Two decades ago, the Civic Development Group employed many people who could not find it anywhere else. The telemarketing company employed high school dropouts, convicted felons, and drug addicts, many of whom felt like they had found their calling with a company that incentivized them to unwittingly participate in a high-stakes scam.
As they juggled calls on behalf of police unions and other charities, unwittingly tricking gullible targets into opening their wallets, they had no idea how little money was actually going into the organizations themselves. In fact, CDG was making a killing keeping 90 percent of all donations while his employees treated the office like a hedonistic playground.
Footage of these antics provided the backbone for the first episode of The Telemarketers, directed by Adam Bhalla Lowe and Sam Lipman-Stern, a brutal and often darkly funny look at the CDG scam and the wider telemarketing conspiracy that continues to this day. In three episodes, the filmmakers enter the maniacal world of their subject and reveal his depravity from the inside out. Still, when ex-CDG employee Lipman-Stern turned over 100 hours of footage to his cousin and veteran documentarian Bhalla Lowe in 2020, work was needed. “It was a mess,” Bhala Lough told IndieWire during a Zoom interview with his co-director. “Nothing was labeled. But there was a lot of gold in the mess. It was overwhelming.”
Lipman-Stern was a 14-year-old high school dropout working at CDG when he collected the first explosive footage from the job site, continuing to collect material as he grew older and began exploring the big picture with fellow CDG employee Patrick J. Pespas. Over the course of three alternately hilarious and disturbing episodes, Lipman-Stern and Pespas engage in a series of riveting road trips and confrontational interviews in their quest to deal with powerful forces beyond their full understanding. The project has been percolating for 22 years, since Lipman-Stern started working at CDG.
“I was obsessed with this story when I was 14,” Lipman-Stern told IndieWire. “When I was in the office, I noticed so many characters coming in and out all the time. These are not ordinary people. They were ex-convicts, bank robbers, murderers, heroin kingpins. There are all these misunderstood people.” In time he began to perceive them as great literary terms. “I’ve always liked the books of Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. These people felt like such heroes and I was just obsessed with documenting them. I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen.” Ultimately, it focused on Pespas — aka Pat — as a sort of Michael Moore and Hunter S. Thompson warrior of justice who emerges from his drug addiction to track down hard answers about the full extent of the CDG scam. These misadventures lend a playful and sympathetic quality to a project that could easily follow a more traditional true-crime plot.
Instead, she resembles a different tradition: the headstrong anti-hero you can’t help but love. The series is co-produced by the Safdie brothers’ Elara Pictures and Rough House Pictures, the company co-founded by David Gordon Green, Jody, Hill and Danny McBride (with Bhala Lowe overseeing non-fiction projects). The result seems like a natural extension of both companies’ artistic work: CDG’s bleak backdrop and anarchic circumstances echo the Safdies’ Uncut Gems and Good Time, while many of its rough-and-tumble characters wouldn’t look out of place next to the domineering, smug eccentric of McBride in “East and Down” and his other works. But nothing about this decade-spanning project was scripted. “There was definitely a punk rock element to the whole thing,” Lipman-Stern told IndieWire. “We just started following the tracks.”
However, as Pespas struggled with methadone addiction, the project fell apart for about eight years until Bhala Lough became involved. The director followed Lipman-Stern’s efforts to re-engage Pespas when he tracked him down to his home in New Jersey in the midst of COVID and brought him back to the project through a window. Bhala Lough initially showed this footage to the Safdies in an attempt to get them to direct it, as aspects of the Pespas story were reminiscent of the brothers’ Lenny Cooke documentary about the exiled basketball player. Instead, “When Josh and Benny saw that shot, they said, ‘You have to direct it and it has to be like this,'” Bhalla Laff said. “I agreed, but I made sure they would produce it.”
Josh Safdie eventually got absorbed into his upcoming solo directorial vehicle with Adam Sandler and Megan T. Stallion, but “Benny stuck around and was really a part of it on a daily basis,” Bhalla Lowe said. “It was really cool.” After 13 long months of development and packaging, HBO came on board. The freestyle of the documentary, however, has not changed: many of Lipman-Stern and Pespas’ strategy sessions and phone calls with telemarketing agencies take place at McDonald’s. And Pespas’s uneven interviewing style, which is both sincere and clumsy, was never replaced by more refined methods, even when he secured a meeting with a high-ranking senator. “We wanted to be unpleasant because of their comfort on camera,” Bhalla Lowe said. “I didn’t want to be that team with 30 fucking people and lights and all that makeup and shit.” Since Pespas was too eager to fly everywhere by plane—leading to one of the series’ best comedic twists—Lipman-Stern brought GoPro of their travels that found them traveling all the way to Florida. “He would have our editor watch all eight hours on one drive,” Bhalla Lowe said.
They agreed not to overwhelm Pespas with traditional interview preparation. “We’ll always have lists of questions to ask, but at the end of the day, I’d always like Pat to ask the questions the way he would ask them,” Bhalla Lowe said. “I didn’t want him to memorize a list. He wouldn’t have done it anyway. I tried not to get my professional document stamp on it. In one of the documentary’s most outrageous moments, Pespas tries to confront a police figure directly involved in the telemarketing scandal, but gets his name wrong. But in other conversations, his sincere frustration at the deception in question injects a deep immediacy into the proceedings. “We leaned on Pat’s image as an amateur investigative journalist,” said Bhalla Lowe. “But we couldn’t tell him what to do.”
Still, “Telemarketers” contains many revelations about the depth of the scam. While CDG was shut down by the Federal Trade Commission in 2010, the filmmakers discover another service still involved in the process of stealing from unsuspecting victims, and Pespas is even hired by the company to expose its tactics. Their ultimate goal remains unchanged — to get Congress to hold a hearing on telemarketing fraud so Pespas can testify and make a case for tighter regulation. “It wasn’t a pie-in-the-sky kind of thing,” Lipman-Stern said. “We truly believe that Pat deserves to sit before Congress as a whistleblower.” If there is regulation in this industry, the money should go to good causes. These are donations from generous Americans who don’t even have money to give. We want it to go to the right place.”
The arrival of the series gives new life to Pespas. While the documentary describes him as a “telemarketing legend,” the filmmakers say their subject wants to pursue his cause with a career in media. “He has that star quality,” Lipman-Stern said. “He’s charismatic, really nice, has a pure heart. He’s almost like a child in a way – but he’s not a dim-witted person.
The first episode of “Telemarketers” airs on HBO on August 13.