Amanda Knox on Why She Went After ‘Stillwater,’ and Filmmakers’ Responsibility to Truth — Even in Fiction

·17 min read

As co-host of the “Labyrinths” podcast, Amanda Knox special­izes in spotlighting real-life figures who, as she puts it, “lack agency” as they’re drawn against their will into becoming central figures in attention-getting stories. It’s something she knows a lot about, of course: Knox may need little introduction to anyone who followed international news, but she feels she has had too little power in shaping her own narrative, even since she was finally acquitted in Italy in the 2007 murder of a fel­low exchange student, after years of jail time and repeated trials.

She says the trauma of living under perpetual suspicion has been revived by the release of “Stillwater,” which filmmaker Tom McCarthy has acknowledged uses Knox’s globally recognizable story as an inspirational springboard. An eloquent Twitter thread of Knox’s went viral as the film was being released last weekend, followed by her much-circulated Medium essay. Here, speak­ing exclusively with Variety, she expounds on where she thinks the film went wrong (including some last-act spoilers), and why she’d still love for McCarthy to get in touch with her.

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A recurring theme of Knox’s: real stories should not be off-limits for creative adaptation — but “if you want to fictionalize a story,” she says, “really fictionalize it.” Or be prepared to contend with a subject who found her voice during those years in literal lockdown. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You haven’t seen “Stillwater” yet. You probably don’t plan to, right?

Oh, I would absolutely go see it — especially if they invited me to. [Laughs] That would be nice.

In your Twitter thread and essay, you said it would have been nice if Tom McCarthy had contacted you while he was developing the story of “Stillwater,” or in the run-up to the film’s release. But it’s easy to imagine any number of reasons why someone making a fictional story inspired by yours wouldn’t get in contact. They’d probably imagine your response is going to be “Don’t do this,” at worst, or “Let me be a participant in this, and completely change the screenplay you’re so proud of,” at best. So what would you have said to the filmmakers, if they’d called you?

For me it would have depended on what they would’ve said. But I think the thing that occurs to me here (to say) is: You’re a creative person. I’m a creative person. My husband’s a novelist, and he draws from real life in his novels all the time. I’m acutely aware of how much non-fiction is a part of fiction, and how much fiction is a part of non-fiction. And there are infinite stories out there that you could tell. But why did you decide to tell this one in this way?

I actually did a tweet thread about this long before this (latest) viral tweet thread that went out, before I knew how they had decided to fictionalize my story. It was me acknowledging that, yeah, my dad’s experience of trying to save me, and my entire family’s experience of trying to save me, is a story that is incredibly worth telling, and one that I’ve actually been suggesting into the world. Wrongful convictions don’t just happen to the individual. They happen to a whole network of human beings who love this person and know that they’re innocent and fight for their innocence. Tom McCarthy says he was inspired by my story and inspired by my dad, and you know what? My dad is an inspiring guy. So I said, “I hope that they do a good job of it in ‘Stillwater.’ I would have loved to have been informed of it beforehand, and I think that my dad would have had some really interesting insights into the development of this project, had they reached out, but I hope they do a good job.’”

And then I found out how they decided to interpret the Amanda Knox character in their narrative. … I in no way incentivized or had knowledge of or participated in the actions of the murderer who killed my roommate. (The filmmakers) created a story that didn’t really take the premise of my story as a springboard, (but one that rather) really did entrench itself in the scandalous interpretation of my story that was presented by the prosecution — one in which I was either directly or indirectly involved in the death of my roommate, who supposedly I had a sexual involvement and entanglement with, which I absolutely did not in real life.

It’s not a new imagining of my story. It’s one that’s long been in the ether, and one that directly impacts my life to this day. Because plenty of people write me off as, “Well, you know, technically she’s innocent, but there’s just something about her that feels guilty. She’s probably involved or has some special knowledge of this somehow.” And in this retelling, once again, we see a false narrative of me that is amplified — that I had special knowledge, that I was indirectly involved, that I had a sexual relationship. And I don’t think that the filmmakers can honestly say that they went far enough away from my case so that it wouldn’t be recognizably my case. And I think that that’s clear in all of the coverage where everyone’s like, “Oh, this is recognizably the Amanda Knox case.” And from that audiences can then draw conclusions about me, whether or not those conclusions are accurate or not.

So even though you haven’t seen the film, you’ve been filled in about how the story plays out.

Yes, I did some invest-imigating. [Laughs.]

Obviously, in a story like this, especially one based in real life, the filmmakers are going to want to leave some elements of suspense that aren’t wrapped up till the end, and that involves the character’s guilt or innocence. Making the character outrightly guilty of murder would really subvert expectations, and it doesn’t go there. But there is still a twist, maybe because pure innocence would seem anticlimactic after two-plus hours? [Spoilers ahead.]

