Interview with Joe Berlinger, director of ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile’
Joe Berlinger, director of ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,’ is an Emmy-winning and Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker. He’s predominantly known for his work in the true crime documentary genre, but he also likes to focus his skills on human rights and environmental issues.
With his documentaries ‘Brother’s Keeper,’ ‘Paradise Lost,’ and ‘Crude,’ he has brought attention to the topics of oil pollution and what pollution is doing to the Amazon rainforest. ‘Brother’s Keeper’ as well as ‘Paradise Lost’ are now examined by documentary filmmakers everywhere. What he does and what he has to say in his films doesn’t go unnoticed. His film ‘Crude’ alone, which examines the infamous twenty-seven billion dollar ‘Amazon Chernobyl’ case, won twenty-two human rights, environmental, and film festival awards and prompted a First Amendment battle with Chevron oil. He cares about people and the planet and his appreciation of all that he’s been given is very obvious in his work.
I’ve only scratched the surface of his incredible body of work. We sat down for a chat with him and asked him about his latest film, ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.’ He had a lot to say about how he got the script for the film, his cast and his logical maneuvers through the behaviors of a serial hunter and those who loved him. And while dialoguing with Joe I noticed he very definitively reveals an incredible respect for Netflix.
TMC: I read that you said the reason for making this movie was to inform people to not trust a person based on how they look. I wanted to say, thank you. People do need to realize that, especially women who are taught from day one to ‘Always be nice!’ Did you also take this on to give the audience a reason to feel sympathy toward Liz?
BERLINGER: Oh, absolutely! Getting to the first point, as somebody who has spent a long time doing real crime, it’s been my observation that those… you know, we want to think that a serial killer is some bizarre looking social outcast; some creepy guy who you can spot a mile away because that implies that you can somehow avoid that fate because he’s easily identifiable.
The enduring lesson of Bundy, and why I was preoccupied enough to do both a documentary series and a movie is that what I’ve learned is that the people who you least expect and who are in positions of truth and are the least likely to do such a terrible thing are the ones who often do the evil in life. Whether it’s a priest who commits pedophilia and holds mass the next day, whether it’s the executive at Purdue Pharma that tells its salesforce to, not only suppress the research that shows Oxytocin is an addictive but actually tells them to lie to doctors about it. We’ve had over 200,000 opioid deaths. Those are people who, I’m sure, have wonderful friends and there are art museums who think their donations are fantastic. They have loving families but that’s compartmentalized evil, you know? Just like a serial killer who pretends to be one thing.
So, the reason I wanted to make these films is because, my daughters were of college age when I called them up and said, ‘I’m thinking about doing this. Do you know who Ted Bundy is?’ And they had no clue. And I think in this day and age, in an era of catfishing or the fake Uber drivers (make sure you check the license plate, by the way, some are getting in the wrong car thinking it’s their Uber and it’s something else) the lessons of
Bundy can’t be overstated. Some people need to deserve your trust.
The other reason to do the movie is to really understand the experience of the victim. How you become seduced by this kind of psychopath. Because, I think people hear, ‘Oh! Bundy had a live-in girlfriend?! She must have been an idiot!’ No. This is the opposite. This is a person who not only seduced Elizabeth, psychologically, but he also seduced the American media and seduced the legal system. (He’s speaking about a scene at the end of the film.) Can you imagine 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 but I have no hard feelings and I wish you would have practiced law in front of me. You would have been a terrific lawyer.’ Are you kidding me?? Because he was a white male, in the seventies, he was given all sorts of breaks because of his demeanor, because of his looks, because he was a law student, because he was white. He was given all sorts of freedoms. So, to me, seeing things through Liz’ eyes is an understanding of how one becomes seduced, how a victim becomes seduced by a psychopath. She’s lucky. He actually, I think, liked her and kept her alive. But it’s that same power he had over everybody that I think is a lesson I want my daughters to know.
TMC: For some reason, there was a lot of talk, when the trailer first dropped, that this movie glamourizes Ted Bundy. What did you think of all that nonsense?
BERLINGER: I was never a fan of the first trailer. 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. Umm… I was not that happy with it. (He snickers) So, I’m very happy that I got the opportunity to work with Netflix pretty closely on the trailer which was great. I’ve done several things with Netflix now. ‘Tony Robbins: I am not your Guru’ and ‘Conversations with a Killer’ which was the doc series and they were amazing about working closely with the filmmaker. Making sure that the tone and, you know, the intention of the movie is nicely captured. And we worked together on that trailer and instead of focusing on the negative, first trailer, I’d say that I’m very happy with this trailer, and I think it really captures the tone and the spirit of the movie. As somebody who has spent twenty-five years doing a lot of real-life true crime, the last thing this movie is doing, in my opinion, is glamourizing a serial killer.
