If you’ve ever lived in a metropolitan area, you’ve had the chance to ride the subway. Public transportation is a mundane necessity of modern city life affecting the lives of millions, yet we rarely pay attention to it. For Darius McCollum, however, the New York City Public Transit System is everything.
For those who aren’t familiar with his unique story, Darius is a renowned train thief who’s been arrested a plethora of times for taking control of trains and buses throughout New York City. The unique part of it all is he doesn’t deviate from the assigned schedule once he apprehends a vehicle.
Director Adam Irving came across this story and was compelled enough to make a documentary entitled Off The Rails, which has just premiered worldwide and is beginning its tour of the film festival circuit this season. So far the film has been played at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina (where it premiered), The Sarasota Film Festival and the RiverRun Film Festival. The film will also appear at the Newport Beach Film Festival and Hot Docs Canadian Documentary Film Festival in Toronto, among others.
We had a chance to sit down with the director and talk about the film, the process of shooting and working with Darius, and the low profile social issue it sheds light on.
What made you so interested in this specific issue?
I used to live in New York and I took a subway every day, so the idea of an impostor driving the train interested me. Also, I’ve been on the subway in 51 cities around the world. I’m interested in subway systems and that sort of thing. I don’t know, just in general I’m interested in people that are impostors, like that movie Catch Me If You Can. I read about [Darius] on Wikipedia, about how this guy with Aspergers went to prison for impersonating transit workers, and I thought, “Wow! That would make a great documentary.” It had the crime element, it had the mental health element, the impostor element, it had a lot of things going that I thought made it a little more interesting than your average documentary that’s just about global warming or the war in Syria, which is just kind of one note.
Did you expect the film to get the support from the mental health awareness community that it has so far?
I figured people would get behind it. It’s still very early on, the film’s only been out for a week really and beginning its festival run, so we’ve yet to see the true response. Just yesterday, I got invited to screen the film at this film festival that specializes in films about people with disabilities. The second screening I had in North Carolina a few days ago was sponsored by an organization that helps people with autism. I’m definitely feeling in terms of advocacy the groups are very interested.
That’s cool because it doesn’t sound like making a statement was in the forefront of the film’s design. It’s great to see how this overlooked issue is now getting some shine through your documentary.
Yeah, absolutely. People email me like, “I liked your movie, when is it coming to my city, how can I tell me friends about it?” It’s almost always, “I saw your movie, I was touched by it, I really wanna help Darius, how can I send him a book or clothes or how can I contact his lawyer or his therapist?”
Have you been in contact with Darius since filming of the documentary?
I spoke with him yesterday. He calls me every day. He considers me his best friend. We’re definitely close. I know everything that’s going on in his life. The truth is he’s in jail so it’s not like there’s anything exciting going on in the day to day so most of our phone calls are about me and the film and the press he’s getting. He does tell me what’s actually going on with his legal case because he’s in jail waiting to be sentenced; he doesn’t know how many years he’s going to get for this last crime. The thing they’re working on now is trying to get him into mental health court instead of criminal court, this way instead of getting a 10 year sentence in a maximum security prison he would get one year mandatory therapy on the outside so he won’t have to be incarcerated. So far that request was rejected during the last court case. They do have one more chance to appeal, but it doesn’t look good.
That’s not good. You worked with him closely, would describe him as a malicious individual who would need to be incarcerated?
Nope, nope, he’s non-violent and he’s never damaged any property. Those are the two reasons you would want to keep someone locked up—because they’re a threat to people and they’re a threat to property. Darius is neither, so it doesn’t make sense. You’ve seen the movie, they’re wasting all this money putting him in a place that isn’t going to make him any less likely to do it again. He needs therapy, not punishment.
Have you been involved in the incarceration-over-treatment dilemma at all before the film, or was this something that came along with you telling this particular story?
It wasn’t something I was interested in or aware of and to be perfectly honest even though I consider myself a pretty liberal person with social issues and that kind of thing, before I met Darius my knowledge of the prison system, I knew it was pretty messed up, but I figured if someone commits the crime, they should do the time. It’s pretty clear but I didn’t realize until I met Darius how the prison system sets people up to fail. When they let them out, like Darius last time they let him out, they have no money, no job and who’s going to hire a felon? He cant even leave New York to be with his family because he’s on parole and they restrict him to the one place he shouldn’t be, which is New York City where the trains and the buses are, so they pretty much set him up to go back. His only option for food and shelter is to do what he does best, which is get in the transit system where he then gets caught, gets arrested and goes back to jail, where he can get his needs of a room and board met. So before I met Darius I didn’t understand that whole concept of the revolving door. My attitude was you do a crime, you do the time, and then when you get out just like everyone else you get a job, you work hard, you get a family, you buy a home—the “American Dream.” I didn’t realize it’s pretty much impossible once you have your first felony and getting out with no tools to survive in the real world. By having Darius as that example, my whole view on the American justice system was changed.
