Joe Berlinger talks to Jazz Tangcay about casting Zac Efron as Ted Bundy and why he made Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile.
If you binged the docu-series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, you’d see how director Joe Berlinger dives into the mind of one of the most notorious serial killers of our time, Ted Bundy. The four-part series looked at archival footage reveals Bundy’s inner-most thoughts. But that wasn’t enough for Berlinger. In the midst of making the series, his agent passed him the blacklisted script for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile. Berlinger passed the script to Zac Efron who immediately said yes.
Berlinger talks below about why Efron was the perfect person to play the serial killer. He discusses his approach to the narrative and why this generation inspired him to tell the story.
What is our obsession with true crime?
I think there are a lot of reasons why true crime has become even more popular than ever before. I think we tend to forget that it’s always been extremely popular. Even in the 1800s, people used to buy tickets to public executions and buy souvenir programs when killers were being executed. I think we’ve always had a fascination with true crime. I think part of it has to do with basic genetic wiring. Ever since the early caveman days and you left the cave to hunt and gather, and you might not come back alive because that was life back then.
Genetically, we’re always wired to look over our shoulders and to look for danger. We see what’s happened to someone else. That’s the human condition. It’s like rubbernecking, you just can’t look away. You’re going down the highway, and there’s an accident on the other side of the street, the traffic slows down on the other side because everyone is turning and they can’t help but look. I think people want to know what’s the worst thing that can happen to them. They think, ‘it could have been me.’
I think part of the reason there’s so much true crime right now is because there’s so much content in general. There’s ten times more content going on than when I started in this business. I’m mainly a documentarian and in my, if you didn’t sell it to HBO or PBS, you weren’t selling your documentary and the idea of unscripted series was almost unheard of. With Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, there’s a ton of networks and it’s the Wild West of content creation.
I would argue, there’s more of everything including true crime. It’s already popular. It’s made it even more popular. My docu-series was extraordinarily popular on Netflix, and I think the reason it was is that crime, in general, is particularly binge-worthy and the advent of streaming has really given a shot in the arm to that kind of programming.
With the nature of true crime, you’re on the edge of your seat wanting to know what happens next and streaming is a way of consuming things that have made the genre even more popular.
As you said, everyone binged the series, but what was it about Ted Bundy or the material that made you see there was a feature narrative to be further explored?
The lessons of Bundy cannot be overstated for a new younger generation that may not know the Bundy story. He defies all expectations of what a serial killer is. We want to think a serial killer is some weird looking social outcast, a misfit who doesn’t fit into society because that somehow implies that they are easily identifiable and perhaps therefore avoidable. What Bundy teaches us is the people you least expect and most often trust are capable of the worst evil. Before I started this film, I reached out to my two college-age daughters who are very smart women and they go to very fine institutions through no help by me. They earned their way into a very smart institution [laughs]. They have very smart friends, and I asked each of them if they knew who Ted Bundy was and by and large, most of them had no idea or they had the vaguest of ideas. For me, the choosing of Zac Efron who is an icon and heartthrob to that particular demographic and to utilize him in this way, to tell a story about trust and betrayal – to a certain demographic, Zac Efron can do no wrong. That’s the effect that Bundy had on people, he deceived the American media that made him into a folk hero. He deceived the judicial system that allowed him to make a mockery of his trial. The fact that he was allowed to represent himself and cross-examine surviving victims of his own crime – to me, that’s an absolute mockery of the justice system. He was given lax security so he could escape twice. If that were a person of color, could you imagine him being given the free reign that he got? Could you imagine the judge on sentencing him to death, almost apologizing for the death sentence that he was about to give him? For all these reasons, Bundy gaslit, not only Elizabeth Kloepfer but also Mormon church members who went to his trial to say, “No, no. It can’t be our Ted Bundy.”I wanted to cast Zac because he allows that younger demographic who do not quite understand the Bundy story to have the same experience that Liz had. I want the audience to feel that by the end of the movie when Liz finally confronts him and holds him accountable, I want that demographic to say, “My God, Zac was fooling me throughout the movie too and now I realize what a horrible character he’s playing and I’m disgusted. I understand that you just can’t blindly trust people.” That’s the message of the movie, and that’s why I wanted to do the film.
