Ted Bundy was 32 years old when he was sentenced to death in 1979 for the brutal murders of two Florida State Chi Omega sorority sisters, Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy, as well as three attempted murder charges for Kathy Kleiner, Karen Chandler, and Cheryl Thomas. The trial marked the first time in American history cameras were allowed in a courtroom, and Bundy used that to orchestrate a media circus. Serving as his own counsel, Bundy charmed veteran judge Edward D. Cowart, who called the defendant “a bright young man” with the makings of “a good lawyer.” The judge changed his tune on sentencing, classifying Bundy’s crimes as “extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile.”
Director Joe Berlinger borrowed that classification for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which we caught up with him about before its Tribeca Film Festival preimere earlier this month. Based on the book The Phantom Prince; My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall, the feature film stars Zac Efron as the charming sociopathic killer, Lily Collins as his deceived girlfriend, and John Malkovich as Judge Cowart. Emmy winning and Oscar nominated filmmaker Berlinger is a pioneer in the genre of true crime documentaries, bringing attention to social justice issues with such landmark documentaries as Brother’s Keeper, Intent to Destroy, which explored the violent history of the Armenian Genocide, and Crude. The shed a light on oil pollution in the Amazon rainforest, won 22 human rights, environmental, and film festival awards while triggering a high-profile First Amendment battle with the Chevron Corporation. Berlinger also co-directed the seminal West Memphis Three documentary trilogy, Paradise Lost.
Berlinger immersed himself in the crimes of Ted Bundy, having recently completed Netflix’s documentary series, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, inspired by Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth’s 2000 book. Bundy, who evaded capture and made a mockery of the legal system, is on par with Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, and the Zodiac Killer as one of the most notorious murderers in history. He was the subject of the 1986 TV movie The Deliberate Stranger, which starred Mark Harmon (NCIS) as Bundy.
Joe Berlinger spoke with Den of Geek about taking his documentary sensibilities to feature motion pictures.
Den of Geek: Normally when I watch your work, it’s documentary films and series. It’s good to see you do a feature.
JOE BERLINGER: I enjoyed it.
You did another feature.
Book of Shadows. A long time ago.
Actually, because I usually talk to you about true crime, I wanted to open up with the difference between directing documentaries and features, the fun factor.
This was a very tough shoot. We had 28 days to do the movie. We were shooting in rural Kentucky, northern Kentucky, in the dead of winter for a story that has nothing to do with Kentucky. We had a lot of challenges and a short prep period. Despite working 17, 18 hours a day, seven days a week in not the easiest conditions, I found myself on day two or three of the shoot noticing that I’m in a great mood. I’m kind of walking on air. I was trying to figure out why.
What the reason was and why I loved doing the movie so much beyond many other reasons was that I’ve gotten to the place in my career, because documentary never shoots on consecutive days and because you’re often paying for documentaries yourself, documentaries are risky business, you know? The way people like myself operate is that you have to juggle four or five unscripted projects at any given time because some of them you’re paying for yourself, some you’re getting the budget for. It’s not like you take four months off and you say, “Okay, I’m starting the documentary here. We’re ending it here,” the way a scripted movie works. If you look at my filmography, you’ve seen I’ve cranked out quite a bit of stuff over the years.
There was a time in my career when we did Brother’s Keeper, that’s all we did for two years. When we did Paradise Lost, that’s all we did for two years. Around Metallica, it started becoming more of a business and started juggling multiple projects. That’s just the way it’s been for the last 10 or 15 years. On a movie by definition, a scripted movie, you can’t think about anything else from the moment you start prep to the moment you wrap. That was the key to my elation. Despite being tired, I was elated because I haven’t focused on one thing and been in the moment since my earliest days of my career. You asked about the fun factor. That’s the thing that was most enjoyable was just living in the moment.
Then the other thing that I enjoyed is I have been making films for 25 years. I am often the second camera on my documentaries. I have dropped into real situations and figured out quickly how to cover it. You can only cover something once by definition in documentary. Strangely enough, I felt very comfortable transitioning. I feel like I’ve shot enough that I just have a sense of where the camera belongs. I try to always rely on thinking back, “Well, if this was a documentary, how would I be treating this situation?” The other part that was enjoyable for me was just because it’s a true story, I have an ear for what sounds authentic, I would like to think, after 25 years of doing this. Instead of treating the movie, meaning a scripted project, as a completely different animal, I looked for ways of relying on my documentary background and skills to bring into the movie, which included everything from being highly collaborative with the actors.
