When Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson started working on their documentary Deadline three years ago, they didn’t know that George Ryan would become the video’s central figure. Instead they were planning to focus on the history and repercussions of Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 Supreme Court case in which the majority ruled that the state’s arbitrary application of the death penalty qualified as cruel and unusual punishment “in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual.” (The ruling was overturned in 1976; as a state legislator Ryan voted for reinstatement of the death penalty in Illinois in 1977.)

While interviewing anti-death-penalty activists like former prison warden Donald Cabana, author of Death at Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner, the pair, based in New York and operating as Bigmouth Productions, kept an eye on developments in Chicago, where Chevigny had lived and worked for seven years. They were aware of the governor’s 2000 decision to place a moratorium on executions after 13 people on the state’s death row were found to have been wrongfully convicted. But it wasn’t until they heard that the death row clemency hearings convened by Ryan during the final months of his term were open to the public and the press that they decided to come here and start shooting.

“We felt like the things happening in Chicago were related directly to what had happened 30 years ago,” says Johnson. “Thirty years ago it was a question of class and race discrimination. Supposedly that had been fixed when the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

“What was exciting for us was the governor’s dilemma of having to make a decision by a specific deadline. That gave us a plot structure and a way to lay out all the different kinds of information he was faced with.”

Chevigny and Johnson taped 18 hours of the hearings. “We were there much longer than the other crews,” says Chevigny. “By the third day we got to know the prison review board and everyone on the staff. We were able to set up the camera wherever we wanted.”

The documentary interweaves testimony from the hearings, archival footage, and interviews with a wide assortment of talking heads, including current death row inmates, exonerated prisoners, Tribune reporters who covered the issue, activists, the principals of the Furman case, lawyer and novelist Scott Turow, and members of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, an anti-death-penalty group.

The documentarians faced their own deadline crunch trying to finish a rough cut of the underfunded project in time to premiere it at Sundance in January. “It was a mad dash right up to the end,” says Johnson. Among the people who saw it at the festival was Bob Wright, CEO of NBC. Wright brought the video to the attention of David Corvo, executive producer of Dateline, who paid Chevigny and Johnson a six-figure sum, enabling them to complete it. Deadline will air this summer as part of a two-hour Dateline special.

“We want to raise awareness in other states about how problems in Illinois are not unique to Illinois,” says Chevigny. “It’s a slow process, but changes are happening–some states are considering moratoriums and some are considering the repeal of the death penalty. We’re just hoping to contribute to the dialogue.”

Deadline runs June 4 through 10 at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Guest speakers will appear at many of the screenings. Guests at Friday’s 8:15 screening include the filmmakers, Ryan, and Bill Jenkins and Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins of MVFR. Turow will speak at Monday’s 6 PM showing. For a complete listing of speakers and screenings, see Section Two or call 312-846-2600. For a critical assessment of the film, see Critic’s Choice, Section Two. To learn more about Deadline go to www.deadlinethemovie.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Rexer II.