LOS ANGELES Shortly after last year's Academy Award nominations were announced, the filmmaker Tommy O'Haver and the actress Catherine Keener met at Venice Beach to discuss a project inspired by a dark and troubling event.
Keener had already read and turned down the script but had continued to think about it. "So we sat on the beach and talked," O'Haver recalled. "And at one point she said, 'I'm really scared to do something like this.' And I said, 'I have to tell you, I'm scared, too. In some ways I think that's why we have to do it."'
By summer, cameras were rolling on "An American Crime," starring Keener as Gertrude Baniszewski, who provoked and participated in a heinous 1965 slaying that shook the Midwest. O'Haver was a co-writer and the director of the film, which will have its premiere Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.
To this day, the acts that occurred within the Baniszewski (pronounced ban-uh-SHEF-ski) home where the 16-year-old Sylvia Likens was tortured and killed remain as shocking as they are unfathomable. Which is why O'Haver so wanted Keener, whose low-key performance as the author Harper Lee in "Capote" had just won her an Oscar nomination.
"It would have been easy to take this story over the top," he said in a phone interview. "So I purposely pulled back. My mantra was 'restraint, restraint, restraint."'
Keener recalled her apprehension about portraying the woman who instigated the killing. "As a mother I said to myself, 'I can't do this.' Later, I thought: 'I'm a mother. I kind of should."'
Like Keener, the film's backers see it not so much as entertainment as an exploration of the human dark side. "Our focus will be on the fact that it's a relevant true story that even affects people today. And on the film as a performance piece," said Henry Winterstern, chief executive of First Look Studios, which financed, produced and will soon be marketing and distributing the film.
Winterstern said representatives from the California chapter and national office of Prevent Child Abuse America had been invited to see the movie and to provide feedback.
Winterstern suggested the Canadian actress Ellen Page ("Hard Candy") for the role of Likens. From her home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 19-year-old Page recalled her first reading of the script. "I was just blown away and could hardly believe it was a true story," she said. "I remember literally just going on the computer and staying up all night and reading everything I could." She added: "It just, like, splintered my heart."
The bizarre events depicted in "American Crime" came to light after the Indianapolis police, on Oct. 26, 1965, responded to a call involving a death at 3850 East New York St. They arrived to find a houseful of children and a haggard, disheveled woman who claimed the young woman a boarder at her home had staggered inside and died after having been beaten by a group of boys. After examining the body, officers suspected otherwise.
Then Sylvia's younger sister, who had polio, hobbled into view. "You get me out of here, and I'll tell you everything," the sister, Jenny Likens, said. So began the investigation into what the chief prosecutor, Leroy K. New, called "the most terrible crime ever committed in the state of Indiana."
The cause of death was determined to have been caused by a blow to the head. But Likens' body was malnourished and bore more than 150 burns, bruises, sores, cuts and scaldings. It was also branded: The words "I'm a prostitute and proud of it" had been carved into her abdomen.
Then came the discovery that the torture had been a communal effort by Baniszewski, a divorced and financially strapped mother of seven, her children and assorted teenage neighbors and classmates.
Adding to the strangeness of it all, Likens had not tried to run away when she had a chance. She and her sister had been left in the care of Baniszewski by their parents, who were carnival workers. Other Likens family members lived nearby, yet neither girl ever asked for help. And there were adults who had heard rumors of Sylvia's mistreatment yet did nothing to stop it. (Told of the beatings, the mother of one of Likens' classmates said she figured the girl was just getting what she deserved.)
"The case was an aberration," said Forrest Bowman Jr., an Indianapolis lawyer who represented Johnny Baniszewski, 13, and his neighbor Coy Hubbard, 16. "I don't know of another one like it."
Bowman recalled the final argument of the chief prosecutor. "He argued a case sort of like he was preaching a sermon. He would hold a legal pad in one hand almost like it was a Bible." Seated behind the prosecutor, Bowman watched as he turned to the last page of his legal pad. "And very near the bottom, in block letters, several lines high, was the word 'death.' And that's when he made his pitch for the death penalty for all five defendants."