It’s not a new twist that wasn’t already in the ether. My understanding is that the twist at the end is that the Amanda Knox character did not intend to kill her roommate, but she asked the killer to get rid of her, which is a kind of incentivizing of the killer and some kind of indirect involvement. That’s not exactly what my prosecutor said, but my prosecutor accused me of orchestrating Meredith’s death… And so, by reframing that same narrative that my own prosecution presented in the courtroom for the sake of the captivating story that it could tell… The question that Tom McCarthy really has to ask himself is, is it responsible to keep recycling that same story when we know what the consequences of that can be?

What are the consequences, for you?

I’m not anticipating getting wrongfully convicted again based upon “Stillwater.” But I do live to this day with this infamy of being associated with a crime and having my name be the defining factor of a crime that I had nothing to do with, and this story just reiterates that same problem for me.

What is more offensive to you? That people see the movie and believe the twist as an accurate reflection of real events — that you somehow bear some indirect culpability, even though you were ultimately acquitted in real life? Or is it more about being treated as if you were an adaptable fictional construct, and talked about even in the press coverage of the movie as if you weren’t in the room — as if you weren’t a real person in the world?

Yeah, I feel a little bit like Dracula, where everyone gets to have their own spin on it. I want to maybe remove the word “offensive” from the conversation, because I’m not sitting here feeling offended. I’m sitting here feeling like I don’t exist, as you said. I feel like I am a character in people’s minds, and people don’t remember that I’m a real person who’s living a real life. I’m a storyteller, too. And what I want to pose to especially creative people — because creative people are my people — is the idea that we aren’t just entitled to other peo­ple’s stories.

I think the “Cat Per­son” essay [a viral piece published last month on Salon.com] is an interesting example of this. Here’s this real life that became this other person’s art. This other writer wrote a short story [for the New Yorker] about this young woman who she had never met because she was inspired by this idea of a young woman in a questionable relationship, and she made some really compelling art about it. But in the meantime, people are approaching [the inspiration for the fiction], saying, “Hey, I think this story is about you.”

I think I take a similar tack as Cat Person: Look, I’m not being precious. I’m not saying that I have full ownership over my life and my identity. I understand that art is going to be inspired by real life. But we also have an obligation toward each other when we so clearly draw parallels in fiction to real-life human people. Because people are going to draw conclu­sions from that fictionalized story and apply that to that real person.

If the filmmakers are clear that they only used your story as a springboard and fantasized everything from there, might they be able to say they’ve done their duty in drawing a distinction?

There’s been this ongoing idea that, “Well, as long as we call it fiction, then no one would honestly apply the ideas or feelings or conclusions that I bring with my imagination to the story to the real person.” And that’s simply not true. Especially when you’re looking at people like myself who continue to be brought up with a question mark, you deciding to tell that story in your own way is going to be adding to the ledger of how people understand and define me as a human being. And then Matt Damon and the director can walk away with a great story in their pocket, but meanwhile, I’m still living with the consequences of people thinking that I am somehow involved in this crime that I am not involved in.

I’m very open about how I’ve continually felt exploited by people who are not allowing me to be a voice in my own narrative. And because I have been so vocal about that, I find it to be a kind of gross negligence of these filmmakers to not take note of that in their own development of this project, and in their promotion of this project, constantly bringing me into the equation as this idea of me, as opposed to as the real person.

The film had a weak start at the box office. Do you think your objections going viral in the way they did on opening weekend influenced that?

I highly doubt that. But I am not an expert in these things. I know that my intention was to bring light to something that so often goes unacknowledged, and I wasn’t trying to make any sort of claims about if people should or should not see this film. I’m not out here to destroy Hollywood. Although I did and do still stand by the fact that I think it’s irresponsible to present a story that is identifiably my story, but the facts in a way that are not reality. If you want to fictionalize a story, really fictionalize it.

Amanda Knox
Amanda Knox

Your argument is not necessarily a liti­gious one?

A lot of people have said to me, “Oh my gosh, what’s your next step? Are you going to sue them?” And it’s like, wow, that was not even the first thing that came to mind. I didn’t mean this whole issue to be a litigious issue. I’m not arguing legal arguments. I’m arguing human arguments.

