Home Horror Series Interview: Filmmaker Christina Fontana on Her ‘Relentless’ True Crime Docuseries

Interview: Filmmaker Christina Fontana on Her ‘Relentless’ True Crime Docuseries

by Kelly McNeely
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Relentless

When 21-year-old Christina Whittaker disappeared in the small town of Hannibal, MO, a frantic search immediately ensued. Eight months later, filmmaker Christina Fontana met Whittaker’s mother when filming a documentary about the families of missing persons. Little did Fontana know, this one case would lead her down a dark path full of conspiracies, betrayals, suicide, and murder. Fontana documents her involvement in Whittaker’s case in the 6-part docuseries, Relentless

Using more than 400 hours of footage from field investigations and video diaries filmed over 11 years, this docuseries follows not only a complex search for a missing person, but the journey of a filmmaker who becomes dangerously ensnared by the story she’s documenting.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Fontana to discuss Relentless, her decade-long involvement in the case, and the challenges of being so personally involved. Produced by Blumhouse Television in association with Stick Figure Entertainment and streaming on discovery+, Relentless is a twisting, turning, emotionally charged case full of danger and deceit. 


Kelly McNeely: Hello! How are you?

Christina Fontana: I’m doing well. It’s been a surreal 24 hours now that Relentless has finally dropped. It’s been such a long journey for me. So finally, being able to share with audiences is thrilling. It’s very exciting to get it out there.

Kelly McNeely: I saw the first three episodes, and I cannot wait to watch the rest because it’s such an absolutely crazy, twisting case. Can you talk a little bit about your involvement and perhaps how it’s evolved over time, both personally and professionally?

Christina Fontana: Yeah, this story started out in 2007, I was doing a documentary on families of the missing. I was interested in what it was like for families who had to carry the weight of their own investigations, and what it was like for them to be able to go to work and also do that. And I met Christina’s parents in the summer of 2010 — at a retreat for families of the missing — and I was really taken by the dedication and tenacity of Christina’s mother, to look for her and the active leads that they had. 

So originally, this was supposed to be a story among other stories, and all of a sudden, all of the focus shifted to Christina’s case, because Christina’s mom had leads, and they tracked her to this town 200 miles away from where they lived. And it kind of became a thrill thrill ride from there. And yeah, I mean, obviously, you’ve seen it develop to a degree in the first three episodes, and I’ll say that the last three episodes get pretty crazy. It’s really a thrill ride. 

Kelly McNeely: You’ve spoken with a few people throughout this process that have been perhaps not entirely truthful with you during their interviews. As an interviewer, what runs through your head when you know someone’s lying to you, and how do you navigate those conversations?

Christina Fontana: It’s actually pretty difficult, because what’s interesting about this story, for me, is that I dove in headfirst in the beginning based solely on Christina’s mom’s tenacity to look for her. And, you know, she needed some help. And I wanted to be somebody that was there for her. And I realized that that was naive, and I wasn’t always being objective. So the reason why I do the diary cams in Relentless is because I wanted the audience to know what I was feeling during those moments, when I was getting information thrown at me that they may be lying to you, or hiding certain pieces of information, and how hard that was for me to grapple with. Because I went into this on their side. 

And it was difficult to kind of push through that and say, okay, you really need to put all the information out there. Otherwise, you’re going to be trying to put a puzzle together without all the pieces. So it was difficult for me, because the more I uncover in Relentless, the more complicated my relationship with the family. And I always wanted to be kind in the way I approached them when I found, you know, certain pieces of information out. There’s a lot of rumors in this case, and there were a lot of rumors in this town. So I wasn’t always sure what was real and what wasn’t.

Kelly McNeely: I imagine that’d be a very difficult part, just because there’s so much hearsay back and forth between different friends and family members, and people that knew her and people that didn’t… could you talk a little bit about trying to do that detective work of digging through to try and find the facts through all the back and forth?

Christina Fontana: Yeah, you know, that’s why I realized that I needed help with investigators. And I actually bring on even more investigators in the final three episodes, because it was such a difficult case to navigate. And there are specific allegations of corruption that go on within Hannibal that was too big for me to handle, I needed professional help. So a lot of the detective work was thankfully, guided by the law enforcement officials that I brought on my team, because it was a lot of emotion for me, dealing with all of the lies and deceit, manipulation and danger. I mean, I kept putting myself in situations where I felt in danger. And navigating through all of that wouldn’t have happened if I did not have the team that I had. So they were a great help. They understood the town, and they understood the certain allegations that were going around.

Kelly McNeely: And I think that sort of makes a great segue to my next question, what do you think was the best decision that you made when investigating all of this? Whether it was bringing all the other team members, or was there a decision that you made that you’re like, I’m so glad I did this one particular thing because it’s really helped me along the process?

Christina Fontana: I have to say that I brought on a really amazing showrunner, George Moll, who comes from a journalism background. And I think that is one of the smartest decisions I’ve made, because even though I had investigators, having somebody on a day to day basis who was able to look at it from many different angles — particularly because I was so entrenched, I became a part of the story. So it was hard for me sometimes to take a step back and say, okay, how do we look at this objectively? Because some of the people that are lying to you are your friends, you think, so it was really nice for me to have George creatively and investigatively. He just brought a lot to the table.

