Sean Crowell always knew there was something strange about his uncles.
Aunts and uncles would drop little hints, grandfathers would make confusing jokes, his mother and father would clam up when asked ― and there were those five years he didn’t see either of them.
Crowell had always been curious, but it wasn’t until he asked his uncles years later that he found out the shocking truth: for over 10 years, Jimmy and Terry Dougherty were key players in one of the largest pot-smuggling operations in North America.
While some might have been shocked and appalled at this news, Crowell was delighted. A longtime crewman in Hollywood, the University of West Georgia graduate had just directed his debut documentary ― a feature on Los Angeles' bicycle culture.
Casting about for a new subject, he discovered his uncles’ past and immediately knew that this was a story that needed to be told. Showing off his skills at storytelling and convincing them of his trustworthiness, Crowell started the long process of telling his family secrets to the world.
“The plan was to show my uncles that I was a documentary filmmaker, and that I could be trusted with their story,” Crowell said. “I got my uncles on the phone and walked into my production office, and I said, 'Are you ready for the next project?’ And they were jumping up and down because it was such a great story.”
Crowell began putting the documentary, entitled “Grounded”, together in 2007, speaking to his uncles on the phone for weeks at a time in order to figure out how, when and why the whole story came together.
The pair had become involved in the smuggling business slowly, running a few small deliveries for years before graduating to bigger and better scores. Eventually flying full planeloads of marijuana from Columbia up to Florida and distributing it across the nation, the Dougherty brothers managed to evade police capture for nearly 15 years, gaining a reputation for professionalism and proper conduct. The documentary shadows the duo from their earliest days through several of the biggest jobs of their career, culminating in the last job the pair ever pulled.
“They just had so many great stories, and we had to sort through everything to figure out a timeline and what had really happened,” Crowell said. “By the time we sat down to film the final interviews, I knew what they were going to say and everything that was going to happen.”
While the Dougherty’s story might have been enough for most filmmakers, Crowell wanted to ensure that his story was even-handed, and took steps to ensure its objectivity. Researching his uncles’ exploits, he discovered several law enforcement officers who had pursued the pair over the years. After a quick check with his uncles, he managed to contact two of them, running through the same interview process and showing the story from the other side.
“I was completely honest with them about who my uncles were, and I managed to build a level of trust with them,” Crowell said. “They were both retired at this point, and after I interviewed them for about six weeks, they were pretty comfortable with the whole situation… My uncles never hurt or killed anyone, and I think that made them more likely to talk.”
While Crowell’s interviews with his uncles and their hunters make up the majority of “Grounded’s” narrative, the interviews are broken up by recreations and re-imaginings filmed by Crowell and his crew. This proved to be the most difficult part of creating “Grounded” — remaking the 1980s on a minuscule budget.
“We had to go out and find all of these cars and clothes and everything that was in the film to be as authentic as possible,” Crowell said. “I wanted to stay true to the time period, and that meant authenticity.”
Crowell’s finished project, which took almost five years to complete, is a crackling tale of intrigue and excitement, keeping a brisk pace across four jobs and almost 15 years of high-flying felony. “Grounded” took home the Best Feature Film award at Pittsburgh’s Indie Film Festival, prompting Crowell to take the show on the road.
His latest stop is the Dixie Film Festival, Georgia’s own showcase for independent talent. The film will be screened at Morton Theatre this Saturday as part of the festival’s 10th incarnation, and Crowell is glad to be back in Athens.
“I always loved going to Athens when I was in college, and I think it’s a good place to come back and show what I can do,” said Crowell. “I’m speaking to one of the film clubs this week, which is exactly what I want to be doing. I want to engage other filmmakers, new and different filmmakers, and this is a good place to do that.”
Crowell isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s already begun production of another documentary, this one focusing on the deportation of legally immigrated American soldiers. He plans to continue touring with “Grounded” as well, letting his uncles’ story come to life onscreen again and again. While Crowell is unsure of what the future holds for “Grounded” and himself, he’s happy with what he’s accomplished.
“I wanted to tell a good story, I wanted to tell about my uncles, and I’ve done that,” Crowell said. “I’m really proud of the documentary and I’m glad people like it so much. It’s nice to see that response.”