When I received the script for Extremely Wicked which was just coincidental. I happened to mention to my agent that I was enjoying Conversations With A Killer because I thought the show was going to be compelling, he said, “You should read this Hollywood blacklisted script called Extremely Wicked.”The script was kicking around on the blacklist so by definition I had no right to think that I would snap my fingers and make the movie because it’s by definition a problematic script, but I really loved the point of view and started pushing to get it made.
Zac was my first choice. He agreed. He agreed that we didn’t want to do a catalog of violence. We didn’t want to make a movie about the depravity of violence. It had been done before. We wanted to make a film about the psychology about how one becomes seduced and betrayed by these kinds of psychopaths.
That’s what I loved, you did dive into Liz. The love, rather than the gore and blood which we’ve seen so many times.
She stands in for the point of view for everyone who has been duped and deceived. The fact that serial killers kill, we know that. It’s been done before and been done brilliantly and but have also sometimes been done irresponsibly. I’m more interested in the scarier real-life situation of how people compartmentalize their evil. As a documentarian who has done this for twenty-five years, that’s been my experience, that the people you least expect and often trust, are often the worst perpetrators of evil. Whether it’s a priest that commits pedophilia and then holds mass the next day, or whether it’s these executives that shove oxycontin down a generation’s throat by lying and pretending that it wasn’t addictive when research showed the exact opposite. To me, that’s compartmentalized evil. Those guys go to bed at night knowing they’ve killed 200,000 and yet, I’m sure they have loving friends and family who think they’re wonderful people. To me, repressing research to show addiction and encouraging salesforces to encourage doctors to prescribe oxycontin, when in my day a Tylenol would suffice, that to me is evil.
I wanted to understand how people become deceived and seduced as opposed to how a serial killer kills.
Interestingly, the movie doesn’t avoid the discussion of violence. We sit through a trial where we hear pretty horrible things, but I think some critics have misunderstood, that somehow we are soft-pedaling Bundy by not showing him doing vicious acts. Therefore, we are being disrespectful to the victim, and I scratch my head over that and think it’s just the opposite. To me, what’s more, disrespectful to the victim is to recreate their worst moment of existence when they are being brutalized by a misogynistic rapist and killer. If I were a family member, I wouldn’t want that shown. To me, it’s more respectful to make a movie about the collective’s victims point of view about how people are deceived by this type of killer.
The other reason why I wanted to do it this way is that an eight-year-old can stumble upon the worst, free and degrading images of pornography and violence with just a few keystrokes. It’s frightening so why would I load up a movie with that kind of imagery.
I think collectively as a society we’ve become numb to those images and we’re desensitized. If the effect of the movie is to underscore manipulation and betrayal and you want to provoke an emotional response at the end of the movie, if you’ve spent the movie watching violence and that final confrontation is the twenty-fifth moment of violence you watch, then it has no impact because just like we as a society, you become numb to images of violence.
You’re known to be a true-crime pioneer.
I like the pioneer part because I do think Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost were pioneering films. There were a handful of us in the late 80s and early 90s trying to expand the definition of what a documentary could be. Michael Moore was doing it as a filmmaker being on camera as social justice crusader. Errol Morris was doing it with Thin Blue Line. He was doing it as cinematic recreations. I think with Brother’s Keeper, and Paradise Lost were explorations of crime that led to very positive results that got someone out of prison. As did Thin Blue Line. Brother’s Keeper was a film that influenced a whole generation of filmmakers about how to narratively tell a dramatic story.
That pioneering part being lumped in with Michael Moore, Errol Morris and the other innovators of the early 90s, I love.
Being called a true crime pioneer, I have mixed feelings about that phrase because it somehow implies that we are wallowing in the misery of others for entertainment purposes and that’s the last thing I think I’m doing. I’d like to think all of my explorations of crime over the years have a layer of social justice to it. Whether it’s the Paradise Lost trilogy, focusing on victim advocacy, or shining a light on criminal justice reform, my explorations of crime have a layer of social justice, including this film. It’s not just some gratuitous serial killer flick. It’s a cautionary tale to a new generation that you need to be careful about who you place your trust with.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile is streaming on Netflix and on limited release.