Michael Neelsen, co-founder of StoryFirst Media, talks with us about his new true-crime documentary, which premieres at the Wisconsin Film Festival on April 15.
Green Bay is most associated with our famed NFL team that drafted two of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game (their personal lives aside), but it’s really a small, idyllic, Midwestern city where, just a few decades ago, landing a job at a paper mill meant a life of stability and security for one’s family. Tom Monfils’ employment at the James River Corporation’s mill in Green Bay, however, turned tragic, sparking a series of unnerving events that forever changed the city’s national image.
Following his Brett Favre-centric documentary Last Day At Lambeau (2012), filmmaker Michael Neelsen tackled Monfils’ ripped-from-the-headlines story in a riveting new documentary feature, Beyond Human Nature (2023). It’s premiering in Madison at the Wisconsin Film Festival on Saturday, April 15, in Union South’s Marquee Cinema, at 4 p.m.
In November 1992, Monfils’ body was found at the bottom of a James River Corp pulp vat with a 40-pound weight attached to a jump rope tied around his neck. Prior to this shocking discovery, he had been involved in an incident with fellow employee, Keith Kutska, who took an extension cord off the company’s property for personal use. Monfils reported the incident anonymously, or so he thought, to the police. But the sleuthy Kutska caught wind of Monfils speaking to authorities, and then purportedly confronted him publicly on the job site.
As the story broke, Green Bay residents naturally tied these two incidents together to accuse Kutska and others of plotting to harm Monfils. But did circumstantial evidence lead to the prosecution of innocent men (collectively known as “the Monfils Six”)? Was there pressure to quickly close the case? In Beyond Human Nature, Neelsen—a Milwaukee native and co-founder of film production and marketing agency StoryFirst Media—explores everything behind the scenes that led to Monfils’ death and the investigation that followed. From nearly a decade’s worth of footage and interviews, Neelsen synthesizes an intriguing tale of death and despair worthy of the haunting “Unexplained Death” segments on the original Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2002).
Over email in late March, Tone Madison corresponded with Neelsen about a range of topics that include neutrality, establishing trust with subjects, how the grand idea of storytelling (rather than advocacy) shaped his approach, power imbalances and the human element in documentary filmmaking, the inherent self-interrogation of the process, and lingering mysteries.
Spoiler Warning: This interview discusses key revelations in the film.
Tone Madison: There are lots of interesting Wisconsin stories out there. What initially attracted you to this subject matter?
Michael Neelsen: After my previous film screened and won Best In Show at the 2013 Green Bay Film Festival, I was approached by a group of advocates on behalf of the Monfils Six [suspects] who wanted me to tell their story. I was looking for my next project, and I found the story of the Monfils investigation fascinating.
Tone Madison: Why did this case still cast such a shadow over the community of Green Bay 30 years on? Why this case instead of all the other cases? Why can’t the residents of Brown County shake the memory?
Michael Neelsen: I was grateful to them for bringing the story to my awareness, but I wasn’t interested in making an advocacy film. Nothing against that kind of documentary work, but it isn’t what my team and I specialize in. In our filmmaking capacity, we’re storytellers, not activists. It’s a different practice. I’m not trying to animate the audience to take a particular action after seeing the movie. Instead, I wanted to put the strongest argument for both sides into the same film so that audiences could feel they came away with a real understanding of the story.
So I told the people who brought the story to me that I would love to make this film with them, but that I would only make the film if I could interview both sides of the case. If I was only allowed access to one side, I didn’t think we’d come away with adequate answers to all those questions that hooked me in the beginning. They agreed, and are very happy with the result.
Tone Madison: Oftentimes it is important for a documentarian to remain as neutral as possible when presenting the story. Did you feel any tension or difficulty doing so in this film?
Michael Neelsen: Speaking as a documentary filmmaker with 18 years of professional experience, I’m all too aware of the power imbalance between filmmakers, their subjects, and the audience.
The filmmaker has all the power in those relationships. As an editor, it is frighteningly easy for me to mislead my audience or betray my subjects’ trust while still technically using their own words. One of the formative books in my professional life was Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist And The Murderer (1990), in which she argues for the existence of this power imbalance.
Managing this power imbalance requires the filmmaker always remaining hyper-aware of it and never being less than honest about their intentions. I repeated multiple times to everybody we interviewed that we did not come into this story with an agenda, and that I couldn’t promise them that the film would help them make their case.
I think many documentary filmmakers approach their subjects with a friendly face and allow them to believe the filmmaker is on their side, and this breeds distrust in people. I think the trust we built by being honest about our intentions is what earned us access to as many different people as we had, many of whom having resisted media appearances for years before this project.