Of course I had a game plan, but I decided my job was less about slamming my vision over everyone’s head, but rather creating an environment that was comfortable enough that people felt free enough to collaborate and to experiment. Then my job was to, A, bring the best out of people, and B, have that authenticity meter on and decide what feels real or not. In other words, not being locked into a preconceived idea of what the film should be, which for a director of a scripted movie, I think, was a bold decision, but it comes from my documentary. The biggest lesson I ever learned about filmmaking came from Paradise Lost. Did you see that?
I saw it, yes.
Paradise Lost, we started off making a film about what we thought were guilty teenagers. We received an article in the local Memphis paper about these three teens who had just been arrested for these horrific child killings. There was a confession in the paper that was printed. What we later learned way down the road was that the confession was bogus. It consisted of multiple statements that were changed. None of that context was given in the article. It just seemed like there was a confession. The chief of police was going on television and saying, “On a scale of 1 to 10, the evidence is an 11. It’s an open and shut case.” We had no reason to think we weren’t going down to make a film about teen satanic killers. That’s what HBO wanted. The person who sent me the article was Sheila Nevins at HBO. If I had to pick one person who’s done more for documentary in the early years of this business, it was Sheila.
She wanted a kids-killing-kids, satanic ritual killing film, and so that’s what we thought we were going to make a film about. For the first three months, we arrived in June of ’93, a week after they were arrested and seven months before the trial began. We embedded in that community. We spent the first couple of months mainly only with the families of the victims, which only served to confirm our belief that we were making a film about bad guys and hanging out mainly with the families of the victims. We finally negotiated access to, they weren’t called the West Memphis Three back then, they were called just these rotten teens. They were just considered these horrible killers of kids, kids themselves who killed these eight-year-olds.
We finally negotiated access to do our first series of interviews with them. It was about three months before the trial. That’s when the light bulb went off, because one plus one was not equaling two. It’s not like we said, “Oh my god, they’re innocent,” but something was amiss. In particular, I kept looking at the tiny little wrists of Jason Baldwin, who allegedly is the guy who wielded the serrated hunting knife that was used to castrate one of the little boys and to do some of the stabbing. There were indications that these kids were repeatedly stabbed. I looked at his little wrists, and he was telling me his life story. It just didn’t feel right. That’s what started our adventure because all the other media was saying these guys were guilty. That experience of finally talking to these guys started us on our journey, which I never thought would take three films and two decades to tell this wrongful conviction story.
The lesson out of all that is we went down assigned by HBO to make a film about teen satanists. Had we locked into that preconceived notion, we would’ve missed the story. I always tell young filmmakers, obviously have a plan for the day, but be prepared to throw it out and adapt to the reality that you are confronting. I’ve never started a documentary film that turns out to be what I thought I was making a film about.
That lesson and that aesthetic of not locking into a preconceived idea of what this film has to be, I brought into the movie making process. Many people on that set told me, the actors, the department, felt that the thing that they enjoyed most about working on this film was that it felt very collaborative. I was very open to change and adapting things as we went on, which we did a lot. Again, I think your original question was about-
Oh, fun. Right, the fun was figuring out how I could use my experiences as a documentarian to their greatest effect in the scripted process.
You brought up Paradise Lost. I watched that for an article I did on True Detective. The opening scene is devastating.
Oh, right, right. Oh, yeah.
Is that somehow responsible for there being no actual violence in this movie?
How do you mean?
The Ted Bundy case is incredibly violent. You imply the violence. Were you traumatized from that? A lot of viewers were traumatized by the opening scene of Paradise Lost.
Oh, I never thought of it that way. That is an interesting thought. That footage is horrific. Interestingly, back then Paradise Lost was highly criticized for having shown that footage. It is interesting that back then people criticized the use of violent imagery, and today some people are criticizing Extremely Wicked for not using violent imagery. That’s an interesting phenomenon that I hadn’t thought of until that moment. I think the two decisions are completely separate.
