New York filmmaker Todd Nilssen is in the final stages of a two-year effort to produce a feature-length documentary on the notorious Elan School for troubled teens.

He’s a former student who says he’s not concerned about whether it will be hard for some people to watch.

It probably will be.

Nilssen, 28, said that as a student he was helped by the Poland facility’s unconventional tactics, but he knows plenty of others weren’t. He’s trying to show its good and its bad.

A three-minute trailer for “The Last Stop” released last month features former students sounding wistful, crying or swearing, and flashes a quote from Illinois state officials: “We’ve never seen anything quite so bizarre and degrading.”

It ends with archival NBC footage shot in 1979 of a 17-year-old girl in a dunce cap in tears as a counselor bellows at her that if everyone “had their way, they’d cut your throat, put you out of your misery and relieve the human race of having to deal with an ingrate like you.”


Elan opened in 1970 and shut down in 2011 after declining enrollment and a dogged online campaign to close its doors.

“To me, this film isn’t just for the people that went to the school, but also for the rest of the world who knew nothing about it and the underground industry it was a part of, the troubled teen industry,” Nilssen said in a phone interview. “I think it would be great if the powers that be took a closer look. However, I’m not doing this for justice. I’m doing this because it’s a story that needs to be told.”

Elan was founded at a former camp by a psychiatrist, Dr. Gerald Davidson, and businessman Joseph Ricci, better known in later years for being the outspoken owner of Scarborough Downs racetrack and a candidate for governor.

Its tactics were featured in the 2002 trial of Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel when he was charged with killing Martha Moxley in Connecticut in 1975. Former classmates testified that a young Skakel was forced into an often-used boxing ring at Elan and other peers didn’t stop fighting him until — some claim — he confessed.

In his film, Nilssen interviews a woman who saw the Skakel fight.

Nilssen, originally from Long Island and now living in Manhattan, attended Elan from 2005 to 2007. He had gotten into drugs, been kicked out of school and was arrested for trespassing on school property and running from police. Nilssen’s parents were in the middle of a divorce when his mother found Elan through a therapist.


“I woke up at 5 a.m., there were two guys standing over me, ‘You’re coming with us, you’re not going to run, this isn’t a choice,'” he remembers. “I got thrown into a van and then ended up in Poland Spring like four hours later. She tried to get me to go the easy way. I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that.’ So I went the forceful way.”

Nilssen said a new set of rules came swiftly at Elan: No talking to anyone unless a third person was standing there listening. No going into a room alone. Punishment could be facing a wall or corner for months, or being yelled at by dozens of people at once.

The tactics were known as “attack therapy.”

“It should be stressed that everything was managed and run by the kids. It was very ‘Lord of the Flies.’ We ran the program, we provided the therapy, the staff members were there for a check and balance to make sure nothing was getting too out of hand,” Nilssen said.

“If I explain what I went through, it’s definitely harsh. But if I start to talk about what might have happened back in the ’80s and the ’70s, there was a chance you might not even believe me. They would dress kids up, you’d have to wear a sign, ‘Ask me why I give (sex act) and degrade myself for money,’ anything you could do to bring that person down and make them feel bad about who they are.”

The upcoming film’s title, “The Last Stop,” is a nod to a frequently repeated mantra at the school, he said. After Elan, it was jail or death. The school was the last stop.


“That was kind of ingrained into my head, but I also thought that I could get something out of the program,” Nilssen said. “I will say that I did. I kind of embraced some of the therapy there and learned some things about myself that were very valuable; that’s not to say that I might not have learned those things through the natural process of life, just growing up.”

Nilssen, who works as a film editor specializing in commercials, music videos and corporate work, was looking for a project for his first film and quickly arrived at Elan. He put out a call on Facebook for former residents and students who would agree to be interviewed. He winnowed those to 15 and said he’s designed the documentary around three arcs: what landed them there, life at the school and how they fared afterward.

He plans to incorporate reams of research: old photos, state reports from Illinois and New York critical of Elan, clips from an NBC news piece, footage from the 1983 “Children of Darkness” documentary and an interview with Maia Szalavitz, author of “Help at any cost: How the troubled-teen industry cons parents and hurts kids.”

The trailer shows violence and humiliation. There’s a re-enactment of a girl forced to wear a crown of tampons wrapped around her head, kids in shackles, kids doused with green goo.

Matt Hoffman, a Virginia musician who was a resident at Elan from 1974 to 1976, said he’s happy with the trailer and that the documentary is being made. He saw the girl forced to wear the tampons when he was attending the school. Hoffman isn’t sure what the lesson back then was supposed to be.

“From this three-minute film, it gives a voice,” Hoffman, 57, said. “A lot of people in Maine didn’t know really what this place was. The Elan story is big. It is so huge, it is so sad, it is so sick, the things that happened in there.”


Hoffman said he was subject to frequent abuse growing up and that he was sent to Elan after standing up to his father for the first time. Within months of being there, he attempted suicide by drinking shampoo. And once, after being kept awake for two days straight — he was tasked with writing a daily report that had to be error-free in order to sleep, but kept spelling the same word wrong, not knowing how it was really spelled — he stabbed another boy.

“They didn’t know how to build you back up; they knew how to break you,” Hoffman said. “Only thing I can think of is I had a psychotic break. I didn’t do it because I was sick, I did it because they were sick.”

He’s hoping public officials watch the documentary and take note.

Neither Elan’s former owner Sharon Terry nor lawyer Ed MacColl, who represented Terry, responded to messages for comment about the trailer.

“The Last Stop” is in post-production. Nilssen hopes to have it finished by the end of the year and to debut it in Maine before hitting the film festival circuit.

“If (viewers) can’t identify with Elan, they can identify with that teenage angst, that confusion when you’re young,” he said. “I think for some people it will be very hard to watch — I think it’s extremely unpleasant, depressing and dark; it’s not a feel-good story. In some areas it might be, for the people that were helped, but then there’s the people that were severely damaged by it and their lives were forever ruined.”

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