Exclusive: The Real Story Behind the Movie "Happy Valley" and Matt Sandusky
Until now, I have, for several reasons, refrained from writing about the January 19th premiere of the "Happy Valley" documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. First, I wanted to accumulate all of the information that I could be before writing. Second, I was scheduled to meet with Jerry and Dottie Sandusky in prison the week after that. And thirdly, I have quite a personal history with this film and I wanted to take some time to think about how best to articulate my knowledge and thoughts on all of it.
As hard as it now for even me to believe, I actually interviewed to direct the documentary "Happy Valley." I met with Jonathan Koch, the head of Asylum Entertainment, for about two hours soon after the scandal broke and my instincts were telling me that the media had blown the real story. It was an extraordinary meeting in nearly every possible way.
Jonathan had already decided that he was going to do a film of some sort on the scandal because he was was a former Second Mile counselor (and I thought a participant as well, but I could be wrong about that) and was also a huge Penn State/Joe Paterno fan while growing up. We had met once before to discuss me possibly doing a project for them and it had never materialized, but this seemed very promising to me, at least at first.
During the course of our extremely long meeting Jonathan got very emotional and, on at least two occasions, broke down in tears. Obviously I wondered if it was possible that he had once been abused by Sandusky (I have no reason whatsoever to believe that he was) because it just seemed so strange for a man of his stature to let that happen in front of someone he had only met once before. Regardless, it was very obvious that this project was going to be EXTREMELY personal for him (interestingly, Jerry does not remember Jonathan, but, in a very rare bit of prison humor, when I told him Koch recalls playing basketball with Jerry and having Sandusky elbow him in the face with malice, Jerry sheepishly admitted, "yeah, that probably happened").
It became obvious during our meeting that Jonathan not only believed totally in Sandusky's guilt (this was well before the trial) but also in the concept that Happy Valley just had to know what Sandusky was up to and, at best, looked the other way. I tried extremely hard to make him aware that most of what the media had originally reported was already falling apart, but it quickly became obvious that my vision was far too anti-media and (rather ironically) pro-Paterno for what he had in mind for the film. A mutual friend (former friend now as Koch expressed his anger about this column to this person and he ended our "friendship" over the phone after I told him I would not remove this article) of ours told me point blank that I had talked my way out of the job. This had me extremely depressed for awhile, but it is just as well because, based on how his film turned out, I would have eventually have gotten fired anyway.
After we both realized that we wouldn't be a good fit for his project we still decided to met a second time because I wanted him to at least be aware of the full factual record. He told me that he wanted me to be interviewed for the film because, at this later point, I had become part of the story. I then spoke to his director, Amir Bar-Lev, and we agreed to try to work out a time and place to make it happen. Suspiciously, that never did get scheduled.
However, once I did the Sandusky interview another producer on the film contacted me (quite arrogantly) and asked for access to the interview. I told them that in the interests of making sure their film didn't blow the story I would be happy to let them see the transcript, but that if they wanted the audio we would have to make some sort of a deal. After I gave them the transcript, despite numerous attempts to make sure that they were aware of the ever-changing factual record, I never heard from them again (I believe because of a combination of my facts not fitting their narrative and Scott Paterno having bad-mouthed me).
When I learned that their film was going to "star" (and feature as a speaker at the red-carpet premiere) Matt Sandusky I was truly shocked. I knew that Matt was more likely than any other "victim" to be lying and that he might very well be (depending on what Jerry is actually guilty of) the very worst human being in this entire saga.
I also quickly learned that they had done two interviews with a very key person on the "right" side of this story and told them that their vindication would likely be a huge portion of the film. And yet somehow this person was cut out of the film entirely (I believe because they were afraid of doing a "exoneration" film, got top-heavy with pro-Paterno interviewees, and finally got their "star" Matt Sandusky late in the production process).
Outraged, I immediately wrote several emails to Jonathan, Amir, and the other producer with whom I had been in contact and told them that they were making a huge mistake. I never heard anything back from them.