The use of that opening crime scene footage, which at the time was a very considerate decision, and you didn’t really see that level of graphic footage in a documentary before, so some people were upset by it, but we wanted to portray and to make people understand how is it that an entire town could’ve been duped into thinking these kids were killers when there was virtually no evidence. The only answer I could come up with was the murders were so shocking, the need for closure was so immediate, the thirst for an answer and for revenge was so strong because those killings were so disturbing, that both Bruce and I felt that only by opening with the shock and horror of the crime could you begin to understand how the town might have been blind to the truth, because of the need for closure.
The decision to not show violence in Extremely Wicked has to do with the design of the film. The film is not about a serial killer killing. There have been many great films and many irresponsible films that are about the killer killing. That to me is less new and less scary. We want to think a serial killer is some two-dimensional social outcast who looks weird, acts weird because somehow that implies they’re easily identifiable, and therefore you can avoid the fate. What Bundy teaches us is that very often these are people who fit into society. Bundy fit in, had lots of friends. Members of the Mormon Church showed up at his Utah trial. We don’t show it in the movie, but we show it in the doc series. Members of the Mormon Church showed and thought fellow church member, Bundy, was a terrific guy.
I am less interested in how a killer kills because it’s been done before, and it’s less scary to me than how a killer deceives, manipulates, and fits in. That’s what the movie is portraying. We certainly hear about violence. The movie has the 16-millimeter footage intercut with the Seattle killings. When he goes to Florida, we hear news reports of the Florida killings. The trial certainly talks about evidence. But seeing Ted actually do the killing, it would be impossible. I want the audience to have the same experience that people who knew and trusted Bundy. I want the audience to take that same journey where they actually suspend the intellectual knowledge this is a movie about a serial killer. You become invested in that relationship because movies teach us that you root for the love interest.
I want people, particularly Zac Efron’s demographic, the people who think that Zac as a persona can do no wrong, I want them to invest in this relationship as the movie is unfolding to actually want that relationship to succeed so that by the end of the movie when Liz confronts him and when Liz emotionally understands what the truth about the deception and betrayal that she’s experienced, I want the audience to feel the same level of deception and betrayal. I want people to say, “Oh my god, I was liking this character for part of the movie, and now he gaslighted me just as he did Liz,” so that you can have an understanding of how these psychopaths operate, how they seduce us. The moment you show Zac committing violence, that’s too much to ask of an audience to take that journey and actually see him killing.
More importantly, there’s been some criticism that the film must be glorifying Bundy and being disrespectful to the victims because we don’t show the physical killing. I find that deeply troubling that that is how people think because to me, recreating the moment of death for a victim, to me that is disrespectful. Showing how people met their end to me is not something I’m interested in doing because I think that’s inherently disrespectful. We live in an era where with a few keystrokes even an eight-year-old can call up the most degrading, free, violent, pornographic images, images of extreme violence against women. Making a movie that’s a catalog of depravity to me is both not the function of this film since I’m not interested in talking about killing, but rather how the serial killer deceives. I think that’s a much more valuable lesson than knowing how they kill. I just think it’s infinitely more respectful to the victims not to show.
I’m a big fan of letting the mind fill in the violence that they’re about to show. I love when the cameras cut away. You really immersed yourself in Ted Bundy between the documentary and the film. I know you did the same with Paradise Lost, but this really goes beyond because this is an artistic venture as opposed to a documentarian journalistic venture.
I wouldn’t distinguish it that way. I would think that a documentary is as much an artistic venture as a-
I see documentaries as journalistic, and features as an artistic expression. You’re not exactly making a romantic film. It’s not a love story, but it is.
I think both films are journalistic, and I think both films are artistic. One uses different tools. I think for a scripted movie, you’re going for the emotional truth because there’s inherent condensation of time, certain things you have to do to fit within the narrative structure. So you’re going for the emotional truth of the situation, whereas the documentary is more of a literal truth, if you want to distinguish it that way. But I think both endeavors are artistic and journalistic when I make a scripted movie. This movie is also very journalistic, but I’m going for the emotional truth of deception, betrayal, as opposed to the journalistic portrayal of point A to point B of Ted Bundy.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile premiered on Netflix on May 3.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.