In another reality, it could have been Erin Lee Carr in the submarine with Peter Madsen, the man convicted of the 2017 killing of Swedish journalist Kim Wall. Of course, in a sense, it could have been any female journalist in that submarine. But Carr, whose documentary Undercurrent: The Disappearance of Kim Wall debuts Mar. 8 on HBO Max, actually reached out to Madsen’s company in 2013 for an interview.
At the time, Carr was working on a show for Vice about outer space, and Madsen had not yet alienated himself from his colleagues at Copenhagen Suborbitals, the private rocket company he’d co-founded in Denmark. “His business partner, Christian, answered my email and was basically like, ‘Yeah, sure. Come on over,” Carr says. She left Vice before the project came to fruition, but her colleagues went overseas and filmed Madsen and his partner. “I was somehow almost there, interviewing him many years earlier,” she says. “So without ever making it about me — the story is really about Kim — I obviously felt feelings about potentially being somebody that was gonna interview him as he led up to having these psychopathic thoughts.”
On Aug. 10, 2017, Wall, 30, disappeared on a submarine in the Copenhagen harbor with Madsen, who had developed a reputation as an eccentric Danish inventor. She’d been trying to coordinate an interview with Madsen for a while, so when he reached out to her on the evening of her own going-away party before she and her boyfriend were set to move to Beijing, she skipped the festivities to meet him. The next morning, Madsen returned to the harbor — alone. He changed his story several times in the days and weeks that followed, trying to explain Wall’s disappearance. When he first came ashore, he said he’d dropped her off earlier. Then, after her torso washed ashore nearby, he claimed she’d died after a hatch fell on her head, and he’d given her a burial at sea. When divers recovered her head and found no trauma to the skull, he said it had actually been an accidental death by carbon monoxide poisoning. A year later, Madsen was found guilty of her torture, murder, and dismemberment and sentenced to life in prison.
In her new two-part documentary, Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest; Britney v. Spears) tells the story of the crime and trial that captivated an international audience, while continually focusing on the importance of Wall’s life and career and what’s been lost in their being cut short. She interviews police who investigated the crime, members of the Navy who helped search Madsen’s submarine and recover Wall’s remains, and journalists who covered the trial. Although Wall’s family declined to participate in the documentary, several of her friends share anecdotes that reveal her enthusiasm for exploration and her tenacity as a reporter.
Carr also interviews men who knew Madsen. Most say they never saw this coming, including a biographer who says in the documentary he regrets ever lionizing Madsen in what he describes as a “heroic” biography. Madsen hardly had women in his life, it seems, but one anonymous woman who met him at a party said he’d invited her to go on his submarine and she’d refused, feeling uncomfortable about the way he was trying to get her to go with him alone. Madsen is also revealed to be a narcissist and a psychopath who was a nightmare to work with, hated women from a young age, and became increasingly fascinated with sexualized violence in the time before Wall’s death. The signs were there.
Wall had been through hostile-environment training, had traveled to North Korea, and risked radiation exposure traveling to former nuclear testing sites in the Marshall Islands. But she was killed by an act that, like much violence against women, feels out of place and random. As Wall’s friend Sriya Coomer says in the documentary, “He killed her because he could.”
A jailhouse interview that might have taken center stage in another documentary instead serves the purpose of making Madsen appear exactly the way the woman who met him at the party described him: self-serious to the point of being “pathetic.” “I watch all of the shows that are put out about the killer and their thoughts,” Carr says. “And it’s not without making me think, but also, I can’t make a film about Kim Wall if I make that film.”
Carr spoke to Rolling Stone about how personal this project felt to her, keeping Kim at the center of the storytelling process, and why she sometimes avoids making films about men.
Do you remember when you learned about Kim Wall’s disappearance and death in August of 2017?
I got texts from people in the journalism world that said like, ‘Oh my God did you see this?’ And I saw basically there was this Remembering Kim Wall [website], and they were raising money for the Kim Wall Fund. In the summary, it basically said what had happened to her, and I thought it was one of the scariest things I could ever, ever, ever imagine going on today in our society. And so, you know, I read constantly about it. She was somebody that was going out and doing her job with someone that had been interviewed by journalists so many times. It all just felt like, how on Earth did this happen? And so I knew it was a film that I wanted to make.
