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The Creators Of ‘The Octopus Murders’ Are Still In Its Grasp

Christian Hansen sitting at his desk in The Octopus Murders

On Aug. 10, 1991, a journalist named Danny Casolaro was found dead in a hotel room in Martinsburg, W.Va. His death was officially ruled a suicide, but many of Casolaro's friends and family, as well as a community of journalists and conspiracy enthusiasts, have maintained for many years that Casolaro was murdered.

Before his death, Casolaro had spent years working on an explosive story. It started out as an investigation into a contract dispute between a software company called Inslaw and the Department Of Justice, but Casolaro soon found himself unraveling a tale of state-sponsored murder, drug running, and arms dealing that touched on everything from the Iran Contra affair to the October Surprise to, yes, even the JFK assassination. Casolaro wanted to turn this story into a book called The Octopus, and was in the process of writing it when he died. He had told friends and family that he was going to Martinsburg to meet a source.

Christian Hansen, a photographer who bears an eerie resemblance to Casolaro, got interested in Casolaro's death and The Octopus about a decade ago. This month, he and his childhood friend, the filmmaker Zach Treitz, released a four-part documentary on Netflix called The Octopus Murders. The documentary attempts to both pick up the reporting trails that Casolaro left behind, and determine, once and for all, how he died. It's one of the best documentaries I've seen in some time, and it grapples with conspiracies, the American intelligence apparatus, and thorny journalistic questions in a refreshingly rigorous and honest way.

This week, I talked to Hansen and Treitz about their project, investigative journalism, the maddening mythology of the CIA, where conspiracies come from, and lots more. Our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity, is below.

So you got the documentary out there and maybe reached some level of closure with this project. I'm curious now about what your relationships to the story currently are. Like, are you normal again? 

Zach Treitz: Sorry, when were we not normal? We've always been normal. The picture of normalcy.

I mean, you guys are the most normal people in that documentary, I guess. So that's good.

Christian Hansen: I was really planning on chilling pretty hard. But we're getting all these pretty interesting leads coming in that we're in the process of vetting before we proceed further. And, you know, I also still want to finish [Danny Casolaro's] book. I think I've got enough research done, but Zach wants to keep making films exploring this world, and I want to as well, so I can't really do both. I don't know, I think we're still in it. What is the short answer? We're still in it.

ZT: Yeah, I mean we chilled out a little bit over the last couple of weeks, in terms of insane hours and frantic research kind of stuff. Because we, counter to how most documentaries should be made, were updating information right up to the end, trying to push it further. I don't know if anybody on our production or executive team knew you're not supposed to do that. You're supposed to kind of set an end date, but we were still vetting things, adding new facts in there, trying to just push it as far as we possibly could. That was kind of every day for three years.

CH: Someone we talked to yesterday compared it to spelunking, but it's also sort of like snorkeling. Toward the end, our legal team would ask me to fact-check things, and so I'd dive in, and I'm like, "Oh, yeah, actually, how does this connect to this? And how do I corroborate that?" So I put on the snorkel, I dive down, and then you inevitably just find all these other connections and all these other things, and like a whole other idea for another documentary or film. It's hard to keep the blinders on, because there's so much kind of uncharted territory at this point,

ZT: Wait, snorkel or scuba?

CH: I think snorkel, or maybe skin diving, because you like, dive down. And then you're like, cool. Maybe you come back up and grab the scuba gear and you're like, "I gotta really check this out."

In terms of receiving new leads after the documentary comes out, is any part of that a little bit scary to you? Because so much of this film is about The Octopus conspiracy, but also what it did to Danny and how you can get sucked into these things and have a hard time getting out. How do you think about that now, when this has come out, and you feel like you're still in it? Is that at all frightening?

CH: I don't want to get too into detail on this, but I woke up at six in the morning and looked at my phone and I had a text that rattled me. So, you know, I don't know. I think it's scary. When you think about it, it's scarier now than before, for sure.

ZT: Yeah. It's kind of weird. I think there's some aspect of like, when we were doing it, we were really private about what we were up to. I think some people go through these documentaries and everybody knows they're making a documentary, but we tried to be pretty low-key about making it. Because we didn't know what it was going to be in the end. And now that it's out, it's like, cool, it's out in the sunlight, we're done, nobody touch us. Because you can't change it. Now it's done, you know? But then there's a kind of like, "Oh, God, our names are involved with this, and our faces are out there, our voices are out there." I just feel it brings it into a different level of weirdness than it was when we were just on our own. I don't know how to describe it. The fear or weirdness of it has changed into a new gear.