If anything, I wanted this to be a conversation starter, not a mic drop. I genuinely want to have a conversation with them about how they’ve decided to tell stories in the past and in the future, and whether or not they ever considered what I’ve brought up. And, honestly, I don’t think that they considered that. I don’t blame them for not considering all the things that I’ve brought up. But now that I have brought them up, I want to know what they think about it, and I genuinely think that a really good conversation could come from it, in which everyone all around could have a great learning and connecting experience. I’m not afraid to say it like it is, but I’m not out here to vilify them either. I don’t mean to drop a bomb in the water and have it become celebrity wars.

I really mean it when I say I would love to have a conver­sation with Matt Damon and Tom McCarthy about what they intended in turning my story into art, and why it never occurred to them to reach out to me to, at the very least, inform me that something that was going to be dredging up an ongoing trauma that I have, along with what kinds of creative choices they decided to make and how that might impact me. If anything, what I want to really show was not that these are bad guys who are doing bad things, but that these are very likely good guys trying to make good work, and it just never occurred to them that their choice to tell my story, in the way that they’ve chosen to fictionalize it, and the way that they’ve chosen to use my name as a promotional tool, is going to impact me directly. And I’m not someone who is off the grid. I’m very approachable.

Every day we all make the mistake of treating other human beings as cardboard characters for our own reasons. And I don’t want to do that to Matt Damon and Tom McCarthy. So let’s have a conversation and engage, now that we’ve clumsily stumbled into each other.

You’ve been through this before, right, with crime films or shows where your name is used as shorthand for where the plot will go? You mentioned the Fox series “Proven Innocent.”

This is not the first time that this has happened to me. It’s an ongoing conversation that I would love to be a part of, if the creative people out there who have all this power to make all these incredible stories would give me the time of day. There are novels — one called “Cartwheel.” There was a BBC show, I think, called “Guilt.” We’re all over the place here.

A couple of phrases that you often use stand out: “power dynamics” and “without agency.” On your podcast, “Labyrinths,” you’ve had guests who you feel have been drawn into long-lasting, scandalous news stories through no fault of their own, and sometimes, as in your case, become the defining personalities of those stories, even though they were the most passive or least powerful people involved. You had on as a guest Samantha Geimer, to talk about the Roman Polanski story she’s been associated with for decades. And you’ve talked about Monica Lewinsky. Do you feel like filmmakers and writers who are inspired by real life for fiction should draw the line on creating stories that involve people who didn’t bring these things upon themselves?

First of all, I would say that those who are exercising their agency, the way that one imperfectly exercises one’s agency, also make for very interesting drama, storytelling-wise. I mean, it would be fascinating to understand the mind and the reasoning behind my prosecutor’s actions, say, who is someone who had way more agency in this whole story than I did.

But I do think that what has happened with “Labyrinths” is that a lot of people have reached out to me because they feel like a story is happening to them. It is not something that they did or made, but they became the center of something that was happening to them that was bigger than them, and they may not have the agency to control what ends up happening to them. A lot of people reach out to me who find themselves in that situation because they feel like they have no voice. Samantha Geimer reached out to me to say, “Hey, just so you know, I know what it’s like to have my narrative stolen, too. A lot of people want me to be Lolita and the 13-year-old girl who seduced the innocent older guy. And a lot of other people want me to be the vengeful rape victim who wants to throw Roman Polanski into prison for the rest of his life. And I’m neither of those people, and no one has ever given me the opportunity to be the voice of my own story and to define who I am in this morality play that we keep playing out over and over again.”

“Labyrinth” podcast
“Labyrinth” podcast

I do feel like, especially in these cases, a storyteller has more of a responsibility in reaching out and at the very least acknowledging that how they tell that story is not just going to impact the person, but is going to be a continuance of that story that is imposed upon that person. That person didn’t choose to go through the experience that they went through, and didn’t choose for you to continue to use that story as content. So any way that you can give back a sense of choice — or, at the very least, acknowledge that lack of choice — is a very, very human thing to do.

For yourself, do you feel like you’re in a double bind, just being out there as a public personality, trying to reclaim and redirect your story? It’s easy to find people on social media saying you obviously enjoy the attention, but the alternative is letting other people be the authors of your experience for as long as people still care… which looks to be a very long time.

It’s definitely a challenge. And there are times where I question it all and think about disappearing into a hobbit hole. What I have found is that I have a lot of perspective that I’ve gained from my experience, and a lot of compassion for people that I see lacking in society at large. And for that reason, I’m trying to exercise what I’ve learned, and that means drawing upon my experience. I often feel like I don’t really have a good choice; I have to choose what I feel is the best choice out of not-great options and try to make the most of a bad situation. In the process, I’ve connected with a lot of people who I didn’t know needed my help, and that has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Because — I was thinking about this, this week — I’m not the first person this has happened to. I’m just the first person who wrote a (viral) Twitter thread about it.

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