Meet the Notorious Impostor Whose Story Has Never Been Captured on Film—Until Now
This story is truly stranger than fiction.
Darius McCollum’s story is one of numbers: He’s been imprisoned over 30 times since the age of 15 for a total of 23 years behind bars. And filmmaker Adam Irving exchanged over 100 letters with him before starting to film his life story.
Irving’s film Off the Rails is one of those truly stranger-than-fiction documentaries, mostly due to the unusual nature of its subject’s crimes: McCollum is notorious for impersonating New York City bus drivers and subway conductors, commandeering their vehicles, and driving their routes.
Irving is not nearly the first, nor the only storyteller to take a stab at telling McCollum’s bizarre tale. No less than 27 documentary makers approached McCollum prior to Irving’s outreach, and Julia Roberts is slated to star as McCollum’s attorney in a fictional screen adaptation being produced by The Gotham Group. But Off the Rails is the first time this story has been successfully presented on screen.
Through a pastiche of filmic techniques including animation and touching voiceovers of letters between Darius and his mother over decades of separation, the film explores Darius’s Asperger’s syndrome, his compulsion to drive city transit vehicles and, ultimately, the criminal justice system’s failure to appropriately care for and rehabilitate someone who has spent half his life in jail—without ever hurting anyone.
We spoke with Irving in advance of the film’s world premiere at next week’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
"If you read the log line, you'd be like, 'Wow, that sounds really interesting. I've never heard of someone being arrested 32 times for dressing up like transit workers and driving their routes.'"
NFS: Why tell this story, of all the stories in the world?
Irving: I thought it would be really entertaining. If you read the log line, you'd be like, "Wow, that sounds really interesting. I've never heard of someone being arrested 32 times for dressing up like transit workers and driving their routes." It's not your typical crime. It's quirky. Darius is a real character, almost like an urban legend, a folk hero. But the more you read into it, the more you actually see it's very sad and kind of an injustice. Aside from the entertaining capers, there’s this obsessive recidivist part of Darius’s story where he keeps going in and out and in and out of prison—a revolving door that has been going on his whole life. It really spoke to me.
Also, I love stories about New York. I used to live there and I'm a subway guy. I've actually been on the subway in 51 cities around the world. I've kept all my tickets. I'm trying to get the world's record. I don't even know if it exists. I'll probably have it at some point.
NFS: Darius has been in the press so much already, and not necessarily in a positive way. How did you get access to him and build enough trust for him to let you film his life?
Irving: It's a good question because if you see us standing beside each other, you'd be like, "These guys have nothing in common." He's a 51-year-old black guy from New York and I'm this younger, Jewish-Canadian white guy who's never been to prison except to visit Darius. We don't have a lot in common. For many reasons, he's not the kind of person I'd probably be friends with in the non-filmmaking world.
I had started off with writing letters to him. We exchanged over a hundred letters before I met him in person. That's where we built up the trust. I started off writing in a very exact way that I thought someone with Asperger's would respond well to. I wrote very short sentences. Nothing emotional. Nothing personal. It was, "Dear Darius, In reference to your April 4, 2013 letter I have secured the following documents. Here are the answers to your questions." One, two, three.
"He was so normal. Shockingly normal. I almost felt like, 'Is this the guy?'"
He would start asking me personal questions like, "Do you have a girlfriend?" And "Will this movie make more than a million dollars?" I started to explain how the industry works and the difference between a commercial film and an independent film. That required writing longer letters where I got somewhat personal. He kind of did the same. After about six months, we decided to meet. Or, I should say, I decided to meet because he wasn't going anywhere. He was in jail. I flew to New York and visited him at Rikers.
NFS: What was your first meeting like?
He was so normal. Shockingly normal. I almost felt like, "Is this the guy?" He was a regular guy who'd be talking to an interested filmmaker. He told me I was like the 28th filmmaker to approach him but the only one to actually end up making a movie. He has this history of people approaching him and getting him to sign stuff and then never getting a film made.
NFS: How long was it from conception of the idea to starting to shoot to finishing, and what was your process?
The fall of 2012 is when I learned about him. I did all this research and I actually flew to New York and met with a woman named Jude Domski, who has been friends with Darius since she wrote a play about him called "Boy Steals Train." She told me what it's like to deal with Darius. How to visit him in jail. How to write him a letter. How to send him packages. I've never corresponded with a felon. I didn't know how it works.
"The more you know and can do yourself, the less you have to compromise with someone else's vision or go through the frustration of translating your vision to them."
The business editor of the New York Times actually owns Darius's story rights. He did a few really good stories on Darius in the early 2000s, but now it’s been almost 20 years and he's still been sitting on these rights, not doing anything with them. I had to jump through a whole bunch of legal hoops to get him to sign a document saying that he won't sue me for making the movie.
