A Subject of Obsession: Making Casting JonBenet

Michael Latham/Netflix

A captivating Netflix documentary caps a series of projects about the 1996 murder case.

On December 26, 1996, a little more than a year after O.J. Simpson was  acquitted of killing his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman, six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was found murdered in the basement of her family’s home in Boulder, Colorado. By that point, Dateline NBC correspondent Josh Mankiewicz says, “the criminal justice system had become, for some people, a spectator sport, and the machinery that had ramped up under O. J. went straight to Boulder.”

Twenty years later, in a culture still jonesing for true-crime narratives (The Jinx, Mommy Dead and Dearest), the Ramsey murder has undergone a second round of scrutiny, once again in tandem with the Simpson case. If the first half of 2016 belonged to ESPN’s Oscar-winning documentary, O. J.: Made in America, and FX’s dramatic miniseries The People v. O. J. Simpson, the second saw six projects that revisited the still-unsolved Ramsey case—including a three-part Dr. Phil special featuring JonBenet’s brother, Burke Ramsey, and Mankiewicz’s investigative Dateline report, “Who Killed JonBenet?”

A seventh project, the documentary Casting JonBenet, premiered on Netflix and in select theaters in late April. Directed by Kitty Green, a 32-year-old from Melbourne, Australia, it is a fascinating coda to its predecessors. If any of the projects wins awards, it’ll be this one.

“It’s weirder than Twin Peaks in a lot of ways,” Green says of the case, which does bear some parallels to the David Lynch TV series. Green took a highly unconventional approach to the story, interviewing more than 200 Coloradans who auditioned, via an open casting call, to play members of the Ramsey family and others involved in the saga. Those who end up on-screen inevitably interpret the whodunit theories through their own experiences and traumas, revealing the dark secrets behind picturesque small-town life. “It’s always somebody you know,” says one woman auditioning for the part of Patsy Ramsey, JonBenet’s mother, before revealing that a man she knew attempted to molest her when she was six. Another auditioner, trying out for a cop role, reveals that he is a sex educator and ends up demonstrating S&M floggers on camera.

“Americans love to talk,” says Green, who, while remaining respectful of her subjects, has some fun with our national need to overshare. “Everyone let their guard down and were willing to be vulnerable with me,” she says, adding, “There is no way I could have made that film in Australia.”