So, some of that criticism was very personally painful to me because I’ve spent a lot of time, you know, doing very meaningful things with my films. Wrongful conviction, shining a light on justice reform, advocation for victims… that’s a big part of what my film and television work is about. In fact, 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. (Laughs) But the true-crime thing? I have a funny relationship with that phrase because I think true-crime, just that catchphrase, kind of conjures up, wallowing in the misery of others for entertainment purposes and I think when you look at my filmography, that’s that last thing I do. Where is the victim? Are we glorifying? I think it’s a healthy debate, an important issue. The first trailer gave the false impression that the movie had a different tone. I’m very happy with this trailer. It captures the spirit of the movie.
TMC: What was the biggest issue you faced presenting this?
BERLINGER: The biggest issue I struggled with is, in the memoir that it was based, there’s a few times where she talks about having found things that made her think twice. She found the knife in the glove box of his car. They kept separate apartments, even though they lived together, and in his apartment, she found a bowl of keys. Why did he have so many house keys?? But these are isolated events that take place over a seven- or eight-year period. It’s like if you’re living with a cheating spouse or an alcoholic or drug addicted spouse, and they claim to be on the wagon or to not be cheating, you have the ability to push that aside for a period of time and it’s only when it reaches critical mass that all the clues come together. ‘I should have realized this all along!’
But in a two-hour movie, the compression of time is so great that if I, in the first act, had Lily (Collins) find a knife or looking through keys, she would have looked like an idiot for not catching on. So, that was the biggest issue. There were certain things I had to leave out from the memoir because time is different in a narrative film than it is in real-life or even as it is in a documentary.
TMC: What’s your best guess as to why people are drawn to stories about serial killers… and why do they keep watching?
BERLINGER: People seem to have an insatiable appetite for crime. In fact, one of the reasons 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. There was this new technology called electronic news gathering. Just a few months before Bundy’s trial, most stations were still shooting the evening news on 16mm film. So, coinciding with the fascination with Bundy was this new satellite technology, new electronic news gathering which just kind of pushed its way into the courtroom and the Florida Supreme Court allowed cameras into the courtroom. And I think that was more… had a greater impact than people realized because for the first time, in our history, serial rape and murder became live entertainment for American television viewers. It was the first time we got to watch something live that was as sordid as what went on in that trial.
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, which was the first time cameras were allowed into the courtroom, to ten years later when he was being executed.
There was a new technology called mobile satellite trucks. The ubiquitous trucks… fifty of them show up at every crime scene now with the satellite dish. But that technology was just coming into play. So, parked outside of the death house when he was being executed, were all these satellite trucks and revelers and party goers and people wanting to watch the execution. So, once again, murder became entertaining for people, both on television and live. You can trace that line to a few years later to 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. That trial became a huge turning point to where we are today. I think we’re wired for danger. We want a look. From the hunter-gatherer days when it was often not safe to leave the cave, or wherever you were living, you’re wired to see what’s around the corner. I think that’s part of it.
I think we’re just a nation of rubberneckers. We slow down to see the car wreck.
TMC: Was it your intention to do both a doc series and a film or did one inspire the other?
BERLINGER: I wish I could say there was some masterplan and I’m an amazing statistician. Honestly, it was a lot of coincidence. A guy named Stephen G. Michaud, who wrote this book two decades before called, ‘Conversations with a Killer,’ (he recorded all these death row interviews with Bundy) used that as a basis for this book that came out a long time ago. But he reached out to me January of 2017 and said, ‘I have these tapes that I based the book on, sitting in my closet. Do you think there’s something there? There seems to be more and more interest in this kind of programming.’ And I said, ‘Well, there has been a lot of stuff done on Bundy so let me take a listen. I’ll tell you what I think. The bar has to be high because there has been other Bundy stuff.’
So, I got the tapes, immediately were captivated by them because, you know, just hearing from him, going inside the mind of the killer, I thought was just a fascinating way to tell the story. I knew the 30th Anniversary was coming up and that just seemed like a good time to reflect back. I actually had been very conscious of this growing trend of true-crime. So, I said, ‘Yes. I think there’s something here.’
Pitched it to Netflix and Netflix said, ‘Great! Let’s go do a four-part series.’ So, I was doing the series; had no clue that the script existed, that this film was out there. But I was sitting with my agents in CA in April of 2017, sharing my enthusiasm for how cool this project was turning out. I was giving an update on this stuff but also saying, ‘I’d like to try my hand at a scripted movie.’ My agent said, ‘There’s this script and it’s on the Hollywood Black List. You should take a read.’ I read the script, I said I love it, connect me with the producers.
By definitions, a Hollywood Black Listed script is a script that a lot of executives like, but they have trouble figuring out a way to make it. So, to me, getting the script and liking it… and talking to the producer was baby step number one that I thought was going to be involved in the process and that maybe if I were lucky in five years, I’d be doing this movie. I didn’t imagine the two projects would be simultaneous.
