Movies

Joe Berlinger On Why Zac Efron Was Perfect To Play Serial Killer Ted Bundy In ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’

Sundance

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.

But it’s fascinating that you went from that to doing a movie about one of the most evil men to ever exist.

Because I thought there was an opportunity to kind of subvert the serial killer genre, turn it on its head by focusing on the opposite of what I’ve encountered. Because I’ve often had sleepless nights thinking “God, I believe Damien Echols or I believe Richard Glossip,” I think these guys are innocent. But what if I’m not being told the truth? I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights as I put out these programs wondering about that. Don’t take that the wrong way. Anything I put out I have gone through the mental exercise and determined I’m telling the story about a wrongful conviction, nobody should be reading into this and second-guessing Paradise Lost. But there’s a due diligence process of confronting these ideas.

So I thought, “Wow, this script really allows me to do two things that taps into my own experiences.” What if somebody is actually guilty but everyone around them believes they’re innocent? Which, of course, is Bundy. Because he was so believable in his denial. That he had a long term relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer. He had a relationship with Carol Ann Boone who, during the Miami trial, actually married him, as you know, and fathered a child while he was on death row. So, the trial attracted groupies, who were titillated by the idea of sitting in the same room with him, in part because they couldn’t imagine that this person was capable of these things.

When I saw the movie, during some of the crazier aspects of that trial, there were people around me saying, “Did that really happen?” And the answer is yes.

That’s why I wanted to anchor the film in some archival footage.

Because some of the stuff is so outlandish.

So, for me, this ability to tell the story from Liz Kloepfer’s point of view. Now, it’s not strictly her point of view, of course, because we see things that she wouldn’t be present for. But when I say POV, I mean I want the audience to have the same emotional experience that somebody like Liz has in believing somebody who doesn’t deserve to be believed. But they are believed, and what is that experience of betrayal like?

It’s a movie about gaslighting. And you don’t show the audience the murders, at least at first.

Yeah, totally. And I feel if we showed him doing those things, the audience wouldn’t go on that emotional journey with the character of Liz. They would think, by having that much knowledge, they would think she’s not smart or there’s something wrong with her. And that grows directly out of my real life experience of wanting to show what it’s like, how one becomes a victim to this type of psychopath. Because the one thing I’ve learned in covering real crime over the years is that people want to think that somebody as evil as Ted Bundy is packaged neatly and easily identifiable in society and therefore you avoid him. It’s like Bundy’s final comments at the end of the film. He says it himself, “Killers don’t come out from the shadows with long fangs and blood dripping from their chins. They are often people that you lived with, admired, worked with. Those are the people who are often the most capable of evil.”

In culture, Bundy has this weird place because he was handsome, even though his murders are extremely violent and brutal. In this movie you play up that perception at first, then turn it all upside down at the end.

Exactly. And it’s why the casting of Zac, I think, works so well. Because he bravely agreed, and not only does he have the chops to pull off I think one of his best performances, I think he did an amazing job in the film. But he was willing. He’s a teen heartthrob, and there are an awful lot of women from 15 to 30 who just idolize him. And for him to willingly take that profile and turn it on its head, I thought was incredibly brave of him and I think it pays off in the film.

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