Payne herself. She does so with gusto.
    Linda Barnard, THE TORONTO STAR
  • Buyer buzz should ignite for world-preeming U.S. doc features like… Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina’s “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne” (about the international jewel thief with a six-decade track record)
    Jennie Punter, VARIETY
  • Unsurprisingly, Payne's life story is currently set to be made into a film starring Halle Berry, who has her work cut out for her if she's going to inhabit the devilishly charming Miss Doris Payne. Before that becomes an inevitable awards season event, don't miss this opportunity to get to know the real Doris Payne in this consistently engaging picture.
    Scott A. Gray, EXCLAIM.CA

Festival & Awards

  • International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Netherlands - 2013
  • Ojai Film Festival, USA - 2013
    Best Documentary Award
  • Bermuda Documentary Film Festival, Bermuda - 2013
  • Austin Film Festival, USA - 2013
    Audience Award
  • Antenna Documentary Film Festival, Australia - 2013
    Audience Choice Award
  • Arclight Documentary Festival, USA - 2013
  • Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, USA - 2013
  • Tallgrass Film Festival, USA - 2013
  • Woodstock Film Festival, USA - 2013
  • Hardacre Film Festival, USA - 2013
  • Gimli Film Festival, Canada - 2013
  • HotDocs Documentary Festival, Canada - 2013

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  • Doris’ story – a woman with no means who carved out a career stealing expensive gems in order to provide for her family (at least in the beginning) – is one that immediately caught our attention. Her internal motivations are not dissimilar to many familiar fictional characters we watched and knew from the small screen_- Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, Walter White, from Breaking Bad, and the mother from Weeds, all of whom justified their criminal behavior in the interests of their families. When we heard about Doris we felt the moral complexity of her story was ripe for telling, not just because the same family dynamic was being played out in cable TV scripts, but mostly because her STORY ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

    A few days after reading about Doris in a newspaper article, Matthew was sitting across from Doris in an Orange County jail, separated by a clear plastic partition, speaking through a telephone handset. Their relationship developed over weekly visits with Doris sharing, in carefully measured doses, stories from her extraordinary life. And so began a relationship of mutual seduction.

    Matthew teamed up with Kirk to tell Doris’ story, and over the course of the next three years the directors and Doris became partners in crime, all three conspiring to bring her extraordinary story to life. Dealing with Doris’ different modes was difficult; from her cunning and manipulative ways, to the sweet and fun-loving old lady that would sometimes greet us, our quest to arrive at the truth of her and her story often seemed elusive. But two years after filming commenced, some objectivity arrived in the mail, courtesy of the FBI. Thousands of pages of government documents detailing Doris’ history substantiated her claims, while others from Interpol shed light on daring escapes from custody and international heists that she hadn’t previously revealed to us. While documenting her past, a new twist arose: Doris was accused of stealing a 1.5-carat diamond ring in San Diego. Adamant that she didn’t do this crime, and with compelling evidence suggesting her innocence, Doris rejected a 3-month plea deal and risked 5 years behind bars, electing to have a jury trial. The relative calm of studio interviews gave way to San Diego courtrooms filled with TV news crews. Suddenly the stakes were raised and we found the emotional through-line. The courtroom drama was a welcome addition to the historical interviews as the combined elements allowed us to fashion a conventional 3-act structure.

    Although much of the film was shot in LA, the narrative is far from standard Hollywood fare. We were excited by the contrast to the Spielberg treatment of the thief in “Catch Me If You Can”, whose character is redeemed when he begins working for the FBI. Doris is sorry she was caught at various times throughout her career, but that’s as far as the redemption goes. Much of her personality shines throughout the film as we highlight the contradictory nature of her unapologetic views with the kind, generous and joyous spirit we came to know throughout the production.

    Revealing the interior state of Doris’ world is the music, scored by composer and jazz musician, Mark Rivett. Creating a musical motif central to Doris’ personality traits, we collaborated with Mark in creating a score that references Tchaikovsky’s Sugar Plum Fairy. The ballerina-like soundtrack bookends the opening and closing of the film, and is an important story beat (Doris recounts the profound effect of learning her ambition to be a ballerina was crushed when she was told in the 1930s, that there “are no black ballerinas”). In terms of suggesting mood and personality, we worked with Mark who created a score that reflects the childlike and playful qualities that are part of Doris’ fantasy world.

    We set out to paint an entertaining and intimate portrait of a woman who defies convention, whether it’s laws relating to theft or societal structures that discouraged black women to enter into the playgrounds of upper echelons of society. Hers is the journey of a poor black girl, who despite growing up in the segregated South, dreamt of becoming a worldly, well-traveled mother; and who, because of her chosen profession, became one.

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