Brattleboro filmmaker Morgan Faust had a plane ticket to Ohio last month to witness the lethal injection of a condemned man. But seven days before the scheduled November 15 execution, Governor Bob Taft granted a reprieve pending DNA tests. Unless John Spirko is exonerated by the results, his new date with destiny will be January 19.
Spirko's fate is entwined with the documentary that 27-year-old Faust has been shooting over the past year. Till Death Do Us Part isn't about capital punishment, however. It tackles a tougher subject: love.
"The film is an intimate portrait of a woman named Tracy who met and married a guy on death row since 1984," Faust explains. "They met through a website for pen pals. Spirko was convicted of kidnapping and killing a postmistress in Elgin, a tiny Ohio town of 61 people. He still claims innocence."
After corresponding for six months, Spirko and Tracy -- a 41-year-old single mother with three children -- decided they were soul mates. When they married a year ago, Faust was there. "I have the wedding on camera," she says. "They couldn't do it in Ohio. She had a proxy ceremony in Texas, one of the few states where that's legal."
Faust had been thinking about the film's subject matter for about four years prior to discovering this real-life drama. "I felt it could spark some interesting discussions," she notes. "I thought about what defines love. I read Shakespeare and watched Woody Allen films."
She also read Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song and a book called Women Who Love Men Who Kill. Faust who found Tracy through a chatroom for relatives of inmates, began talking with sixtysomething Spirko by phone but has since seen him in person. "John is thin, with piercing blue eyes and gray hair," she recalls. "In the press, he's been compared to Nick Nolte. John's the first to admit to being a bad guy. He has a record of convictions, even one for a previous murder, but I don't think he committed this crime."
Apparently, others agree. Spirko has become something of a regional cause celèbre. He even launched a website that details his complicated case at http://www.johnspirko.com.
Although forbidden to film in the prison, Faust's footage includes shots of the happy couple at his clemency hearing. To maintain balance, she also has had telephone conversations with the victim's family.
"I'm working at a totally different rhythm than I'm used to," Faust points out. "Normally, I have more control over the process. Now, it's unpredictable and I have to go with the flow. This has been an incredible education."
Her cinematic learning curve began almost a decade ago. At age 19, she spent a summer working for an animation company in her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts. After Faust graduated from Dartmouth College as a history major in 2000, an internship with documentarian Errol Morris (The Fog of War) beckoned. He was doing a weekly half-hour PBS interview show called "First Person" that gave her an opportunity to master the tricks of the trade.
When that gig ended in 2001, Faust's first solo effort concerned a strange-but-true, early-19th-century tale. Her 53-minute The Treasure of Thomas Beale centers on a prospector who found gold and silver deposits 100 miles north of Santa Fe in 1821. En route back to the East Coast, he and his 20-man posse traded the ore for jewels in St. Louis to lighten the load.
After burying the loot under a rock somewhere in their native Virginia, they set out for one more trip West, but were never heard from again. Beale reportedly left behind a coded document that many treasure hunters have tried to decipher over the 184 years since.
For six months this year, Faust was a filmmaker-in-residence at Boston's WGBH which came with a $2400 stipend and support for her current project. In October, she moved to Vermont to be with her boyfriend.
Till Death Do Us Part, which will probably end up costing at least $175,000, is still a work in progress. Should the DNA fail to prove Spirko's innocence, she'll return to Ohio in three weeks to be in the media tent outside the prison when his sentence is carried out.
"I'll also spend more time with Tracy," she says. "I'm waiting for it all to unfold."