A lot of people forget that Joe Berlinger – the acclaimed documentary director who made three films about the West Memphis Three, that played a substantial role in getting them exonerated – started his career by directing the maligned Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (which, recently, has had a critical reevaluation in the horror film community). When I brought up Book of Shadows, in relation to why he hasn’t done a scripted film until this year’s Sundance entry, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Berlinger spoke for a full seven minutes about his frustrations with Book of Shadows. (In fact, it’s such a detailed, interesting and long explanation about that film, we’ve decided to publish that in an upcoming separate piece.)
But, yes, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is Berlinger’s first scripted film in 19 years. And it’s also remarkable that after spending so much time on films about wrongfully accused murderers that Berlinger would no focus on a serial killer, Ted Bundy (played by Zac Efron), who always proclaimed his innocence but was undoubtedly a monster.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile might not be what you think it is going to be. This isn’t a film that depicts Bundy’s gruesome murders. Instead, it begins with his initial arrest and takes us through the time period of his incarceration, where a lot of crazy things happen. (A lot of people might not realize that Bundy escaped from prison, twice. On one of these occasions he literally jumped out of a courthouse window during his hearing.) But a lot of the focus is on Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer (played by Lily Collins). In its essence, this is a movie about gaslighting – as Bundy uses his good looks and charm to try and convince Kloepfer that he’s obviously innocent, even though the evidence is horrifying.
Ahead, Berlinger explains why he wanted to do scripted films and make a narrative film about Bundy (while making this film, he also made a documentary about Bundy that will premiere on Netflix) and why Zac Efron was perfect for this role.
You had a bad experience making Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. So why, after all this time, did you want to make a scripted movie again?
I was weary about doing a scripted film. Look, some of my better work happened after the failure of Blair Witch 2. We got the West Memphis 3 out of prison, and I think the Metallica film is a really interesting film. And with a lot of my film and television work, there’s an element of social justice that it’s irrelevant to what critics think, because I know the projects are doing good in the world. There’s a way of criticizing and there’s a way of honoring and respecting that the making of a film is a difficult thing, even if you think it’s bad and then give your reasons why. I think critics today, not everyone of course, but I think critics can be unusually callused about an endeavor. You know, it’s not easy to make a film. There’s so many hurdles to get over, that this tendency is to just hate and find fault and to dismiss with the stroke of a pen, even if it’s bad, something that people worked hard on.
I think there’s a difference between what you’re saying and a situation where a giant corporation puts out something that they know is bad and try to take people’s money away. It’s hard not to feel anger towards that, when everyone involved knows this is a bad product and they’re trying to sell it to people.
That’s true, but there’s countless examples of well-meaning and earnest documentaries and scripted films that don’t fall into that category and you pick up the paper and you read something where it’s just reduced to a paragraph or two. It’s taken me a while to get back in the game, to be brutally honest, because that was a tough experience. Having gone through that experience of being eviscerated and personally eviscerated by people, over something that I didn’t think deserved the level of criticism it got, that the next time I step into the ring, it needs to be something where I feel like my name is on it. Meaning, I’ve been sent a lot of scripts over the years where I feel like “Well, yeah, I could do this, but lots of people could do this.” I want to do a film that kind of uniquely brings together my experiences, and I can do it in an intelligent way. To the frustration of my representatives, I have turned down a lot of stuff that’s been sent my way to consider because I just didn’t feel like Joe Berlinger is the best director for this, you know?
And I get the feeling that this movie isn’t going to be what people expect.
Right. So, I thought this film represented an opportunity for me to do something special that called upon my experiences in life to make something that feels authentic and has a unique point of view based on my 25 years of doing true crime documentary filmmaking. The thing that really spoke to me, because I have spent a lot of time advocating for the wrongfully convicted…
Right, and I thought about that the whole movie. Because now you’re exploring a guy who was very much guilty, but tried to convince the people closest to him that he was innocent.
Right. I have spent an awful lot of my time over the last two decades looking people in the eye, evaluating truthfulness, determining if this person is innocent, whether or not they truly are. Because when you commit to making a film about somebody, you want to make sure you’re putting out a message that is accurate.