Director Of A Gray State Documentary Reveals The Real Conspiracy

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After returning from a stop-loss tour in Afghanistan, disillusioned with the military and government, David Crowley turned to filmmaking, releasing a flashy and expensive concept trailer for his first feature, a near-future depiction of societal collapse and martial law called Gray State. He achieved a certain amount of fame almost instantly, his project speaking to the fears and fantasies of conspiracy theorists, survivalists and libertarians, united in the belief that a globalist, technocratic government would soon confiscate guns, barcode the populace and round-up patriotic dissidents in FEMA camps. After a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign, interest from Los Angeles-area producers and six drafts of a script, it looked as if Crowley’s ambition was paying off. But then, in January 2015, Crowley shot his wife and daughter, wrote “Allahu Akbar” in his wife’s blood on the wall, and shot himself.

The new documentary A Gray State interviews friends and associates of Crowley and his wife, Komel, and sifts through 25 terabytes of his raw material, including home movies, audio recordings and 13,000 photographs. A Gray State opens on its subject, obscured in fog — an up-front admission that there is no answer behind Crowley’s terrible crime. There is only wreckage from his spiraling mental state: indeterminate data pointing to many possibilities, but no single explanation.

It’s this ambiguity that makes A Gray State such a fascinating record, of both a horrific crime and an era. Paralleled by Crowley’s own movie, which begins to look more like a reflection of his paranoia and pain than an action-thriller, and backed by a conspiracy-inclined “community” of Infowars listeners and militants, A Gray State becomes both a personal exploration of one man’s collapse and a glimpse into the dark mindset of like-minded Americans.

You can read Player.One’s review of A Gray State here.

In advance of its release, Player.One spoke with A Gray State director Erik Nelson by phone. A career documentarian, Nelson is the producer of Werner Herzog documentaries Grizzly Man, Encounters at the End of the World, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss. He also directed Dinotasia, Dreams with Sharp Teeth and JFK: The Final Hours. Our conversation covered everything from the ongoing conspiracy theories surrounding Crowley’s murder-suicide to the state of the American dream. But most consistently, Nelson returned to how the layered complexities of this horrific event complicate our search for simple answers.

As the producer of both Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss, plus a TV series about death row, Crowley’s story isn’t your first encounter with violence and humanity’s darker side. Do you get a thick skin from diving into this stuff? And what was different about Crowley’s case?

Grizzly Man was a far more benign story, insofar that it's a guy for the most part living alone and trying to touch bears, who brought catastrophe on himself and on his girlfriend. But it was a different kind of catastrophe. On Death Row was bad guys who got caught and have been duly processed reflecting back on their bad thing. The thing that was difficult and enervating about the Crowley project was that I'm watching this unfold from the inside out. We have this incredible dowry of footage and selfies and videos he shot of his family, and I had to go through this massive amount of material and try and literally find out what happened. The story revealed itself and the destination is horrific. I knew where the destination was, but I had to try to figure out where the tracks were.

Bundled up in the title is the idea that some elements of this are indeterminate. You can't come to a final answer about why he did this. To ask a practical question with that in mind: what's your preferred explanation for why Crowley wrote "Allahu Akbar" on the wall?

I personally feel he was honoring and acknowledging Komel's faith and, as part of his ritual, wanted to cross the t's and dot the i's. And he felt that was the appropriate gesture as part of this strange ritual he was unfolding. It was a completely sincere attempt to treat his wife's faith seriously. But that's my opinion.

What kind of material didn't make it into A Gray State? What was the hardest cut? I assume Crowley had piles of material.

Not really. The strongest material all went into the film and there's nothing I look back on and say, "Oh, I wish I put it in." There certainly weren't any smoking guns that I did not put in the film. I had shockingly unfettered access to the material and I had no constraints on what I used or didn't use. So, there was nothing that I had that I wish I had used. It tells the story as best I can and lets the audience decipher something that's ultimately indecipherable.

Crowley's story is very personal, but you have this whole, huge community, surrounding him including Alex Jones and the Ron Paul rallies what kind of context do you think viewers will or should have before seeing A Gray State?

People come to it with their own expectations. The conspiracy culture has already made the decision that my film is a schlockumentary that bears no resemblance to the truth, and that I'm a CIA plant who's deliberately constructing and creating disinformation to side-track the truth from coming out. They've had that conclusion from the start, and to my knowledge none of them have even seen the film yet, so I don't think anything's going to change that opinion.

The representatives of the conspiracy angle are these two pretty clownish "citizen investigators" that you dismiss early in the movie, instead letting the accumulation of evidence point to Crowley’s responsibility for the death of his wife and daughter...

I didn't try to present them as clownish or dismiss them. They said very clearly what they thought happened and they're brought back at the encore to remind people that they differ. So I would say that it wasn't my intention, if they come off that way, that isn't because I wanted them to come off that way. They were very impassioned in everything they said and they're entitled to their opinion, as long as they're sensitive to the family and their pain and suffering.

This ideological nexus that these guys are in this right-wing, militant, coming dystopia, FEMA camp mentality — did everyone involved with Gray State share this? Or were most people there just to make a movie?

