By the time he was arrested in 2010 after fleeing the United States for The Bahamas, fugitive Colton Harris Moore was already responsible for potentially hundreds of break-ins, robberies, thefts, shoplifting offences, stolen cars, and he somehow managed to even literally take off with several airplanes that he taught himself to fly (often crashing them). He was dubbed The Barefoot Bandit because for some still unexplained reason, he never wore shoes. He was a brash and prolific criminal that became the scourge of many a homeowner in the greater Seattle, Washington area, but an unlikely folk here to just as many around the world who become enthralled with Colton’s series of grand escapes and outlandish illegal exploits. And he was only 19 when he was finally caught.
It was a story that immediately gripped documentary filmmakers The Gray Brothers, Andrew and Adam, with the duo preparing to make a film out of Colton’s life while the saga was still unfolding. Unsure of where it would all lead, Andrew and Adam began looking deeper into Colton’s past to try to piece together the side of the story that the media at large wasn’t covering. Combining archival news footage, interviews with those who knew Colt best (both positively and negatively), and both animated and live action recreations of actual events, their debut feature Fly Colt Fly (opening this weekend at The Royal after debuting at the teen oriented TIFF Next Wave festival this past Sunday) looks at the creation of an almost mythical kind of criminal who now breathes the same air as Billy the Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and others who people have romanticized for various reasons, all of which make for great stories.
On Valentine’s Day in the lobby of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the bespectacled brothers sat down with us to talk about what first drew them to Colton as a subject, the sometimes unbelievable nature of his escapes from SWAT teams and army helicopters, how their love of comics helped in the mythological animated sequences of the film, the dangers Andrew put his own brother-in-law through for the live action recreations, how people from Colton’s younger days were more sympathetic, and how this film almost got them shot… twice.
Dork Shelf: Colton was a huge story on the news for quite a while. Where and when did you guys first heard about Colton and when did you know you wanted to make a film about him?
Andrew Gray: I remember the first story that we even read about him. I don’t think there was even too much argument about making the film after we read that first piece. It was just so crazy. It was about halfway through his journey, and I think he had already stolen three airplanes…
Adam Gray: It was just after he had stolen his third airplane…
Andrew Gray: Yeah! He already had a car chase in a stolen Mercedes that he had leapt out of while it was still moving, allowing it to crash into a propane tank! (laughs) Then they went into his car and they found this stolen camera with a bunch of selfies he had taken of himself looking all smiley and goofy. From that point on with a story like that, there really is no question.
Adam Gray: At that point it was still largely a Seattle area based story. It hadn’t gone national or international yet. It was really interesting examining the media because there was still two or three years worth of backstory even by that point that we could research. His hometown newspaper had been doing pieces on his criminal history going back to when he was 14, and by this point he was 17.
Andrew Gray: There was such a rich backstory. I think the reason so many people ended up following it was because it was just story after story after story where he just kept doing crazier things. The next story that came out after plane number 3 where he was being chased by SWAT teams and Black Hawk choppers was when he stole his next plane in 2010 and he flew through the no-fly zone of the Vancouver Olympics opening cermemonies, landed on an island that he had already pillaged before, broke into an organic grocery store, took blueberry pie and some croissants, and then he left 39 chalk outlined footprints across the floor leading to the door where he wrote the words “See ya!” THEN it kept getting crazier. He was just getting warmed up!
Adam Gray: We weren’t even close to being in his Act III yet.
DS: I remember the story pretty well, but I certainly didn’t remember just how large of a pursuit it was in terms of people going after Colton. Even with many career criminals or even in the movies it’s usually just, like, one detective or one specifically assigned case squad. Colton was someone who was being tracked down by entire fleets of officers and even the military.
Andrew Gray: Yeah! And in bare feet!
DS: You guys knew the story and you are talking to people who knew him or in some case that he had robbed from or that investigated him. Were you guys ever at a point where the legend of Colton almost seemed unbelievable?
Andrew Gray: It was entirely unbelievable, and almost the whole time! I thought when we were going into it that we would get a lot of rational explanations to some of the more outlandish things, like why he was always barefoot. Nope. He was just barefoot.
Adam Gray: He really was barefoot.
Andrew Gray: I don’t know. It was just one incredible thing after another. You know how he avoided dogs from catching him? He carried bear mace and spray it around him. He would also sleep with it when he slept in other people’s houses, so if he ever got awakened by a cop, he would have it right there, waiting and ready.
Adam Gray: There were a lot of points while we were following the story where we though “This has to be it. This is the end, for sure.” And maybe that’s what makes for an unlikely folk hero; that capacity to just make great escape after great escape. There was a point on Orcas Island where they had border patrol, boats surrounding the island, helicopters, maybe 100 armed guys coming through the woods, and they’ve spotted him and they knew where he was, and then somehow he just gets away again! Then when he started stealing cars and making his way across the country, you think “Okay, now he’s left Washington State. He doesn’t know the landscape. He’s gonna go down, for sure.” But 16 stolen cars and a plane later…
I remember that moment very clearly because we were already in development on this film when we found out he had stolen a plane and crashed it into the Bahamas, and we just thought it was unbelievable. Then his final ending with high speed boat chases is just as crazy.
