The Betrayal of Nick Yarris: How the wrong man survived Death Row
You could argue that the troubled 19-year-old, drug-addicted Nick Yarris was on a path to self-destruction anyway, when police stopped him for a simple traffic violation in Pennsylvania, 1981. But who could have predicted the cruel meandering that fate had in store for him: through a methamphetamine-fuelled haze, Nick felt only the injustice of his situation and a threat from the cop, and the situation escalated fast. Nick fought with the officer, was subdued, arrested and given hard time for attempted murder. Yet his ordeal had hardly begun: through a series of poor choices and miscarriages of justice, Nick was convicted of raping and stabbing to death 33-year-old Linda Mae Craig, and given the death penalty. There are few opportunities to get an insight into, not just the life of a person who spends countless days in a maximum security prison waiting to be executed, but the evolution of the private thoughts of such unusual prisoner. Filmmaker Christopher Riley shot The Fear of 13, a stylised interview with Nick Yarris, over four days and the result is a powerfully evocative piece of theatre, the truth of which makes it all the more compelling.
Real Crime: What came first: the idea for a film that gave an insight into the mind of someone who had experienced the torment and anguish of a long time on death row, or the story of Nick Yarris?
Christopher Riley: I first heard Nick’s story on the radio, and was immediately drawn to it. Although at first glance it is a death row story, in that Nick spent over 20 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, his story is far more universal than that. From the first time I encountered Nick and his story I felt it spoke to everyone, in that it’s about the themes of love and loss, of life and death and the true meaning of freedom. Those were the things that attracted me to Nick and to the potential of a film about him.
RC: What kind of man is Nick? He seems to be very humble on camera.
CR: In the years I’ve known Nick, I’ve always found him a deeply kind and generous person. He’s a very widely read, and richly eloquent man who has a lot of profound things to say about the human condition. And I think that that’s what comes out in the interviews we filmed with him on camera. These were the qualities I first heard on the radio, when I first heard him speak about his life. In the months I spent getting to know him after that, attending numerous talks and lectures he gave, these were also the qualities I found in him. He could hold the attention of an audience like no one I had encountered before. I wanted to somehow bottle that and share it with the world, which is what we’ve tried to do with the film. Through the experiences he’s been through he has emerged, against the odds, as a man with a deep insight into himself. That’s something that we should all strive for, and his reflections on camera, through his story, offer us all a helpful perspective on our own lives.
RC: How eager was Nick to tell his story? What do you think he had to gain?
CR: When I first met Nick I found a man who wanted to share his experiences with as wide an audience as possible. He was, at the time, a spokesman for Reprieve, and he lived to make a difference to society; a society which had failed him in his own life. From the moment he was exonerated he has campaigned voraciously against the death penalty, and has taken his experiences on death row to audiences around the world through his talks and lectures and books. I think he saw the film as another part of this mission that he is on.
RC: Was it the intention to stylise The Fear of 13 like a piece of theatre from the start? Were there any other options you could explore?
CR: We explored lots of options when we first started planning this film. Originally we were going to make it in a more conventional documentary style – with a number of different contributors, all helping to tell the story. But from the first day of filming with Nick it was obvious that he was such a master storyteller and such a powerful performer that it would be hard to find a supporting cast who were as good as he was. And the film’s director David Sington decided that the film should be structured as a kind of one-man play, with Nick the sole protagonist.
This approach ultimately proved hard to fund, and at one point I brought in another production company in London, to see if we could find a new way of persuading potential funders of its merits. They suggested using animation to illustrate Nick’s stories, and we tried that with one scene as an experiment. It was very effective, but ultimately too expensive to produce for the whole film in this way. In the end I decided that the only way we could convince people that this ‘one man play’ approach worked, was to cut the film ourselves. At this point I teamed up with filmmaker Robert Sternberg and we worked with the 22 hours of interviews we had with Nick for the next two years in our spare time to create a rough cut, which we could use to persuade people of the potential of the film that we wanted to make.
RC: During The Fear of 13, he seems almost penitent at times. How do you think that telling – almost reliving – his various death row experiences was for him after having lived it so recently?
CR: The four days we filmed with Nick were hard for him. The first two-day session was particularly emotional. He was in tears a great deal. It was obviously very painful for him to relive certain parts of his story. We were all in tears a lot of the time. That material alone would have been very difficult for an audience to watch, and so David felt that we needed a straighter performance of certain parts of the story to help us weave it all together. So we filmed with him again for another two days, later in the year, to help us collect enough footage to make the film work. The second time we went through it Nick was calmer, and I think he found it a bit easier.
RC: Nick spent 23 years on death row and for much of that time, he had committed himself to the idea of dying. How do you think this changed him – or changes any human being, for that matter?
CR: In the film we reveal a number of reasons why he requested his own execution. Such a decision changes you irreversibly as a human. In surviving this chapter of his life he was reborn, I guess. That’s an experience that changes your perspective on life, and what you value and live for in the extra years that you feel you’ve been given. It’s another of the universal themes of the film. Ideally we should all go through a process of rebirth at some point in our lives, to help us to regain a joie de vivre. Without such a reminder the danger is that we sleep walk through life without really being alive.
RC: Nick had a small library’s worth of books in his cell that he was clearly using to escape his four walls. Do you think his sanity would have remained intact if it wasn’t for this relief?
CR: During his prison term there were certain moments that changed the course of his life and taught him about humanity. I have no doubt that without books Nick’s story would have been very different. His years of imprisonment were only made bearable by books. They were his salvation, and they changed him as a person – allowing him to frame his own life story in ways that helped him to make sense of himself and the world. What I’ve always found remarkable about Nick is how lucid and together he can be, despite what he’s lived through and been deprived of for so many years. And I think this is in part down to his exposure to literature.
RC: He’s had a lot of time for introspection and existential exploration. Do you think a less intelligent man who spent such a long time in solitary confinement would still have been quite as profound?
CR: Most people in the world have the intellectual potential to be able to explore these human themes. But for such a potential to flourish it needs to be nurtured and encouraged. Often society prevents that from happening. Nick certainly had the potential for such an intellectual exploration, but he’d not been receptive to it until this point in his life, with the time spend in his cell.
RC: The Fear of 13 was shot over four days: how much of this had to be rehearsed? We can imagine that, ideally, you’d want as natural a performance for the principle (and only) character as possible.
CR: We didn’t rehearse any of Nick’s performance for the whole of the film. He improvised the entire four days spontaneously in front of the camera. Many people have commented, over the years we’ve been making the film, on how polished his performance is. But this is just him. He is a master storyteller; his talent is honed over many years in prison by immersing himself in other people’s stories through the many books that he read. This is the way he is – when you meet him – and this is what, I’m pleased to say, we’ve managed to capture and bring out in the film to share with the audience. Watching The Fear of 13 is like spending 90 minutes in Nick’s company – and that’s a tremendous privilege.