Executive producer Michel Shane (Catch Me If You Can and I Robot) joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about his documentary, 21 Miles In Malibu.
Stretching 21 miles along the beautiful Malibu coast, the Pacific Coast Highway (also known as the PCH) has proven to be one of the most deadly stretches of asphalt on Earth. The documentary follows the incredible history of Malibu, the story of the Pacific Coast Highway, and the people that have been most affected by it all.
I understand personal tragedy led you to make 21 Miles In Malibu. Can you tell us about that?
In life, you never know what will happen and when. We often think our lives will go in one direction, and what we planned doesn’t really occur. It shows you have little control over your destiny.
One Saturday during Spring Break in April 2010, the day was the third, a typical Saturday. My wife and I were going to the movies that evening and had been doing errands and stuff. Our youngest child Emily was at friends. She had a sleepover, and my wife called her to check in, and she said she had enough and wanted to come home and figure out other plans. I had some work to do, but she didn’t want to wait, so I said I would get her. I drove to P.C.H., and while waiting for the light to change, I noticed a car driving insanely down the highway. I shook my head in disbelief and thought to myself that this was going to end badly. Little did I know how badly. We never believe these things will happen to you, but they do. The driver of that car aimed his car at Emily at 70 miles an hour. He murdered her as she walked to the light to cross the street and go to our meeting spot. He survived. That day changed my life, my family’s, and her friends’ forever. The impact of her death at such a young age, only 13 years old, was horrific.
What many people don’t realize is that not only did we have to bury our 13-year-old and continue to live for our other children, but it took two years to convict him of murdering her. So, we had to relive her death repeatedly, the brutality of it all over and over again.
We got through it. He was convicted for 15 years to life, and now 12 years later, we are dealing with parole hearings because of the justice system here in Los Angeles. A scab that starts to heal and is ripped open again.
What this did to me was make me hyper-aware of the dangers of the Pacific Coast Highway. I was always aware of the risks, I had two other children learn to drive on that roadway, but it was someone else’s problem. I just needed to keep them safe. Yes, it was tragic, but so many things in life are. Well, Emily’s death in such a horrific way brought it home. That year, there were an extraordinary number of accidents and fatalities on P.C.H. in Malibu, which bothered me. There was no outrage; if there were, it would be enough to create change. I have had one job in life, being a filmmaker, right out of university, so I did the one thing I knew I could. I made a film about the dangers and hoped it would start a movement to create change.
What did you hope to explore and bring to light by making 21 Miles In Malibu?
I wanted to make people aware visually of the dangers of driving along P.C.H. – it’s a dangerous endeavor. On one side, you have the ocean. On the other are the mountains, and it is beautiful and distracting. You add that people are in a rush, texting, not paying attention, and so on, that this is a recipe for disaster. You have a road not made to carry this many cars, and people will die. There have been studies after studies done, and nothing has changed. If we could bring this visual beauty and the horrors of accidents and death, we might outrage enough people to move the discussions into action.
Think about this for a moment; nothing has been done on this road since the 50s. Now, 500,000 people will come to Malibu on a long weekend. It is a recipe for disaster. Maybe this film will bring that to awareness, and no other family needs to experience this loss.
Can you tell us about your collaboration with Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Nic Davis?
This was meant to be. We have a film because of Nic’s tireless effort and passion for helping me tell the story. I don’t even remember how we were introduced, but on a weekend, my wife and I ended up at this screening of a trailer for a film called Enormous: The Gorge Story. It is the story of overwhelming odds. A small family winery – with a makeshift plywood stage – eventually became “The Gorge,” a Pollstar, Billboard, and A.C.M. winning music venue. Enormous: The Gorge Story follows the stories of Dave Matthews, Jason Mraz, and Pearl Jam, among many other artists – all of whom have legendary pasts at the venue. I was taken by the film. He wove together a great story. He made this outstanding documentary.
I introduced myself to him. We started to talk. I then offered the film to him. A little back story – I started this project in 2012. I went through four directors and had all sorts of footage and no direction. I knew what I wanted, but the film had no substance. Nic took it on, shot some new footage, wrapped everything around, and, with our editor Meredith Mantik, helped bring the vision to life. Nic has spent four years helping bring this together, and in October 2022, we had a finished film. We all have full-time jobs. This was done on the side, but it cost real money. Without Nic’s passion and determination, we might not have made it to the finish line. I was too close to the story to be able to step out of it to tell a story. Nic was able to take what I wanted and mold it all together.
So, to answer your question, it was a pleasure, and I hope to make something else with him, maybe something that doesn’t take so long.
What was one of the most shocking or unsettling things you discovered while making this film?
There were a couple of things. For one, I mentioned how little has been done on P.C.H. to help make it safer. But the thing that really stuck in my throat is that money and time spent studying the roadway, the reports, and meetings, and nothing has changed. In one of the reports, there were 52 changes agreed to. The report is now at least three or four years old, and not one has been implemented. Think about how many lives might have been saved, and we all sit back and let this be. This is outrageous.
What impact do you hope 21 Miles In Malibu has on audiences and Malibu?
I would love it if this film created change, some action. We are too complacent. I am not an advocate. As an individual with a voice and passion, I decided to attempt to create change. I took it upon myself because of my situation to become one of the voices for that change, and the only way I know how is through film and media. So, if one thing can come from the film, that would be to give awards and accolades to someone else; if we can save one life, we have succeeded. You never want to be in my shoes. We start on life’s journey, and the road is full of twists, curves, and dead ends. I hope this film creates the road to change. No highway will be completely safe, but if we can make some changes and make it safer, then we have succeeded.
What are your plans and ambitions for the future?
I took a few years off from the film world, but it’s a business that gets under your skin, and once in, it is tough to look at another business the same way. I am developing several exciting projects, some in film, others in television, and one in virtual spaces that cross over reality and digital. They are all fascinating, but I can’t share until they are further along. I am a storyteller and want to tell impactful stories, whether making you laugh, cry or think – that is the key. The ability to convey an emotion if you hate something intensely means that it moves you and you have succeeded. I like to say, “When everyone is looking ahead, I look around corners.”