Growing up on Staten Island, filmmakers Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio had often heard the legend of ‘Cropsey.’ For the kids in their neighborhood, Cropsey was the escaped mental patient who lived in the old abandoned Willowbrook Mental Institution, who would come out late at night and snatch children off the streets. Sometimes Cropsey had a hook for a hand, other times he wielded a bloody axe, but it didn’t matter, Cropsey was always out there, lurking in the shadows, waiting to get them.
Later as teenagers, the filmmakers assumed Cropsey was just an urban legend: a cautionary tale used to keep them out of those abandoned buildings and stop them from doing all those things that teenagers like to do. That all changed in the summer of 1987 when a 12-year-old girl with Down syndrome, named Jennifer Schweiger, disappeared from their community. That was the summer all the kids from Staten Island discovered that their urban legend was real.
Now as adults Joshua and Barbara have returned to Staten Island to create Cropsey, a feature documentary that delves into the mystery behind Jennifer and four additional missing children. The film also investigates Andre Rand, the real-life boogeyman linked to their disappearances.
Embarking on a mysterious journey into the underbelly of their forgotten borough, these filmmakers uncover a reality that is more terrifying than any urban legend.
When Barbara and I first met, a conversation about our hometown quickly turned into a discussion of this urban legend and of the Island’s missing children. We remembered family members and neighbors searching for these children, wandering through vacant lots, poking at the ground with their sticks, testing the soil, etc. Minutes away from every point on the small island, the former Willowbrook Mental Institution cast a surreal shadow over the otherwise unexciting landscape of our suburbia. It was our playground, a place for bored teenagers seeking scary adventures or victimless crimes. It was also the inevitable location of all our nightmares when one child,Jennifer Schweiger was found there that fateful summer night.
Although Barbara and I had both moved from Staten Island, Cropsey had not left our imaginations. The story of the mysterious drifter had shed a new light on the overlap between myth and reality in our small town. Was Cropsey just a legend spread by children, an innocuous campfire story, or was it something much more serious? Could it have been, as we now surmise, passed down from parent to child, warning us of a potential killer living in our midst, waiting to strike?
It was our first trip back to Willowbrook in two decades, and now armed with a camera, we found that once familiar path to the center of the woods. Discarded hospital trays, broken dolls and rusted tricycles lie among the leaves, buildings. Nothing had changed, except for us now we had the impetus to help unearth not one, but four missing children.
It was only a few months later that the Staten Island District Attorney’s Office announced its decision to indict Andre Rand for the 22-year old disappearance of Holly Ann Hughes, and so the strange set of coincidences that began our journey have now led us to Cropsey.
JOSHUA ZEMAN – WRITER | DIRECTOR
Joshua Zeman has been making films for over ten years, working as both producer and director. Most notably, he co-produced The Station Agent, which won the 2003 Sundance Audience and Screenwriting Award, Gregg Araki’s, Mysterious Skin, which was nominated for a Spirit Award and The Hawk is Dying, directed by Julian Goldberger (Trans) starring Paul Giamatti and Michelle Williams. The Hawk Is Dying premiered in competition at Sundance in 2006 and then in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. Working with partner Zachary MMortensen premiered in competition at Sundance in 2006 and then in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. Working with partner Zachary MMortensen
Zeman produced Choking Man, helmed by acclaimed director Steve Barron, responsible for such seminal music videos as Michael Jackson’s Bille Jean and A-Ha’s Take on Me. Choking Man premiered in at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and went on to win an IFP Gotham Award. Most recently Zeman produced Against the Current, starring Joseph Fiennes, Justin Kirk, Michelle Trachtenberg and Mary Tyler Moore. Against The Current premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, and went to win won a Jury Prize at AFI Dallas. The film will be released in 2010 by IFC films.
Zeman is also a Fellow of the inaugural Sundance Creative Producing Initiative, as well as a former mentor for Independent Film Projects (IFP) 2008 Rough Cut Lab.
In addition to feature films, Zeman penned and produced an hour-long documentary on the History of the Mafia in New York for the Discovery Channel entitled Members Only. His first screenplay, Fresh Kills, was optioned by Fine Line Entertainment and Forensic Films (Julian Donkey Boy, Gummo). Zeman also received a MacDowell Fellowship for his second screenplay, Cat Dancer. His freelance articles have appeared in Filmmaker Magazine and the RBS Gazette.
BARBARA BRANCACCIO – DIRECTOR
Barbara Brancaccio is the Executive Deputy Commissioner for Public Information at the New York City Department of Social Services/Human Resources Administration. As the agency’s chief spokesperson and communications director, Brancaccio serves as liaison to the Mayor’s press office and is a principal advisor to the agency’s Commissioner. Prior to her appointment in 2006, Brancaccio was Executive Director for WomenCare Inc. and College and Community Fellowship, two nonprofit organizations for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. Brancaccio served as the Treasurer of the Advisory Board for Bayview Correctional Facility and is a Founding Board Member for the Learning Center for Women in Prison, a college program sponsored by Bard College for women incarcerated at the facility.