How has the story of what happened to Kim Wall made you think differently about your own experience as a reporter and a filmmaker?
I think all of us have a story. My first film was Thought Crimes, which is about a man who is conspiring to do evil things. We began to have a very, very, very uncomfortable relationship, and I was able to call my dad [the late New York Times journalist David Carr] at the time and said, he’s making really weird comments. He’s trying to sexualize the relationship. What do I do? And you know, he was very honest. He was like, I don’t know what that’s like. So he set me up with a female journalist at the Times who could sort of walk me through this stuff.
I think as a documentarian, I have the privilege of often having people around me. But as a writer and a reporter, Kim sometimes had people with her, but the act of reporting is a pretty singular experience. And after I had my issues with my subject, I didn’t make a film about a man again. I’ve just been on this huge trajectory shift where I went on to make, Mommy Dead and Dearest, I Love You, Now Die, At the Heart of Gold — these projects that really are not about men. I don’t like to admit it, but I think that discomfort — I don’t want to deal with that. It’s definitely altered the trajectory of my life. And it’s always been important to me to be around conversations about women. Ultimately, it was incredibly positive for me, but I can’t deny that that was a part of my experience.
What steps did you take to keep Kim Wall at the center of your storytelling during this process?
In our office, we talked about Kim first. We called Peter Madsen by his initials, P.M. We tried to understand who Kim was before all this happened, and she had an incredible life. She was an amazing writer. One of the things I was sort of obsessed with [as a freelancer] is Kim’s sort of gumption at making work happen and getting assigned things and writing things out. And I do believe that the freelancing of [her article about Madsen] led ultimately to her making a decision to get on the boat, because you need to write the story to get paid. And so I always tried to bring Kim to the center of what we are talking about and make sure that this wasn’t just a piece about what Peter Madsen had done. I work with an amazing team, specifically Dani Sloane as my supervising producer, and we said every day, OK, how does Kim factor in to this? How do we get back to it? It was one of our key things that we thought about put time into and worked on in the edit.
You used written messages between subjects very effectively in this film, as you’ve done in previous documentaries. In one exchange, Wall tells a friend “I only have questions about agency as a woman, and if we will ever be free no matter what we do. Leaning towards no.” What role did you want messages like these to play, and how did you choose to incorporate them?
When I first heard that text message about her questioning her own agency in this world, I just like I, you know, I have it up at my desk. And when she said, ‘I’m leaning towards no.’ I mean, it’s kind of one of the more profound things I’ve heard in my life. And the fact that it happened in a G-chat. I think that text messages are truly these moments that really represent what’s going on in a person’s head, and I’ve always felt that way, so I try to always imbue a film with present-day events, present-day thoughts. With Kim it always felt especially important. And yeah, I think I’ll be thinking about what she asked for the rest of my life.
The prison interview with Madsen doesn’t get much fanfare, and that’s in contrast to the way a lot of crime documentaries treat jailhouse visits. How did you decide how you wanted to handle that?
We went through a lot of iterations about how to do it: How do I make a film about this crime without giving Peter exactly what he wants? So, you know, basically we, as a creative team, chose to eliminate a lot. I had a very long conversation with him. It was very, very scary, [and lasted] like 70 minutes. There was a version of the movie where it’s all about that, and it’s all about his anger towards me, his anger towards women. But I think that that’s potentially a film that I would have made five years ago. And speaking today, what we’re trying to say with documentaries that are about crime, what if we push that material and try to utilize it to understand the person but don’t don’t glorify it, don’t give him places to stand in terms of his argument? The true crime person in me was like, that’s a huge deal that I, as a journalist, got to actually hold him accountable. But somebody like Peter Madsen will never, ever be held accountable, not in the reality of understanding what he did. So it’s like, what do I really want to do with this? Ultimately, I think it serves the purpose of knowing how out-there Peter Madsen is while not giving the film to him.