In a soundproof room on the south side of Madison, former Green Bay police detective Randy Winkler is talking about murder. In this case, what may be the most famous murder in Green Bay history.
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.
It took police nearly three years to make an arrest in the brutal crime, and six co-workers ended up sentenced to life in prison, convicted of a conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. But in 2001 a federal judge exonerated one of the men, who claimed he was wrongly convicted, and now the other five are looking to go free as well.
Winkler was being interviewed at Tilt Media studio about the case for a new, as-yet-untitled documentary by filmmaker and Memorial High graduate Michael Neelsen. It might seem like a surprisingly heavy subject for Neelsen, whose first feature-length documentary “Last Day at Lambeau” (which premiered at the 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival) followed Brett Favre’s messy divorce from the Green Bay Packers.
But it was a story that Neelsen says he couldn’t resist.
“It’s a big step up, and the stakes are higher,” Neelsen said during a break from filming. “I knew that whatever my next project was, I felt like I had to be as passionate about the subject as I was about making the film.”
At first, Neelsen wasn’t sure he would have as much passion for this subject as he did for the Packers (“There’s none of me in this film.”) He was originally approached by the authors of a book on the case — which argues that the convicted co-workers were wrongfully accused — asking if he wanted to make a companion film.
Neelsen said he wasn’t interested in making a film that supported a cause. But as he looked into the details in the case, he got intrigued by how, nearly 20 years later, there are still so many competing, conflicting accounts of what happened.
“I’m not interesting in doing advocacy stuff,” Neelsen said. “The interesting thing to me is the discrepancies, rather than choosing who’s right.”
Neelsen said he was influenced by documentaries like 2012’s “The Imposter” and especially the films of UW grad Errol Morris, like “Standard Operating Procedure” and “The Thin Blue Line,” which use conflicting accounts in order to reach a truth that even the subjects aren’t entirely aware of.
Neelsen is also borrowing one of Morris’ favorite interviewing devices, the Interrotron, which allows the subject to maintain eye contact with the filmmaker while also looking directly into the camera. Neelsen and his crew rigged a “poor man’s Interrotron” out of mirrors, much like a submarine periscope, so that when Winkler speaks, he’s looking directly at Neelsen’s face.
While Neelsen did about 30 one-hour interviews for “Last Day at Lambeau,” the interviews for this film require much more detail; he spent two full days interviewing Winkler, and another two interviewing Mike Piaskowski, the convicted co-worker who was exonerated in 2001.
When all the interviews are done, Neelsen and his director of photography will sketch out storyboards of the narrative visuals that will work with the interview footage to tell the story. Neelsen said he’s going for a noir-ish feel – in the Winkler interviews, a trench coat and fedora are visible on a coat rack behind him.
Neelsen said he’s shooting to get the film, financed by StoryFirst Media production company, finished in time to enter it in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. One thing he’s noticed is that, even though the crime was over 20 years old, his interview subjects bring such detail to their accounts that you would swear it happened yesterday.
“When something becomes a huge defining part of your life, it’s burned in there.”