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Inside 'The Assassination of Dr. Tiller'

Toby Oppenheimer was the producer  of "The Assassination of Dr. Tiller." In this Q+A, he describes the challenges in producing a documentary on Scott Roeder's crime and dealing with the divisive and emotionally charged issue of abortion.

What compelled you most in making this film?
Producer Toby Oppenheimer:
When I first started looking into the story surrounding the murder of George Tiller, I went into it understanding only an inkling of its complexity. But as I went deeper and deeper, talking to as many people as I possibly could on both sides of the issue – specifically those who worked both for the clinic and in direct opposition to it -- the story began to take shape. I quickly realized that although I wanted to tell the story of Scott Roeder and his evolution from harried family man to anti-abortion extremist living on the fringes of society, it was much more important (and compelling) to recount the meticulous details of life in and around Dr. Tiller’s Wichita, Kansas clinic over the past 20 years. I wanted to explore how this clinic – and the very unassuming town of Wichita itself -- became the volatile epicenter of the abortion battle in this country. That became the primary focus, the story that I was confident most people knew so very little about -- the one that needed to be told.

Tell us about Wichita.
Wichita is smack in the absolute center of America. It takes 2, sometimes 3, flights to get there from either coast, so there is a sense of isolation in Wichita that citizens primarily seem to cherish. That’s at least the sense I got while shooting there for the short time I was able to visit. Generations of families stay in Wichita exactly because of the fact that it’s so hard to get to -- it keeps the riff raff down to a bare minimum. And it fascinated me that a city so distant from New York and Washington D.C. and Los Angeles could become ground zero of the abortion struggle for so many years.

It’s a very faith-based community in general – nearly 90% of the population belongs to a church or synagogue or other religious organization. As I spent time with the people who lived there and got a sense of the city’s character, lots of my preconceived notions were shaken. Just as I was convincing myself that it was a primarily conservative town, I would speak to many liberal Wichitans who begged to differ. When it came to feelings about Dr. Tiller and his clinic, the city was very split. But while those who opposed his clinic were extremely vocal and outspoken, those who supported his work overwhelmingly remained much more quiet and reserved about their feelings, which I think is often the Midwestern way.

One thing that is not in the film – despite my attempts to include it – are perspectives on the city from the other doctors who worked in the clinic alongside Dr. Tiller. Everybody knew of George Tiller – he was by far the most famous person in the city. They told me people would approach them in supermarkets and restaurants and whisper very quietly in their ears that they supported the work they were doing. The fact that many of these people didn’t want their acceptance of abortion to be known out in the open speaks volumes about what a close-knit, low-key city Wichita is.

Another doctor told me that throughout the city, you would know where people stood on the issue by how they referred to him in conversation. It was like a code: those who supported him called him “Dr. Tiller”, while those who opposed him simply called him “Tiller”. For a while, in earlier versions of the film, the city of Wichita was much more of a character, but needed to be pulled back to make room to attend to the many other storylines that needed to be woven together in such a tight, one-hour framework.

Characterize the people you interviewed on both sides - both equally fervent, but employing different tactics.
I did find that both sides are equally fervent, but they have such different ways of expressing themselves. The major challenge in this film was to remove my own feelings on the issue and attempt to make as balanced a film as possible. I did this by getting as balanced a group of interviewees as I could find and creating as calm and sober a climate as possible while shooting our conversations. It was in the edit room where the very restrained tone of the film –which was my mission from the beginning – took shape. My editor Linda Diehl and I meticulously removed as many extreme, attention-getting statements as we could from interviewees on both sides of the issue. I wanted to make it as difficult as possible, in watching this film, for people to dismiss the opposition, so we worked very hard to rid the story of anything overheated or overblown – or even very emotional. Most everyone has their defined feelings on abortion and they’re so weighted in emotion, so I aspired to establish a cool, restrained, conversation that might make it possible for people from both sides to learn more about the facts of this tragic story while understanding, even empathizing if just for a moment, the motives and intentions of the other side.

airs Monday, Oct. 25, 9 p.m. ET on msnbc.