In an alternate reality, it could have been Erin Lee Carr in the submarine with Peter Madsen, the man convicted of the 2017 murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall. Of course, in a sense, it could have been any female reporter in that sub. But Carr, whose documentary Undercurrent: The disappearance of Kim Wall debuts March 8 on HBO Max, actually reached out to Madsen’s company in 2013 for an interview.
At the time, Carr was working on a show for Vice about space, and Madsen hadn’t yet moved away from his colleagues at Copenhagen Suborbitals, the private rocket company he co-founded in Denmark. “Her business partner, Christian, replied to my email and was like, ‘Yeah, sure. Come on,’ Carr said. She left Vice before the project materialized, but her co-workers went to the stranger and filmed Madsen and his partner. “I was kind of almost there, interviewing him many years earlier,” she says. “So never talking about me — the story is really about Kim — I obviously had feelings about potentially being someone to interview him as he led to having these psychopathic thoughts.”
On August 10, 2017, Wall, 30, disappeared on a submarine in Copenhagen harbor with Madsen, who had earned a reputation as an eccentric Danish inventor. She had been trying to coordinate an interview with Madsen for a while, so when he reached out to her the night of his own going away party before she and her boyfriend moved to Beijing, she skipped the festivities to meet up. him. The next morning, Madsen returned to port – alone. He changed his story several times in the days and weeks that followed, trying to explain Wall’s disappearance. When he first came ashore, he said he had dropped her off earlier. Then, after her torso washed up nearby, he claimed she died after a hatch fell on her head and he gave her a burial at sea. When divers recovered her head and found no trauma to the skull, he said it was actually an accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning. A year later, Madsen was found guilty of torture, murder and dismemberment and sentenced to life in prison.
In her new two-part documentary, Carr (Mother dead and dear; Britney vs. Spears) tells the story of the crime and trial that captivated international audiences, while continually focusing on the significance of Wall’s life and career and what was lost in cutting them short. She interviews the police who investigated the crime, the Navy members who helped search Madsen’s submarine and recover Wall’s remains, and the reporters who covered the trial. Although Wall’s family declined to participate in the documentary, several of his friends share anecdotes that reveal his enthusiasm for exploration and his tenacity as a journalist.
Carr also interviews men who knew Madsen. Most say they never saw it coming, including one biographer who says in the documentary that he regrets ever praising Madsen in what he describes as a “heroic” biography. Madsen hardly had any women in his life, it seems, but an unnamed woman who met him at a party said he invited her to ride his submarine and that she had refused, feeling uncomfortable with the way he was trying to get her to go alone with him. Madsen is also shown to be a narcissist and psychopath who was a nightmare to work with, hated women from an early age, and was increasingly fascinated with sexual violence before Wall’s death. The signs were there.
Wall had received hostile environment training, traveled to North Koreaand risk of radiation exposure when traveling to former nuclear test sites in the Marshall Islands. But she was killed in an act that, like much violence against women, seems out of place and random. As Wall’s friend Sriya Coomer says in the documentary, “He killed her because he could.”
A prison interview that might have taken center stage in another documentary instead aims to make Madsen appear exactly as the woman who met him at the party described him: serious to the point of being “pathetic “. “I watch all the shows that air about the killer and his thoughts,” Carr says. “And it’s not without making me think, but also, I can’t make a film about Kim Wall if I make this film.”
Carr spoke to rolling stone how personal this project felt to her, keeping Kim at the center of the storytelling process, and why she sometimes avoids making films about men.
Do you remember when you learned of the disappearance and death of Kim Wall in August 2017?
I got text messages from people in the journalism world saying, “Oh my God, did you see that?” And I saw basically there was this memory of Kim Wall [website], and they were raising money for the Kim Wall Fund. In the summary, it basically said what happened to him, and I thought that was one of the scariest things I could ever imagine happening today in our society. And so, you know, I constantly read about it. He was someone who went out and did his job with someone who had been interviewed by journalists so many times. It was all like, how the hell did this happen? And so I knew this was a movie I wanted to make.
How has the story of what happened to Kim Wall made you think differently about your own experience as a journalist and filmmaker?
I think we all have a story. My first movie was thought crimes, which is about a man who conspires to do bad things. We started having a very, very, very uncomfortable relationship, and I got to call my dad [the late New York Times journalist David Carr] at the time and said he was making some really weird comments. He tries to sexualize the relationship. What do I do? And you know, he was very honest. He was like, I don’t know what this is. So he put me in touch with a female journalist at Times who could kind of walk me through this stuff.
I think that as a documentary filmmaker, I have the privilege of often having people around me. But as a writer and journalist, Kim sometimes had people with her, but reporting is quite a unique experience. And after having problems with my subject, I no longer made a film about a man. I just been on this huge shift in trajectory where I kept doing, Mother dead and dear, I love you, now die, In the heart of gold — those projects that really don’t concern men. I don’t like to admit it, but I think this discomfort — I don’t want to deal with it. It definitely changed the trajectory of my life. And it’s always been important to me to have conversations about women. In the end, it was incredibly positive for me, but I can’t deny that it was part of my experience.
What steps have you taken to keep Kim Wall at the center of your storytelling during this process?
In our office, we first talked about Kim. We called Peter Madsen by his initials, PM We tried to figure out who Kim was before all of this happened, and she’s had an amazing life. She was an incredible writer. One of the things that obsessed me a bit [as a freelancer] is Kim’s kind of savvy to get work done and get things assigned and write things down. And I believe that freelancing [her article about Madsen] eventually led her to make the decision to get on the boat, because you have to write the story to get paid. And so I always tried to bring Kim to the center of what we’re talking about and to make sure that it wasn’t just a piece of what Peter Madsen had done. I work with an incredible team, especially Dani Sloane as supervising producer, and we were like every day, OK, how does Kim account for that? How to get back there? It was one of our key elements that we thought to spend time on and work on in the edit.
You used written messages between subjects very effectively in this film, as you have done in previous documentaries. In one exchange, Wall told a friend, “I only have questions about the agency as a woman, and whether we’ll ever be free, whatever we do. I’m leaning no. What role did you want to you that messages like these play and how did you choose to integrate them?
When I first heard that text message about her interviewing her own agency in this world, I just liked, you know, got it on my desk. And when she said, “I’m leaning no.” I mean, that’s kind of one of the most profound things I’ve heard in my life. And the fact that it happened in a G-chat. I think text messages are really those moments that really represent what’s going on in a person’s head, and I’ve always felt that, so I always try to imbue a film with current events, current thoughts. With Kim, that always seemed especially important. And yes, I think I will think about what she asked for the rest of my life.
Madsen’s prison interview doesn’t make a big splash, unlike how many crime documentaries treat prison visits. How did you decide how you wanted to handle this?
We went through many iterations on how to do it: how can I make a movie about this crime without giving Peter exactly what he wants? So, you know, basically, we as a creative team chose to eliminate a lot of things. I had a very long conversation with him. It was very, very scary, [and lasted] like 70 minutes. There was a version of the movie where it’s all about that, and it’s all about his anger at me, his anger at women. But I think it’s potentially a film that I would have made five years ago. And speaking today, what we try to say with crime documentaries, and if we push that material and try to use it to understand the person but don’t glorify it, don’t give it places where consider his argument? The real crime person in me was like, it’s huge that me, as a journalist, I have to hold him accountable. But someone like Peter Madsen will never, ever be held responsible, not in reality for understanding what he did. So it’s like, what do I really want to do with this? Ultimately, I think it serves to know how great Peter Madsen is out there without giving him the movie.