I was curious about the development of this project. Christian, you got interested in Danny's story over a decade ago. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you went from just being interested in this story to releasing a documentary. How did that play out for you?

CH: Well, I, I mean, I'm very fortunate. I had a very well-known and well-respected literary agent who has bought a bunch of photographs from me. So when I started, you start just kind of like, poking at it. And then you start, you know, reading and it just progresses. I spent about a year reading everything I could about the case itself. And then about this sort of milieu—like I didn't know anything about the October Surprise, I didn't know anything about Iran Contra, I didn't know anything about, you know, these private security companies like Wackenhut. And so I had to familiarize myself with the larger world. And then I got to a certain point where I was like, well, there's nothing else to read, and I still need to know more. The first person I called was this guy, Terry Miller, who's in the documentary. And he's the guy that told Danny about the Inslaw case.

So it's like, I'll start where Danny did, I'll call him. And then he made it very clear to me that he still talked to [Inslaw President] Bill Hamilton, and that Bill Hamilton has continued to investigate this case. And so he put me in touch with Bill, and it is just the exact same trajectory that Danny had. And so then I started talking to Bill, and found this other guy, and then just from there, you know, leapfrog and diving in. And then that also involves finding archival materials from Danny's friends, who had stuff, and then also from archives. And so then I connected with the literary agent back in New York. I wanted to write this as a non-fiction book. Zach, my best friend, I wanted him to make the scripted version of it after the book came out. 

ZT: Christian had a grand design. Neither of those things ever happened, but he had the design and that started it.

Christian was reporting out and researching The Octopus, and I was kind of like weighing in just as a friend who was initially kind of worried, and then intrigued, and kind of like vacillating between those two things and being like, "Christian, I'm not sure how you're doing. You seem like you've been up for several days." And then it went to, "And who are these people you're talking to?" And then it was like, "Damn, there is something, you know, there's something to this." And I was just kind of like a sounding board on that. And then Christian told me that Michael Riconosciuto, who he had been telling me about, was getting out of prison. And I looked at the calendar, and I was just like, you know, whether you make a book, or we made a documentary about this, or whatever, we need to go out there and be there for his release, because you'll regret it forever if you're not. It's just our time and my credit card that is the problem.

CH: Thank you for doing that, by the way, Zach, I don't know if I ever thanked you for putting that trip on your credit card.

ZT: I'll extract it out of you one day, bud. And so we filmed with Michael and we had no plan. We weren't making a documentary. I've never done any investigative journalism before my life, and so it was a very intense day. I've never met anybody like Michael, super interesting guy. But I had no frame of reference for the things he was saying, really. Even though I knew the background of the story, but the specifics he was going into, it was very hard for me to follow. And so we kind of put that aside. And then I think Christian was like, "When I was researching Iran Contra I came across this other story, and maybe we should we look into that? Maybe turn that into a script or something?" And so we were messing around with that, and it wasn't working out, and then Christian was like, "What if we do The Octopus?"

CH: We were at the tennis courts in the Lower East Side. And Zach was just like, "It's too hard." Basically saying no. And so we shook it off. And then I met up with him a week later, And he had begun the initial process of pre-production, and it was like, oh, we are doing this. And it was too hard. I think we found out that it was too hard.

ZT: I was right.

I'm glad you brought up Michael, because one of the things that I admired about the documentary is that you guys did something that I think a lot of investigative journalists are always kind of hesitant to do, which is be pretty upfront about the fact that, you know, sources are very imperfect. And in some cases, depending on what story you're working on, especially a story like this, they can be highly compromised and strange and unreliable. That doesn't always mean that everything they tell you has to be completely written off, but it does mean that you have to be very careful around them. So I'm curious what kind of negotiations you had, either within yourselves or with each other, around questions like: How much are we going to reveal about these people we're talking to? How upfront are we going to be about the times when we did not trust this guy and we felt sort of dodgy around him? 

CH: Also, if you push sources like that too hard, they'll just ghost.