So, I got on the phone with the producer; explained why I liked the script and got control of the rights to it. It was a much longer conversation than what I’m reducing it to but basically, I gave him my take on how I’d do it. My take was to… the original script depended upon not knowing it was Bundy until the very end of the movie, which reads well on paper, but I didn’t think was realistic. The moment someone signs on to do this, they’re going to know it’s a movie about Ted Bundy. So, I felt like you had to situate the POV (point of view) more on Liz’ point of view that it was in the script. That you can know it’s Bundy at the beginning of the film because everyone’s gonna know and that it needs to take a much darker journey because the original script was a little more, ‘catch me if you can.’ Much more of a lighthearted… not to criticize the script. The bones of the script are very much the same and I think Michael Werwie (the writer) did an amazing job. I fell in love with that script, but I tweaked it to make it more realistic, a little darker and to cop to the fact that it’s Bundy at the beginning of the film.
So, I gave my pitch. The producer said, ‘Cool Let’s go take it to market.’ Again, indie movies… and this is truly, despite Zac (Efron) being in it, an indie movie. Not a big budget, financed through foreign sales… umm… and I figured if I’m lucky, I’ll be doing this in three years. But it just so happened, the script had been in my life for three weeks, the producer said, ‘Yes. Let’s try it.’
By the way, Jodie Foster was once attached to the script to direct and it fell apart. And another director was attached to it and it fell apart. I’m just saying, this is a script that has been around and people have tried but my agent… I’m at CAA (Creative Artists Agency) and CAA has a weekly meeting where they discuss what their clients are doing and my agents said, ‘Joe’s interested in this script.’ Zac Efron’s agent said, ‘Hey! Zac is looking to do something different. Do you want Zac to take a read? Very coincidental. So, I was asked, ‘Do you mind if Zac reads the script?’ Now, in our business, when someone at Zac’s level reads a script, it’s called a Reading Offer. So, it’s a very considerate decision because if I say, ‘Zac. Read that script.’ And he says, ‘Hey, I wanna do it.’ I’m obligated to hire him. But I didn’t have to think very long because if somebody like Zac wants to play with his teen heartthrob image in that way, I respect that. And, also, as a documentarian, it gives me a little piece of reality to break into the movie-making process. The fact that, in real life, he has this profile of teen heartthrob… that is very similar to the effect that Bundy had on women. I found that a nice piece of reality I could play with.
To make a long story, hopefully, shorter, I said, ‘Yes! Read the script.’ And to his credit, he read it immediately. Again, getting a movie off the ground is a painful process. It takes forever. So, I expected that maybe in a month he would read it. He was promoting ‘Bay Watch’ at the time. But he read it almost immediately.
We finally found the time to speak. We just hit it off. He said the right things; I said the right things. With Zac signed on, this was now week four, they decided to take it to Cannes and by the end of the fifth week, it was a financed movie… which never happens. Now I’m stuck with a situation. ‘Oh my God! I’m in the middle of ‘Conversations with a Killer’ for Netflix and now I’ve just obligated myself to do the movie.’ But, luckily, the start date of the movie pushed a little bit because of Zac’s availability, so the documentary was basically shot and was in editing when I started prepping the movie. The experience of doing both at the same time was great because you wanna be an expert in your subject matter when you direct a movie. I’m really an expert now. I was really able to guide people in the story, give them archival footage to look at… every department head during prep, when they needed a photo reference (what did the courtroom look like?) we had a whole documentary in New York in the editing phase that we could rely on.
Going into Sundance, it wasn’t clear that Netflix was going to buy the movie. Netflix had nothing to do with the production of the movie. We made it independently but because at Sundance the movie did well and ‘Conversations with a Killer’ did well, we had offers from other people, I kept steering this toward Netflix because they did such an amazing job marketing ‘Conversations with a Killer.’ It was the number one global trend on Twitter like within hours of release. I just felt that the two movies together on the same platform would be amazing. I was a big voice on pushing it toward Netflix.
Anyway, that’s the long story. I gotta figure out a shorter way to tell that story.
TMC: What was it like working with this amazing cast?
BERLINGER: Every cast member were my first choices, which never happens. There was a great comradery on set. Zac and Lily worked particularly hard. These were not easy roles for either of them. Both of them are going out of their comfort zone with what they normally have done in the past. I did a couple of different things. With Zac, I gave him a lot of footage to look at, a lot more archival footage, a lot of proprietary footage that we used in the documentary footage but that’s not accessible online. But Lily, I did not want her to see anything. She was, at first, ‘Where’s my drive of footage?’ I was like, ‘I don’t want you to see anything. Don’t go on the internet, don’t worry about Ted Bundy.’ In fact, the first time she saw any graphic imagery was right before we shot the hacksaw scene. That’s when I pulled her aside and I said, ‘Look. This is what this guy did.’ So, she was able to use that. More importantly, the whole film rests upon you believing in their relationship, despite what he did.
