In 2018, Chris Watts stood out front of his Colorado home pleading for his missing wife and two daughters to return to him after police were called in to investigate their disappearance. Not long after, that same father was in handcuffs for the murder of his family—something that he tried to cover up on numerous occasions.
Filmmaker Jenny Popplewell is hyper-focusing on the tragic case of the Watts family in a completely new way. “American Murder: The Family Next Door” shows just what happened to 34 year old pregnant Shannan and her daughters Bella and Celeste through the lens of the victim herself.
Popplewell sat down with Metro to discuss what went into making this documentary film that still “haunts” her to this day.
What was it about this case that made you want to make the documentary?
Originally when I heard this case I wasn’t thinking about it as a documentary, I was just reading about it as a parent that was shocked that this man could destroy his entire family. It wasn’t until much later that there was a further confession that exonerated Shannan, and by that point I had seen a lot about the case and had seen her public Facebook page and had seen her videos [when] I realized there was just so much content. I had never seen this volume of content before captured on camera, we’ve got cameras on our phones now to detail every moment. Also the police officers were wearing body cams, so this whole process of the crime was captured on CCTV or the neighbor’s camera and her text messages were available as well in the police discovery—so I just felt like this was the first time that I’ve seen a full 360 record of an event. I thought it was an opportunity to tell a story without needing someone to tell the story, but instead show people.
It is such an interesting way to look at a crime, how did you get all of that extra info and insight into Shannan’s life on top of what was public knowledge?
I approached the Rzucek family because I thought it’s not right to make a film about their family unless they approved, you don’t want to cause more harm in an already tragic situation. When I told them the concept and that it was an authentic representation of what happened and the truth and not an actress playing her or a person who the family didn’t even know doing an interview or telling us what their daughter was like, rather I offered the stage to Shannan for her to talk to us directly. They liked the idea and they agreed to provide home videos that weren’t on her Facebook page.
Was the fact that many people turned on Shannan after the murders a motivation for you to want to show her story along with the crime?
I felt she had a raw deal—that’s the problem when you have an open profile on Facebook, but she needed it to be open for her work that’s how she operated her business. But it also meant that she was there for people to pick apart and dissect and judge and I just felt she really didn’t deserve that. People were looking for something that wasn’t there, they would be watching a video and would read into it and twist it and turn it into something nasty.
Out of everything you’ve learned, what from the case shocked you the most?
I think the fact that shocked me when I first heard about the case is the time that he had to change his mind. He likes to tell people that he snapped, he wants to have this narrative that he wasn’t in the right frame of mind and it just happened— but statistics suggest that these crimes are pre-meditated and his actions after the fact suggest that this was also his plan. Chris feels shame, he wants people to see the good guy. He knows that leaving a pregnant wife for another woman would have gotten rid of that image. The fact that he murdered Shannan, then an hour or forty-five minutes later killed the children one by one—there’s no snap there, he had plenty of time to save those girls lives and it’s the true horror of that film and it haunts everyone who watches it.
Is there anything else you hope people take away from the film after watching?
We think that the person we love the most would never hurt us, or we think this is going to be the last time, or they didn’t mean it or all of these excuses. What we need to remember is that the person most likely to harm us is our partner, and if that person has ever put their hands around your neck, the odds of being murdered by them goes up. If it haunts people, I’m sorry that it haunts people but they need to consider their own safety in their relationship that is toxic and abusive. Nobody thought Chris would do this—so people might be giving credit to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
“American Murder: The Family Next Door” is now available on Netflix