ZT: You end playing an ego game with them, with many of these people, because they—well, I don't even want to psychologize them—but you're playing a game where you can very easily lose them because they don't want to have any pushback. It was a constant negotiation, and I think we're still trying to figure it out. How do you approach sources who have hidden motives and seem unreliable, but have a story to tell and have valuable information? I think the way that we threaded that needle was that the lines between truth and fiction, the figuring out what is real and what is not, is part of the story. And it's part of Danny's process. And we try to take an extremely subjective viewpoint, as just two hopefully unpretentious dudes grappling with this, and you see us grapple with it.

CH: And we study the characters, we find them to be brilliant, fascinating, complicated characters. As much as we're studying what they're telling us, we're studying them, I think.

ZT: And it's difficult because when you're making a film or written piece, or whatever, at the end of the day, you have this concrete thing. We're not Jackson Pollock over here. We have a thing that can be interpreted, but it is the thing. You see the thing, and everybody experiences it the same way, and it seems to be presenting a reality. With us, it gets very squishy in terms of what's real and what's not. And that's, I think, part of why the movie's interesting to watch, because it's an evolving process. I'm not a journalist, never been to journalism school—Christian was trained as a journalist—but for me, I don't really have any investigative journalism credentials on the line. I'm not trying to get a job with some sort of fancy paper. And that gives me a lot of freedom to explore stories that they, their lawyers, their ethics, or whatever won't let them. It's really just my internal compass, as flawed or correct as that is, which just happens to be a lot looser, I think, than some sort of major news organization.

CH: I think you're selling yourself short.

ZT: Sure. I mean, I think I have a strong vision of what I think the story should be, but it just gives us more freedom to tell stories that other people I don't think can touch or want to touch.

CH: We have no credibility to lose. We're not Woodward and Bernstein. We're Joe Schmo and his buddy, the photographer. 

ZT: Through that freedom you get to tell stories that maybe other people are not able to, and there's a value to that. And it's not just like, "Oh, listen to these like liars talk." It's like, there's a value to seeing us grapple with it.

And I think a big part of that, too, is that both of you are presences and characters in the documentary. That was also something that I found really interesting, because I usually have a knee-jerk reaction against writers who insert themselves into the story that they've written. But I thought you guys pulled it off in a way that I found really compelling. I thought it was very well-executed from a visual and aesthetic standpoint, where, Christian, you're kind of playing Danny in a lot of these scenes. So I was also curious about what kind of conversations you guys had about incorporating that element into the documentary, and what sort of give and take there was.

ZT: Sorry, just to clarify, the question is how we came up with the idea of Christian playing Danny?

That, and more broadly, just allowing yourselves to be in the movie.

ZT: I'll just handle the first part of this. I always knew that we were going to be in this movie. I share your distaste for people who make a movie about a subject, and then it's really about themselves. That is so irksome to me, and I fought that every step of the way.

On the other hand, I love essay films. I love personal films when the person's perspective is fascinating. So we were caught between those two things, and I knew that we would be in it because I knew that us picking up Michael 26 years after Danny picked up Michael was an important piece of storytelling that had to be in there. And I will say that our producers, say what you will about, you know, wily producers, but they were like, Guys, this is good, but where are you all? Like, where are you in the movie? And why is that not a frame that we're using on a bigger scale here, because what's interesting about this is you looking at Christian looking at Danny. They told us that this very subjective part of the movie is actually one of the most interesting parts for an audience. And I sort of fought it for a little while.

CH: Our editors fought it. We fought it. 

ZT: But then I had this monologue ready, and it became what you hear at the beginning of the film, and it frames it. I think [our producers] were right, in terms of framing it upfront as an investigation by a couple of dudes, like a couple of bros. That is appropriately disarming, because we're not bringing any pretense to this subject matter. We're, I hope, pretty humbled in front of it. There's a way you can look at this whole thing and it's like, a vanity project where I'm writing an essay, like a film message, and it's about my friend, Christian, and then he's gonna play Danny and this is gonna launch a media empire for us where we're acting. That really is not where we came from. It was all just out of necessity, right? And the inspiration for Christian playing Danny was seeing people talk to Christian, people who knew Danny, and all these people were just standing there in front of Christian, and it was like they were looking at a ghost. And it's so powerful. You're just like, how could I not use it? 

