It was August 20, 1989, when Lyle and Erik Menendez, at the time 21 and 18 years old, brutally murdered their parents with 12-gauge shotguns in the family’s Beverly Hills home. The hyper-sensationalized trials that followed were eventually pumped into living rooms nationwide, helping to spark the televised courtroom bloodlust that is now a calling card of American culture. Ultimately the courts rejected the brothers’ claims of longstanding parental abuse as a defense; the two are currently serving life sentences in separate California prisons with no possibility of parole. But while the lurid Menendez Brothers story has become a cultural flashpoint, resurrected by ‘Murder TV Inc.’ every few years or so, two men are seeking to tell the story from an altogether different angle. Airing Sunday, June 11 on Lifetime, Menendez: Blood Brothers asks the question, “What if Lyle and Erik were telling the truth?”
Those two men — the directors and executive producers of Lifetime’s upcoming film — are none other than Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, co-founders of the L.A.-based production company World of Wonder, known for their feature documentaries (Inside Deep Throat, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, HBO’s Emmy-nominated Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures) and unscripted television (RuPaul’s Drag Race, Million Dollar Listing). The duo have long jumped at the chance to present controversial personalities from heretofore unexamined angles, which made the events leading up to that bloody August 1989 night ripe for the picking.
“A lot of the stories we’re drawn to are about people or things that are overexposed but under-revealed,” says Bailey. “This was a case that made headlines nationally and internationally, not for just a few months but for years. It was like a six-year span from the murders to the conviction, with two very high-profile trials.”
Indeed, the brothers’ first trial — featuring the defense’s “escape from parental abuse” theory — ended with hung juries. The retrial, during which cameras were disallowed in the courtroom, eventually convicted both Lyle and Erik to two counts of first-degree murder. But it wasn’t until July 1996, nearly seven full years after that fateful night in Beverly Hills, that the brothers were sentenced.
“At the time there was very much a sort of consensus that these were rich kids of Beverly Hills who were spoiled, cold-blooded sociopaths who murdered their parents for the money,” Bailey continues. “The whole idea that they had been the victims of abuse — that whole idea was seen as an excuse. And that was very much the temperature of the story and the popular opinion. We feel that with the intervening years, you can look at it again. That wasn’t the full story by any means. We were drawn to re-examine it.”
Hence the unique take of Menendez: Blood Brothers, based on the assumption that the physical, emotional and sexual abuse Lyle and Erik accused their parents of did in fact take place. “The general reaction and consensus was that it was the ‘abuse excuse,’” says Barbato. “That phrase was sort of coined for the Menendez brothers.” The film’s underlying assumption thus naturally veers it away from other, more procedural retellings.
“It’s more like a family psychodrama,” Barbato says, though he’s quick to mention that the screenplay — by Abdi Nazemian — is almost entirely based on courtroom transcripts, making it much more fact than fiction.
At its height, the family psychodrama explored by Blood Brothers was part of a perfect storm enveloping Los Angeles in the mainstream media. A year and a half after the murders of Jose and Kitty Menendez, the LAPD beat Rodney King to near-death following a high-speed car chase. The L.A. Riots that followed those officers’ acquittal were a mere year before the brothers’ first trial. California’s destructive Northridge earthquake happened during the first trial. And then there was O.J. Simpson. The former football star’s trial for murder — another go-to example of ‘the courtroom in your living room’ — actually overlapped with the Menendez brothers’ second trial.
Bailey unpacks what made the Menendez case such captivating television: “One thing, it was new for cameras to be in the courtroom. But the other thing was that a murder in Beverly Hills always gets people’s attention. But also, the Menendez brothers were very young and extraordinarily attractive. People were fixated. Imagine Justin Bieber twins committing murder. It was like that. They became these instant pop icons. People were drawn to them, of all ages and of all sexes. It wasn’t just a teen phenomenon. Everybody was really fascinated by these brothers. It had this sort of erotic element to it.”
