I had the chance to speak with director Allison Otto about her new film The Thief Collector, a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction documentary about an elderly couple who once – perhaps – stole a priceless painting from a museum… and kept it hanging on the wall of their bedroom behind a door. Otto is an Emmy winning documentarian and The Thief Collector marks her feature documentary debut. The film premiered at South by Southwest 2022.
The Thief Collector, at least in part, tells the story of the discovery of a priceless William de Kooning painting found hanging in the bedroom of a deceased elderly couple. The film spins from there into the great array strangeness that defines the lives of subjects Jerry and Rita Alter. The film is a funny, charming journey into the lives of two very odd individuals. Assembled from interviews, home videos, and an array of slides, Otto augments the story telling with very funny live action recreations starring Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Sarah Minnich (Army of the Dead).
The following has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
Allison Otto on the Finding This Story
Thank you for taking a few minutes to chat about The Thief Collector today, a film that I really enjoyed! It wasn’t really on my radar going into the festival and I was so happy that I checked it out. One of my contributors directed me towards it, and I thought it was just a wonderful film you’ve crafted.
Otto: Thank you! Thank you for watching it! That means a lot to me.
How did the Alters [the subjects of the film] and how did this project come onto your radar?
Otto: I first read about them in an article on the Smithsonian website. I love reading the Smithsonian for months and it just haunted me for months after I read about it. I decided I wanted to dig into a bit more. I reached out to the nephew you see in the film, the executor of the estate Ron Roseman, and I was really fortunate that he responded to my email. I didn’t think that would happen! I went down there to Texas and chatted with him and started to establish some rapport. I chatted with some people at the University of Arizona Museum of Art. They were very generous and kind with their time too. Then I started to put a team together. Once I started to dig into things more I realized that the theft itself is really just the tip of the iceberg. This is more a story about them: the mystery is this couple and all of the outlandish allegations and bizarre synchronicities and unique characters. That to me is the most fascinating part of the story.
How the Story Evolved
I wanted to ask more about that. I always think of Capturing the Friedmans as the legendary story where a documentarian goes out to start one thing and finds something entirely different. I was curious how close this film is to what you thought you’d be making when you set out, or it how shifted as you discovered new things about the story.
Otto: It’s very different than what we were originally planning. Some things we started to discovery pretty late in the process, for example the whole thing with the septic tank. ::Laughs!:: I remember we were wondering if the film would become a completely different story and take a much darker turn. I think that’s the thing with documentaries: a lot of the time you start out thinking it’s one thing but it becomes something different. That’s the challenge but it’s also the excitement and fun of making a documentary – how flexible you have to be. It’s a discovery for the filmmaker as much as it is for the audience.
Is there something you were most surprised to learn over the course of the filming?
Otto: The whole septic tank issue! I hope you don’t give away any spoilers, but that’s part of the fun for the audience. So that to me was the most shocking surprising part of it.
What’s your archival process, your research process? I gather you had a number of slides and home videos to work from him, but how do you approach the process of unearthing what you end up using in the film?
Otto: We were really lucky in that Ron Roseman gave us access to the slides and the home videos. There were about 12,000 slides. There were about eight hours of 8mm footage plus tons of photos and ephemera from their travels. It was a real process just to dig through all of that.
The Fictionalized Recreations of Real Life Events
How did you get Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich involved on the recreation side of it?
Otto: We were really fortunate. Glenn is married to one of the producers, but he’s always so busy and we weren’t sure if he’d be willing to do this. The time that he has free is limited. He had an open window and we realized he was perfect for this role. He can bring that quality of hubris and quiet desperation and anger to this role. He’s so brilliant at it! If you meet him in person, he really is a very intellectual person. He was trained at Julliard so he can talk in depth the notes on how to be an actor, and how to turn the switch on and off. He’s very different from his character in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He’s humble, kind, very intellectual, and he’s just an amazing actor. With the slightest change in his expression, he can convey an entirely different tone or meaning. It’s really fascinating to me to watch him work.
