EXCLUSIVE - 'You could call it a suicide mission': How creator of HBO's The Lady and the Dale worked for 10 years, went broke and lost his marriage to 'correct the record' of the transgender fraudster who is now seen as a 'pioneer'
- Documentarian Nick Cammilleri has opened up about his journey in producing The Lady and the Dale for HBO
- The documentary tells the story of Liz Carmichael, a transgender auto executive who had lived life on the run from the law
- Cammilleri went broke, lost his marriage and had to move in with his parents in the 10 years he spent researching Carmichael's story
- Financial help came from an unlikely source: insurance payouts from two auto accidents
- He later got financing from the Duplass brothers, who brought the show to HBO
- ‘Her life was criminalized for being trans, but actually she was ahead of her time,’ he said
The creator of HBO’s hit documentary The Lady and the Dale, about an infamous 1970s transgender Mafia fraudster exposed by Tucker Carlson's father, has revealed how making the show left him destitute and almost killed him.
The new four-part documentary tells the story of wanted Mafia gun runner Liz Carmichael, who went into hiding after transitioning into a woman and ran a huge scam selling unroadworthy three-wheeled cars – until she was exposed by Tucker Carlson's father.
In an exclusive interview with DailyMailTV, documentarian Nick Cammilleri says his obsession with the project cost him his marriage, left him destitute, homeless and in dark depressions.
The director, 34, was relentless in his desire to ‘tell Liz’s story', despite living off noodles and working 20-hour days that left him so emaciated, one friend asked whether he’d become a heroin addict.
Documentarian Nick Cammilleri has opened up about the long road to getting The Lady and the Dale on HBO
Cammilleri said while producing the documentary he survived two near-fatal high speed car crashes, but used the personal injury payouts to fund more filming rather than physical recovery. He drove over 85 hours a week for Lyft to bolster his shoestring budget, raising over $60,000 on his own and running up over $10,000 in credit card debt, all while editing his documentary in his childhood bedroom with only his cat Mo for company.
But even though the grueling process almost killed him, Cammilleri told DailyMailTV it was all worth it, as The Lady and the Dale has become one of HBO’s most watched documentaries this year and has landed him three new deals for scripted feature films.
‘Liz’s story mattered to me,’ Cammilleri told DailyMailTV. ‘I realized that she would die with history and what she achieved would be erased. ‘The film always came first to the neglect of my mental and physical health.
‘At one time I felt myself slipping off the cliff as it all became too much. I lay in bed thinking without me this could all die.
‘At times you could call it a suicide mission. But it was her story that got me out of one of the worst ruts of my life.’
The Lady And The Dale follows Carmichael’s high-profile promotion of a three-wheel vehicle as the answer for efficient transportation during the oil crisis of the 1970s. The fraudster publicly showcased her car, The Dale, which was in fact just a fiberglass shell, without an engine or safe road testing, and took millions from investors and customers’ deposits, leaving them empty handed.
Carmichael’s firm, the Twentieth Century Motor Company, only ever built four vehicles, and the prototype was deemed unroadworthy. As her house of cards collapsed and law enforcement closed in, Carmichael went on the run but was eventually caught and jailed.
One key factor in the fraud’s exposure was an investigation by Los Angeles-based TV producer Dick Carlson, father of Fox News’ prime time star Tucker. Carlson exposed Carmichael’s extraordinary criminal history as a former gun runner with mafia links, an on-the-run felon and father of five, who was born Jerry Dean Michael. The TV producer and his colleague Pete Noyes won a Peabody Award and several other accolades for his exposé on Carmichael.
Cammilleri said his obsession with the case began when he learned of Carmichael’s story on a rerun of Spike TV’s Unsolved Mysteries in 2011. The young documentarian was instantly hooked on the tale, throwing himself into hundreds of hours of research rather than saving his failing relationship with his then-fiancée.
The documentary tells the story of Liz Carmichael, a transgender woman who lived her life on the run and helped develop the Dale, a three-wheeled car that never hit the road and led to a fraud prosecution
Carmichael's Dale attracted considerable attention as being a car with great gas mileage during the oil crisis in the 1970s
A snapshot shows a prototype of the Dale, which never was proven to be roadworthy
Cammilleri spent 10 years crisscrossing the country to try to find information on the life of Carmichael, and once thought of her as an 'urban myth' given his difficulties
‘I couldn’t cope with the mental impact of what happened to my relationship with my fiancée,’ he said. ‘I took a long time to recover. ‘My entire life was tied up in this and nobody wanted to co-produce this project. It all fell down to me.’