Since then I have read about ten reviews of the film (just about all of which have focused entirely on Matt and on the false narrative of a football-crazed town covering up horrible crimes) and spoken extensively to three people who saw the film at Sundance. I have also exchanged about 15-20 contentious email with Scott Paterno who appears in the film (apparently as the butt of the only comedy-bit in it) and whose decision to allow his mother to participate as well seems to be yet another in a long line of very poor strategic decisions on his part.
What follows is the review of the film written at my request by a big supporter of our cause named Michele Arluna:
I will begin this piece by saying that I am a graduate of Penn State. I grew up hearing about all of the good that came from the works of Joe Paterno. My opinion of him was and still is that this was a man "who talked the talk and walked the walk". I consider myself a fairly educated yet, slightly more than just an observer regarding the details of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. I find that the all of the events that occurred in State College, PA over the last two years are still too unbelievable to fabricate.
I happened to be in Park City, Utah, this past weekend on a very short, last minute trip to meet up with some friends. This trip coincided with the last few days of the Sundance Film Festival. I had heard some of the buzz surrounding the documentary Happy Valley, directed by Amir Bar-Lev. The focus of the film was supposedly, to explore the torn community of fanatical Penn State college football worshippers known as "Happy Valley". I just don’t know how one can fairly and accurately represent either side of this debate let alone give an overview in 100 minutes. I was quite skeptical. I will always have my guard up when discussing Penn State. That is just a small consequence of the fallout from this case.
The film paints the community as a bunch of simple, cow-town, country bumpkins who care little about anything except Penn State football. Bar-Lev interviews students, teachers, fans and residents (young and old) to give the illusion of the "cross-section" of the Penn State fan. There is news footage from when the story broke in November 2011 through the last 2 years. The director gives a bit of history including personal footage of the Paterno family and some of their history as it pertains to Penn State. The point is to show the viewer that the people of Happy Valley (and all loyalists) were so blinded by their love of the Penn State football program and Joe Paterno that the entire community must have turned a blind eye to the atrocities that were being committed by Jerry Sandusky and were willing to keep them covered up by any means necessary so as to protect the program.
There were no interviews with any of the administrators or members of the Board of Trustees who may have been able to round out the story. However, there was much screen time given to Matt Sandusky, one of the six children adopted by Jerry and Dottie Sandusky, who changed his story mid-trial from denying that he had any endured any abuse to say that he was abused by Jerry Sandusky. The film did not mention that Matt Sandusky had not testified during the Sandusky trial. It is important to note that Matt Sandusky had given his initial testimony under oath. To further hammer the point home about the importance of football over anything else the hero worshippers are filmed as they blindly transfer their loyalties from JoePa to the new coach: Bill O’Brien- suggesting that the cycle starts all over again. No effort is made to suggest that perhaps they are trying to be gracious in the face of conflict…. Hmmm.
I had read, prior to seeing the film, that the Paterno family as well as the attorney for some of the Sandusky victims had approved of the finished product. After having seen the film I am more confused than ever over the fact that the Paternos approve of this. Mrs. Sue Paterno, Joe Paterno’s widow, and two of the Paterno sons, Scott and Jay, were all interviewed in the film and there were various news clips with them as well. They are perhaps painted as the dumbest of all of the characters in this story!
I could elaborate on all of the points I found to be inaccurate or unfair in this scandal but it is fruitless. The film could have been about any sport-loving college community who may or may not be guilty of hero worship. The fact that the film seems to lend itself to the argument that there was a giant conspiracy to cover up Sandusky’s activities or "open secret", as was alleged in the film by the attorney for Matt Sandusky, Andrew Shubin is the part that disturbs me the most. Most obvious clue that there may be a bit of bias to this film- Shubin was given an undue amount of screen time, in my opinion.
Again I say that I am a Penn State alum and I still like to watch Penn State football but not nearly as much as I used to. I am embarrassed that there is a blatant attempt to erase Joe Paterno from the history of PSU football.
At this point I was uncertain as to how to proceed. I knew that I really wanted to let people know what a total fraud Matt Sandusky is and I also was going to be seeing Jerry and Dottie together in prison very soon. Consequently, I decided to make at least one pitch of a column combining elements of my review of the film with my interview with the Sandusky's. I realized that national outlets were not an option for what I was trying to do and so I thought the best play might be the Centre Daily Times, partly because their editor, Chip Minemyer, had been open minded enough to participate in one of our Franco Harris "Upon Further Review" events.
