Rachel Lee and Erin Lee Carr on Collaborating on The Ringleader

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Rachel Lee doesn’t come across like she could be the leader of a crime ring. At Motel Morris in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, she’s shy and intentional with her words as she sits for an interview alongside director Erin Lee Carr, who has just made a documentary about the time when she was, if not a leader, at least a member, of the Bling Ring. The infamous crime saga involved a group of teens who robbed numerous celebrity homes, including those belonging to Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom, between 2008 and 2009, and became a national sensation. The media firestorm surrounding the case inspired a Sofia Coppola movie, in-depth news coverage, and, more recently, a 2022 Netflix documentary that featured former Bling Ring members Alexis Haines (formerly Neiers) and Nick Norgo (formerly Prugo). But there was a major piece missing from the story: Lee, who never spoke out about the crimes until now.

The media narrative that formed around Lee when she was on trial as a teenager and serving 16 months of a prison sentence for three counts of residential burglary was one she didn’t take pains to debunk—she was advised not to speak up, not to talk to the press, or ever try to redirect the narrative. It wasn’t until Carr approached her about doing a documentary that she seriously considered talking about that time in her life.

“I was always afraid to open up to somebody who had power through media and that they could twist the story and then it would be more mess,” says Lee, now 33. “For me, every time an article comes out about the Bling Ring, every time a new documentary comes out, I keep in the back of my mind that these victims are still here on this earth triggered by this, so I didn’t want to be a trigger.”

But she felt her story was in good hands with Carr, who at 35 is a contemporary of Lee’s and who has made documentaries about other complicated young women, from Britney Spears (Netflix’s Britney v. Spears) to Michelle Carter, a teen who was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after encouraging her boyfriend, via text message, to kill himself (I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter). The trust between them is evident in their dynamic as they sit for an interview about HBO’s The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring, which hits Max on Oct. 1. Every time a question is asked, Lee takes time to process it, closing her eyes, her eyelashes fluttering as the sentences begin to formulate in her head. Carr, by her side, is patient and understanding.

They spoke to TIME about first impressions, lessons learned, and balancing guilt, ego, and respect for victims.

TIME: What are you feeling right now as the documentary is about to come out?

Lee: I’m feeling really grateful for Erin for even approaching me in the first place and then allowing me to feel like I could be myself and speak from the heart so the world could see who I really am.

I’ve noticed a wave of emotions; sometimes I feel very present in my life, and then sometimes it kind of hits me all at once, and I feel overwhelmed and a little bit scared but also confident because I was truly me. I’ve been working on being proud of who I am.

Carr: It feels like the right time for this because it’s almost in reverse. Usually, there’s the documentary, then there’s the scripted—we have the amazing Sofia Coppola film, and there’s been a couple of other pieces about this. But no one knew the whole story because Rachel had not spoken. I think this is a perfect cap to revealing that it’s not just about cultural excess and obsessing about celebrities. It’s about what our brains do to us when we’re teenagers, mental health, loneliness, codependency, drug abuse, and understanding what happened in the houses that night.

What drew you to Rachel’s story?

Carr: When [the Bling Ring] happened, I was obsessed. I remember that I once had stolen one thing in Urban Outfitters: a pair of earrings. I nearly got caught, and it was just red hot shame. So I was blown away by this group of kids entering into these houses and doing this, and my beat is complex women, and you are one.

Lee: Yeah, I am.

Rachel, were you offered a spot in the Netflix documentary?

Lee: I was. I just personally didn’t want to participate in that because, energetically, I was shaking so much, trembling. I just knew I couldn’t.

How did this project come about with Erin?

Lee: A pretty natural flow, but a lot of blind faith and [time]. I was kind of very vulnerable, but not totally. So Erin was very patient with me, never made me feel pressured.

Carr: It was a little uncomfortable because Rachel showed me text messages where—it’s not Netflix, a production company that made the documentary—but where they were talking badly about me, and it was a full-court press on Rachel. That energetically is not going to feel good. I have the benefit of working with organizations like HBO, where they give me the time, and I don’t need to pressure anybody. But I knew the story that I wanted to tell was really different.

Erin, what were your first impressions of Rachel?

Carr: Mystical. Moon baby. Bubbly. Thoughtful. Split.

What do you mean by split?

Carr: There are parts of her that are fractured. There’s the before, the during, and the after, and it’s very hard for her to reconcile who she is today with who she was. She’s pushed it all away, and I’ll let Rachel speak to this, but she’s put a lot of that down. These vestiges come up in the present day sometimes.