Crowley was an extreme "libertarian." He was definitely, repeat, definitely not alt-right in the Charlottesville sense of alt-right. There wasn't a racist bone in his body. The fact that alt-right members, people who share these beliefs, also subscribe to libertarianism and/or listen to Alex Jones is a reality, but Crowley personally and his colleagues were not in that mindset. A lot of people were just acting in the movie because it was a gig and exciting and Crowley was an inspiring director and they were happy to do it. Some people wanted to push his vision forward and subscribed to his beliefs. It was kind of a mixed bag.

A lot of A Gray State is about Crowley's controlling nature and his ability to move people. How much of Crowley's breakdown stems from his personality and mental issues? Paranoia? Is it ideology or purely interior?

All of the above. Which came first, chicken and egg — the paranoia then the beliefs, or did the beliefs drive the paranoia? I believe that Crowley was killed by a vast, vast conspiracy. It wasn't the conspiracy people think he was killed by. It was being a hyper-intelligent male adrift in contemporary America, where you think you can become a star if you make a video. You're buffeted by all these strange belief systems. You think you can go to Hollywood and make it big. A lot of these sort of "deranged" beliefs aren't in and of themselves deranged, and are shared by a lot of people. David Crowley is not the only person who might have fallen into that. So the conspiracy that killed David Crowley is a vast one called Modern America.

You get little glimpses of Crowley’s movie, Gray State, particularly via the wall he’d covered in script notes. But was there actually a coherent movie in there, somewhere?

His wall kind of documents the madness of the creative construction. The bits of his presentation I quote are from a much longer, hour-long monologue, talking about the script. It made no sense to me when I watched the monologue, and it made no sense to me when I read the script. He got consumed by the creative process, which is something, by the way, that's not unique to David Crowley. It's happened to a lot of directors.

David Crowley disassembles the sprawling story outline for his movie Gray State. Photo: A&E IndieFilms and First Run Features

So many things about him could almost cut both ways. Had it worked out, you could have looked at some of the things he did and said “Oh, he’s a genius.” When you’re a control freak and it works, you’re not crazy, you’re a genius. Did he ever have a shot at this? Or was it just complete confusion?

He absolutely had a shot and met with guys, “Hollywood producers," who were sincere in advancing David's cause and David’s career. There was money on the table. They wanted to take Gray State to the next level. They wanted to raise money and wanted to do something real with the project. And David Crowley knew that and knew that at the time of his final disintegration. It wasn't that Gray State the movie was a failed project, it was that Gray State the movie might be realized. And in my opinion — repeat, my opinion — he was more frightened of the success than he might have been of the failure.

Komel is such a complicated and enigmatic figure in this, and I found her friends so compelling and insightful, but they were also confused and baffled. To me her death almost comes across more like a suicide pact than a murder-suicide, particularly in their final audio recordings. How much was she aware of and a party to her own end? Was there a point in the development of this when you flipped towards believing in more of an element of collaboration between them?

I'm not convinced she was a party to her own end. I really tried just to present the actual "this is what we got." I find it hard to believe that Komel Crowley would sanction the murder of her daughter. And the evidence at the crime scene suggests it was a surprise shooting and they didn't know what was about to happen. Who knows what kind of pressure David Crowley put on her to get her onboard with whatever plan he had, or how much he shared with her?

I think the film frustrates some people because they want answers and they want to know. I deliberately didn't want to give answers, and I think everybody who watches the movie is as entitled to their opinion as I am mine. As I said earlier, I'm not holding anything back. If you watch the film and you think Komel was a suicide pact and she was in on it, that's an interesting and logical observation, but somebody else watching might think entirely differently.

Towards the end Crowley slips from a political apocalypticism into occultism. What prompted that transition? Where did he get that from?

I think he was always interested in it. His partner in Gray State, Danny Mason, he's in the film, was a true believer in the occult and the paranormal. I think in their conversations about Gray State, as they were mulling over the project, this element might have been introduced too. But where he got it from, and how deep he went into it is only known to David Crowley.

Are there public misconceptions here about what happened that you think A Gray State will clear up?

I don't think so. It's hard for anyone watching the film to believe that David Crowley and his wife and daughter were murdered by a ninja hit squad of professional assassins. I think it's hard to reach that conclusion after watching the film. But that conclusion has been reached and will continue to be reached in spite of the film. Other than that, the strength of the film, the part that is most disturbing to people, is that there are no easy solutions or explanations. But how can you explain a horrific crime of this nature? How can you say, "Oh this makes sense, of course that's why he did it," right? It's impossible.

The movie's so personal, but I think a lot of people will be tempted to draw larger lessons from it about the current political climate. Do you do that? Do you see this extrapolating out in any way, or do you prefer to avoid that?

I do think there are more and more opportunities with the selfie culture and extreme political views for people, no matter what belief they have, to connect with a community who share the beliefs. So that inspires and fuels madness and disinformation. That's clearly a trend and obviously tipped an election last year. So this is a symptom of a larger disease. But on the other hand, it's kind of simplistic to make this a political film or a true crime film or a psychological horror film. It really has all of those elements working together.

Presented by A&E IndieFilms and First Run Features, A Gray State is out now in New York, with a Nov. 24 premiere date in Los Angeles.


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