“And then the father was this incredible immigrant success story who escaped Cuba and then ran Carolco Pictures,” Barbato adds. “He brought Carolco Pictures from the red to the black. He was a Hollywood player, a bold-faced name. All the elements are kind of a thriller and a page-turner. And people could tune into it virtually every day. And they did.”
“It was like a real-life Dynasty,” says Bailey.
As filmmakers, it’s undoubtedly a tall order to recreate the ostentation of a late ‘80s, early ‘90s Beverly Hills, and even more difficult still to believably present a fable like the Menendez brothers’ story, which is both lascivious and somber. Much of that heavy lifting is done by the film’s cast — including Nico Tortorella and Myko Olivier, who play Lyle and Erik, respectively, and Benito Martinez, who plays overbearing and abusive father Jose — all of whom deliver first-rate performances on-screen.
And the film presents a particularly outstanding performance by self-described “force of nature” Courtney Love. Blood Brothers represents a return to form for the rocker/actress, whose last significant film role was in 2002’s Trapped alongside Charlize Theron and Kevin Bacon, despite roles on hit TV shows Empire and Revenge. Even after her death in the film, Love’s Kitty character remains part of the story — in Barbato’s words, as a “spectral presence.”
“When we first met with her,” Barbato recounts, “she read the script and she was like, ‘I know this character. I can do this character.’ She was really clear and really passionate about the character of Kitty. She did talk about the complex relationship Kitty must have had with her children. I think she probably had some personal experience in that arena.”
Both Barbato and Bailey insist Love was no less than a delight during production. They use words like “professional,” “helpful,” “generous” — even “fairy princess” when referring to her nurturing relationship with Tortorella and Olivier on set.
With a rather well-known history of gun violence in their lead actress’s family’s past, Barbato and Bailey were sensitive to the fact that the Blood Brothers story recalls one of recent history’s most gruesome acts of violence.
“It was a very emotional day,” Barbato says of shooting the film’s murder scene, to which Bailey adds, “We talked about being able to do as much of it with Courtney off-set as possible, but in the end she was there for all of it. She just gave herself over to it. I think it was an incredibly emotional day for her, and super intense, but I also think everybody felt it.”
“And her performance in that scene is really harrowing,” says Barbato.
“It stays with you,” Bailey adds.
As with any film that purports to tell the story of a living person, there’s a very real possibility that Lyle and Erik Menendez will have the opportunity to watch Blood Brothers for themselves — a possibility that Barbato and Bailey have acknowledged. “I don’t necessarily know exactly how they would see it, but there is an opportunity,” says Bailey. “I’d actually be a little bit curious to know what they thought about the film.”
The Menendez Brothers, Barbato and Bailey feel, are more than two brothers serving time for the brutal death of their parents; they could also be a wellspring of information that helps us all understand the psychological effects of abuse inside familial relationships.
Bailey compares what the brothers experienced to “battered person syndrome,” a disorder acknowledged to develop in victims of domestic violence. “We talked to a lot of people who’ve been sexually abused in incest situations,” he says. “What was interesting was that a lot of those patterns of behavior are similar to this case. I think that domestic sexual abuse — or incest — it’s more common than you would think. And I think it’s hard for people outside of that situation to understand it. The natural questions are, Well, why didn’t you tell someone? Why didn’t you run away? Why didn’t you stop it? Yet, in these family situations, it’s so much more complicated.”
Bailey takes offense at the fact that the brothers were not allowed to use the “abuse excuse” as part of their defense in the second trial: “What happened was the prosecution said, ‘You can’t be a battered woman if you’re a man.’ And the judge agreed with that.” To Bailey, that’s “complete and utter bullshit.”
Establishing a line of communication with the real-life brothers has actually been attempted, says Barbato, and the directing/producing duo potentially has bigger plans in store. “We’re very interested in, hopefully, making this film the beginning of another project in a way. We’re really curious to hear more about their experience and to try and get closer to the truth about it,” he says. “If what they said is true, I think they could really help a lot of other people.”
Menendez: Blood Brothers premieres Sunday, June 11 on Lifetime.
Photos courtesy of Lifetime, copyright 2017