True Crime

Blumhouse and Christina Fontana talk “Relentless” and its decade-plus production

When Blumhouse Television picked up the new docuseries Relentless, they entered into a project that was already more than a decade in the making. More than 400 hours of footage were ...
July 6, 2021

When Blumhouse Television picked up the new docuseries Relentless, they entered into a project that was already more than a decade in the making.

More than 400 hours of footage were shot over 11 years before Relentless made its debut on Discovery+ last week. The six-part series, produced by Blumhouse Television in association with Stick Figure Entertainment, will see new episodes released every Monday.

Relentless follows the disappearance of 21-year-old Christina Whittaker from the small town of Hannibal, MO. Eight months after Whittaker vanished, leaving behind a six-month-old daughter, filmmaker Christina Fontana met Whittaker’s mother while filming another documentary about the families of missing persons. Fontana was so moved by the mother’s determination to find her daughter that she began to focus specifically on this disappearance for her next project.

With so much footage, Fontana struggled early on to find a way to tell the story in a 50-minute documentary. But, over the past decade, as true crime docuseries such as Making a Murderer became more popular, Fontana began pitching the story as a series instead.

“There were many leads and rabbit holes I fell through,” Fontana said. “Every time I went back to my life a little bit, a lead would come back in and that hope would ignite again, and I couldn’t turn away because this could have been the thing that led me to Christina.”

The number of leads Fontana received and chased down kept her working on Relentless for years. To this day, even as the series is airing, Fontana says she’s still receiving tips from sources.

Fontana worked on this project solo before reaching out to industry colleagues in 2013. Stick Figure founder Steven Cantor encouraged Fontana to stay with the project. Once the case began heating up in 2017, Fontana officially partnered with Stick Figure so they could help nurture and develop the project. Fontana had worked with Stick Figure as an editor before, so they trusted her work. But, more than that, they were interested in how Fontana had become a central figure in the series in a way they hadn’t seen before, said Stick Figure president Jamie Schutz.

“What really made it even more interesting was Christina as a character going through this journey of trying to help the family … And it really took a toll on (Fontana’s) life emotionally, physically, mentally,” Schutz said. “That convinced us there was something really interesting here. Not only is it a very compelling true-crime story about a missing girl, but told from the perspective of a filmmaker [it's] something we haven’t seen before to this level.”

Initial attempts to find a larger production partner proved difficult for a series about an active case. Blumhouse eventually came on board in 2020 after seeing footage from the show and a pitch that articulated where Fontana wanted to take the series. Things moved quickly from there and within six months, they found a buyer in Discovery.

“Christina Fontana, she had such a clear vision for what she wanted to do,” said Jeremy Gold, president of production for Blumhouse Television and an executive producer on the series.

“There was an awful lot of footage and material, and a path forward. But honestly they needed support and finishing money and to bring on a buyer.”

The biggest challenge when joining a production like this, Gold said, is when prior assumptions have been made and creative completed that doesn’t line up with their thinking of what the story should be. Gold added the series already had a strong singular vision that they, Stick Figure, Fontana and Discovery were all in agreement on. In this case, they needed to step aside and allow Fontana to continue to chase down leads even after they joined the project.

Finding the path to the series’ ending was a big focus. Even though they hoped it would end in justice being served, Gold knows this isn’t always the case in true-crime series, and said the partners at least wanted to end on a note that felt comfortable and thematically fulfilling.

When taking on a project years in the making, Gold advised producers to first do no harm before finding ways to help and support the filmmakers.

“Embrace what has happened before, really understand it, start with questions more than notes, and really understand what the artists who were there before you are trying to achieve,” Gold said.

He added that filmmakers who are looking to partner with a production company after working on a project for years should be open to outside opinion and collaboration.

Fontana, meanwhile, advised filmmakers not to give up on finding partners for years-long projects.

“I had a lot of people tell me ‘no’ along the way, and eventually somebody’s going to say ‘yes,’ ” Fontana said.

“If you have enough dedication to the project you are working on, I would definitely work with a partner … [if] the work they do, outside of your project, looks like something they put a lot of dedication and time into.”

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