Joe Berlinger has a notable history in True Crime films. He’s written, directed, and produced some of the most iconic films in the genre, including the “Paradise Lost” trilogy which eventually led to the release of three unjustly imprisoned teenagers. An interesting set of circumstances led to him creating two (very different) Ted Bundy films, both available on Netflix this year. “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”, a 4 part docu-series, premiered in late January, and explores the twisted mindset of this psychopath through previously unreleased audio tapes. His second film, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile”, tells an interlocking story through a very different lens. How could his girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins) support him and profess his innocence for years in the face of these horrifying allegations and convictions?
We sat down with Berlinger just prior to a special screening of “Extremely Wicked..” at the Phoenix Film Festival Opening night event. During our discussion, he reveals how he came to helm these two films at essentially the same time, the casting of Zac Efron as Bundy, and the surprising origin of the unusual title.
Excerpts from the interview follow, or you can listen to the entire conversation below:
TCF: Was it your intent from the start to do both the docu-series and the feature? Or did one start and inspire/inform the other?
Joe Berlinger: I wish I could say that there was some master plan and that I’m this amazing stratetician like, “Oh, I’m going to do both of these shows that come out at the same time. Isn’t that great?”. But, honestly it was a lot of coincidence. In January of 2017 a guy named Stephen Meshow, who wrote this book two decades before called “Conversations with a Killer” recorded all these death row interviews with Bundy. He used that as the basis of this book that came out a long time ago, but he reached out to me in January of 2017 because he was a fan of my work. He said, “I have these tapes that I based the book on that have been sitting in my closet. Do you think there’s something there? Because there seems to be more and more interest in this kind of programming”.
I said, “Well, there’s 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 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 it just seems like a good time to reflect back. I pitched it to Netflix and Netflix said, “Great, let’s go do a four-part series!”
So I was doing the series and had no clue that this other script existed. I was sitting with my agents in California in April of 2017, just sharing my enthusiasm for how cool this project was turning out. I was giving them an update on stuff, but also said, “Hey, I’d love to try my hand at a scripted movie”. And so my agent said, “Well you know, there’s this script and it’s on the Hollywood blacklist. You should take a read”.
By definition, a Hollywood blacklisted script is a script that a lot of executives like, but they have trouble figuring out how to make it. So to me, getting the script and liking it and talking to the producer was like baby step number one, that I thought was going to be a multi-year process and maybe if I’m lucky, five years from now I’d be doing this movie. So I didn’t imagine the two projects would be simultaneous.
I gave the producer my pitch and he said, “Cool, let’s go take it to market”. Again, this was a true indie movie, not a big budget, financed through foreign sales. I figured if I’m lucky, I’ll be doing this in three years. But just so happened, this is now three weeks, the script has been in my life for three weeks, the producer said, “Yes, let’s try it”. By the way, Jodie Foster was once attached to direct the script and it fell apart, another director was attached to it and it fell apart. So I’m just saying, this is a script that’s been around and people have tried.
How did Zac Effron get attached to the project?
I’m at a CAA weekly meeting with my agent where they discuss what their clients are doing. My agent said, “Well Joe is interested in this script”, and Zac Efron’s agent said, “Hey, Zac is looking to do something different. You want Zac to take a read?”. Very coincidental. I was asked, “Do you mind if Zac reads the script?”. Now in our business, when somebody 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, “I want to do it”, I’m obligated to hire him. You can’t just say, “Hey Zac, you want to read this script? Oh well, I’m not sure I want to use you”, there’s a certain level of actor where it’s a reading offer.
I didn’t have to think very long, because if somebody like Zac was willing to play with his teen heartthrob image in that way, I respect that. Also, as a documentarian, it gives me a little piece of reality to bring into the movie-making process, the fact that in real life he has this profile, this teen heartthrob, this idea that is very similar to what the effect that Bundy had on women. I thought that’s a nice piece of reality I could play with.
Again getting a movie off the ground is a painful process, it takes forever. So I expect, well maybe in a month he’ll read it. He was promoting Baywatch at the time, so maybe in a month he’ll read it. But he read it almost immediately, the agent said, “Get on the phone”. He was promoting Baywatch in Australia, strangely enough, I was on the skeleton coast of Ameba doing a surfing documentary, another story. So we finally found the time to speak, and we just hit it off, he said the right things, I said the right things and so with Zac signed on, this is 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.
After doing the documentary, was there any pressure or desire to take liberty with the facts while doing the feature?
I wouldn’t say pressure, but the nature of narrative filmmaking is that you have to compress time. The unfolding of time is not the same as in real life and you do have to take certain liberties. But I’m very proud of the film, that it actually hues very closely to real life. But you have to think in the three-act structure, you have to make it entertaining for an audience.
Truthfully, probably the biggest issue I struggled with is in the memoir that this is based, there are a few times where she talks about having found things that made her think twice. Like 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 the 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 spouse or a drug-addicted spouse and they claim to be on the wagon or they claim to not be cheating. You have an ability to kind of push that aside over a period of time and it’s only when it reaches a critical mass in real life, that when you have an experience like this, then all the clues come together and you’re like, “Oh right. I should’ve realized this all along”.
But in a two-hour movie, the compression of time is so great that if I within the first act had Lily find a knife or looking through keys, she would’ve, I think to the audience, looked like an idiot for not catching on. The biggest issue was there were certain things I had to leave out of her memoir because time is different in a narrative film then it is in real life and even as it is in the documentary.
With the way Bundy’s charm was shown in the media and the way you represented the media, it feels almost satirical in nature. Was that your intent?
To call a movie a satire would be an overstatement. But there are satirical elements to it because I am definitely making a comment on how the media helped to create this monster and how there were so many opportunities to catch this guy. For example, the title of the movie is “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”. It’s an absurd title. But if you notice the movie doesn’t begin with that title, it ends with that title because by the time those words are pronounced, the gravity of it is felt.
And yet, when I think people see this, see the poster or see the trailer and go into a movie called “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” they think they’re going to have kind of a good time. For me, the truth, just like the title of the movie and it’s meaning 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 would be commented on.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” arrives on Netflix Friday, May 3, 2019!