Baniszewski, who has since died, was instead sentenced to life in prison, for first-degree murder. Her daughter Paula was convicted of second-degree murder. Two neighbors, Hubbard and Richard Hobbs, were convicted of manslaughter, as was Johnny, who became the youngest inmate in the Indiana State Reformatory. (On appeal the elder Baniszewski and her daughter won new trials. Baniszewski was again convicted of first-degree murder; her daughter pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.)
Baniszewski had served 19 years when she came up for parole. Then a high school student, living in a suburb of Indianapolis, O'Haver clipped the news article from The Indianapolis Star. He had just read "Lord of the Flies" in English class and saw the case as the book made real. "I never stopped thinking about it," he recalled.
After attending the University of Southern California's film school and then directing several films, including "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," O'Haver teamed with his colleague and former classmate Irene Turner to begin researching the Likens murder.
"We came to Indianapolis and got the entire court transcripts. We started pulling things out and eventually filled three notebooks," O'Haver said. Then came what he called the point of departure: "We had all these facts. Then we asked ourselves, 'Why?' and 'What kind of people would do this?"'
The resulting work is what O'Haver called an "interpretation." That approach appealed to Christine Vachon, president of Killer Films known for idiosyncratic fare like "Boys Don't Cry," "Velvet Goldmine" and "I Shot Andy Warhol."
"I knew about the case and was interested in it but thought it needed the vision of a filmmaker," Vachon, one of the producers of the film, said.
Not everyone, though, is eager for the story to come to the screen. "No one ever even asked us about it," said Dianna Bedwell-Knutson, Sylvia and Jenny's sister. "It's their gain, our pain." A school bus driver in Orange County, Calif., she still visits family and friends in Indianapolis, where there is a memorial to Sylvia in Willard Park.
But there is no stopping the reverberation of a case that continues to astound and perplex. It has been fictionalized in a spate of novels, most notably Jack Ketchum's gruesome "The Girl Next Door," in which the setting is rural New Jersey during the 1950s. A movie version of that novel, directed by Gregory Wilson ("Home Invaders"), is now in postproduction, and the producer Andrew van den Houten has submitted the film to the Tribeca Film Festival.
The Likens killing has also inspired at least one play and various artwork, including installations by the feminist activist and writer Kate Millett. She wrote about the case in her 1979 book, "The Basement: Meditations on a Human Sacrifice," which offers the perspectives of both victim and perpetrator.
Reached at her New York apartment, she said of the case: "It is the story of the suppression of women. Gertrude seems to have wanted to administer some terrible truthful justice to this girl: that this was what it was to be a woman."
Theories abound. A former reporter who covered the trial for The Indianapolis Star and wrote the first nonfiction book about the case sees parallels to the murders committed by the followers of Charles Manson.
"In Manson's case, it was a bunch of social misfits that were sort of looking for a father figure," said the reporter, who changed his name to Natty Bumppo from John Dean (to avoid confusion with Richard M. Nixon's White House counsel). "Baniszewski was a mother figure who took advantage of kids."
Now a lawyer, Bumppo also self-publishes books, including updated editions of his 1966 work, "The Indiana Torture Slaying: Sylvia Likens' Ordeal and Death." He tries to keep tabs on the various Likens projects and the case's cast of characters.2 comments on this story
Gertrude Baniszewski died of lung cancer in 1990. She had been a free woman for five years, having been paroled, over the objections of many, after years of model behavior.She never did confess, instead claiming she couldn't remember her actions. Others will remember them for her.
If you go
What: "An American Crime"
Where: Sundance Film Festival 07
When: Friday, 9:30 p.m.;
Saturday, 8:30 a.m. (both in Park City);
Sunday, 9 p.m. (Sundance Resort)
How much: $15