Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal
Welcome to you. Can't make this up a companion podcast for netflix original true crime stories. I'm rebecca lavoix. Your host each episode. We take a close up look at a true crime narrative documentary or series and i talked to the people who made them diving deep into the back stories and getting answers to questions raised by what we just watched. This week's film is operation varsity blues. The college admissions scandal. I'm joined by john. Carman the film's editor writer and producer. And chris smith the film's director and producer a not listeners. This episode contains spoilers. Make sure to watch the entire film and then listen on. You've probably heard a lot about the twenty nineteen college admission scandal. But you haven't heard everything. Operation varsity blues goes beyond the celebrity driven headlines with real conversations from f. b. i. Wiretaps the film offers a rare glimpse of the man at the center of the scandal. Rick singer and the methods he used to help his wealthy clients cheat a system already designed to benefit the privileged. Only talking about one thing. And it's this story. An fbi investigation called operation varsity blues usc ucla and rick singer the mastermind behind the entire operation face. Hey rick this is a good sign. Yeah yeah it's good for rick. Ida question for you is kosher absolutely. I want you to walk me through the whole thing again and how it works. We helped the wealthiest families in the us get their kids into school. So i've done seven hundred sixty one. What i would call side doors front door means getting in on your own so i created this kind of side door because my family's guarantee john carman welcome to you can't make this up for having me now. The college admissions scandal story has everything it has celebrities. It has Rich people it has You know sort of busting of the american myth of being able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. I'm curious which element of of those or something else. What attracted you to this story. Well this story kind of broke right. After we finished the fire festival documentary and that was very much. In the head. Space of scams and scandals american capitalism run amok and gifters. All that stuff and you know when this broke and we did some reading into it. I mean aside from it being like a thrilling crime story to seem to be kind of like emblematic of widespread systemic issue at the heart of higher education. So yeah it just seemed to be very rich and of course it wasn't until we fully dove deep into the court documents that we really understood how deep it really went. Did you know when you were starting to make this film that you're going to get these. Fbi tapes that you were going to be able to use. Recreate the exact dialogue of phone calls between rick singer and the parents will be clear. The tapes of never actually been released publicly but the transcripts were and that was it completely public access. Anyone internet account can just download them for free. That was basically. Fbi's initial affidavit. It wasn't until we saw the headlines. I was like oh. This is a very interesting. And then but then it wasn't until we actually read that. Initial two hundred page affidavit. That we realized how richard always yeah. I imagine you had lots of transcripts to look at. How did you decide which conversations to include in the film. Well i guess there was like two factors. One is just like oh this. This is a great way to learn about the case because again the singer was so brazen on some of these calls he would just lay everything out step by step in detail and a lot of ways that's more compelling and interesting to hear straight from him as opposed to just like a talking head interview so that was one factor and other factors played into. It was just looking for any kind of interesting tension or emotions. Something that was coming through on you know these were these were essentially business calls but you could tell that with certain parents. They were worried about what would happen if the public found out of their kid. Found out or you know summer maybe a little too cavalier about you know or or nonchalant about the whole thing so we were kind of looking for either moments that were very revealing as far as Just pure information of how this work but also things that perhaps have like know an additional emotional resonance in some way. I was really interested in in the choice of which parents you decided to. Put in the film bill mcglashan augustine. Who says winemaker. How did you choose which cases to look at because there are a lot and you didn't pick the famous people which i found very interesting mainly it was it was. This is an character in someway again. Like you know bill. Mcglashan seems to be kind of amused by this whole thing. You know and augusta seems very nervous that this thing is going to blow up in his face and others are terrified. I just wore people that In the transcripts like their personality or their feelings on this whole thing seemed to come through whereas a lot of others including like some of the more famous people which we did we did not choose to cast as actors and the thing. They was a lot. A lot of these. Companies was very dry the straightforward. And you know yes no answers and we were looking for the ones where it seemed to go a step beyond that and and it seemed like there was some kind of tension or maybe a a strange joke here and there. There's a something that kind of elevates beyond just pure exposition so essential character in the film. Is john van damore. And that's a more complicated story because there are questions as to whether or not he really was involved in the taking of bribes in exchange for letting kids into stanford it seems. He seems pretty clear that he didn't he got the donations but he did not help the young woman in question get into school and simply pass the jack along was bosses and yet you know the connection that you can draw is there. Tell me what you think of john. And i'd love to hear why you decided to include historian the film so when the scandal first broke. I think just kind of assumed that it was simply rich and corrupt people that were taking part in singers scheme but i. We found john's situation to be really interesting. You know because adds complexity to that narrative and you know this was a guy who dedicated his life to stanford sailing and yet he was struggling to raise funds for his program and then along comes rick singer. Who's like this friendly guy with deep pockets and you know i kinda see him as this tragic figure that kind of ads. Just of moral ambiguity. Rick