DS: And that was because he was bored!
Adam Gray: (laughs) Yeah, I don’t know. I think by that point he may have been ready to turn himself in. I don’t want to speculate or anything like that, but things probably got pretty rough for him in The Bahamas.
Andrew Gray: Colton’s motives are a mystery and will remain a mystery till the end of time. I guess the thing that I’ll always keep thinking about is the two hour conversation that he has in The Bahamas with some kids on the doc. We talk about it in the movie, and we obviously don’t spend too much time on it, but the motivation to speak to any other person on Earth for two hours when you’re wanted… that’s what I keep going back to when I want to think about what was going on in his mind.
DS: You guys go back and look at Colton’s life before the story even went wide in the Seattle area. Do you guys notice a difference when you talk to people from earlier in Colton’s sort of “criminal career” versus those who came in after Colton became this media sensation?
Adam Gray: There were a few differences, yeah. One thing that I should state is that on the website that’s going to be coming out, there will be a comic book about his earlier years that leads up to where the film begins.
But what we found for the most part was that the people who knew Colton since he was a kid were really sympathetic towards him. They knew him as this kid who was at times starving. His mother was an alcoholic, amongst possibly other things, and that he had been abused. They were very sympathetic towards him. And a lot of that was also because he wasn’t a violent person. He was just struggling to survive. He would steal food, use the shower, and he would often clean up after himself. Some people would even leave food out for him because they knew where he was coming from.
Then there’s the period later where he’s starting to get a lot of notoriety and he’s robbing places two or three times, so then you get that group of people who get really, really angry. By the time we got to Washington, the media had been there so much and so many people had been doing stories about Colton, that some people were just getting really fed up with the whole thing or that anyone could ever be considering this kid as being some kind of a folk hero.
Andrew Gray: Our lives were actually threatened!
Adam Gray: But the most dramatic change was when we went to The Bahamas. People there thought it was a hilarious story and that it was great! There were hit songs about him on the radio. They didn’t have that same sort of bitterness towards him.
DS: Hold on. Back up. How did your lives get threatened?
Andrew Gray: (laughs) Yeah, I should probably follow up on that!
Adam Gray: It was more than once, too!
Andrew Gray: Okay, so we were filming mailboxes out in front, and in rural areas all the mailboxes would be out at the end of the street. When Colton was 15 he had this idea that he would steal credit card information and order stuff to be delivered to a fake mailbox that he would put at the end of his own block. So naturally we had the idea that, of course, we would do a section about this in the film. So we’re out on the street filming mailboxes, and one of his neighbours pulls up just cursing a blue streak. It was scary the way he was speaking.
Adam Gray: He said “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” And we said, “We’re just filming the mailbox.” And he says, “WHY YOU FILMIN’ THE MAILBOX. THIS HERE’S A PRIVATE ROAD!” And I said, “Oh, we’re doing a documentary about Colton Harris-Moore.” And he just LOSES IT. “I’M GONNA GO GET MY GUN AND I’MMA COME BACK AND I’MMA SHOOT YOU.” We asked if we could do an interview with him, and that didn’t go over that well. We did leave.
Andrew Gray: We had to! You just look in this guy’s eyes and you just knew that he was NOT joking.
Adam Gray: But there was one time where we actually DID come closer to death and getting shot.
We were crossing the border between Canada and the U.S. and we had just done an interview with some musicians in British Columbia that had hooked up with him and smoked a joint with him. We were crossing back into the United States, and it was about ten o’clock at night and we’re driving this big, rented SUV. The border patrol guy is scanning everyone’s passports, and once it gets to Andrew’s passport we just hear this strange little “DOOT.”
Then the guy looks up and says “WHO’S ANDREW?!?” And then Andrew is in the back sheepishly raising his hand with a Starbucks in it. You know, a very un-dangerous looking guy. Then I look back at the booth and the guy has completely ducked out of the booth. He was gone. Then there are suddenly 7 or 8 guys coming running out with their guns drawn and the sirens going. Everyone is cleared out and everyone out there is screaming “Put your hands out the window outside the car!” So we all have our hands hanging outside the car. Andrew’s trying to figure out what to do with his coffee. (laughs)
And there’s a guy with us who’s hearing impaired, and he had to get out of the car first, and he has a cell phone and a wallet in his hands and he has to walk backwards, and these guys are just screaming at him “DROP IT! DROP WHAT’S IN YOUR HANDS!” And he’s just screaming back “I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SAYING! I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” And they just took him to the ground for that.
