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.
It’s about time Rotten Tomatoes finally decided to do something about its troll problem
It’s no secret that Rotten Tomatoes has a troll problem. It seemingly began back in 2017 when Star Wars: The Last Jedi was released and thousands upon thousands of (fake) negative audience reviews for the film flooded the site from people who dubbed it “SJW propaganda” or some other dumb shit like that.
Since then, a number of other movies have been review bombed on Rotten Tomatoes, including Black Panther, which was targeted by white nationalist alt-right trolls for obvious reasons, and Captain Marvel, which was targeted by a bunch of very sad men who were upset over Brie Larson saying she wanted the film’s press tour to be more inclusive.
In an effort to prevent any future films from being review bombed, Rotten Tomatoes finally announced today that it will be introducing “verified ratings” and “verified reviews” from users they can confirm actually bought tickets to the movie that they’re either rating or reviewing.
“We believe an Audience Score made up of these Verified Ratings is the most trustworthy measure of user sentiment we can offer right now – one that gives entertainment fans a genuine audience assessment of a movie they’re considering watching, and one which puts significant roadblocks in front of bad actors who would seek to manipulate the Audience Score,” the site wrote in a blog post.
For now, users can only verify their rating or review if they purchased their tickets through Fandango, which acquired Rotten Tomatoes from Warner Bros. in 2016 and will benefit greatly from this change, but the site says theater chains like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark “have signed up to participate in our verification program and we plan to introduce other ticket providers as well.”
The new verified ratings and reviews will go into effect this weekend for new releases like Aladdin, Brightburn, and Booksmart, the latter of which you should definitely go see because it’s probably the best thing you’ll watch so far this year.
Linda Hamilton is back and ready to kick some robot ass in the ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ trailer
Gentle reader, I regret to inform you that the long-awaited first trailer for Terminator: Dark Fate arrived early this morning and, as much as I hate to say this, I have an obligation to break it you: this thing just doesn’t look very good at all.
Sure, it’s cool to see Linda Hamilton back as Sarah Connor firing giant machine guns and rocket launchers at seemingly indestructible robots and tracking down her old buddy T-800 Model 101, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who now lives in a cabin in the middle of the woods for whatever reason.
Beyond that, though, there’s not much to be particularly excited about here. The slowed-down cover of Bjork’s “Hunter” sucks, the set pieces look incredibly lame and uninspired, and the CGI is…well, just take a look at what they did to poor Gabriel Luna in this shot:
It’s a first trailer, so take it all with a grain of salt, but the special effects for ‘Terminator: Dark Fate’ are clearly not complete. pic.twitter.com/hlWP3GPxvW
— Lights, Camera, Pod (@LightsCameraPod) May 23, 2019
That looks pretty fucking bad, right? My dude looks like a straight up cartoon character there.
Keep in mind, Terminator 2: Judgement Day came out in 1991 (28 years ago!) and yet the visual effects work in these movies has somehow managed to get significantly worse since then. I mean, how does that even happen? It’s truly baffling.
Either way, this is a Terminator movie we’re talking about here, so of course I’m still going to Dark Fate when it hits theaters later this year on November 2, but I’m going to do so with great concern. Consider me cautiously optimistic at this point.
Frame this terrible new ‘Spider-Man: Far From Home’ poster and hang it up on my wall immediately
I don’t know what the hell is going on over at the Sony Pictures marketing department, but some graphic designer who is probably severely underpaid keeps making these god-awful movie posters and for whatever reason the studio is always just like, “Yeah, that looks good enough. Send it out.”
I mean, just take a gander at this new one-sheet they put out for Spider-Man: Far From Home earlier today:
Now, I love the Spider-Man franchise as much as the next guy and I love Tom Holland as Spider-Man and I hate to clown on things I love, but holy shit that poster is hilariously bad and I want it framed and put on the wall in front of my desk immediately so I can look up and laugh at it whenever I want.
All jokes aside, though, a poster is not indicative of a movie’s quality and I’m sure Far From Home is going to be just fine. Remember that very unfortunate international poster Sony released for Spider-Man: Homecoming back in 2017? Yeah, sorry I had to bring that up.
But, the point is, that poster looked like complete and utter shit and yet the movie turned out to be great and was critically acclaimed and went on to make a ton of money at the box office, and I’m sure that will also be the case for Far From Home when it hit theaters on July 2.