He drove over 80 hours each week for his job for Lyft, heading home each night to make 100 calls and write 50 letters and emails as he dug into Carmichael’s colorful past.
Using ‘stolen’ and ‘borrowed’ cameras and a $30 Home Depot construction light kit, the intrepid filmmaker went on a series of research road trips across the US, attempting to convince Carmichael’s associates to talk on camera.
‘I drove about 150,000 miles from 2015 to 2019. I couch-surfed most nights or crashed on people’s floors everywhere,’ he said. ‘In this small desert town of Elko in Nevada, a guy let me sleep on the floor of the basement of an abandoned tattoo shop.
‘Consideration for my safety was secondary. At some places I slept with one eye open.
‘The first four years I did not make a dent in Liz’s story, certainly nothing enough for a documentary. I questioned if she was an urban myth, because nothing in-depth was out there.’
Broke, jobless and unable to afford his rent in Los Angeles, Camillerri ‘hit the wall’ and reluctantly returned to his parents’ home in New Hampshire.
‘I needed to get out. Everything took its toll on me. I’d dropped about 40lbs,’ he said.
Cammilleri went broke and moved in with his parents while he was collecting interviews for The Lady and the Dale
Cammilleri was aided by two insurance payouts after auto accidents until meeting the Duplass brothers, who helped finance the film and bring it to HBOs attention
Cammilleri, left, is pictured with a Dale prototype under wraps
‘My parents thought I was emaciated and one friend asked if had substance abuse issues or was taking heroin. I was so broke I could only eat noodles, quinoa, rice and vegetables. I’d sacrificed my health, because I cared more about work than life.
‘After a year my parents wanted to kick me out, because they thought I didn’t do anything. Even when I showed him what I’d done on The Dale, my dad didn't grasp my craft of filmmaking.’
Cammilleri was almost ready to give up, when a chance encounter with his ex spurred him on.
‘I crossed paths with my ex and told her I was done with Liz, but she insisted: “Liz Carmichael is too important. If you do not care about her - who will?”’ he said. ‘I really related to [Carmichael] as a fellow scavenger, a survivor who got by no matter what. There is a lot to being broke and desperate. She was someone who had to fight for everything, with a will power that would conquer.’
The director said he was constantly stymied by a lack of cash to finally finish his project. But just as he was about to go broke, help came from an unlikely source.
Cammilleri was a passenger in a 70 mph five-car pile-up on the 118 freeway in Los Angeles in November 2015.
’I was fortunate to have lived. It could have been a lot worse,’ he said. ‘Three cars hit us from the back and two from the side. I had such serious whiplash and pain, that I spent a week in a bath with epsom salts and the back and neck pain continued.’
Yet the driven documentarian saw the accident as an opportunity. ‘I ended up getting a $6,000 settlement, which was what I needed for my next trip,’ he said.
He was in a crash again in 2017 when a speeding driver hit his black Prius while at a stop light in Boston, fortunately shunting him into a curb rather than into crossing traffic.
‘I just remember spinning around as I bounced off the curb not realizing how fortunate I was,’ he said. ‘I drove after him to get his license plate. And again I got an insurance payout, which financed another road trip collecting interviews and footage. I see those accidents as badges of honor.’
Cammilleri made a breakthrough in the case when he uncovered blueprints for The Dale and the names of its 25-man development team, as well as securing a last minute two-hour interview with Carlson in Washington DC.
In 2017, independent Hollywood producers Andre Gaines and Allen Bain got wind of his project and decided to back what they described as a ‘mind blowing’ documentary. Soon the Duplass Brothers, famous for making Netflix hit doc Wild Wild Country, agreed to finance the entire show, landing it at HBO.
‘Ten years came down to a 30-minute meeting,’ Camilleri said. ‘But they got it, and I got my dream partners.'
Despite his main character’s fraud and deception, Camilleri still sees Carmichael as the hero of his story.
‘Her life was criminalized for being trans, but actually she was ahead of her time,’ he said. ‘She was dismissed by the LGBTQ community, but now she is being accepted and celebrated as a trans pioneer. This corrected the record, and the biggest seal of approval is knowing that her family felt we did her justice.’
The final episode of Lady And The Dale aired on February 13 and the show is available on demand on HBO MAX.