What was it like working with Darius?
It was hard at times. Darius can be a little stubborn.
Is that something you’ve learned comes with Aspergers or is that Darius himself?
People on the autism spectrum tend to really like structure and routine. Because they’re so rigid with rules, if you break any of the rules there’s a big problem. Let’s say you’re with a kid that has Aspergers and every day at 5 o’clock you take him to go get a slice of pizza and then one day you say, “Hey, we can’t go today because the car’s not starting,” that kid will go nuts. They’ll be like, “We have to go at five! We always go at five!” That’s why Darius likes trains. They run on a schedule. They’re supposed to run the same lines at the same times. So when that schedule is changed, that’s when people on the spectrum can be difficult to work with. I knew a little bit about Aspergers before. I knew they had some trouble socially, but Darius is definitely on the more mild end. I’ve even talked with some psychiatrists and psychologists that don’t even believe Darius has Aspergers but other things like personality disorder and other things that may account for his behavior which shows just how much grey area there is in psychological diagnosis.
It sounds like that grey area may be what’s hindering him from beating his case.
I think that’s part of it. A friend of mine that’s a psychologist believes the reason they’re not really getting anywhere with his criminal case by using Aspergers as an excuse is because there are so many people that have Aspergers that love trains that do not steal them. It’s not an excuse for stealing the vehicle. There’s obviously other mental health issues that are going on, unrelated to the Aspergers, and they’re not focusing on that and they should be, because that’s really the root cause. If they say, “Well the Aspergers, that’s why he’s doing it,” then anyone with Aspergers can go around and do whatever they want and get away with it. People with Aspergers do know the difference between right and wrong, that’s why it’s generally not considered mental illness from the criminal perspective, so it’s kind of tricky.
Is there some flat out lack of diagnosis going on?
There is, and I would say the lack of diagnosis is mostly tied to Darius being Black. I learned this from interviewing people for the documentary. They said because Darius grew up in Queens in the 70s and 80s as an African-American, in a fairly working class community, no one knew what Aspergers was. He went to school and dealt with social workers and teachers that were not on the cutting edge. These were communities that were not getting the funding and the services to properly diagnosis people like Darius. They thought he was a troubled kid or had behavioral problems and they thought he needed to be punished. If he was a white kid in the suburbs at that time, they would have known right away that Darius had Aspergers and he wasn’t acting out. They would have known he just saw the world differently and that he needed structure. He needed his love of trains to be embraced in a legal way and not treated as this escape from reality. That’s kind of part one of where race comes in and of course, part two is with the criminal justice system. Being sentenced by white judges, white parole officers and so forth he isn’t getting treated the same way he would if he was just a skinny kid from the suburbs who was really into trains.
Do you think all of this is why he could never get that job with the MTA?
I don’t know if that’s it though. He embarrassed the MTA with his actions so I think the last thing they want to do is give him a job. They’re mad at him. I don’t know if you know this but they are trying to sue him to get money from him that he may be getting for the Julia Roberts movie.
Hold on, the Julia Roberts movie?
So there’s a Hollywood production company doing a film on Darius’ life and they have cast Julia Roberts as the role of Sally Butler, Darius’ lawyer. They haven’t cast Darius or hired a director yet but the film is fully financed as of a month ago and it’s going to start filming in the fall. It’s going to be a full movie that will focus on the courtroom drama instead of his entire life. In the state of New York there’s a law called the Son of Sam law, named after the famous Son of Sam serial killer that Spike Lee did a movie about, and this law states a criminal in New York isn’t allowed to profit financially from their crimes through any movie, TV show, book, play, etc. Because Darius is going to get some money from the movie, the MTA is trying to take that from him through this law. Not only is the MTA not giving him a job, they’re taking money away from him that doesn’t belong to the MTA, it belongs to Darius. He earned it by having an interesting life.
Make sure to pay attention to the rising action of this trial that is currently going on and keep an eye out for the feature film coming soon starring Julia Roberts. We all have our fingers crossed in hope for the best possible outcome for Darius and all involved.