'Off the rails' film features subway thief

Documentary movie maker says Darius McCollum needs treatment not prison
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Darius McCollum
Adam Irving
NEW YORK CITY — Ask rail enthusiasts what they think of Darius McCollum and you're bound to get a variety of opinions, from sympathy to anger. But regardless of what you think of the transit-obsessed 51-year-old you're about to see a lot more of him.

McCollum is a New York City man with Aspergers syndrome who police jailed more than 30 times for impersonating railroad employees and stealing subway trains in New York City. He is the subject of a recently released documentary called “Off The Rails” that is making the rounds at film festivals across the country. His story is expected to become the subject of full-length feature film staring Julia Roberts with production beginning this fall.

Published reports say McCollum has liked trains since he was a boy, memorizing the New York City subway map when he was just 8 years old. He spent hours as a teenager riding subway trains, while Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees encouraged his enthusiasm, showing him the ins and outs of the subway system.

Media say McCollum also suffers from untreated Aspergers syndrome, a developmental disorder that affects his ability to effectively socialize and communicate. That, coupled with his almost obsessive interest in all things transit, is what observers say lead him to take the controls of a subway train in 1981 when he was 15. Since then, police arrested McCollum dozens of times. And published reports say he has spent nearly half his life in prison for stealing subways and buses, most recently after police accused him of taking control of a Greyhound Bus and driving it to Brooklyn in November. He is awaiting trial on charges of criminal impersonation and grand larceny.
Toronto-native and documentary filmmaker Adam Irving first learned of McCollum's story in 2012 when he happened upon the Wikipedia page about the man's exploits and says he was instantly interested.

“The very first line of his Wikipedia page sounded like something out of a movie, 'Darius McCollum has spent half his life in prison for stealing buses and trains,'” Irving tells Trains News Wire. “I just thought it was a fascinating story... To illegally drive a bus or train on its scheduled route seems like such a ridiculous thing to give up half your life for.”

Other outlets have shown interest in McCollum’s life. Harper's Magazine ran a 2003 story on the man and a New York director wrote a stage play called “Boy Steals Train” based on McCollum's life. The British Broadcasting service aired a performance of the play in 2005.

Irving, who now lives in Los Angeles, says he tracked down McCollum and began corresponding with him while he was in prison. When McCollum was released in 2013, Irving spent weeks interviewing the man. While much of the film includes interviews with McCollum, lawyers, journalists, and Aspergers advocates, it also has reenacted scenes that were filmed in New York City and Toronto, where Irving rented a Toronto Transit Commission subway train for a shoot. Irving finished the film earlier this year, soon after McCollum's most recent arrest. The film premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., in April and it's being screened at the SF Doc Fest in San Francisco and the Provincetown International Film Festival in Provincetown, Mass., in June.

Irving admits that his film is not “balanced” and that many viewers will have a sympathetic view of McCollum after viewing it.

“I paint him in a sympathetic light because I think he's a good person and I wanted to take his story beyond the tabloid headlines everyone knows that says 'Crazy Train Kook Strikes Again,'” Irving says. “I want to show people that McCollum is a real person.”

Irving says he received some push back from rail enthusiasts he talked to while preparing the film who were worried that glorifying the convicted felon would give all
railfans a bad name. However, he says most of the film's reviews have been positive. Irving says he hopes the biggest message viewers take away from the film are systematic issues within the criminal justice system.

“McCollum should be given help, he should be given therapy,” the filmmaker says. “He shouldn't be incarcerated.”

More information is available online.

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