EXCLUSIVE | 'Heist' creator Derek Doneen aims to make you 'root for the bad guys a little bit'

Created by Emmy-nominated director Derek Doneen, 'Heist' is one of the few docuseries where we get to see the human side of perpetrators of crimes


                            EXCLUSIVE | 'Heist' creator Derek Doneen aims to make you 'root for the bad guys a little bit'
Derek Doneen is known for making gripping documentaries (Kevin Scanlon)

Netflix has a knack for treating its viewers with mouthwatering content and engaging stories. The streaming giant is home to some of the best documentary series in recent times and its catalog keeps on increasing. We have seen a massive influx of docuseries in recent years because of the kind of connection it makes with the viewers. 

From ‘The Night Stalker’ and ‘Sons of Sams’ to ‘The Keepers’ and ‘The Ripper’, the streaming platform has been giving us a lot of nightmares by showing the true (and sometimes evil) nature of some of the most notorious people in the world. But we have never seen a documentary where people are rooting for the bad guys. If you think, I have lost my mind then you should definitely check out the newest Netflix docuseries titled 'Heist'. 

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The series talks about three extraordinary heists that took place in America and stunned everyone. The story revolves around three people who made headlines for the extraordinary stuff they did. Created by Emmy-nominated director Derek Doneen, 'Heist' is one of the few docuseries where we get to see the human side of perpetrators of crimes. It is all because they were not career criminals and were people like me and you. The show perfectly captures the human angle and presents a story that is riveting. 

A still from the docuseries 'Heist' (Netflix)

Doneen is known for making award-winning documentaries like 'The Price of Free' (also known as 'Kailash') and 'Religion of Sports'. Doneen won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 for 'The Price of Free', which was based on the life of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi. He is considered to be the best out there and after seeing 'Heist' we know why. 

We caught up with Doneen and discussed various aspects of the docuseries and why it is important to tell the story of perpetrators with a little bit of humanity. 

You have been associated with documentaries like 'Kailash' and 'Religion of Sports' that discussed important people and social matters. Why did you decide to make a transition and direct a docuseries like 'Heist'?

I don’t think I make specific kinds of movies. I like to make films about people who I admire and respect. I think that ethos carries through all of the work, including true crime stories. For me, it was really interesting to find these stories that are sensational. But to be able to tell these stories with a lot of heart and really understand their life journey and things that led up to them making a decision that would change their lives forever. At the end of the day, whether I am telling Kailash Satyarthi’s story or Kobe Bryant’s story or story about somebody who stole millions of dollars, what I aim to do is to find humanity in these people and present that back to the audience in a way that they can relate to.

Kailash Satyarthi is somebody that common people might find hard to connect with because, in some ways, he’s a saint. But if I can find that struggle that we all kind of go through and tell the story through that lens. I believe, the film becomes more relatable to everyone. In general, this is how I approach my projects.

Kailash Stayarthi in Derek Doneen's 'The Price of Free' (also known as 'Kailash') (Sundance Festival)

What kind of research went into these stories? How long was the list of heists you dived into before making the official selections?

We did pretty significant research about 7 or 8 stories. We talked to the characters from some of the heists that we looked into. Originally, we were considering this series as a six-part show. Six episodes, each one about different heists. But as we started getting into it, we realized that to tell the stories we want to tell, we need more than just 40 minutes or an hour of screen time. We really needed that two-episode format to give us the time to explore the nuances that were important to us as storytellers. And that’s how we landed upon the three stories, six episodes format. 

There was a sort of checklist. We wanted stories that were non-violent and about people who were not criminals and were sort of average people like you and me. In the end, it was all about access. We needed to have access to these people and if we couldn’t get that access then it would have made this challenging. We were really excited to land on these three because they were different. You have Cuban immigrants in Miami and a young woman in Vegas. They all come from different walks of life and got united by their sheer humanity. That was really exciting for us.

You have been a fan of true-crime shows and this is one of the very few documentaries told from the point of view of the perpetrators. They were common people trying to make lives better, but got deviated in the way and did what they did. Did someone tell you that people might not want to hear their stories? 

To be honest, nobody really said that. I sort of always believed in my concept from the beginning. It’s something that we don’t see very often. The difference between ‘Heist’ and other true-crime projects that are out there is that most of them are about violent crimes. There are a lot of murder and serial killer stories. So, to have something a little bit lighter, allows you to root for these people and get to root for the bad guys a little bit. This is how we pitched the show and stayed true to that belief and it seems to be finding an audience. That’s exciting for us.

The series has turned out to be a huge success and has made its way into the top 10 list of trendings projects in various territories such as the USA, India, UK, Spain, France, Mexico, and more.  

'Heist' is currently streaming on Netflix. 

(To lend an easy-to-read experience for our readers, the original interview is split into multiple stories. Stay with us as we update our site with more of Doneen's valuable insights on 'Heist')

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