They cuffed all of us and took us all to separate cells before they realized that Andrew was not the Andrew they were looking for. (laughs)
Andrew Gray: Yeah, it’s not really related to the film at all, but it’s still part of the experience for me, I tell you. (laughs)
DS: Well, what does that say about you guys when Colton was able to sneak across borders with no problems at all?
Andrew Gray: (laughs) Yeah! And as we were leaving they kinda, sorta apologized, and they gave us an honest to God comments card asking “How did you find our service.” (laughs) Um… misguided? (laughs)
DS: Well, getting back to the movie, one of the things you guys do to set your movie apart is that you are blending interviews, archival footage, animation, and recreations to tell Colton’s story. What led you guys to want to fill in those gaps with the animation and the recreated sequences?
Andrew Gray: I think we had the idea right away that we wanted the film to have some animation. I mean, we’re comic book guys, and we were just big fans of outlaw folk heroes. Billy the Kid has his own comic book. John Dillinger and Jesse James and Bonnie and Clyde all had their own comic books. It just seemed like a natural way to express this larger than life character. The animation is what we like to refer to as Colton’s media doppelganger; how the people imagine him being.
Adam Gray: The mythical Colton.
Andrew Gray: Almost as if he’s some kind of superhero or supervillain depending on how you look at him. And the archival footage is interesting in how it informs the animation, because as the story goes on, you can see that change in the perception as it gets bigger. It’s a real slice of in the moment history.
And for the re-enactments, it was really just fun to take an actor and just put him in to do all this horrible, horrible stuff. (laughs) It was my brother-in-law, actually. (laughs) We got to put him in the woods and make him run barefoot through the woods. He would just tear up his legs and get beat all up, but he was really fast. But we also got to stick him in the water in The Bahamas. There’s a scene where he’s swimming through the water, and if you had the real sound from that shoot, you would hear him screaming because he’s being stung by jellyfish. Then we made him go in and do it again. So that was a lot of fun for us. (laughs) I am so sorry for that.
We basically had two cuts. We show him swimming away from the dock, and we show him swimming towards the doc. In the first one he gets stung by a jellyfish, and I had to cut there. And then I told him he had to go back in.
Adam Gray: In the movie when you see him get back onto the boat, notice just how FAST he does it.
Andrew Gray: (laughs) Yeah. He definitely had motivation for that.
DS: If the comic book sections sort of symbolize the mythology of his story, wouldn’t you then say that it’s possible that the recreations could be more of how Colton really sees himself? You know, this big, high profile, cinematic kind of lifestyle.
Andrew Gray: Yeah. And you sort of get some of the moments in the re-enactments where it’s often just him alone sitting by himself in just a hoodie where you can also get that sense of isolation that I think he must have experienced. For what we know, he basically had to be alone and on his own for at least a couple of years. We wanted to try to get that across.
The whole mix – blending news which is right from reality with animation, which you can tell takes a lot of liberties – and seeing it all interact was the essence of the story of us. There are kids who aren’t thinking too much about the reality and who are very supportive and then there are the people who are getting robbed who are going to have a different take. And without spelling it all out in terms of how we really feel about it, we try to keep both threads going.
DS: I know to a certain degree when you are dealing with a case like this, there are going to be some people who will talk about it very easily and openly, and there will be some who will be a bit more guarded. In all of these interviews, though, once your subjects start to open up, I can detect a fair bit of eagerness to share their side of this story.
Andrew Gray: Yeah! Even the cops who would talk to us!
DS: What was it like trying to get people to open up to you guys about this and hearing all of these stories that make Colton such a mythical criminal?
Adam Gray: It was strange. There’s was this guy named Chris Ellis, who was a deputy out on Camino Island, and he had been dealing with Colton for years. We had a lot of trouble getting cops to talk because a lot of them were just angry and they didn’t want to talk about all the attention he had been getting. Chris was easy because he had just retired. Even the sheriff had ordered people that anyone still on the force wasn’t allowed to talk about Colton. Chris had arrested Colton when he was ten! And even though he was against Colton and he wanted him locked up, there was still this enthusiasm for telling the story because it’s such a great story and that he was a part of it. He gave us stuff that we had never heard from anyone else. We got snippets about him breaking his dog out of the dog pound. It’s a story that makes the cops look ridiculous, in a way, but it’s also a cop that’s telling us this story because he KNOWS it’s a great story.
And we also talk to Colton’s mother, and she was a tough interview to get. She was… You know, a lot of people said a lot of horrible things about her, and even though I’m sure that some or even a great deal of it is true, she was very nice to us once we convinced her to do the interview. She had a really dark sense of humour that a lot of people didn’t get, but we hit it off well with her. You can see when she’s telling her story, though, that she’s actually proud of him. She knows he’s a criminal and whatever, but she even knows that her son has done something incredible, even historical.