Martin Dunn and Marie McGovern first met Craig Carton about five years ago, when they were trying to develop a sports-oriented television talk show and figured he would be a good fit for it.
The show did not get sold, but Dunn recalls that mid-2010s Carton as being "absolutely at the top of the game," or what he referred to as "Carton-Max," as co-host of WFAN’s popular morning show.
That was part of what made the experience of producing and directing the new documentary, "Wild Card: The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth," premiering on HBO on Oct. 7, so interesting for the filmmakers.
They saw Carton at his peak, then saw another version when they interviewed him extensively early in 2019 – between his conviction and sentencing on federal fraud charges – and finally when he was released from prison this past June.
During those first interviews, Dunn said, "He still had a lot of that Craig Carton outgoingness and bumptiousness. When he came out, we saw a different Craig . . . We saw someone who came out who had changed, somebody who had appreciated what his faults were."
As McGovern put it, "We saw a grownup, in all honesty. We were with Craig when he was literally on the brink and going through the worst time in his life and kind of self-absorbed in his own troubles that he had created.
"But when he came out from prison, he came out a man and a person who all of a sudden looked around and said, ‘Oh my actions impact other people.’"
That includes his real-life family and his WFAN family, many of whose members speak candidly about the pain Carton’s downfall caused, including to his former partner, Boomer Esiason.
"They spoke freely," McGovern said of Carton’s colleagues, "to the point where even Martin and I looked at each other like, wow, this is more than we ever expected anyone to say, and you have to appreciate that."
The question now is whether Carton can be a more mature person off the air without losing the edge that made him a success on it. The other question is where he will attempt to do that. WFAN is one option.
The credits of the film begin with the line, "Craig has negotiated a radio comeback."
Asked what that means, Dunn said, "That his comeback will be imminent and he will be making an announcement very, very shortly. We’re going to air at a time when he’s in the middle of negotiations, but he basically will make an announcement when he is ready."
Said McGovern, "I think it goes a little far to say he definitely has something in place. I think it’s best to just say that Craig will be the one who makes that announcement when the time is right."
Carton was arrested on Sept. 6, 2017, on federal charges related to diverting an investment in his ticket brokerage company to pay off gambling debts. He soon resigned from WFAN.
He was convicted and sentenced to 42 months in federal prison, of which he served a little more than 12.
Dunn and McGovern had stayed in casual contact with Carton over the years, but it was Carton who approached them in January 2019 with the idea of them telling his story.
At the time they were working on a documentary on Tom Seaver that premiered on Fox last fall.
"He said, ‘You know, if Tom Seaver can trust you to tell his story, I think I can trust you to tell mine,’" McGovern recalled.
Dunn and McGovern are veteran journalists; Dunn is a former editor-in-chief of the Daily News.
"I think he viewed us as storytellers," Dunn said. "He knew we were journalists and we would come at it with objectiveness and fairness, and he trusted us to tell it."
Carton, 51, told them that talking in detail about his wife and four children was off limits, but that no other subject was.
"Craig was amazingly candid and open, more so than I think any of us would ever be," McGovern said. "That’s one of the things that was very surprising to me, because I kept expecting at any given moment for him to pull a diva act or start making demands, and he never did."
One of the film’s most jarring sequences has Carton considering suicide while coming down a ski lift in Whistler, British Columbia, in August 2017.
He did not bring it up himself. McGovern asked him whether as a gambling addict he ever had suicidal thoughts, and he said he had.
The film also includes segments on the sexual abuse Carton describes during a summer camp stay in 1980 as well as his high-stakes gambling exploits.
During the project, the filmmakers had no way of knowing when Carton would be released from prison. The documentary originally was set to be shown earlier this year.
A delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic ended up adding a twist to the story in the form of Carton’s release.
"I would like to think if anybody has a takeaway from this it is that they see him pre all this and then they see him post that," Dunn said. "I think that was very, very telling for us, and touching.
"The other thing we tried to do was, people either love Carton or hate him, and that’s his appeal, but they can’t resist him, so we tried to tell his story in a very, very balanced way without going in any direction. People can still make up their minds about Craig at the end of the film, and I think that was very important to us."