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‘Extremely Wicked’ director Joe Berlinger explains America’s insatiable appetite for crime

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Joe Berlinger
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Joe Berlinger, one of the pioneers of the ever-popular true crime genre, is no stranger to criticism in regards to his work as a documentary filmmaker. His experience in shedding light on dark subjects ranges from his work on Brother’s Keeper to the Paradise Lost trilogy, all of which surround horrific murder trials, which is why his multiple film and television projects about the actions and trials of Ted Bundy does not seem unfitting.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is Berlinger’s first scripted, narrative film about the infamous serial killer’s manipulative actions from the 1970s up until his execution in 1989. Starring Zac Efron in the role of Bundy and Lily Collins as his longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, the film is focused through Liz’s perspective of Bundy as she refuses to believe the dark truth about her boyfriend.

So what was it like for Berlinger to tackle such a disturbing story like Bundy’s from this unique perspective, and what does he hope audiences will take away from his film? We discuss all that and more in our wide-ranging conversation with the director, which picks up below:

How did you feel about Netflix pulling the first trailer for the film due to criticism from people who said it was glamorizing Ted Bundy and violence against women in general?

I wasn’t a fan of the first trailer, to be honest with you. The people who were responsible for marketing the film prior to its acquisition going into Sundance did a trailer that they thought did the job. I wasn’t that happy with it, but I’m very happy that I got the opportunity to work with Netflix pretty closely on the most recent trailer, which is great.

I’ve done several things with Netflix now, including Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru and Conversations with a Killer, the Ted Bundy doc series, and they are amazing about working closely with the filmmaker to make sure the tone and the intention of the movie are nicely captured.

As somebody who has spent 25 years doing a lot of real-life, true crime-related projects, the last thing this movie is doing, in my opinion, is glamorizing a serial killer, and so some of that criticism was very personally painful to me because I’ve spent a lot of time doing very meaningful things with my films; wrongful conviction, shining a light on criminal justice reform, advocating for victims. That’s a big part of what my film and television work is about.

When people say you’re a true crime pioneer, as I’ve been told because of the Paradise Lost series, I cringe as much as I embrace that description. The pioneer part I like. That’s cool. But I have a funny relationship with the true crime phrase because I think it kind of conjures up that image of wallowing in the misery of others for entertainment purposes.

If you look at my filmography, that’s the last thing I’m trying to do.

Was one of your biggest intentions when making this film to make the audience feel sympathy for Liz (Bundy’s girlfriend)?

Absolutely. You have to understand the experience of the victim and how you become seduced by this kind of psychopath. People are like “Oh, Bundy had a live-in girlfriend? She must’ve been an idiot.” But no. This is the opposite. This is a person who not only psychologically seduced Elizabeth Kloepfer but also the American media and the legal system.

Could you imagine if at the end of a murder trial, if this was a person of color, that a judge would say to him: “Hey, I’m sentencing you to death because what you did was extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile. I wish you would’ve practiced law in front of me because you would’ve been a terrific lawyer!” Are you kidding me?

That to me is just so demonstrative because he was a white male in the ’70s who was given all sorts of breaks because of his demeanor, because of how he looks, because he was a law student, because he was white. He was given all sorts of freedoms.

To me, seeing things through Liz’s eyes at all times is an understanding of how a victim becomes seduced by a psychopath. She’s lucky. I think he actually liked her and kept her alive. But it’s that same power that he had over everybody that I think is a lesson that I want my own daughters to know.

Did you feel any pressure to add anything that wasn’t factual to the film for the sake of entertainment purposes?

I wouldn’t say pressure. The nature of narrative filmmaking is that you have to compress time; that the unfolding of time is not the same as in real life and you do have to take certain liberties. I’m very proud that the film actually hues very closely to real life, but you do have to think in a three-act structure. You have to make it entertaining for an audience.

Truthfully, the biggest issue I probably struggled with is in Liz’s memoir where she talks about having found things that made her think twice, like finding a knife in the glovebox of Ted’s car, keeping separate apartments even though they lived together and in his apartment finding the bowl of various keys.

These are isolated events that take place over a seven or eight period and it’s like if you’re living with a cheating, alcoholic, or drug-addicted spouse and they claim to be on the wagon or not be cheating. You have an ability to push that aside over time and it’s only when it reaches a critical mass in real life that when you have an experience like this that all the clues come together and you’re like, “Oh right. I should’ve realized this all along.”

But in an hour and 45-minute movie, the compression of time is so great that if I, in the first act, had Lily find a knife or a bowl of keys, she would’ve, I think, looked like an idiot to the audience for not catching on. There were just certain things in the memoir that I just had to leave out because time is different in a narrative film than it is in real life and even as it is in the documentary.

Was is it about true crime stories, particularly Bundy’s, that you think audiences find so intriguing?

People seem to have an insatiable appetite for crime. One of the reasons why I’m so fascinated with Bundy is that I think Bundy, to me, represents the big bang of our current insatiable appetite for crime. Bundy’s Florida murder trial was the first time cameras were allowed in the courtroom and there was this new technology called electronic newsgathering. Just a few months before Bundy’s trial, most news stations were still shooting their evening newscasts on 16mm film.

So coinciding with the growing fascination of Bundy was this new satellite technology, new electronic newsgathering, which just kind of pushed its way into the courtroom. I think that had a much greater impact than people realized because, for the first time in our history, serial rape and murder became live entertainment for American television viewers.

