Since the 1970s, Bundy has been the same notorious serial killer who brutalized at least 30 young woman, and the same psycho who’s been analyzed and re-analyzed for his equal parts charm, charisma and repulsiveness. If we’re gonna number crunch here, that’s 44 years since his first committed murder, 40 years since his last murder, and 29 years since his death on an electric chair.
That’s a whole lotta time to be fascinated by one man, and apparently director Joe Berlinger—longtime documentarian and creator of Paradise Lost—is one of the still-fascinated. As of late, he’s helped to reignite the conversation through his four-part Netflix docu-series, Conversations With a Killer, and now he’s bringing it back with the Netflix biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
In terms of differences, the new Netflix film is going for the gentler and kinder side of Ted Bundy; the pretty face that could blind anyone to the beast lurking within. Zac Efron being the current heartthrob that he is, carries the responsibility of embodying this version of Ted Bundy with his then girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) serving as the visible victim to his manipulation.
With the film now available for streaming on Netflix (May 3), VICE sought out Joe Berlinger to ask him why this film even needed to exist and what pushed him to keep the analysis going in the first place.
VICE: Where were you when you first learned of Ted Bundy, and how did his crimes impact you personally?
Joe Berlinger: I was a young teen at that point, and I was just gripped by the idea that you could actually watch a murder trial since it was the first time cameras were allowed in a courtroom. I really think that decision acted as the big bang behind our current obsession with true crime. It was surreal that people like myself could sit in our living rooms and watch a story of serial murder and rape like it was live entertainment. So many years later, it really instilled in me a sense of responsibility where, if you’re going to tell stories of crime, there should be another element aside from the entertainment value. I’ve always sought to inject each project of mines with an element of social justice, from wrongful convictions to victim advocacy. With the Paradise Lost series, we helped get three innocent people out of prison, which served as the best example of that.
It was really odd that his trial felt like a TV show. Just a few months before the Bundy trial, several news stations were getting used to shooting news on 16mm film, and here you had this new satellite technology that allowed live footage to be dispersed in ways that was not possible before. That intersected with a growing fascination with Bundy himself, where media pressure was being applied to a courtroom. I can’t ignore how much that event impacted me as both a person and filmmaker, because I can never stop finding it odd when we watch trials in this way.
He’s been studied and re-studied continuously, though. This is your second Bundy-related project, so the obvious question is, why the continued interest in a man who apparently loved the attention?
I’ll say that the lessons of Bundy simply can’t be overstated for a new generation. I mean sure, people say that the story has been overdone. But if you really wanted to re-introduce the tale of Ted Bundy for this generation, how would you go about getting today’s youth to actually watch it? When I decided to embark on making this film, one of the things that pushed me over the was my two daughters. Mind you, they’re both very bright, college-aged women with a lot of smart friends, and they both go to very good schools, which by the way, I had nothing to do with helping them with that (laughs).
But in all seriousness, I asked each of them if they knew who Ted Bundy was, and they drew a blank. Their friends only had a vague idea of a man spoken about for years as well. The reality is that I made this movie for them. In my 25 years of covering true crime, it’s been an observation that those who do evil come from the flock of the least expected. Whether it’s a priest who commits pedophilia, a high school coach, or Michael Jackson, we always want to believe that they’d be an unloved social outcast. It’s a false sense of security, and Ted Bundy is a lesson to the opposite.
I’m guessing that’s where Zac Efron comes in.
Exactly. Imagine an actor like Zac Efron who’s already beloved by a certain demographic of young people. He can do no wrong, he’s attractive, and he’s turning that image on its head for this purpose. I want people to root for Zac and his relationship with girlfriend, Liz Kendall (Lily Collins). I want them to trust him like America trusted him, and see that lie for what it was.
Why did you make a concerted effort to not to display his crimes whatsoever though? It seems to have drawn some criticism.
Well some critics have labelled this approach as if I was glorifying Bundy and making light of his crimes. And honestly, I don’t see how that feeling can possibly be correct if you actually took the time to watch the movie as a whole. By its end, we come to understand what a horrible and vicious person he was, and fully understand how much of a master liar he was. It’s a portrayal of three dimensionality that’s intentional.
How hard has it been to get that message across though? This isn’t the first time you’ve had issues with messaging in a movie. Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 comes to mind.
It’s been frustrating. People have said, oh...you’re not showing the violence of Ted Bundy. That it’s disrespectful to the victims, but for me, it’s just the opposite. It’s infinitely more disrespectful to display the worst moments of a victim as they’re tortured and killed, like it was for own sense of entertainment. That catalogue of violence has been done over and over, some of it tasteful, and but much of it highly irresponsible. I’m not interested in making a movie about the depravity of violence. That’s not my thing. What I find more interesting and scarier is the seduction and manipulation that leads to that. In this era of internet catfishing, people are now presenting the most idealized versions of their lives on social media. This isn’t bad per say. But there are some out there who in a very nefarious way, are presenting themselves as positive when in fact, they’re just a Ted Bundy in the making.
In a few keystrokes on a computer or a phone, a kid can go to a website and be educated in the most vile, degrading and violent imagery we’ve ever seen. I mean the stuff that’s available to consume now compared to when I was a kid looking to find a Playboy magazine is deeply disturbing to me. It’s desensitizing. And any movie loaded up with violent imagery, especially within the realm of true crime, will lose the emotional impact behind that deception.
Well as someone who has dealt with the ethics that surround the coverage of real life crimes, what’s your take on how the general industry represents this genre?
There’s no easy answer because true crime comes in all shapes and forms. You’ve had documentaries like my own Paradise Lost, or Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris, which shed a light on wrongful convictions and freed innocent parties from prison. But then there’s very irresponsible true crime in the space of tabloid journalism. I’m very friendly with Amanda Knox, and her life was almost destroyed by an irresponsible press who kept talking about her as if she were definitely guilty. And she’s still, despite having been exonerated, still recovering from the media perception that she’s this evil, murderous seductress which is completely false. Are we disrespectful by zeroing in on these killers, and do they inspire copycat killers? These are all fair and healthy questions. But it also prevents people from seeing the good films in this bunch for what they are...well intentioned explorations of crime and the psychology of manipulation.
I spoke to the journalist from your doc, Conversations with a Killer , and he wanted to make sure that people knew that Ted was a piece of shit. Do you think you’re making that obvious enough?
Like of course Bundy was a horrible human being. This goes without saying. But I want people to know that killers don’t just enter your view from the shadows with long teeth and blood dripping from their chins. They’re subtle, exacting and cunning. It’s once again, the people you most trust. If there’s any positive message that needs to be found, it’s in the arming of a new generation of young people who will be wary about who they interact with. Let’s stop judging people entirely on how they look, feel and act.
If I can think of any genre that never seems to slow down in terms of viewership, it’s true crime. Why do you think our obsession never slows down?
We’re wired for danger. From the earliest days of being hunter-gatherers when we left the cave each day, we didn’t always come back because of a hostile environment. We’re trained to look for danger. It’s just a part of our genetics. But psychologically, it’s also a part of the human condition. When there’s an accident on a highway, we can’t help but look, it’s human nature. We want to know about the worst thing that can happen to somebody in the hopes that will never happen to ourselves. Just as far as impact, we’ve seen true crime programming actually change the lives of those involved by shedding lights on innocence and guilt. I can’t see the thrill of being a part of that stopping any time soon.
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