TMC: Relationship with an evil serial killer.
BERLINGER: There’s one spectrum of compartmentalization of evil that we all exist on. We all compartmentalize and do bad things in varying degrees. Most of us here, I would hope, our compartmentalization is a little lie here and a little thing here and we all just move on. But as you go down that spectrum, you have that priest who commits pedophilia but is a spiritual leader and holds mass the next day. He’s able to compartmentalize that evil and still play that role.
You know, you have the aforementioned executives who, most of the time are being good guys. But they’re repressing whether it’s repressing Climate Change, (although I don’t want to get into a political discussion here), whether it’s fossil fuel companies repressing Climate Change research or OxyContin or whatever, we all compartmentalization and it gets more evil and evil and I believe Bundy actually was capable of love which is a controversial comment, I’m sure. I think he needed and craved normalcy, but he compartmentalized this terrible evil that he did.
And so, for me, the relationship being real is the crux of the movie because I want the audience to have the same… you know, some people have criticized, ‘Where is the violence in this film? You’re like glossing over his evil.’ But to me, the catalog of killings in a serial killer movie has been done to death. We live in an age where you can go like this (He acts as if he’s on a computer) and see the most violent images and the worst degradation to women that you can imagine. Why do I need to populate a movie with that stuff, as long as he gets his due at the end of the film?
I want… what I’m portraying is the seduction of evil and how you can be fooled. The key to that was that relationship being real. My big note to them, that I kept hammering home, was that this love was real, between the two of them and it needs to burn off the screen, this connection between the two of them. That was the thing that I worked on the most. Not because I’m glamorizing a serial killer and I want to gloss over it, just the opposite. I want to share, I want to portray, how somebody who’s intelligent, who had a child, who had her whole life in front of her, was able to be seduced by a guy who presents to be one thing but turns out to be another.
TMC: Are you worried, because of copycat killers, that some deranged individual will watch this film and be so inspired by Ted Bundy, someone they might not have otherwise known about had they not seen this, that they copy him because they saw this film?
BERLINGER: Glamorization, inspiration, all of these are very healthy debates but the moment you start censoring yourself… you know, if this movie was a gorefest and irresponsible gorefest, MAYBE, but it’s an intelligent movie that has some real thought behind it. If somebody is inspired to be Ted Bundy off of this movie than I would argue that a different person would be inspired to do something evil off of any kind of movie. Where do you draw the line? I don’t actually have an answer, but I know that I’m not worried that people will be inspired to something off of this movie in particular because I think it was very responsibly made.
TMC: I liked the story. I liked how you laid out a bunch of crumbs for us to follow, especially the way that Haley Joel Osment’s character, who plays Liz’s co-worker Jerry, came in an allowed Liz to move on without actually moving in. Within this, I thought there was satire in the way that you portrayed his charm. In the way it was shown to the media and how you represented the media. Was that intentional or did that happen because of everybody’s performances?
BERLINGER: To call the movie a satire would be an overstatement but there are satirical elements to it because I’m definitely making a comment in how the media helped contribute to create this monster and that how there were so many opportunities to catch this guy that it’s being somewhat satirical in… you know, for example, the title of the movie is ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.’ It’s an absurd title but you notice that the movie doesn’t begin with that title. It ends with that title because, by the time those words were pronounced, the gravity of it is felt. Yet, when I think people see the poster, see the trailer, go into a movie called ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,’ they think they’re going to have, kind of, a good time. And for me, the truth, just like the title, is right in front of you. By the end of the movie, when the title is spoken, it takes on a whole other meaning.
To me, the question of everybody’s culpability in allowing Bundy to flourish is what was being commented on.
So, there are moments where there is some satire because I’m trying to let people know that the truth is often right in front of you. It’s kind of a warning that, you know, especially in this day and age, where I think we all live in these curated worlds of Instagram and Facebook and we all pretend to be something that actually isn’t the actual essence of our life. That there is a danger in that people can take that to a much greater degree and be dangerous to society. And, you know, the fact that we pushed our way into this courtroom and televised this trial and turned it into entertainment… I am self-reflexively looking at, you know, a genre that I participated in. In what we’ve created to the point that now we live in these media silos where nobody is talking to each other and we look for our own confirmation of things. And I think a lot of it has to do with the perception of reality. We don’t seem to know the difference… there’s been such a blurring of the line between fiction and reality in our society that facts don’t seem to matter much. And the fact is, Bundy was a ruthless killer and rapist of women and there were so many opportunities to catch him, but everybody gave him a pass because he was white and charming and so… there is a satirical line for that.
See his film ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,’ on Netflix this Friday 5/3/2019.