Joe Berlinger doesn’t shy away from the darkest of discussions, given that he’s best known for projects that revolve around heinous crimes and social justice. Even if so-called “true crime” isn’t your usual bingewatching jam, you’ve almost definitely taken a taste of his Zac Efron Ted Bundy movie, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile, from a few years ago. That was one of two recent Bundy-centered projects (including Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) from Joe, and he digs his heels deep into justice for both victims and the accused, including the wrongfully convicted West Memphis Three defendants, who were the subject of his HBO documentary trilogy, Paradise Lost. There’s plenty more Berlinger staples in the genre for fans to enjoy, and the latest one happens to be one of the most compelling.
Netflix’s Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel is a different type of crime documentary series that you’re used to seeing. As the trailer shows, each season of this show focuses on a notorious place in true crime history. In this case, the setting is downtown Los Angeles at a murder-trap of a hotel that was once a home-away-from-home to travelers and serial killers, including Richard Ramirez, who got the full-on profile treatment in Netflix’s recent Night Stalker. For a young Canadian woman, Elisa Lam, the joint swiftly got deadly and mysterious, and viral footage of Lam’s bizarre elevator behavior sparked international interest in the case. This series swan dives into the hotel’s troubled history and soon find itself awash with both conspiracy theories and ghost stories. Joe would like to do away with both, and he was gracious enough to speak with us about the Netflix series and his most daunting (early) days as a filmmaker.
Joe, I hope you are as well as you can possibly be today.
I am! Where are you right now?
Oh I am in very scenic Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I actually like Tulsa and have spent a lot of time in Oklahoma on the Richard Glossip case, on death row. Your governor wants to kill an innocent person. They’ve already tried to kill him three times and literally wheeled him into the death chamber and started injecting when they realized that they had the wrong chemicals. Can you imagine going through that? And he’s an innocent guy. Now there’s a stay of executions in Oklahoma until they figure out some protocols, although I think the moratorium is being lifted soon. Anyway, Oklahoma likes to kill people.
That’s seriously like the state motto, you nailed it.
But I like Tulsa. Lots of good restaurants.
I can’t complain! So, with Crime Scene, the show focuses focus upon places where crimes occurred. With the Hotel Cecil, did you start framing the season around the Elisa Lam case or actually start by thinking about the hotel?
I remember seeing this elevator footage in 2013 when it kind-of went viral and remember thinking to myself how fascinating it was and captivating, but I never actually thought to do something about it as a filmmaker, and then more recently, Josh Dean, a journalist who’s written about this case, brought us this story to see if we thought there was a docuseries about her case, and I did, but I also wanted to do it through a different lens. I thought it would be interesting to examine the history of the place where the crime took place, and all the socioeconomic forces that contribute to why certain places become a nexus for crime or the perception of crime. So, we pitched Netflix the idea of not simply covering the story but the idea of focusing upon specific locations, in which a lot of crime has happened and in a way to turn the true crime genre on its head a little bit.
Previously, you said that you “wince” at the True Crime label, so yeah, I can see why shaking things up has increasingly become your thing.
I’m normally doing stories about individual criminals or individual crimes, and as I’ve done these shows, I’ve often wondered what it is about a specific place that contributes. With the Ted Bundy Tapes a few years ago, along with the Zac Efron movie, and while I was making those films, I often thought to myself, “What is it about Seattle and the Pacific Northwest during that time period that allowed a Bundy to flourish and to get away with it for so long?” And, “What is it about South Boston that allowed Whitey Bulger to flourish?” And, “What was it about West Memphis, Arkansas, in my Paradise Lost series about the West Memphis Three, that allowed that particular community to be so blinded by the truth that they would sentence them to death — of killing eight-year-olds in a Satanic ritual — with virtually no evidence?” I’ve thought about this a lot, so when Elisa Lam was brought to me, the hotel just stood out as a major character to take a deeper dive into a place as an organizing principle for a crime show.