Once that was ironed out, I met with Darius in jail and started filming in April 2013, until April 2014. During that year— Christmas 201, on Christmas Eve—Darius was released from prison. I had almost a whole month to film with him in New York.
Then I went back to LA. He went back to jail. He got out again. Went back to jail. Got out again. Went back to jail. Finally, the end of the movie was in August and September of 2015, when he finally got out for the last time. That's when I filmed him going back to North Carolina to be reunited with his mother, who he hadn't seen in years. So the whole process until then was about three years. [Editor’s note: To avoid a “spoiler” before you’ve probably had a chance to see the film, we have cut a portion about what happens at the end of the film.]
NFS: Most documentaries change over time from their original concepts as real life reveals itself. Did that happen in your process?
Irving: Yeah, I knew that I wanted to go deep. I didn't want to make [Darius] into this nut job that should be laughed at and locked up, but to really examine more closely the emotional nuances that drive him to commit these crimes.
Once we had a very, very, very rough cut, and I could see how people were responding emotionally to Darius, the tragedy of his story, that's when I realized the focus shouldn't be about his escapades. My earlier cut was much longer and had more summaries of how he actually got the trains and the buses. Some of the stories are kind of funny.
"At the end of the day, a movie is just a movie if all it does is entertain. If it gets people to get involved with social activism and to actually do something to pass legislation—or, on a personal level with Darius, to advocate for him and help him—then the film is so much more."
I found if I replaced those with more emotional moments and more of the critique of the criminal justice system, people got more fired up. They got more sympathetic towards him. At the end of the day, a movie is just a movie if all it does is entertain. If it gets people to get involved with social activism and to actually do something to pass legislation—or, on a personal level with Darius, to advocate for him and help him—then the film is so much more. It's a vehicle for social change and that's why a lot of documentary filmmakers, like myself, do this—because it's so much more rewarding than making people laugh or making money.
NFS: I read that you used to be a reality TV cameraman. How is making a doc is different than making reality TV?
Irving: For me, personally, it was different because I was a cameraman and not the director of the show. It was cool to have my name on the credits of a show that had two million viewers every week, but I was just a cog in the wheel.
As a way of production, there’s just so much manipulation and staging going on in reality TV. The producers telling the characters what to say, how to say it. I think even if viewers outside the industry understand that there's a little of that going on, it was even more than I thought. It was feeding them lines: "Can you cry again? Can we get you doing that again? Can you take another drink of that champagne? Act a little more upset." Things that made me cringe. You get used to it after a while. When you see the show on TV, you realize why they have to do that— so there's a dramatic moment right before the commercial. They [need to] have something for the teaser and the trailer. There [needs to be an] arc to the story emotionally.
"What I like about making a documentary is that I can keep filming until I get something real. I can just wait until I get tears naturally, because life is dramatic if you wait long enough."
You can't really do that in a documentary. There’s a different standard. Audiences are less forgiving. If you watch a documentary and it looks really staged, or people have found out it's staged, you're going to lose credibility.
What I like about making a documentary is that I can keep filming until I get something real. I have don't have to say, "I have a deadline of Wednesday to deliver Episode 4, Season 3. We need some tears." I can just wait until I get tears naturally, because life is dramatic if you wait long enough.
NFS: Off the Rails is your first feature doc, right?
Irving: Yeah. I haven't even been to a film festival in my life.
NFS: Wow! You’re in for a treat. Do you have any advice for others who are even earlier in their filmmaking process?
Irving: I would say to filmmakers: as great as it is to delegate and specialize in things, you just want to learn as much as you can about everything so that you don't need as much money and you don't have to wait on other people to get things done for you.
"In my eight years of living in LA and working in the industry, I can't remember a single time when anyone ever referenced a film journal article. 'Did you see that piece about neo-realism and post-structuralism by Professor So-And-So?' It never happens."
I used to be a film scholar. I knew very little about filmmaking itself. Now, I'm actually making films. When I was a PhD student, we were kind of snobs. We thought filmmakers were like plumbers. They plug in lights and they write scripts and they carry heavy bags, but they're not really smart. Now I've done a complete 180. Now I see film scholars to be so irrelevant to the film industry.
In my eight years of living in LA and working in the industry, I can't remember a single time when anyone ever referenced a film journal article. "Did you see that piece about neo-realism and post-structuralism by Professor So-And-So?" It never happens.
My main point is that I'm in this position now where actually I've become an expert in a lot of the technical stuff of cinematography and editing; I know a lot about lenses and cameras and sensors. I have been able to do pretty much every step of the filmmaking process myself. I didn't have to hire a producer or an editor or any of these people, at least at the beginning. The more you know and can do yourself, the less you have to compromise with someone else's vision or go through the frustration of translating your vision to them.