Another thing that I liked about this movie is I thought it did a good job of heading off some of the more annoying reactions that conspiracy skeptics can have to stories like this, where they'll basically watch something like this and say, Well, you didn't actually connect all the dots of The Octopus, and you didn't convince me that George Bush was one of these eight guys, and so therefore, you know, this is all bullshit. And I thought that the way you guys framed and told this story made a very compelling case that, even if you view this as a huge skeptic, it's still very hard to come away from it thinking that this isn't something that matters, and not just in terms of it being about a tragic death, but that it matters in a way that deserves investigation. So I'm curious, now that you've had some time to think about things after the movie has come out, what matters about this story? What is the thing that really hooked you and made you think, "I want to keep looking into this," even as you were being skeptical of it.

CH: I would highlight a small brick in the larger wall of this answer. It was widely accepted within the small community of people who studied the story that Danny Casolaro was a dabbler in journalism. He was not a serious player. People saw Danny as basically a kook. And he wasn't. I think we did a pretty good job showing that he had a good sense of what a great story is, and he was able to develop sources and gain people's trust. To me that's what a good journalist is, and I think that's what he was. That's one thing that I really wanted to correct the record on, because it just sucks that the guy died like that, and then to have people misunderstand him and think that he was a silly person, a frivolous silly person.

ZT: To augment that, I think that people who know the story and know the various parts of it, even beyond Danny's story, have come to us after they saw the final thing and been like, Thank you for making it intelligible. A lot of the people in the movie only knew little parts of it, you know? And it's like, here it is. Here's what Danny was working on. I mean, we couldn't capture every single thing, but here's what Danny was working on, and here it is in a somewhat coherent manner. Danny was onto, I think, a really interesting story, or fascinating story. I think that he struggled as much as we did to try to put it together and make it understandable and coherent. And I don't fault him or anybody for that. It's a really complicated web. There was a mythos around this of like, that's just some kooky, conspiracy nonsense, you know? It's interesting, but it's conspiracy nonsense. But, no. It's really just about of a series of crimes. That's essentially what this story is about: a series of crimes. And the big question mark is like, is the last crime Danny Casolaro's death? 

I think there's also a world that, this is gonna sound conspiratorial, but I think there's a world that also wants Danny's story to be unintelligible, and to be weird, and seem like a myth and a ghost story—something that's supernatural or strange, because reckoning with some of the stories that he was telling is not beneficial to other people. That's not to say that he was right about everything, and not to say that we're right about everything, but you can be right about just little parts of this thing, and it's still totally fucked and mind-blowing.

I'm glad you brought up sort of the mythology and fog that is around this story. The big scene that stuck out in my head, Christian, is one where I think you're just by yourself in a parking lot, maybe, and you're just talking to the camera, and you're saying, "Everyone involved in this is insane. Like, everyone's insane." I thought that was really cool to put in the movie, and it felt very cathartic. It reminded me of, I don't know if you guys read Tom O'Neill's book [Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties] about the Manson murders and the CIA.

ZT: It's what we would call a foundational text.

Yeah. And I think both this documentary and that book made me come away with the idea that like, what we often interpret as big conspiracies are not necessarily the result of a shadowy cabal or The Octopus pulling the strings, but of, you know, the CIA for three, four decades, contracting and employing some of the craziest and most dangerous people around, and then cutting those people loose. And over the next, you know, decade or two, those people come into contact with other people and they drive those people crazy. And these sorts of things just snowball, and you can always connect one person to the next person, to the next person.

ZT: Always. And you can always distance yourself by being like, What? Show me the pay stub! They didn't work for the CIA. They're a fucking drug dealer. 

CH: You mean to tell me Jolly West scrambled that guy's brain? That's insane!

Do you guys find that to be a satisfying conclusion for a viewer of this documentary to reach? That, you know, this is just sort of one piece in a big constellation of examples of the CIA getting a little loose with it for a long time and sort of seeding all of these crazy stories and crazy people out in the world, and that's kind of where conspiracies come from. 

ZT: Conspiracies, I think, come from many different places. But we also just tried to really focus on the things that we're focusing on. And we're not making a treatise about how conspiracies work, or an academic text, or a broad generalization. We just tried to approach the story on the story's own terms. We don't have master theories about how conspiracies work or anything like that. But I think that analysis is generally right. For me, I can see how intelligence operations and intelligence operators use the muddying of the waters as an important component of the operation. And in my mind, when I read Tom O'Neill, and when I watched our movie, or interact with the characters in our movie, it's not like there's a master plan. It's like, improvisation. It's a dance that's improvised.

