The new Hulu docuseries Captive Audience revisits a very well-known true crime story, but from a completely new—and very necessary—perspective. Many viewers will be familiar with the story of Steven Stayner, who was abducted in 1972 and reunited with his family in 1979, when all hope seemed lost. What they don’t know is how the abduction affected him and his loved ones for decades to come. With expert direction by Jessica Dimmock and the involvement of Steven’s daughter Ashley, Captive Audience follows the aftershocks of a crime in the way few true crime series ever do—and audiences will be stunned by where the series ends up.
I spoke to both Ashley and Jessica ahead of the series premiere to discuss why they became involved with the project and what they’re hoping true crime viewers learn from this previously unexplored side of the Stayner family’s story.
Brittany Frederick: We’re now several decades after Steven’s abduction. What made you want to revisit, or in Jessica’s case take on, this project?
Ashley Stayner: I know my dad’s story is very well known and I know a lot of people still have questions. The thing that made me really want to get into it was there was never anything out there that depicted our side, like the family side. It was usually a journalist or another person that had a different take on it; it was never the family speaking. I really wanted to do something different for my dad that encapsulated more personal aspects of his life.
Jessica Dimmock: When I was approached with a project, I thought that it was a really fascinating story with a lot of layers. But it was also the fact that the producer that brought it to me, Andrew Jacobs, had made inroads with Ashley and had contacted her and found out that she would be interested in participating. It was the opportunity to include the voice of the family that made me really interested in pursuing this.
BF: Ashley, it still must be an incredibly challenging thing to revisit this difficult time in your family’s lives. From an emotional standpoint, what was the journey of Captive Audience like for you?
AS: [Jessica]’s made this so easy. It’s been a great experience because of her. At first I was really like, “Who even wants to listen to this?” But she made it like, “No, there’s people that really do want to know your story.” It flowed so well and was just so easy to do, and the team was great. There were a lot of emotional moments, but I think when you’re surrounded by people that really care about the story and want it to be genuine, it was a lot easier to handle.
BF: Jessica, from your perspective, true crime audiences are more savvy now because of the saturation of content. Did you handle the project differently knowing that viewers were likely familiar with Steven’s story or would at least be better informed in general?
JD: Going into this, I knew that I wanted to make something that had additional layers to it and could maybe get away with some things that a decade ago audiences wouldn’t totally understand. I think there’s such a saturation in the true crime space [that] there seemed like there was an opportunity to like play with the format a little bit.
I will say when I first started talking to Ashley, not only was I asking her about kind of coming out and meeting her and doing this thing on the family, but I was also like, “I kind of want to do this weird thing where we use the made-for-TV movie [1989’s I Know My First Name is Steven] as reenactments.” I didn’t know about the archives of the making of the movie yet, but that eventually happened. And the whole time that she was so on board and kind of understood that I was going to do something that wasn’t just a straight retelling, in part because there had been so many straight retellings. She was really up for it.
BF: Were there particular aspects or portions of Captive Audience that resonated with you? What are those important things that viewers should be looking for?
JD: There’s two things. One is that for the seven years that Steven was being held by his abductor and was living in this small town, he had another identity. He was told by his captor that his name was Dennis. I went back to that town and I was struck by how many people during just those few years were really touched by him and had really lasting memories of him. That, to me, is one of the most important parts—hearing everyone all of these years later talking about the impact [and] the guilt of not knowing [he was abducted].
And then any time that we can hear Steven’s true voice. A lot of times that’s kind of done through the actor Corin Nemec [who played Steven in I Know My First Name is Steven]. That was a device that was about being able to hear it straight from Steven’s mouth. Since he’s not with us any longer, I didn’t want other versions or other interpretations of what he had said or a writer distilling it down. I wanted to kind of go back to these original interviews and hear how he spoke.
AS: I told Jessica whenever I was watching it that I felt like the movie was made just for me, and I still very much believe that because there’s moments that he’s so candid, and he’s just a normal kid. He’s 14. He just seems so much more mature than what he really was. So when you see him in this state of running around and playing outside, you get a sense of this was just a child, and he had to grow up and mature so quickly. Seeeing those aspects of his life that nobody else really saw, or at least I know I didn’t, really made it more real.
BF: The purpose of Captive Audience is to elucidate more of this story than audiences have seen or heard before. Is there a specific thought or message that you want to leave with viewers by the end? What’s going to make this worthwhile to you?
JD: I was so interested in this idea of coming in with [Steven’s brother] Cary’s story after you learn about what had happened with Steven…I thought it so interesting to kind of position Cary’s story after you know the bravery and the heartache that this family had gone through, that his mother Kay had gone through, and to see it through that lens. Not necessarily as a continuation or cause, but to be able to stay sympathetic with the family, because you know that they deserve sympathy. And to then see this terrible thing that happens, but to say “But I’ve learned [to see them] through this sympathetic lens, and does that have to change now or can I still stay sympathetic?”
AS: I want everybody to see that we’re a family. Even though we’ve been through so many hard times and stuff behind the scenes that nobody really knows about, we’re still like anybody else, just trying to live life and go through the day to day. And given our circumstances, we’re still people that have a story to tell.
JD: It’s so important not to forget what a different time this was. Steven was abducted way before we had so many of the things that we have in place now. There weren’t cell phones, there weren’t Amber Alerts, there weren’t milk cartons with kids’ pictures on them yet and there weren’t commercials saying, “It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” But so many things like that are in place because of what happened to Steven.
It’s not like the parents weren’t paying attention to those things. Those things exist because they had to go through what they went through for us to realize that it is possible for a child to disappear, especially in a kind of pre-surveillance [era]…We’re all in some ways safer because of what those parents had to go through.
Captive Audience is streaming now on Hulu.
Article content is (c)2020-2023 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr and on Instagram at @BFTVGram.