What follows is our rather lengthy email exchange (in its entirety except for my response to his initial silly suggestion that I let his reporter basically steal my interview with the Sanduskys) following my preliminary pitch. Please read the whole thing as I think it illustrates just how impossible it is to get even the basic facts of this case into the mainstream and it also has my proposed column in it. Keep in mind that in a rational world someone with my access and expertise on this story would have had the red carpet rolled out for them by a local paper, but in this case, especially when it comes to the media, basic logic/fairness simply does not exist.
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On Wed, Jan 29, 2014 at 1:24 PM, John <[email protected]> wrote:
I just finished a two hour plus interview with Jerry and Dottie and I have quotes from them on Matt and the movie. Taking this step by step. Will you publish a news/analysis/opinion piece from me on the movie/Matt and if so, what would the parameters be?
Please advise ASAP.
John ZieglerSent via BlackBerry by AT&T
On Jan 30, 2014, at 9:53 AM, John <[email protected]> wrote:
That was my thought. I have direct quotes from both. How long could it be and how would it be treated?
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On Jan 30, 2014, at 10:08 AM, John <[email protected]> wrote:
Since it has clearly "news" couldn't there be some way to make it a news analysis piece and give it a little more space?
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Perhaps. I would have to see it to make that distinction.
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On Jan 30, 2014, at 11:10 AM, John <[email protected]> wrote:
I'm on the road. I will try to get you something by the end of the day. What would be the deadline for Sunday?
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Chip:I just wrote this asap on a strange computer. There are probably typos. It is longer than you want but I honestly don't know where to cut. If you want the whole thing then you can have it for Sundays' paper in whatever section you want. However if there are any substantive changes I would need to be able to approve the final content. Please advise.The Other Side of “Happy Valley” and Matt SanduskyAs a documentary filmmaker who has put out a free film on the so-called “Penn State Scandal” and who has had extensive interaction with the makers of “Happy Valley,” I was very curious to see what the movie, which recently debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, would be all about. Now that I have learned what is in the film, I am absolutely horrified. I believe all of those who care about the truth should be as well.On the positive side, I was glad to see that Joe Paterno is treated somewhat fairly, though it seems as if the Paterno family spent an awful lot of media capital (allowing Sue Paterno to do her first interview for a film) for remarkably little gain. The concept that Joe Paterno may not have had any real role in the scandal is largely lost amidst the broader narrative of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes supposedly being an “open secret” within Happy Valley. The Paterno family contribution is dwarfed (especially in the media coverage of the premiere) by two other figures who should not have been given starring roles, at least not without even a hint of objective scrutiny.The first of those two “stars” is State College attorney Andrew Shubin. He is used by the film to forward this absurd concept that the town somehow knew/suspected that Sandusky was a pedophile. Not mentioned is the fact that, since by his own count he represented nine victims in the case, he probably made far more money than any other person in this entire story. Having researched the case for almost two years, it is my view that Shubin’s contribution to this case is far less simple than perceived by the media and that his coercion of Victim 2 (from the Mike McQueary episode) was a key to the real truth being lost here.But it is one of Shubin’s clients who is the biggest “star”of “Happy Valley.” Matt Sandusky (who famously changed his name after the trial but who now is suddenly using it again, apparently for the sake of easier publicity) is the subject who got the film headlines and who even spoke at its premiere.While everyone agrees that victims of sexual abuse deserve to be treated with care and understanding, this should not mean that they, as Matt has now done, should be able get a substantial payout from a state institution and become a celebrity without even a hint of serious analysis. You wouldn’t know it from the film or the media coverage of it, but there are plenty of valid reasons to question the validity of Matt Sandusky’s story.Only vaguely alluded to in the film (and never in the news media) is the remarkable fact that Matt Sandusky testified under oath during the grand jury that he was never abused by Sandusky and he had reason to doubt the accusers. In fact, Sandusky attorney Joe Amendola has told me that Matt was so strong in his