Rachel, first impressions of Erin?

Lee: To be honest, I just really liked Erin. I thought that she was a very bold but nice person. I’m not bold in the world, but maybe behind closed doors. I just liked being around Erin’s energy; she was constantly inspiring me to be more out there. I felt really good to be able to talk about things I had been pushing down for so long.

Carr: You were close to backing out; you came very close to canceling the whole thing.

Lee: Yeah, I did.

What was making you want to back out?

Lee: I can talk on the phone all day, but the second a camera is on me, I freeze. But I had to overcome that hurdle because I wanted to share how I felt.

Carr: She’s been burned by the media, and I’m an empath, but I’m also a journalist. I think that in her mind, was I going to come in and try to exploit her? She says it’s about energy, but it really is also about my body of work that I don’t tend to screw people over. I can say with a whole heart that I will do justice by the story and know that no one’s gonna give me notes not to do that.

Erin, what was the biggest misconception about Rachel that you wanted to correct?

Carr: There was this huge question: Was she the ringleader?‘Was she the mastermind behind it all? I think it was a two-person job. I’ve wanted to explore the psychology behind when two people get together and egg each other on. Nick [Prugo] had obviously told the police everything right after everything that happened and was in a very fortunate position to say it was all Rachel. She was in such serious trouble; she was trying to fight for her survival in the criminal justice system, let alone giving an interview to Good Morning America. I think it’s very clear that there was an agenda put out in the world and that didn’t feel correct.

Rachel, what was the hardest thing to talk about in the documentary?

Lee: The hardest things for me were talking about the burglaries themselves, the affected victims, and my family. Those are things I can never go back in time and change. I can only imagine how horribly I affected so many people, so when I talk about it in the documentary, I just feel nervous and sad.

What are your feelings now about the Bling Ring?

Lee: I was having a really hard time forgiving myself, being able to live a full life, because I always felt like I had to punish myself. Not only was the media punishing me, and I was punished by the justice system, but I was also punishing myself. 

Carr: It was very hard for her to go back into those nights and describe what happened during the night of the robberies. We had a moment where we went outside and talked. I told her, “This can’t be a fluff piece where I can’t ask you about what happened. We have built enough trust.” We had to go through it, and you talked about the high you’ve gotten and the clarity you got after it. She’s been told by her family, by the media, to not talk about it. But for people to understand this and for it to feel like a definitive piece about your story, we need to know what it felt like in the house.

Do you feel like you’ve changed?

Lee: Of course. I was honestly not considerate of other people’s feelings, and that’s something I really had to work on. I’ve become a more mindful person. Even when my friends joke about stealing to this day, I’m like, “Don’t ever do that. Don’t ever talk about it. Don’t ever steal. Just don’t joke around about stuff like that.” Growing up, after the Bling Ring happened, some people would say, “Oh my god, that’s so cool.” And I’d ask, “How is that cool? I did something so terrible. Ruined my name and people’s lives.” All I had to do was learn from it, and I’m really grateful I did. 

If Erin had not approached you about this documentary, do you think you would you never have spoken about The Bling Ring?

Lee: For the rest of my life, never. In my mind, I was like, “I’m gonna go the rest of my life and never say anything, ever.”

Why not? You wouldn’t want to clear your name?

Lee: Clearing a name is for ego purposes. I was always afraid to open up to somebody who had power through media, and they could twist the story, and then it would be more messy. For me, every time an article comes out about the Bling Ring, every time a new documentary comes out, I keep in the back of my mind that these victims are still here on this earth triggered by this, so I didn’t want to be a trigger.

That’s a very selfless way of looking at this.

Lee: I would say that is one of the things that Bling Ring gave me is a lot of selflessness. I’m very humbled and was humbled at a young age.

What do you both hope the audience takes away from the documentary?

Carr: I’ve spent such an obsessive, obscene amount of time on these films, so every thought I’ve ever had gets put into the film, and I don’t want to say what my thoughts are; I want the film to speak for me. As a journalist, I want there to be all sides to the story, and you’ll see throughout the films that I work on you can sometimes know my opinion, and sometimes it feels a bit more ambiguous. I try to keep people guessing a little bit.

Lee: I just hope that they just see me as a human and that I’m not perfect, but that I’m trying, in this life, in this current moment. I really hope that the victims know how sorry I am. There will never be a time in my life when I’m not sorry and guilty about it.

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