really was pushing hard to really take a look at the student. You know he was really interested in new that i really wanted to second system coach in struggling to to fundraise for that position and he said hey i would like through my foundation. I would like to donate one hundred and ten thousand dollars to the program. The that gets you through You know a year or two of funding opposition site you know. No strings attached. Let's continue our relationship and keep bringing people to you and have you take a look at a tastic. He did though. No students like actually were accepted because of something. John did because there was a quid pro quo between hammond singer of ongoing to bring you perspective candidates and you and you're going to consider them in return for donations to your program. And so that is that's a quid pro quo and as you know john's lawyer explains you know that that's all the government needs to prove that you have entered a conspiracy so it wasn't always as black and white as just like yes like you pay me off and i'll do whatever you want you know. The john situation was a lot more complicated than that. I'm wondering the pandemic has really changed. The landscape of going to college means and in my own house. It has degraded the brand name college. My son went to a brand name college as a freshman and moved home for the pandemic and was doing it remote for a while and was like this is dumb. It's too expensive to be doing it remote. So he transferred to a state school and is happier so we kind of get that. But also i think the pandemic is opening so many students and parents is right now. Is that something that you thought about when you were making this film during the pandemic yeah. It was definitely strange. Because the bulk of our interviews were conducted pre pandemic. So yeah it's the world is kind of shifted very quickly and it's too. I think it's too soon to know because who knows maybe things will be with vaccine being promised in may maybe things will just kind of go back to how they always word sooner than we think but i think that there has been the pandemic has certainly had effects on the sat like that. I believe that has been suspended for the time being because it's not safe to bring students into a testing center and also a lot of colleges announced that they're going test optional during their admissions process. So i think it's too early to really know. I think that what you said about you. Know your your own kid being happier at a state school. I think that kind of speaks to a some of our experts. Say in the film that you know. There's so many opportunities to get a good education outside of these elite schools. You can get a good education almost anywhere in the country. There's over three thousand schools stuff like that so i think pant pandemic or not. I hope the film can kind of just show that you don't have to buy into the hype of these schools. You know what i think about are the coaches or other college officials who said no and then he had to find somebody else and then that person new extensively that this could be going on if their school. You know what i mean. Do you ever think about the people who rejected the scam altogether. And the fact that they didn't come forward. Well i think in the case of john vander more. I think it shows that it wasn't. I don't think he just walked up and it was like. Hey i wanna do this illegal scheme. Would you like to join me. i think it was. It was kind of a slow and steady process. And you know we had you know whatever interviews was talking about how. He was very patient and took his time in a nurturer the process and i think that's how he got these people kind of comfortable he was. He was a charmer in that sense. So even if he got to that point with someone who decided not to go down that path with him i think they probably formed such a good relationship by that point that they probably thought. But that's a little odd as opposed to you know this is fully criminal. I just i nothing. That i found there was no transcript. I saw at least with the coach where he was like. We're going to do this crime at least before he a popular then. He started changing his language becoming much. More obvious to indict people but yeah. I don't think that's the way he operated. I don't think he i think was very subtle with the sort of Introducing the criminal element into these relationships. How many shoes are left to drop in this case because he's still operating with the fbi right right. Well there's still some Parents that have pleaded not guilty so until those cases are settled or finished know. And he's going to be believe believe they just they just kind of keep. They're to keep him out of prison so in case he needs to be called as a witness or something like that So yeah i mean as you can see at the end of the film. I mean that's those are just the people featured in our film there's other cases beyond that and you know the this. I think there are many shoes left to drop in this and this this could potentially could go on for years before singer is actually sentenced. What are you hoping people will take away from the film. they didn't come in with. What do you think is the biggest thing that they will learn. It's tough to pin it down to one thing because i think it's concerning the the film were i think we're touching on a lot of different issues. Not just in the education system but american society at large. And you know. I think we touch on wealth inequality in class and privilege all these things that it's just so complicated so it's ultimately what i hope is that the film's spark a conversation with people and we can kind of question why things are the way they are absolutely one of the final moments in the film includes you reaching out to stanford and their statement is that the university denies the athletic director new of rick or any improper gifts made their his foundation. They continue to deny that any amount of money can have an influence on admissions. What is your reaction to that statement. I can't speak for what things are like at stanford but you know several people who you know. I spoke to experts or just people that work in the college admissions industry. Tell me that if you make a large donation exponentially increases your kids. Chance of getting in that kind of thing is still going on to this day. According to the experts that i've spoken to that this scandal has not really changed that. I want to talk about the test taking to me. That is one of the most extraordinary parts of this scandal. It's one thing to write a check. It's another thing to have a person fill in answers on behalf of a student. What do