After “Making a Murderer,” “My Favorite Murder” and seemingly a million other books, documentaries and podcasts, Michael Neelsen admits even he cringes a little when he hears the phrase “true crime.”
But for the last five years, Neelsen has been working on a feature-length documentary, “Beyond Human Nature,” about a notorious Green Bay murder.
It’s been a long road for Neelsen, the Madison filmmaker who previously made a very different Green Bay documentary, “Last Day at Lambeau,” about Brett Favre’s acrimonious departure from the Green Bay Packers. Neelsen began doing on-camera interviews for "Beyond Human Nature" in 2014.
“With ‘Last Day at Lambeau,’ I tried to make a sports film that non-sports people could enjoy,” Neelsen said. “I’m trying to make this film a true crime film that non-true crime fans can enjoy.”
On Nov. 21, 1992, the body of Tom Monfils was found at the paper mill where he worked. He had been beaten and dropped into a giant vat full of wood pulp and water, suffocated in a liquid the consistency of cottage cheese. A 45-pound weight was tied around his neck.
Three years later, police arrested six of his co-workers, who were eventually convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. But a federal judge exonerated one of the men in 2001, and the other five are still seeking to go free, claiming they were wrongly convicted. To this day, the question of what happened at that paper mill has divided Green Bay. Attorneys for the five convicted men have argued that another person may have been responsible, or that Monfils may have drowned himself in the vat.
Last week, Neelsen and his crew were shooting dramatic reenactments in and around Madison to use in the film, scenes set in courthouses and living rooms. In an interview, Neelsen said he was glad to be finally committing these scenes to film after planning them for years.
“It feels a little bit like we’ve done this already, because we’ve had these shots in our minds for so long,” he said. “To see it come together is very cool and feels very good.”
The film is being produced by Neelsen’s father, Dave Neelsen, and their production company, StoryFirst Media. The company had used crowdfunding and raised about two-thirds of the $60,000 they requested to finish production of the film. Neelsen said he adjusted the shooting accordingly. Now the company is asking for $50,000 for post-production costs, aiming to have the film ready to screen in 2020.
The crew for “Beyond Human Nature” is almost entirely made of people who either live in Wisconsin or have some personal connection to the state. Neelsen said his overriding emotion is one of gratitude that the team has stuck with the project for so long.
“I definitely feel humbled by how many people have put in triple the time for half the pay. It’s been a bigger project than anyone thought they were biting off, and everybody has been terrific at finding a reason to see this through.”
Unlike some other true-crime documentaries like “Making a Murderer,” Neelsen doesn’t intend “Beyond Human Nature” to “solve” the Tom Monfils case or make an argument for either one side or the other. Instead, he intends to make a film with a more universal appeal about the nature of homicide investigations, especially when testimony can be so contradictory.
“In order to keep my insanity after doing this for so long, I think about Texans watching this in 2050,” he said. “If you’re putting five to seven years of work into something, ideally you don’t want it to feel stale in three years. It should say something about everybody.”