Outside of Green Bay, the audience doesn’t come into our film with any prior knowledge about Tom Monfils at all. So, it would be easy for me to tip the scales toward whatever narrative I believe as the filmmaker, and a viewer in Texas or the UK wouldn’t have any idea they were being fed a slanted story. That’s a betrayal of the audience and an abuse of their trust in me as a storyteller.
But the biggest challenge of all of this is keeping my own biases in check for the entire nine years of production. I have a quote taped to my interview monitor that lived there throughout filming: “Believing Is Seeing.” This is from documentary filmmaker [and UW-Madison alum] Errol Morris, and I put it there to remind myself to be careful about relieving myself of skepticism when listening to a compelling narrative. If at any point in these nine years I became too confident in my own appraisal of the case, I was worried I would start unconsciously slanting the film.
One of my favorite documentaries is Lake Of Fire (2006), which tried to articulate the nature of the abortion debate in this country. For the first half of the film, they spend all their time with the pro-life advocates, and they spend the second half with the pro-choice advocates. There are no villains in the film, and by the end, I felt more calmly aware of the disputes and competing values at the center of the issue, and my empathy for the human beings involved was increased across the board. That’s the kind of project that interests me.
Tone Madison: What surprises did you discover during the interviews? Specifically, were there any preconceived notions you had dispelled?
Michael Neelsen: Many. After each interview filming day, the crew and I would hang out into the evening discussing what we’d heard, and early on there were multiple days where we didn’t know who we believed more!
I think some of the biggest surprises came when exploring the suicide theory. When we learned that Tom had a background in the Coast Guard and had told co-workers at the mill about pulling dead bodies from water with heavy objects tied to them, that was eerie to say the least. In addition, it stopped us in our tracks to learn that the dimensions of Tom’s skull fracture exactly matched the dimensions of the impeller blade at the bottom of the pulp vat.
As far as surprises about people in the film, I admit I was surprised how willing nearly everyone was to tell us their story. Detective [Randy] Winkler knew we had been talking to activists who didn’t like him, yet he came to Madison and let us interview him for twelve hours over two days, and even left us a bunch of his case materials to sift through and archive. And that kind of eagerness wasn’t unique to him—we got similar access to Mike Piaskowski [the first of the Monfils Six to be released from prison in 2001], Tom’s brother Cal Monfils, and Kutska’s appellate attorney Steve Kaplan [the sole remaining member of the Monfils Six still in prison today]. Once they trusted what we were doing, nearly everyone jumped at the chance to tell us their side of the story.
Tone Madison: What were your lingering impressions of the lead investigator Winkler in this situation?
Michael Neelsen: Detective Winkler is one of the most interesting characters in this whole story. To hear Mike Piaskowski and Steve Stein tell it, he sounds like a villainous nightmare. I can only imagine what it would feel like if you were being investigated for a crime you didn’t commit by a motivated, incurious detective hell-bent on implicating you. It’s a horrific situation.
When we met him, of course, he wasn’t intimidating at all. On a personal level, I like Randy Winkler the same way I like Piaskowski or Cal Monfils. He was extremely generous with his time and gave us a ton to work with. I was surprised how willing he was to share his story with us. There are no villains in this film, Detective Winkler included.
I think it would be easier to prevent miscarriages of justice in the future if it was just about “bad apples.” Unfortunately, I think this is a much deeper human problem, where individuals and institutions become too confident in their convictions, incurious about complicating information, and lacking in skepticism over their own narratives.
Tone Madison: Did you ever feel any sense of needing to act on anyone’s behalf as an advocate while putting the film together?
Michael Neelsen: There is a ton of wonderful advocacy documentary work in the world. I adored Navalny (2022), which just won the Academy Award [for Documentary Feature]. I know a lot of filmmakers get into nonfiction because they want to make change in the world, but an equally valuable use of nonfiction is to better understand the world as it is.
At any given moment, we are only seeing a small fraction of the world. There is so much we are blind to. I try to exercise caution and resist certainty, and I try to really listen to people’s stories so I can better understand how they arrived at the positions they hold.
I believe the mere act of telling a story can bring insights that don’t come from advocacy narratives. The etymology of the word “story” is Greek for “learning through inquiry.” For example, in the scene where Detective Winkler enters Brian Kellner’s home to interrogate his daughter, Amanda says he came into the house and Winkler claims he didn’t. Both stories can’t be true. I have my gut opinion on the matter, but it’s just my gut. I’m not in the position to rule on this. But by clashing the two accounts in the film, my hope is that the audience feels they can trust that I’m not slanting the narrative, and that they’re allowed to have their own personal insights that wouldn’t come had I simply made the case one way or the other.