Kelly McNeely: The whole thing seems like it was just an emotional roller coaster, was there ever a point that you wanted to just stop the investigation? To say, I have to step away from this? 

Christina Fontana: Yeah. The end of episode 5 is a very emotional moment that you’ll see. And particularly when the case hit 10 years, I was at my wit’s end. And I kept asking myself, why am I doing this, despite everything that’s coming at me, and I kept remembering that the reason I joined the search was to find justice for Christina [Whittaker]. When I agreed to join the search, I didn’t agree with strings attached. I didn’t agree to help, you know, if no one lied to me, or if everybody wasn’t a really good person. It was about Christina, and helping her little girl find that closure, or get reunited with her mom. So that was the thing that kept driving me to continue.

Kelly McNeely: You had such a close connection with the family. And this may get answered in later episodes. But do you still keep in touch with anyone from the family? Has there been any follow up with [Whittaker’s] daughter at all?

Christina Fontana: Yeah, the family welcomed me with open arms in the beginning, and it gets complicated. And I think to a large degree, they understand the complications that arose from this journey. And I think one of the lessons that you’ll find in Relentless is that there are a lot of unintended consequences when a family has to take control of their own investigation.

Families are not objective, they have a natural tendency to want to protect each other, protect each other from judgment, and a natural fear of parents that if they do get judged that no one will want to help. So I know that there is a lot of raw emotion based on things that we uncover. But I had to remain true to the story. Anything that was relevant to the case, because that could be the thing that brings Christina home. So we we do keep in touch, and we’re trying to keep our focus on finding Christina.

Kelly McNeely: This is a bit of a long process that you’ve taken us on over so many years. Can you talk a little bit about the journey from beginning to end and how it feels to be done everything now? I guess the case is still ongoing, but to have this final project of Relentless completed?

Christina Fontana: Yeah, I mean, it’s such a surreal feeling. I had started the project again, on these other families and how it grew into Christina’s case, and the effect that it had on my life was pretty significant. Emotionally, and I get very raw about that. And again, in the in the final three episodes, it increases because everything that’s coming at me increases, and Christina Whittaker has become a part of me. 

I’ve never met her, you know, but she has been in my thoughts, I get these leads, you know, at work, at the gym, at home, it’s just been a part of my life, and to see it and to be able to finally share the story with true crime audiences at discovery+ especially is exciting for me, because I know that they’re just as passionate and stubborn as I am, that we’re not going to give up until we get justice for Christina. 

So on the one hand, I want to say it is a relief that I finally am able to get this out there. It’s exciting to say okay, what do you guys think? And you know, I’ve been getting leads even the first three episodes that drop, my phone has been ringing with people who are coming forward in the case. And that’s my hope. And my hope is that people with direct knowledge of what happened to Christina see the people who are brave enough who have come forward, and that’ll inspire them to say, okay, I’m not alone. It’s time, let’s do this. So it certainly gives it a lot more. 

[Fontana’s phone rings, she quickly checks it]

That was a lead from Hannibal, by the way. 

Kelly McNeely: That was Hannibal Missouri calling? Is it like all hours of the day?

Christina Fontana: They’re calling all hours of the day. That’s what happens. All day, I’ll get calls and messages from people in Hannibal that want to share information that they know, because they think it might help. And I welcome that. 

Kelly McNeely: Has true crime always been an interest for you? Or did it really start with this case? How did you get this interest in the detective work that you’ve developed over the process of working on Relentless?

Christina Fontana: My favorite cartoon as a kid was Scooby Doo. So I don’t know if it started there. And I’ve always been very interested in mysteries. I think my passion was in documentaries because I just think there are certain stories in life that are just, like, life is crazier than fiction, right? It’s just incredible, the true stories that you can find out there. And I wanted to do this documentary, because I had a passion for if I could do something that at least could affect someone’s life in a positive way, and also use the medium that I love — which is film — that would be super cool. So that’s why I kind of got into this. But yeah, figuring things out, the mystery of it all, is something that has always interested me, I think.

Kelly McNeely: Is it something you want to continue to pursue, maybe with other stories now that you’ve sort of gotten your feet wet with this really crazy case?

Christina Fontana: Yeah, you know, I’ve been keeping up with a lot of the families of the missing that I was meeting in the very beginning of this process. And I’ve met a lot of incredible families since. And all of them are being relentless in their own cases, whether they’re trying to find justice for their murdered — missing or murdered — loved one, or missing person. And I’d like to share those stories. I think it’s really valuable to get all of their stories out there. So I am looking at things like that. And discovery+ is an amazing place to be, because they’re very interested in justice and also getting these stories out. So yeah, it’s my hope to share as many as I can.

 

The first three episodes of Relentless stream exclusively on discovery+ beginning June 28th, and subsequent episodes drop every Monday. For more true crime content, you can read my interview with producer Jacqueline Bynon on The Clown and the Candyman