Additionally, Brancaccio curated the Film Festival at the 10th National Roundtable for Women in Prison,and produced Surviving Justice: The Women in Prison Film Showcase, held in 2001 at Anthology Film Archives in New York City. Brancaccio began her career as Special Assistant to New York City Council Member Ronnie Eldridge, and in 2005 she was the Campaign Manager for New York City Council member Margarita Lopez, a candidate for Manhattan Borough President.
ZACHARY MORTENSEN – PRODUCER
Zachary Mortensen is the founder of the production and management Company, Ghost Robot,. Recent productions include Against The Current staring Joseph Fiennes, Michelle Trachtenberg and Mary Tyler Moore, the Gotham Award winning feature film Choking Man by iconoclastic music video director Steve Barron, as well as Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox, the critically acclaimed documentary by director Sara Lamm. In spring 2008 Ghost Robot produced the awe-inspiring 3D music video for Bjork’s Wanderlust. Mortensen produced the feature documentary Hell House by director George Ratliff, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released theatrically by 7th Art. Mortensen also produced the documentaries, Breath Control: History of the Human Beat Box, The Federation of Black Cowboys and the theatrical documentary Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator directed by Helen Stickler. Mortensen’s feature Road by director Leslie McCleave premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival 2005 where it was awarded outstanding performance for the two leads, Catherine Kellner and Ebon Moss-Bachrach and followed its theatrical release with a run on Showtime.
JEFFREY LEVY-HINTE – EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte is the President of Antidote Films in New York. He has recently produced and directed Soul Power and produced Dungeon Masters, both of which premiered at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. He also produced the widely acclaimed, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which enjoyed premieres at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Additionally, he has produced other critically successful and award-winning films include The Hawk is Dying, The Last Winter,
Mysterious Skin, Thirteen, Laurel Canyon and High Art. Levy-Hinte edited the 1996 Academy Awardwinning documentary When We Were Kings, and is currently the Board Chair for the Independent FeatureProject (IFP) of New York.
CHAD DAVIDSON – CINEMATOGRAPHER
Chad Davidson earned a B.A. in creative writing at the University of Washington. He then attended the NYUGraduate Film program, where he was nominated for the Kodak Worldwide Student Cinematography Award and was the first Cinematographer to receive the prestigious Martin Scorsese Filmmaker Scholarship.
His numerous award-winning credits include Seith Mann’s 5 Deep Breaths, Jim McKay’s Angel Rodriguez, the documentary, ‘Tis Autumn: The Search for Jackie Paris, and Cruz Angeles’ debut, Don’t Let Me Drown, which recently premiered in Dramatic Competition at Sundance
TOM PATTERSON – EDITOR
Tom Patterson has edited for 12 years for television and film. His work includes the Emmy award-winning PBS series Egg the Arts Show, which he helped produce and design, and editing for God Grew Tired of Us,which won both the Jury and Audience awards for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
He has also done extensive work for A&E, NBC, Fuse, Bravo, TV Land, Sundance Channel, VH1 and PBS.
ANITA GABROSEK – EDITOR
Anita Gabrosek is an editor, writer, and producer whose recent credits include: editor on the feature documentary Ultimate Christian Wrestling produced and directed by Tara Autovino and Jae-Ho Chang; editor, The Robert Verdi Show, Logo Network; additional editor on the documentary Hotel Gramercy Park (Special Mention, Tribeca 2008); editor, You Belong to Me (Best First Feature FilmOut San Diego); and assistant editor, Margaret directed by award winning filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York, You Can Count on Me).
She is a part-time faculty member at the New School, New York University School of Continuing Education, and The Edit Center.
ALEXANDER LASARENKO – COMPOSER
Alexander Lasarenko has been playing music since the age of five. By the time he was in his late teens, he had already performed for two US Presidents, and wvas on his way to starting a band with Chris Ocasek, son of the lead singer of the Cars. The band they formed was signed to EMI/Capitol Records. Lasarenko spent the next 14-years working for a major music house; winning awards for best original music for clients such as Audi, Levi’s, Nike, Mercedes Benz, National Geographic, and HBO and such directors as James Ivory, David Fincher, Kinka Usher and Gore Verbinski.
Lasarenko was introduced to film scoring when he was asked by John Barry to remix the main theme for the Dances with Wolves soundtrack. In addition to Cropsey, Alex has composed film scores for The Business of Strangers (winner of the Paris Film Festival) by Patrick Stettner, Dinner Rush by Bob Giraldi, and Pipe Dream by John Wash.