As a result, one of my favorite conversations with people who have seen the film is hearing what they think happened, because sometimes they have insights I didn’t. I’m still learning, and it sounds like audiences are as well.
Tone Madison: As you were editing all of your footage and interviews, were there any questions that, for you at least, remained unanswered?
Michael Neelsen: I remain unclear about the mystery surrounding Detective Winkler’s retirement from the Green Bay Police Department (GBPD). I’ve read the 23-page document the department put together to urge him to retire, and of course I’ve spoken with him at length about it.
He seems to view himself as a Serpico-type good cop who got ousted because he spoke up against corruption in the department. But as you can see in the film, when I pick at that scab he tells me he’s afraid to discuss it because we’re getting into “untouchable territory.” And maybe we are, I can’t say for sure. But as a Wisconsin citizen, that lack of transparency makes me nervous.
For all his good intentions as a police officer, I think Detective Winkler may have had some habits or instincts that proved maladaptive to his role in the investigation. Remember, this story took place 30 years ago. That was a different world. I think the pressure of this case got to Winkler after a while, especially after the GBPD released the audio tape that got Tom killed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some skepticism was sacrificed in the urgency to relieve that pressure.
Tone Madison: I still kind of felt that the subject, Tom Monfils, was still a bit of a mystery even after viewing all the interviews. There was some information about him repeatedly calling the police prior to his death that was mentioned. What do we know about how Monfils was functioning prior to his death?
Michael Neelsen: This is one of the key remaining mysteries of this story, and it’s partly why this case remains notorious 30 years later. I asked Cal, Tom’s brother, a ton of questions about Tom’s mentality running up to his disappearance. If you talk to Cal, he often talks about how the state and media worked together to paint his brother as an angel and the Monfils Six as demons, and he believes neither are true.
There are some indications that Tom was not in a great headspace in the days leading up to his death. Just take the act of calling the police on a coworker for stealing a piece of scrap wire—not calling security—calling the police. That’s so excessive that it suggests he was already not in a great place.
After he learned that Keith Kutska was pursuing a copy of the recording of his police call, he made a total of five more calls that week to keep the recording out of Kutska’s hands. So his behavior suggests he was afraid and anxious.
We know that Tom cared deeply about his role at the mill. He was known as a “company man.” He likely saw himself working at the mill for the rest of his life. The idea that he might become ostracized from his peers, or worse yet—have union charges drawn against him for “ratting out” a coworker to management. It’s clear from his behavior all of this was weighing heavily on him.
Then we come to his widow, Susan, who I asked to interview back in 2014. Her attorney declined my request, and of course I respect her right to not talk about this story anymore.
Cal tells us in the film he’s convinced Susan knows more than she’s let on. I don’t know if that’s true, but if there was light she could shed on some of these questions, I think it would go a long way to putting this mystery to bed. Of course, if she doesn’t know anything else, I can understand not wanting to further explore this lacerating experience 30 years later.
Tone Madison: How would you compare the experience of creating this documentary with Last Day At Lambeau?
Michael Neelsen: Last Day At Lambeau was made on a whim. We didn’t give it much thought, and it was made by a three-person crew of myself, my producer Dave Neelsen, and our cinematographer David King.
Beyond Human Nature was a huge step up for us, production-wise. We eclipsed the entire budget for Last Day At Lambeau in the first week of filming Beyond Human Nature. With this film, we had a crew of 20 people on the reenactment shoots.
And then there was the difference in material. Last Day At Lambeau is about sports, so it’s obviously much lower stakes than a possible miscarriage of justice.
The similarities between the two projects, however, concern our approach to storytelling. Both projects were intended to explore why a notorious event occurred the way it did, and to interrogate myself about why I cared so much. Why did I care so deeply about Brett Favre, a man I don’t know at all, and whether he plays football for the Green Bay Packers, an organization I have no affiliation with?
Likewise, why can’t I put the Monfils case to rest? Why can’t the community of Green Bay put it to rest? Even with Piaskowski, Mike Hirn, Mike Johnson, and Rey Moore [of the Monfils Six] now out of prison, the Green Bay Press-Gazette is still running retrospectives on the front page on the 30th anniversary of Tom’s death. Why? Why this case and not other cases? I guess I’m drawn to stories about trying to reconcile irreconcilable differences.