On St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, two men disguised as cops broke into the jaw-dropping Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and got away with an absolute fortune in art (Rembrandt! Vermeer! Degas!) and the mystery remained cold for decades. Netflix’s This Is a Robbery: The World’s Greatest Art Heist goes over the case, onion peel by onion peel, driving you to wonderful madness. The four-part docuseries had us on the edge of our couches, going “just one more episode” until the wee hours of the night—and until there was nothing left (of the series and of our sanity).
Unable to stop thinking about it since, we rang up director Colin Barnicle to answer every single one of our burning questions.
Editor’s Note: What follows contains some spoilers.
LEO: I understand you and your brother are from Boston, with your father [journalist Mike Barnicle], also featured in the series, being a former Boston Globe columnist. Had you grown up with this story?
COLIN: I think a lot of people from the metro Boston area and surrounding suburbs sort of grew up with it. It was one of those things your parents talk about at a family dinner party, certainly ours did, and so being from the area, knowing the area, my brother Nick and I were saturated in the mystery of it.
The heist occurred in 1990, what interested you in digging up this particular story?
Boston isn’t very big. It’s a city of neighborhoods and it operates like a small town. So the names that kept resurfacing in the case were very familiar to us. The story has its own gravity; we slowly were pulled into its orbit because of the familiarity of the names and places that kept popping up.
How long did you and the team on the film research all the pieces of the puzzle before allowing yourself to start filming?
Ha. Yah. A while. We first pitched a project on the heist around 2014 but didn’t dive into it until late 2015, shot some interviews in 2016 and 2017—which we made into a pilot but the research never really ended. Right up to the air date I was talking with people about the investigation. Heck, I still am. Making decisions, being prosecutorial on what we could show or should show on camera was a huge step because at some point, it’s pencil’s down and you need to turn in your work, and that means putting on screen what we thought was the most likely scenario of this unsolved mystery—and we did that. It did take awhile though.
How much of it had already been laid out by authorities and various sources versus how much research did you guys have to do yourselves? Were there major holes you had to fill?
It’s unsolved so it’s a gaping hole. There’s a lot of ownership over the case, so getting authorities to speak candidly wasn’t easy. We had to do the work ourselves. We pulled thousands and thousands of pages of court documents and interviewed well over 100 people—the vast majority of which never makes it on screen. We didn’t want to assume anything so we started from scratch more or less eliminating evidence, suspects, scenarios until we rounded it out to what we thought was the best case. At the end of the day, it’s a visual medium—you have to SHOW the case you make and we really wanted to give an intimate accounting of that night and to own the case file, so to speak, so that anyone watching it will have a very good accounting of what happened and why.
Had you gone in with a personal preconceived notion of “whodunnit” and did that change along the way?
No, no preconceived notion. I always felt like the most interesting part of the case was the actual theft, the nuts and bolts of it and so we worked out from there, trying to keep our focus narrow until it had to work out from the night of the crime.
Did you find that more clues started to fall into place during shooting?
Absolutely. The frustrating part was—the more we found, the less we could tell. We don’t use a narrator. We wanted the participants to speak for themselves, but it cut both ways because what we found—and there was a lot—we had no audible outlet for. Details about suspects or things we noticed in crime scene photos often were cut because it was too consulted, or bogged down.
I would imagine digging into a story involving the mob would feel dicey at best. Were you nervous about that aspect and shooting that last scene?
No. Not the mob stuff. Not to say they don’t exist in Boston, but it’s not like they don’t know they might be accused. Actually, the dicey stuff came in Belfast when we filmed there. It was sort of a weird situation —going to see an outspoken ex-IRA member almost immediately after the New York Times bestselling book Say Nothing came out, which covers murders committed by the IRA. The timing wasn’t exactly ideal for us and we were tailed while there, which was odd and not the most comfortable thing, ha.
Did re-opening the case for the film bring a renewed interest or enthusiasm from authorities towards the case? Or were they resistant?
Some were very open and others were resistant. It’s still an “open” case and there’s a lot of—I guess you would call it angst—that someone might solve it before the authorities.
When did [Spotlight columnist] Stephen Kurkjian become involved? He seemed to have the best grasp on the case.
Steve is tenacious with the case. He knows his stuff. He came on pretty late for us though; he was our last interview actually. He was doing other projects surrounding the case and we had the better part of the four episodes cut together before we interviewed—which was actually a benefit because we were able to insert him into areas where we really needed that expertise, that ownership.
You had an incredibly colorful group of characters to work with—you could make a film about almost any of them. Did you have a favorite?
A lot of people say Myles Connor—which I totally understand, but I really thought the former guards were all really cool. Karen Sangregory in particular was fascinating. She had such an astoundingly good memory. Probably because she’s a visual artist.
How hard was it to get Myles to agree to be interviewed?
Actually not that hard. We got lucky because he called his lawyer, who we were interviewing at that very moment, and so we were vouched for. The hard part was was finding Myles. He wasn’t the easiest guy to pin down.
With a character as enigmatic and intriguing as him, as an audience member, I found it hard to separate my own affinity for that “character” from the fact that he is an actual criminal. Did you and the crew feel the same? He had some amazing one-liners, a real gift for a filmmaker, I would assume.
Yah. I think a lot of people who interact with Myles have a similar story—that he’s charming in a sort of rapscallion way. It was like a five hour interview, and it was hard to cut it down. When he’s telling a story about jumping out of a coffin on stage before he opens for The Beach Boys, or how he lived with a horse and owned a pet cougar that was in a Farrah Fawcett ad in the 1970s, you desperately want to add that into the film, but we just felt like it would have been about an hour left turn—a really fascinating and weird turn—but not super linear to our story.
Did anyone take a particular amount of convincing to come on board?
Yes. Most first person accounts didn’t want to speak on camera. For a variety of reasons, but mostly because it happened 30 years ago; it’s hard to be accurate and no one wants to misremember when they have a full camera crew staring at them.
Was it intentional to create a feeling for the audience of being convinced of a different culprit at the end of each episode? At least, that’s how I felt, I kept being convinced I knew what had happened, only to have more layers of the onions be unpeeled.
YES! We wanted the viewer to go through the case as if it were unfolding in real time so, we wanted to give the experience that Anne Hawley basically had of feeling like you are SO CLOSE to the truth for it to completely crumble but that maybe, just maybe, there’s a grain of truth in there to that you can start seeding.
I loved the score, it was really unexpected but got you to the edge of your seat. Can you tell me a little bit about that and what you were going for?
The score was a huge part of our process. We really, really wanted to keep it propulsive and at times, off beat, to bring to life certain elements. I loved Mindhunter on Netflix, and Jason Hill did that score. He was our number one pick and thankfully, he came on board. We also wanted to give a time and place feel to any commercial tracks. The goal was to have a score and music good enough to put out a soundtrack for.
Did the film give you any closure or did it make you yearn for answers even more?
Yes on both accounts. I am pretty certain who took the art, why they took it and where it went within the first two years of the crime but therein lies the problem: the art hasn’t been found, so there’s these endless possibilities that keep expanding and expanding the more I look into it. It can be maddening.
To your knowledge, has anyone reached out with any further insight into the case since the film has come out?
Yes. At least one very reputable witness has popped up with direct knowledge of one or more pieces and their whereabouts within the first 18 months of the crime.
And finally, how has Ben Affleck not made a feature film about this yet? In all seriousness, is there any talk of a film version?
Ha. Very true. Yes, there’s been discussions on making it into a feature film and we actually have a script for it. A lot of these characters, if they weren’t real, you’d be laughed out of the room for making them up.