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‘Killer Inside’ Director on Exploring Aaron Hernandez’s Sexuality and Alleged Crimes in New Doc
Somehow, the filmmakers behind Netflix’s Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, managed to get a hold of most of the late Patriots tight end’s calls from the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center—which is where he was detained after being convicted for the murder of Odin Lloyd in 2015.
Killer Inside spreads the calls throughout the documentary’s three episodes, from asking his wife to send him “Harry Potters” and saying goodnight to his daughter, to yelling at his estranged mother because he felt like she hurt their family and wanted too much of his money. The calls give us our fullest look of Hernandez yet—a guy who could joke about how Nike wouldn’t put a swoosh on an orange prison jumpsuit, even after the crime he committed.
The new Netflix documentary, which is available to stream today, revisits the Lloyd murder, as well as Hernandez’s alleged involvement in the 2012 double homicide of Daniel de Abreu and Safiro Furtado over a spilled drink. (He was found not guilty.) And, of course, what doctors found after Hernandez committed suicide in 2017: One of the most devastating cases of CTE ever discovered, and the worst ever diagnosed in a man as young as 27 years old.
There’s an unexpected aspect of Hernandez’s life that the docuseries explores, too—and it ends up going into territory that’s rarely explored in sports media. Killer Inside digs through what was originally tabloid speculation about Hernandez’s sexuality. In 2018 Dennis SanSoucie, Hernandez’s high school football teammate, told The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team that he had a hidden sexual relationship with him.
Instead of adding to the speculation, Killer Inside talks to former Patriots lineman Ryan O’Callaghan, who is one of the only former openly gay former NFL players. O’Callaghan tells his story of hiding his sexuality throughout his football career, once considering suicide an inevitability. What results is a heartbreaking look at the still-exclusive, often regressive culture of American football—and a struggle that Hernandez may have fought himself.
We talked to the director of Killer Inside, Geno McDermott, about whether or not Hernandez’s crime was inevitable, if the Patriots organization is at fault in any way, and why he saw the docuseries as a chance to tell O’Callaghan’s story.
ESQUIRE: What really surprised me about the documentary is how it becomes a look into the lives of closeted men in the NFL.
GENO MCDERMOTT: Yeah, I think when we first met to make the film there was a lot of salacious reporting being done about Aaron and his sexuality. Once Aaron’s sexuality became substantiated, we wanted to explore that, and we wanted to hear perspectives of people like Ryan [O’Callaghan] who were closeted in the NFL, and what that was like. Ryan talks a lot about talking to his parents and how he never could [talk] about his sexuality. When he was playing football, he was expected to be a straight guy, and we feel like Aaron went through some of the same stuff based on what he hear from his childhood and through people like Dennis [SanSoucie], who he had a relationship with.
BL: I mean, what Ryan says is just absolutely heartbreaking, like when he said he tried to make himself look as unattractive as possible. You rarely see that in a sports documentary.
GM: That’s what I think is interesting about this series—it’s not like a sports series, but it’s not like a true crime series. It’s not just true crime. There’s so much sports in it, and I think that you can say the same about other topics like sexuality, you know? It’s such a multi-faceted story that we feel like will speak to a lot of people.
BL: Right, and the other thing that surprised me is the access that you were able to get—it seems like you go the entirety of his personal phone calls from prison. They have these light moments—you include the bit about him asking for the Harry Potter books, and how much he loves his daughter.
GM: We had to put a lot of thought into what made sense for viewers who maybe knew nothing about Aaron Hernandez. How do we figure this out so they can understand this? I think the phone calls, we put them in afterwards because they almost enhanced the support of what the story is, and where the story’s going. I think they’re the only opportunity to have Aaron’s voice in this series, which is why we did it—we need to hear from him and we need to know what his personality was like to have that perspective.
ESQ: The documentary dips into the Patriots organization a little bit. There’s maybe a subtle criticism or two, between Aaron saying how much he was shot up with pain meds, and getting help finding a second apartment. Were the Patriots—even in the smallest bit—complicit in anything that happened?
GM: No, we honestly don’t feel like that. Everything that went into the piece, like Aaron talking about being shot up, that’s him saying that—that’s nothing that we’re producing. He said it on a call, we put it in there, you know? The the second house that he got, same thing. That was brought up in the courtroom and we put it in there, so we’re just presenting everything as it was presented to us. To have another perspective there.
ESQ: I mean, just a viewer, it was fascinating seeing Robert Kraft walk into a courtroom.
GM: You know, what’s crazy about that I think it was live-streamed from the web, and people just don’t know that—it was available to the public, so that’s what was important to us was getting the courtroom stuff in there so people could see how the trials unfolded.
ESQ: There’s someone in the documentary who wonders whether or not Aaron’s crimes were more of a ticking time bomb, or something that could have been fixed. Where do you fall on that spectrum, from everything you learned working on the documentary?
GM: Yeah, I honestly still haven’t really decided on that yet. Because there’s so many potential things at play here. It’s hard to make a decision, and, my position is that it’s almost like a conglomerate of things—it’s a bunch of things working together. And again, not everyone has, you know, murdered somebody, so in the end, he’s a convicted murderer. But, all we can do is our best to talk through his life and present it.
ESQ: Was there anyone you really wanted to talk to who wouldn’t give an interview? I don’t think I saw an active Patriots player in the documentary.
GM: There’s two retired Patriots players, [but] there’s no one actively playing just because we’d have to get permission from the Patriots and the NFL, which probably wouldn’t happen. Buy it’s important to note that everyone that you could think of—[Rob] Gronkowski, Aaron’s brother, DJ, we asked for interviews and they declined. We have to respect that.
ESQ: Was there anything that truly surprised you from your work on the documentary?
GM: There was a lot in there about childhood abuse, physical abuse that we could never be able to uncover by talking to people outside the family, so that was probably the most shocking. And Aaron taking his own life was shocking to us—we had started before the second trial, and we had every intention of trying to approach Aaron in prison and get an interview. So that shocked us, because we didn’t know what the project was after that.
ESQ: Why have an Aaron Hernandez documentary of this scope and length a couple years after his death? What do you think the sports world can take away from his story and what you put in the documentary?
GM: I think the why now is it just takes time to put these together, and the phone calls, you know they weren’t available to us right away. As time passes, you get into more and more, and you’re able to include more and more, so we feel like we’re at a point where we covered a lot and that’s why we’re putting it out you know putting it out now. As far as why now and what it means, [it’s] just as important now as [it was] years ago.