I think that was a precipitating event to where we are today because you can draw a line from the coverage of Bundy’s trial to his execution to just a few years later with the O.J. Simpson trial, which now you have the 24-hour news cycle and this need to feed that monster with stories every day and that trial became this huge turning point to where we are today where we seem to have this insatiable appetite for crime.

On the positive side, though, I think there’s been a lot of amazing work. We’ve seen non-fiction storytelling have an immediate and dramatic effect on these cases, and I think part of the appetite too—people want to know who the next miscarriage of justice is going to be.

Zac Efron’s performance as Bundy seemed even more attractive and charismatic than Ted Bundy seemed to be in real life.

I disagree. What we’re talking about is the hold that Bundy had over people was very clear. Women were going down to the Florida trial convinced that he was innocent. Or, if he’s not innocent, he’s still sexy and there’s something about him that makes them want to be in the same room as him. He had that power over people.

Do you worry that your film’s portrayal of Bundy, and the fact that there is a celebrity playing his role, could inspire anybody to violence because they’re looking for fame and looking to be remembered in connection with somebody famous?

It’s hard to know where people derive and therefore you can’t censor yourself. Where do people derive their inspiration from? John Hinckely Jr. attempted to kill the president because he was trying to impressive Jodie Foster. Should Jodie Foster remove herself from public life? Should any actress remove themselves from public life?

All of these debates, whether it’s glamorization or inspiration, are very healthy and good to debate. If this movie was like a gorefest, an irresponsible gorefest, then yeah, maybe. But my movie is an intelligent movie that has some real thought behind it.

If somebody is inspired to be Ted Bundy off of this movie, then I would argue that a different person would be inspired to do something evil off of any kind of movie, so where do you draw the line? I’m not worried. This movie was very responsibly made.

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Phoenix: Warner Bros. invites you to a screening of Edward Norton’s ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

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Motherless Brooklyn
WARNER BROS.

Warner Bros. will release Motherless Brooklyn, the new crime drama from writer, director, and star Edward Norton, on October 19 and its giving Silver Screen Beat readers in Phoenix a chance to attend an advance screening of the film before it officially opens in theaters.

Our readers in Phoenix can click on this link right now to claim their free passes — good for you and one guest — to attend an advance screening of Motherless Brooklyn happening at Harkins Scottsdale 101 on Monday, October 28 at 6:30 p.m.

Keep in mind that these free passes are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so be sure to claim yours as soon as possible before they run out. Below is the official trailer for Motherless Brooklyn as well as some additional details about the film.

Directed by: Edward Norton

Cast: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe

Opens: Friday, November 1

Rating: R for language throughout, including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence

Synopsis: Set against the backdrop of 1950s New York, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a lonely private detective living with Tourette Syndrome, as he ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Armed only with a few clues and the engine of his obsessive mind, Lionel unravels closely-guarded secrets that hold the fate of the whole city in the balance. In a mystery that carries him from gin-soaked jazz clubs in Harlem to the hard-edged slums of Brooklyn and, finally, into the gilded halls of New York’s power brokers, Lionel contends with thugs, corruption and the most dangerous man in the city to honor his friend and save the woman who might be his own salvation.

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Final trailer for ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ teases a bittersweet ending to a beloved saga

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Rise of Skywalker
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Disney has released the final trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the latest chapter in the intergalactic franchise from writer-director J.J. Abrams that will — supposedly — mark the conclusion of the long-running Skywalker saga that began in 1977.

The Rise of Skywalker will see the return of much of the principal cast, including Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Joonas Suotamo, Anthony Daniels, as well as the late Carrie Fisher, who will appear in the film by way of unused footage from the 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

“You can’t recast that part and you can’t suddenly have her disappear,” Abrams said at the Star Wars Celebration event in April. “The weird miracle of having a number of scenes from The Force Awakens that had got unused, looking at those scenes and starting to understand that there was actually a way to use those scenes and continue her story so that it would be her. The idea of having a CG character was off the table.”

The film will also see Ian McDiarmid reprise his role as the villainous Emperor Palpatine and Billy Dee Williams as the iconic scoundrel Lando Calrissian.

“In addition to being the end of three trilogies, it also has to work as its own movie,” Abrams also said. “It’s about this new generation and what they’ve inherited the light and the dark, and asking the question as they face the greatest evil, are they prepared? Are they ready?”

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens December 20.

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Sam Raimi reteaming with Columbia Pictures to direct, produce new untitled horror project

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Sam Raimi
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Columbia Pictures confirmed Friday that it has acquired the rights to an untitled horror project that is set to be directed and produced by Sam Raimi, making it the genre maestro’s first directorial effort on a horror film 2009’s Drag Me to Hell.

“I am thrilled to be reunited with Columbia Pictures and re-teaming with Sanford [Panitch] and Ange [Giannetti],” Raimi said in a statement. “I have been a fan of Shannon and Swift and we have found the perfect adventure to share with the world.”

While details about the project are being kept tightly under wraps, the film — which was written by Mark Swift and Damian Shannon, based on an original idea they conceived — is comparable to Misery and Cast Away in terms of its tone, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Raimi and Zainab Azizi are producing the film via their Raimi Productions label, while Giannetti is overseeing the production for Columbia Pictures, which moved quickly to acquire the rights to the project before other studios even had a chance to make a bid on it.

Production on the film is expected to get underway in 2020.

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