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.
Taika Waititi signs on to direct ‘Thor 4’ as the live-action ‘Akira’ movie gets delayed indefinitely
In a move that will force him to put the highly anticipated live-action adaptation of Akira on the backburner indefinitely, Taika Waititi has officially closed a deal to direct Thor 4 for Marvel Studios, sources tell Silver Screen Beat.
The development is a rather surprising one considering Akira — which has been in development at Warner Bros. ever since the studio acquired the rights to the popular Japanese manga in 2002 — was as close as it ever was to getting made.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, pre-production on Akira had been moving along smoothly — despite some concerns with the script that were later resolved — and Waititi had been meeting with and testing young Japanese actors for roles in the film as part of a worldwide search for talent.
But now that the project has experienced yet another major setback, execs can only hope that Waititi will pick up where he left off once he completes Thor 4, which will once again see Chris Hemsworth reprise his role as the titular God of Thunder.
Waititi is currently prepping to hop on the fall festival circuit with his World War II-era satire Jojo Rabbit, which he wrote, directed, and stars in alongside Scarlett Johansson, Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Rebel Wilson, and Sam Rockwell. Fox Searchlight will release the film on October 18.
Warner Bros.’ live-action ‘Barbie’ movie taps Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach as writers
As Greta Gerwig prepares to debut her sophomore effort Little Women on the fall festival circuit in the coming months, the Oscar-nominee has been tapped to co-write and possibly direct Warner Bros.’ live-action Barbie movie.
Gerwig will pen the script for Barbie along with Noah Baumbach, while Gerwig is also likely to helm the high-profile project, though negotiations are still underway and no deals have been finalized as of yet.
Margot Robbie, who is on board to star as the iconic Mattel toy, will also serve as a producer on the film along with Tom Ackerly for LuckyChap Entertainment and Robbie Brenner of Mattel Films. Josey McNamara and Ynon Kreiz are also producing.
Gerwig is currently in post-production on her star-studded Little Women adaptation for Columbia. The film, which is expected to be a strong contender in the forthcoming awards season race, stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, and Meryl Streep.
Baumbach, who last directed The Meyerowitz Stories, is also in post-production on his untitled dramedy for Netflix starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple who are getting divorced. The cast also includes Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, and Azhy Robertson.
Damien Chazelle shops new project ‘Babylon’ to studios as Emma Stone circles lead role
Damien Chazelle, the Oscar-winning writer-director of the 2016 musical La La Land, has begun shopping around the script for his next project titled Babylon, which is yet another story set in Los Angeles that will this time focus on the film industry in the 1920s.
While multiple studios have shown interest in the project — including Paramount and Netflix — Chazelle is most likely to bring Babylon to Lionsgate, the same studio that distributed La La Land and ran its extensive awards season campaign that earned the film a whopping 14 Oscar nominations.
Although specific plot details are being kept tightly under wraps for the time being, the film is said to be a drama set during the Roaring Twenties that examines Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies and will feature characters both fictional and not.
Emma Stone, who an Oscar for performance opposite Ryan Gosling in La La Land, is circling the lead role in the film — which is rumored to be iconic Hollywood “It” girl Clara Bow — though talks are still preliminary and any type of formal negotiations have yet to get underway.
Despite the attention that Babylon has caught, though, studios are hesitant to move on the project given its rather lengthy 180-page-long script and estimated $80 million to $100 million production budget, which some execs feel might be too big of a risky investment for their studios.
Chazelle, who last directed the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man starring Gosling, is currently working on two other projects in addition to Babylon, including the musical drama series The Eddy for Netflix and an untitled drama series for Apple’s forthcoming service service.