It's like, Oh, this thing didn't work out? I've got three backups. Our informant just killed somebody? Oops, cut them off, send them to jail, let's move on. It's smart. That's what I would do if I was in this business. If I had an objective, whatever the objective is, making money or ending communism, it's a really smart way of going about your business and having it not be able to be traced back to you. It's brilliant. It's hard to do, and it makes it hard for us to track these origin stories down. And when we do, you're always left with doubt. You're always wondering, did you get it? And that is right where they want you. There's a certain point where it's like, is making this movie essentially doing the job for them? It's almost like, Oh, you're a little confused? You're wondering about Philip Arthur Thompson, and whether he was a serial killer that was also working for the CIA and the FBI? I guess you'll never know. But I'd lock your doors tonight! It helps them if they're seen as scary, if they're seen as brilliant and too smart for you to fuck with.

CH: It's all good branding.

I thought about that a lot in relation to Robert Booth Nichols. I think you did a good job of capturing who he was. And the fact that, you know, he seemed very committed to wanting people to see him as this cigarette-smoking, handsome man in a suit, talking to you from the shadows. And it's funny when you encounter people like that, because you start to wonder: He's clearly caked himself in layers of myth about what the CIA and the intelligence agencies are, but it's like, where does he get his cues from? Who's teaching him the myth? Is he just coming up with this? Or is it directed? I think what you said, Zach, is probably close to the answer: It's like improv. All these guys are just kind of riffing off their own understanding of who they are and the system they fit into.

CH: Another important thing I keep pointing out is that now Robert Booth Nichols and Michael Riconosciuto are like Reddit famous. But when Danny was talking to him, it was a voice on the other end of a phone. He didn't know what Michael looked like until he went out there and met him in jail. And Robert Booth Nichols was the same. He was just a voice. Nobody knew these people. They lived in real-life underworld, and Danny was interacting with them.

ZT: One thing that's cool, and what we don't really capture in the movie, but you see in Danny's notes, is that he was always writing to libraries and getting articles sent to him.

CH: He's writing to the Sacramento Bee, he's writing to the Indio Daily News, and having to pay them to mail him photocopies from their archives of these different articles.

ZT: He's putting this tableau together in a pre-internet era, through the mail and faxes. That would be a really cool part of the book, just seeing the process itself. It ain't easy.

The other thing is like, Danny was not a trained investigative journalist. Other journalists he was friends with, he was friends with a lot of journalists, they also would say like he was naive, you know. He had never tangoed with these kinds of people before. Not many people have. And so he had a certain bravado about it, I think, that was dangerous. 

Now that the movie is out and you've got some distance—

CH: Some distance. Michael Riconosciuto just texted me.

That was gonna kind of be my next question. Now that you've seen what you've put out, are there people or storylines that you maybe wish had been in the movie more, that now you want to go tackle? What directions are you finding yourselves being pulled in now?

ZT: It is tough, because when we were making it, it just kept on dragging out for so long. So it's so hard to tell the story and get the materials and get them in a way that an audience member or even our producers can understand. It was just like, "All right, like when it's done, like, put that baby to rest, like, finally it's over." And there was about a half a day of that feeling. And then it was people coming out of the woodwork.

Some people criticized us for the ending, because they say it was too open-ended. The ending was meant to be an example, a very pointed example, of what it feels like to be in this story, which is to be in a never-ending ecosystem. This is what it feels like. You think that you've got it, you think you've moved on, and there's always like one more thing. Which is emblematic of our process throughout this project. We were always thinking, if we just had this piece of information, we will be able to finish this thing. And even when you think you've got it, there's always one more thing. And that's the problem. You are left with this feeling, that I have every day, which is like, I wish we'd gotten that in the movie. I wish we had found that person. I wish that person hadn't died. How do we find their relatives? And even stuff that we've covered, even things that I don't think I'll ever revisit if we made 1,000 of these things, I'm still interested in. I still want to know, you know? How did that person actually know John Nichols? Where did they come from? 

CH: I love working with Zach and the rest of our team. And, I don't know, I don't want to go back to being a newspaper photographer. I want to keep investigating. So that's kind of where I'm at, and I don't want to say what we are talking about in terms of where we're gonna go next, but I would say if you like Chaos, you might love the next thing we do. 

OK, awesome. I'm locked in.

CH: Not that we're doing anything specifically with Tom, but mind control is an interesting subject, I think.

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