Director Joe Berlinger unpicks the fascination with the killer and discusses why his film is relevant now
Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile isn’t your typical serial killer movie. Released on Netflix, it operates from the perspective of Ted Bundy’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, who by all accounts was treated wonderfully by the serial killer, well as wonderfully as a serial killer can treat anyone.
Played sublimely by Lily Collins, Kloepfer had no idea that Bundy was so evil, and it’s her understanding and realisation of how deeply she was deceived by the killer that becomes the central theme of the film. Zac Efron portrays the sadistic murderer with equal aplomb and an uncanny resemblance and the squeaky-clean actor, who’s not really had the chance to play this kind of character, excels in the role.
We talked to director and true crime documentary veteran Joe Berlinger – who also created and directed the Netflix Bundy doc Conversations With A Killer – to find out whyhe jumped at the chance to put his spin on Bundy, the fascination with serial killers, how he got James Hetfield from Metallica in the film, and what it all means looking back at his career.
You’re known as a true crime documentary guy, from The Paradise Lost Trilogy to Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger. What was it like doing your first feature narrative?
Joe Berlinger: I felt comfortable moving to a scripted movie on this particular subject matter because I’ve been doing crime for so long. I just finished Conversations With a Killer and having done a deep dive into the documentary series gave me the confidence to do the movie. Obviously, making a scripted movie and making a documentary are two different disciplines – but I feel like the scripted movie was a cousin of my documentary approach. I knew I wanted to use real archival footage in the movie, which wasn’t part of the script. I went to great pains to make sure that the dialogue in the courtroom reflected what was authentic to the Florida trial. I kind of brought a documentary attitude into the feature process.
With all the hype in pop culture surrounding Bundy and his case over the years, why do you think we needed a movie about him now?
Joe Berlinger: I’m putting this out there for new generations of people as a cautionary tale about not trusting somebody just because of how they look and feel. I’ve been making films for a very long time about crime, and it’s my experience that the people who do evil in the world are often the people you least expect and most often trust. Whether it’s a priest who commits pedophilia and then holds mass the next day, or somebody like Michael Jackson who people trusted to leave their kids with and he ended up violating that trust. That’s the message of this movie to a younger generation. That’s the enduring lesson of Bundy.
“I’m putting this out there for new generations of people as a cautionary tale about not trusting somebody just because of how they look and feel” – Joe Berlinger
Bundy defies all expectations of what a serial killer is. You want to think a serial killer is some strange looking misfit or social outcast, who exists on the fringe of our society, because that gives us comfort that somehow we can identify that person and therefore avoid fate of becoming a victim. That’s why I wanted to re-tell the story. We’ve seen many serial killer movies where there’s an escalating body count, and by the end of the movie the police have put the clues together and they catch the serial killer.
That’s not interesting to me. The depravity of violence is not as interesting to me or as scary as how you can become a victim to a psychopath because of their ability to manipulate, and seduce, and pull the wool over your eyes. That’s what Bundy was famous for.
What was it like working with Zac Efron and Lily Collins on the movie, and how did they capture the essence of the characters?
Joe Berlinger: It was an utter joy to work with those guys, even though it was very dark material. I was lucky that all of the cast members; Zac, Lilly, Haley Joel Osment, and Angela Sarafyan were all my first choices. Luckily they all said yes. It was essential for me to cast them because, as a documentary maker, I’m always looking to bring something real into the scripted narrative. Zac has a real life persona of somebody who’s incredibly charming, makes people feel he’d do no harm, because he’s so likable. But allowing me to take that image and turn it for this movie was very interesting, because for a certain demographic of young women, and some men, Zac is somebody who can do no wrong.
People refuse to acknowledge that they’re walking into a movie about Ted Bundy and actually start investing in that relationship between Zac and Lily. By the end of the movie, when we can finally understand what a horrible human being Bundy is, you feel a level of disgust and that’s exactly the feeling I want to create for the audience. I want the audience to say, “I was actually liking that character for part of the movie, I can’t believe I actually fell for it.” That’s a way to portray what the experience was like to be seduced and betrayed by a psychopath. Lily had a hard role because for part of the movie she’s paralysed in her home. She’s imprisoned by her grief and her feelings to figure stuff out.
Why do you think so many people in our society, or in the media and or pop culture put serial killers like Ted Bundy on a pedestal?
Joe Berlinger: I’m not sure people put them on a pedestal. I think people are fascinated by him because he defied all expectations of what a serial killer is. I think it’s scary to think that the person next to you, who you know and trust, could actually be capable of such terrible evil. I certainly don’t think this movie puts Bundy on a pedestal. By the end of the movie he’s alone on death row, about to be executed. The only person he cares about knows the horrible truth about him and has rejected him, and he gets executed.
You knew James Hetfield from doing the book Metallica: This Monster Lives. How did he get involved in this movie as an actor?
Joe Berlinger: I was at Lars Ulrich’s wedding four years ago and James was there. We just started chatting about my beliefs that James has this incredible presence and how that can be converted into acting. We had a nice chat about it, but I never followed up on it until I had this opportunity. I reached out to him to see if he was interested in playing the role. I thought it was a small enough role that he could fit it into his schedule because he was on tour and that it would be a good way for him to experiment. I thought he could do it without a tremendous amount of effort and he agreed. It was just a lot of fun to have him in the film.
If you look at your whole career in retrospect up to this point, did you always see yourself moving into features?
Joe Berlinger: I have found that films that I think are going to happen invariably don’t, and the films that I think aren’t going to happen end up happening. The thing that’s truly amazing to me is that when I first started making documentaries 25 years ago, if you didn’t sell your documentary to PBS or HBO, there was nobody to sell your documentary to. And today, the documentary has become so popular. Documentary series didn’t exist when I first started, and now documentary is opening up. The whole documentary pool has expanded greatly, both creatively and in terms of the many outlets that you can sell your stuff to. I could never have imagined that there’d be a thing called Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu 25 years ago. It’s a really interesting time to be a content creator.