defense of Jerry that he wanted to hold a press conference outside of the grand jury, but was convinced by his former attorney not to do so. After his long public defense of Jerry suddenly ended and he “flipped” in the middle of the trial, he never testified that he was indeed abused. So, at best, Matt Sandusky is an admitted perjurer whose silence allowed many others to be victimized.Seemingly to get around this serious problem, Matt claims that, thanks to “repressed memory therapy” he abruptly “found” memories of Jerry having blown on his stomach and grazed his penis from the time when he was eight until he was fifteen. I recently spoke about this to Dr. Elizabeth Loftus who is one of the world’s foremost experts on the issue of memory. She mocked the notion that there is any scientific evidence whatsoever to support the notion that legitimate memories can suddenly be “found” through therapy, especially when they allegedly occurred over such a long period of time (a timeline which is brought into question by Matt’s own story because he now claims that Jerry “transitioned” from him to Victim 4, whom Jerry never met until at least four years after Matt says his abuse ended).This week I met with Jerry and Dottie Sandusky in prison (it was my second trip to see Jerry there, as I interviewed him for three and a half hours last year and went on the Today Show to discuss the findings). Both of them are very distressed by Matt “starring” in a film which purports to tell the truth about this case. They and their entire extended family are positive that Matt is not telling the truth.Jerry called Matt an “outrageous liar,” who was so good at making up stories that he often found himself (before the scandal) questioning things he knew to be true. “I hindsight,” Jerry told me, “I probably made a mistake telling Matt right before the trial that (Victim 2) had flipped. I could see right then that he started to see which direction things were going and which side he needed to be on.”I found this revelation particularly interesting because it would seem extremely odd that Jerry would be telling Matt about previously friendly parties becoming victims if Jerry had actually abused Matt.Both Jerry and Dottie are positive that Matt had stolen Jerry’s two national championship rings and sold them (they were told by a police officer that one of the rings, which was eventually sold on Ebay, was purchased by someone who recognized Matt on television as the seller). They both also say that as a very troubled teenager, and before he asked them to adopt him at 18, Matt was described to them by his therapist, Dr. Bill Hylbert, as having “no conscience” (an email asking Dr. Hylbert to confirm or deny this was not returned).Do I know for sure that Matt Sandusky is lying? Obviously not. However, it seems pretty clear that there are very legitimate reasons to question his story and that it is highly inappropriate for a major movie to make him into a hero without even the slightest media scrutiny.Hollywood is not exactly known as a place where the truth and justice are held in particularly high esteem, but Dottie Sandusky believes that karma is still yet to be heard from here. “I don’t worry so much about Matt”she told me. “I know him and I am sure he won’t be able to maintain this path. Something will happen.”John Ziegler is a Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaker and runs the website www.FramingPaterno.comJohn Ziegler
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To: Chip Minemyer
Subject: Re: John Ziegler here
Sent: Jan 31, 2014 4:26 PM
I am confused by your concern. I have to set it all up for context and then I
provide three very key quotes from Jerry and Dottie as well as several key facts
directly from them (the family doesn't believe him, the rings were stolen, the
doctor said he had no conscience, etc). I can put those assertions in quotes
from them if it makes you feel better but it is not fair to say that I am not
providing their perspective. What more would you like?
Unless you are looking for a reason to kill it, this would seem to be easily
On Feb 2, 2014, at 11:03 AM, John <[email protected]> wrote:
So I take it you didn't run it. You didn't even tell me that was the case or why that was. You gave me some vague concerns and I asked you what you specifically wanted me to do and I never heard back.
Can you help me understand what the heck is going on here?
JZSent via BlackBerry by AT&T
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There is plenty of that in there (there is hardly anything at all about the filmmakers) and you didn't even get back to me after I busted my ass to get you this for the sunday deadline.
As I suspected, you are jacking me around because you are afraid of the real story here. You will never published anything of substance on this.
Chip, you guys blew this entire story big time. Way worse than I even realized. A career-making story which would save your paper is right under your nose, but you are too afraid.
My bad for trusting you even a little bit. I should have known better.