you think of the test. Taking component of this scam. What i found to be most heartbreaking. Is that in a lot of these cases. These kids seem to have no idea what their parents had done. So they're just seeing these high scores. And the i mean that must have been such a an amazing feeling to think that you've got such a great score on those tasks this really hard test and then to find out later that it was all a lie. That's that's just. I think it's in some ways. It's the the most sad and simple of of the of the scheme like just that just must depend really awful. You know to to just to think that you've got this amazing scored a and you didn't singer. Has that quote where he's he's saying like oh she'll probably come out of the test and she'll be like dad. It was so hard you know. And it's just like. Oh my god like it's a so. It's it's really heartbreaking that you know that these kids were taking these tests and trying their best and they were robbed of knowing what the truth was until much later when the scandal erupted. Were you tempted. As i was to try taking the sat act after hearing that mark The guy who actually did that was either a genius or maybe just any adult can do well on a test design for an eleventh grader says in the film he says anyone any adult worth their salt in the test. Prep industry okay. Okay so i don't want. I hope i don't want to spread the idea that anyone can do a gray on those deaths. I mean like. I took them forever. Go i remember it being hard. You know but. I don't see that as like a fun afternoon of just taking. Sat prep questions. If you don't have to absolutely all right well. The film was operation varsity blues. John carman so much for talking to me about it. I really really enjoyed the film. My pleasure. I'm so glad you liked to now. Here's my interview with the film's director and producer. Chris smith chris. welcome to. you can't make this up blue now. I remember where i was when i heard about this story for the first time. I don't know if everybody feels that way about this story. But i remember being at work. I remember hearing the story breaking in the news and just thinking like rich people man. Is that what you first thought when you heard about the story. I mean it's hard. It's hard to remember. I think i was overseas when it happened so i don't think that i had like the reaction that everyone else had. Do you think it would have been such a big story. Had celebrities not been involved in the scam. Probably not yeah. I agree although it does sort of point to the american meth of bootstraps. If you just work hard enough you can go to whatever college you want. I mean that really is another compelling threat here right. I think that's probably the number one reason it resonated with people was just it really. I think people hold the institution of education as being somewhat sacred. And the idea that you know that somebody had figured out a way to gain that system. Was i think deeply upsetting to a lot of people absolutely as somebody with kids in college. It was deeply upsetting to me. I'll admit that now. This is a really interesting documentary because you are using real. Fbi transcripts and the reenactments have matthew modine in them Playing singer and it's really interesting. Talk about that decision to do reenactments with the transcripts and also to cast a known actor in that role for us in terms of looking at any project you look at. How can you tell the story in the best way possible. And i think in this case you know. We didn't have access to rick senior. We didn't have access to the parents yet. These transcripts existed. They allowed a window into that world that you know we wouldn't have otherwise and so it became a pretty obvious path in terms of trying to give an audience better understanding of what happened. Is it hard when a story is out there and everyone thinks they know everything about it to do something new with it. I'd love to hear that your answer to that and also to hear what you think is new like. What didn't i know before i watched this that. I know now that i have watched it. I think if anything on a story that's really well covered. It actually becomes an opportunity to try to tell a different side to the story. Because there's usually so much more than you read in the headlines. And i think also in in the world that we're in today a lot of people are only reading headlines so they think they know a store yet. There might be a lot more there than they had originally understood. So i think part of our job is to take something that might be actually quite complex and sort of distill it into a movie that could be consumed in a way that is easy to understand and follow. Was it intentional. That you didn't really focus much on the lori laughlin and felicity huffman stories. Because they had been out there so publicly. I mean you really introduced me to people. I hadn't heard of before the scandal. I think that again when you said people knew the story. I think people really knew the laurie and felicity side to the story in so for us the opportunity was to try to tell the other stories in and around what unfolded and so that was part of it and then the other part was just you know when we looked at what transcripts we had to work with and what phone calls were recorded you know there was a lot to work through but the ones that were the strongest had the most to offer ultimately weren't between laurie and infelicity. I wanna talk about john victim. Or he's the stanford sailing coach and his situation is really complicated. He got caught up in the scandal because he did receive donations but then he turned around and handed those donations over to stanford and i thought he was doing the due diligence of a coach there and he comes off really pathetically in the film yet. He was charged facing consequences. Talk about how you feel about his involvement in this and him as a character in your documentary. The one thing with them. John vander more. It felt like after meeting him and sort of hearing his story is he definitely felt like somebody that would not have gotten involved in some illicit activity if he had not been sort of coach prompted through his meeting of rick singer. So it was interesting to hear you know. I think he just wanted a simple life. You wanted to be a sailing coach. And all of a sudden he's put into a position where he's supposed to be fundraising which is not necessarily something that that he was maybe wasn't like fully in his skill set in terms of things that he was you know excelling at and so. I think somebody like rick could prey upon somebody in that situation. Because it's you know he's offering them a solution to