I loved the recreation scenes. They have this almost Coens-esque energy to them. I was really curious how you balance the tone as some of the elements of the story are more serious and some of them are more madcap. How do you balance out what you’re doing on the serious side, the documentary side, and the more fun Howerton performance and recreations?
Otto: The book that Jerry Alter wrote is so horribly written. It really is like a cheap drug store novel. His story is really an interesting way to dive into his psychological make-up, his psyche. You see this fantasy world in which he was living or wanted to be a part of, and the way he envisioned himself. To me, that really lent itself to these very tongue-in-cheek, delusional fantasy recreations that are so untethered from reality. We wanted to bring viewers into the feeling of that world. We were had the more serious – the verite and the restorations and the interviews are more tethered to reality.
Otto on Interviewing the People Involved
I wanted to ask about some of the interviews. Particularly, I thought the Manzanita Antiques team were just these fascinating characters that you found. I wonder what it was like to build a rapport with them.
Otto: They are fascinating in person too. They’re really sweet and they love to chat! They know all of the town gossip and they, like Ron Roseman, are similar in that they were very generous with us with their time and their insights. They were easy to establish rapport with because they were such kind people anyway.
One of the things I thought was interesting was in the documentary scenes where there was a fellow who said “I wouldn’t pay $5 dollars” for one of the de Kooning paintings, or for this particular painting, but there’s this other painter he loves and you cut to these bucolic fields with the horses. I thought it was a very funny composition in the film. I was curious how you decide where to lean into humor or where to lean into something more serious with the interviews.
Otto: Those particular guys would meet at this liquor store every morning around an old stove pipe, oh what do you call them?
Oh I can picture it!
Otto: You put fires in them! ::Laughs:: They meet around one of them.
I’m from New York!
Otto: ::Laughs:: They would have coffee and just gossip. I think that one of the interesting things about them is that they seem to outsiders like they’re not very educated in art or the art world. I think we upend that when they start talking about artists from the Western School, in terms of the American Southwest. To them, Tim Cox is a great artist. I can see the value in his art just as much as I can see the value in William de Kooning’s art. Not everybody has the taste of Tim Cox, not everybody is going to love de Kooning, but they’re both very talented artists. With them, they were very direct. They have that sense of humor that is easy to lean into.
Allison Otto Shares an Interesting Moment Outside the Film
Are there any stories from this or moments that you captured that you felt didn’t quite fit the edit, but are stuck in the back of your mind from the process of making the film?
Otto: Humorous moments?
Could be humorous. Really anything you thought was interesting that just didn’t quite fit in the scope of the film.
Otto: We interviewed the caregivers, and this didn’t make it into the film, who took care of Rita Alter at the end of her life when she had dementia. One of the caregivers remembered that she took Rita into the bedroom and she said to Rita “What an ugly painting!” Rita said to her “If you knew how much that painting was worth, you wouldn’t say it was so ugly!”
Otto: Unfortunately, that didn’t make it into the final cut, but that was one of the things that may suggest that Rita knew at some point how valuable this painting was, and, yet, she didn’t return it or give it back.
Did the Alters Do It?
I did want to ask, and I think the film clues where your head is at, but do you have a thought on if they did it or not?
Otto: I think it’s pretty clear that they did! Right?
I think when you get that Thanksgiving picture that’s really the best proof.
Otto: Yea and the car. And the jacket she was wearing. And the fact that the Alters looked like them. It’s pretty clear!
I agree! I was arguing it with my wife and she thought it was more ambiguous and I thought it was really clear on the side that they did it. So I’m glad I can tell her that! I know we’re coming to the end of our time, but, Allison, I really loved the film. I hope a lot of people get a chance to see it and I hope it gets a nice big distribution deal.
Otto: Me too!
Thank you very much for taking the time and congratulations on a great film.
Otto: Thank you! And thank you for taking the time and being willing to help us get this film out there by letting people know about it.
The Thief Collector debuted at SXSW ’22 and will be playing at various festivals throughout the year including the SFFilm Festival, Hot Docs, and the Cleveland Film Festival.