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At first glance, there’s nothing about Doris Payne that screams “jewel thief”. But this 82-year old African-American woman from West Virginia has in fact stolen at least $2 million in jewels in a career that’s spanned five decades. I recently spoke with directors Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond about their new documentary The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne , and their experiences working with Doris to bring her story to the screen.

Doris is obviously quite an actor. Were there times when you felt you were taken in by her?

Kirk Marcolina: Without a doubt. I feel like every day we’d film with her we’d be driving back home and saying, “Is she telling the truth? Is she not telling the truth?” Because you could never know when she was playing a role and making something up, never knew when she was being honest with you. For the longest time we weren’t sure. And then we got her FBI files about a year and a half into the process, and they backed up almost everything she said.

Matthew Pond: Well, at least for some of the time and some of the FBI files backed her up. There were certainly things where she led us down the garden path.

She’s certainly good at weaving a tale.

MP: She’s a great storyteller, for sure. And that’s part of the joy of spending time with Doris. She, at this point in her life, you know she’s 82 and she has some fabulous, fascinating stories, and when she’s reliving it, she does that with a certain amount of joy and nostalgia, and it’s just a lovely experience when she’s like that. When she’s not ripping us a new one, and we’re, like, pulling all our hair out.

Did that happen a lot?

KM: Oh yes.

MP: There’s many Doris Paynes, I think. Many different personalities within that one person.

So how did you actually find out about her?

MP: I read about her in a newspaper and I thought “what a great story”. It’s a perfect marriage of character and story. And I had just freshly arrived in Los Angeles and I was looking for a project, and so I went to visit her unannounced, she was in jail for another crime at the time, and did that for a few months. And when she got out Kirk and I started filming shortly thereafter.

Did it take much to convince her to do this project?

MP: Yes and no. I mean, she likes the camera and I think she’s interested in having a legacy and I think she would like her legacy to be of the glamourous, international jet-setter. So she was interested in sharing those parts of her life. She was a little guarded with her family and the more personal aspects. But it wasn’t really difficult to coax things out of her.

KM: She’s proud of what she’s done. She’s proud of being a jewel thief. And she, like Matthew said, I think she wants her legacy reported for other people to know about and she was excited by the opportunity to regale us with her stories, especially from the ’60s and ’70s when she was jet-setting around the world and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of rings.

Do you think there’s still a sense of romanticism around the whole idea of being a jewel thief?

MP: She identifies as being a jewel thief. She puts down on government forms, like, “occupation: jewel thief”.

KM: She romanticizes her past certainly. I think it’s become harder for her, I mean she’s older so it’s harder for her because she’s not as quick as she used to be and it’s also harder because of the security cameras. But as the narrator in the film says, it’s a testament to her that she can just get out the door at this age without getting caught. And she is, because she’s so darn charming. She really is. I wish she could be here ‘cause you’d fall in love with her in five minutes. Everybody does.

The charming and infamous Doris Payne.

The charming and infamous Doris Payne.

What is your own creative dynamic together [as directors]? Have you done projects before?

MP: No. It’s our first one. So we really were partners on this film, we produced it together, we directed it together, we did the PA work together, our VISA cards were both charged for this film. There’s a lot of room for error when there are two directors involved, because there are all these creative choices, and I think we were really fortunate in the sense that there were no big creative arguments or fights.

KM: I joke with my husband that I’ve been married to Matt the last 3 years because of the film; I spend more time with him than my husband. And it has its ups and downs and the creative process is a tough process at times. But I think what’s nice about us working together is that our strengths and weaknesses are opposite in a lot of ways, we compliment each other in a way and we sort of support each other in our weaknesses. And that’s worked out really nicely.

Have you ever done a project like this before? With a subject as…

MP: Difficult. I mean, let’s not sugarcoat it. She was very difficult and challenging to work with.

KM: But also very forthcoming at the same time. And she would sit there–literally we have, I don’t know, over 20 hours of footage of her just talking.

MP: More than 20. More than that.

KM: Tons. She would sit and talk forever. And that was one of the challenges.  She’d start going off on this tangent that we knew we couldn’t use and you’d try to stop her and get her on track and she’s like “no no no I gotta finish the story.”

MP: And she’s calling the shots…and if there were issues or stories that she didn’t want to talk about, she made it very clear that she wasn’t gonna do it and so we kind of had to follow her lead a lot of the time.

What do you think about someone who believes that they can compartmentalize their own morals from this one part of their life? Do you think it’s possible?

KM: She says everybody does it. She says no one is free from doing that; she pointed out Bernie Madoff. She says everybody–look at any successful businessman. In her eyes, they did something that broke the law to get them to that point.

MP: She definitely has done some mental gymnastics to get to where she is and do what she does.

KM: She certainly thinks she’s a very moral person…and she’s not really hurting anyone in her eyes, because she’s stealing from these department stores that have insurance, they’re gonna get paid, anyway–they’re actually gonna make money on the deal. That’s the way she looks at it, whether right or wrong but that’s certainly how she justified herself.

MP: I think if you look at Doris in historical terms, in terms of race and class, the cards were stacked against her. If she didn’t cut some corners, there’s no way this poor little black girl in West Virginia in the 1930s would’ve been able to travel the world first-class, staying in fabulous hotels, unless she did what she did or she won the lottery or something, so…I see her point.

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne screens at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this Wednesday, May 1. For more details, visit the Hot Docs website.

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