something that they don't want to have to do in the first place One thing that stood out to me in the film thing that i hadn't heard about rick singer before is that he had previously auditioned for a reality show. My name is rik singer. My job is to life coach kids and families through the whole process of getting into college. We have families and champagne in miami and they send their plane to come pick me up. Come to the meeting for a couple of hours to three hours from me. Right back on the plane sent me to the next place i need to go. It's amazing what was up with that. What show was he undermining for. It was a show that never actually went to air but they were sort of like exploring the world of Independent educational consultants and Just in the mix of people that they were considering rick came in and they had taped him one of things. That's really interesting about how all this shook out was that rick singer ended up cooperating with the fbi. Usually these kinds of flips. Go from the bottom up. And it's curious to me. That rick singer himself ended up being a major witness for all these people kind of on the other side of the transaction. That i mean it's hard to know. One of the things in this story was just not having access to rig made it very difficult to understand. You know his thoughts and motivations throughout the whole process so You know. I think when faced with a situation like this i think a lot of people will look at their options and sort of make a decision and i think rick had proven himself to be very Recognized opportunities in his life and was able to capitalize on those whether it was from being a coach to sing the opportunity of creating the side door. I think in a similar fashion. I think somebody mentioned the movie that he seized on an opportunity to work with the feds. It was interesting to me because we know that these are the real conversations because of the wire taps that we heard some parents kind of pushing back on this Kind of casting doubt on whether or not this was legal whether they were gonna get caught and one of them even says at one point like i can't be in the headlines this story and i'm thinking like oh it's gonna be. Were you surprised that so many parents did it anyway. Even though they obviously seem smart enough to know that it wasn't an okay thing to be doing. I mean. I think every case was different know i think in looking at the conversations of people had it felt like every situation was unique. You had different. People worked with only in the capacity of adjusting test. Scores and other people actually worked with the side door which was getting people in through athletic. So i i don't think it was one size fits all and i think the motivations you've no idea what they would be what people were thinking was it that they wanted to make sure that it looked good that their kids got into a great school. Did they really You know want to give their kids the best opportunity that they could give them Were they you know seeing you know one of the reasons that we that we put the youtube clips in Of kids that were either applying. The school are going to that. Process was just that you could see the actual How that experience was affecting them and sort of. I think anyone seeing their kids going to that. That process would want to try to help. And so i think that was an effort to sort of to show another side to the story. What do you think about the commodification of of college. Is that something that you've thought about before you started making the story. I think it's something that's in the background that many people think about i think here we we talked to a lot of experts in the education space and journalists in one of the things that was a consistent theme was just that you know you can get a great education anywhere and You know if you're motivated in in that's what you're looking for and so you know we would hope that people take away from this and maybe to take some of that pressure off and realized that if it's really about getting an education that that's an opportunity you can have it a lot of schools. I think one of the things that is also highlighted in the movies. Just you know. I think for many. It's either bragging rights or or it's just looking at at at. The education system is a sort of a networking opportunity that by going to a more prestigious school that you're going to be mingling with the right. People that ultimately will be making decisions in the world and that in and of itself as an advantage in that something that's afforded to you know people that have have the means. Now i'm curious Aside from college being a commodity and that you can get a good education anywhere. is there something else. You're hoping that people will take away from this film after watching it. I think we've seen over the last couple of years and You know the people are sort of calling into question things that we've always Accepted as being just the way things are and and i think education is another thing that sort of is ripe for analysis in that way. And so you hope that you know that. This story ends up being another just small part of that greater dialogue. That's happening around the space of education. You know. I think it definitely calls into question. This idea of like you. Know is america america crecy and is it all based on you know if you work hard you know you will be rewarded. i think this is a very isolated case i think rick was an anomaly I don't think there's necessarily a ton of rick singers out there. And i think if they are their client base is probably shrinking just based on You know this story coming out. Not the film. But the story in general So if nothing else is to something that adds to the dialogue and that's all you can hope to do when you're working on projects like these chris. I know that it was a challenge making this film. But i really enjoy it. Thank you so much for talking to me about it thank you. That's it for this week's episode. Thanks again to chris. Smith and john carman for more of my takes on true crime and how we covered in the media. Check out my podcast crime writers on each week. We break down the latest in true crime documentaries podcast and pop culture if you like. You can't make this up. Please subscribe to rate and review this show and share it with friends. Find us on apple. Podcasts stitcher google play spotify and wherever else you get your podcasts and stay tuned for our next episode on. This is a robbery. The world's biggest art heist. You can't make this up as a production of netflix. Our music is by hans. Dale sue and our producer is shayna to lauria. I'm rebecca avoid. Thanks so much for listening.