A Moving Obsession
by Jarret Bencks
There is nothing Darius McCollum would rather be than a New York City subway conductor or bus driver.
And he has plenty of experience. McCollum has driven city subway trains and buses hundreds of times over the years. He always got his passengers to their destinations safely and punctually.
Yet the New York City Transit Authority has never hired him and never will. McCollum has been arrested more than 30 times and spent more than 20 years behind bars for impersonating train conductors and bus drivers, and taking over their routes.
Should McCollum, who has Asperger’s syndrome, be imprisoned for his behavior?
That’s what filmmaker Adam Irving ’05 explores in “Off the Rails,” his first feature-length documentary. The award-winning indie film was released in New York and Los Angeles in November 2016, and has earned Academy Award buzz from the likes of The Hollywood Reporter. It has also been nominated for a Critics’ Choice Movie Award.
Irving’s film is sympathetic to McCollum’s plight. The 51-year-old, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the transit system, never harmed any passenger or any equipment during his “shifts.”
“He wants each ride to be an adventure,” says Irving. “To him, getting people from point A to point B in New York is a heroic act.”
Irving’s journey as a filmmaker began at Brandeis. His first film was a 40-minute documentary about the university’s ballroom-dance team, called “Strictly Brandeis.” He also co-founded SunDeis, the student film festival.
After graduation, Irving earned a master’s degree from New York University, then enrolled in the University of Texas’ film-studies PhD program, planning to become a professor. But his own (celluloid) obsession soon compelled him to change tracks. He wanted to make films, not write about them. He headed to Los Angeles, where he became a production assistant at Lawrence Bender Productions, which made the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Eventually, Irving started his own production company, making videos for universities, government agencies and nonprofits, while keeping an eye out for a documentary subject.
Surfing the internet late one night in 2013, he stumbled upon the Wikipedia entry on McCollum. He immediately knew he was onto something.
“It was like the log line for a Hollywood movie,” Irving recalls. “I thought, ‘You couldn’t make this up. He’s so obsessed with his passion that he’s lost his freedom.’”
Irving started exchanging letters with McCollum, who was in prison after commandeering a private bus and driving it around John F. Kennedy International Airport and the streets of Queens. The pair exchanged more than 100 letters over six months before Irving visited McCollum at Rikers Island in 2014.
“I thought after 20 years of incarceration he would have a sort of tough-guy demeanor,” says Irving. “But he was just so normal. He was like a teddy bear. It was like having coffee with an old friend.”
They continued to exchange letters until McCollum was released from jail. Shortly thereafter, Irving spent 22 days with McCollum and shot “Off the Rails,” starting with three days of interview sessions and eventually visiting some of the places where McCollum pulled off his city-vehicle thefts.
“He sees himself as an employee who does not have a badge,” Irving says. “He wants the world to know he’s making the stops on time.”