“Love Fraud” is a TV documentary series about a man who conned dozens of women and the women who hunted him down — and it’s front-and-center as the Sundance Film Festival opens on Thursday.
“Opening night!” exclaimed filmmaker Rachel Grady. “I’m shocked! They’ve never done a project like this before on opening night.”
The series is a true-life tale of deceit and revenge about Richard Scott Smith, who romanced, married and stole from an unknown number of women. And it’s about the women who banded together to catch him. The docuseries also will run in four parts beginning May 8 on Showtime.
Grady and her partner, Heidi Ewing, are not Sundance newbies. They co-directed “Detropia,” which screened at the 2012 film festival, and “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” which screened there in 2016. They also co-directed “Jesus Camp,” a 2007 Oscar nominee; and “12th & Delaware,” which won a Peabody Award in 2010.
But the program’s directors/executive producers are ecstatic that “Love Fraud,” their first TV docuseries, got accepted to Sundance. It’s long — not quite four hours, but 3 hours and 20 minutes. “Yeah,” Ewing deadpanned, “‘The Irishman.’” (That Oscar-nominated Netflix film runs 3:29.)
The filmmakers decided “a couple of years ago” that they wanted to tackle the subject of women who had been conned. “There was something in the zeitgeist about this topic,” Ewing said. So they went in search of a story that “no one’s heard. ... Something we could follow in real time instead of something that happened years ago.”
They ran across a blog started by one of the ex-wives to warn other women about Richard Smith. At the time, it included stories from three women he had conned. When they met the women, they decided this was their next project.
“It wasn’t fair,” Ewing said. “Here’s this guy. He takes their assets. He takes their dignity. He humiliates people. He walks off with maybe thousands of dollars at a time, but also people’s assets and their good credit. And nobody was looking for him. And they felt that nobody cared about their story.
“And we thought, ‘Well, maybe we can all go find him.’”
She’s convinced “Love Fraud” will hold festivalgoers’ interest. “People who’ve seen it are really riveted,” she said. “They’re obsessed with it over there at Sundance. We sent them the first two episodes, and they wanted to see the other two even though we weren’t done with them yet.”
“Love Fraud” premieres Thursday at 8:15 p.m. at The MARC in Park City; Ewing and Grady will do a Q&A afterward. It will also screen Friday at 5 p.m. at the Tower in Salt Lake City and Wednesday, Jan. 29, at 8:30 p.m. at the Ray Theater in Park City.
“They’re showing all four hours, three times!” Ewing exclaimed. “And that’s just never been done. Never. So they believe that audiences will stick around.”
And the large size of the venues means “we’ll have, like, 2,000 people that are going to see this over the week,” she added.
The approach they took was a departure for Ewing and Grady, who a) have never done a docuseries for TV before, and b) had never made themselves part of the story.
“But it felt like there was no way to get out of this one because we just became so personally invested and involved,” Ewing said. They became part of the group searching for Smith, “but we were the ones that were making a full time job out of it,” Grady said.
The filmmakers paid for the private investigators — including foul-mouthed bounty hunter Carla, who “had met [Smith] and hated his guts,” Grady said.
When they started work on the documentary — when Showtime signed on — they had no idea how it would end; no idea if they’d be able to find Smith. It’s not a spoiler that “the narrative goddess smiled on us,” Ewing said. “It was very satisfying for a lot of the women and for us.”
The filmmakers are more than satisfied that “Love Fraud” will be screening at Sundance.
“It’ll be so fun for us to see it in a theatrical environment,” Ewing said, “because, of course, we make theatrical documentary films. We don’t do television series. This is our first, maybe last. I don’t know. But for us, it’s nice to be able to see it the way we imagined it, which is always on a big screen.”