You’re calling the hotel a character, and I wanted to ask about that because you like to play with hidden themes. Like, the Zac Efron movie wasn’t just about Ted Bundy, it was about gaslighting the world. If the hotel is a character here, so is Skid Row, and so is the Internet. Did you feel that way also, sort of like these “characters” created a storm of conspiracy as well?
Exactly! That’s great that you observed that because that was exactly my intention. Honestly, this is not the first time that someone has told this story, but people who have told this story in the past have leaned into the ghost-story aspect (that this was a haunted place), and I just don’t buy that. I think it’s actually irresponsible to the victim to dismiss her tragedy as just another ghost story. I think if you’re going to tell a story of someone’s tragedy, you have to do it responsibly, and a responsible telling of the story is a dissection of the forces that led to their unfortunate circumstances. So, a big part of it was the social and economic forces that created a Skid Row in Los Angeles’ disastrous policy of allowing that Skid Row area to grow and fester, this policy of containment.
You get very visual with your depiction of Skid Row and how that affected people’s perceptions of the hotel and the death of Elisa Lam.
That’s where marginalized people, homeless people, people with mental health issues also were just dropped off and left to fend for themselves in this area, and what happened to downtown Los Angeles over the decades is as much of a part of the story of how people jumped to these conspiracy theories and wrong ideas of what happened to Elisa as anything else. Each of these threads are characters that we dissect how things actually came to be and actually turn the genre on its head a little bit by not leading into a sensational and the obvious while also giving the audience — to those who don’t know the story — the experience of those trying to figure it out at the time and why they jumped to those conclusions.
And it’s a place where 1980s serial killer Richard Ramirez came back to his room in blood-soaked clothing, and no one did anything about it. I can’t even imagine that happening in the Internet age and not being reported.
I think that was also a lot of people looking the other way in this place. I can imagine that it was more of a place where people were down on their luck, not really focused on anything other than their own problems, where people are just trained not to care, not to pay attention, and that’s the kind of place it was.
That’s also decades after the so-called Bystander Theory with Kitty Genovese case surfaced, and that theory more than suggests that a lot of people just don’t want to get involved when someone’s in trouble.
That’s interesting, and I do know the Kitty Genovese story well. I actually developed it as a scripted movie for HBO long ago, and it never got made, but I think that Bystander Theory could apply, for sure.
This is “Hotel Death” with too many deaths to count. Did you think of pulling any other cases into the season?
Really, the Elisa Lam case was the only one I wanted to focus on. It’s a true-crime show about people are convinced that something criminal happened to the victim when, in fact, there actually was no crime. It was a tragic accident, and we see how a lot of these theories feel very real. You know, when you look at the circumstances in the show, they’re mind-boggling from the LAM-ELISA test for the tuberculosis outbreak to the Dark Water movie…
Oooh yeah, that part freaked me out a little bit.
… where literally the plot of the movie (which came out before her death) was a distillation of her disappearance. The plot of the movie could actually be a distillation of what happened to Elisa Lam. But at the end of the day, none of these things are true. And that to me, as somebody who has toiled in the criminal justice system for years, I have seen too many prosecutors pull together circumstantial evidence, rumor, and innuendo, and build a strong case against somebody who’s actually innocent in my opinion. So to me, this is a cautionary tale and an important lesson about not believing in circumstantial evidence on its own. You need corroborating forensic and physical evidence to prove your case. I’ve examined many criminal cases where you could point out a number of strange coincidences in a number of cases, but that doesn’t make the person be the killer. At the end of the day, no crime happened here, and the many theories that are still out there as urban legends are debunked.
Speaking of urban legends, let’s talk about that death metal singer who was accused by conspiracy theorists of killing Elisa. Those people ruined his life.
Yes, Morbid. His real name is Pablo Viguera.
Did you have a difficult time convincing him to appear onscreen?
Yeah, it took a lot to talk him into it. Luckily and as a death metal guy, he knew my Metallica film [2004’s Metallica: Some Kind of Monster]. That’s not death metal, obviously, but it’s metal. It was considered by some to be a seminal rock film, and he loved that film, so he took the call for that reason. But it took a lot of persuading to convince him to do it because he really hadn’t talked about it before, and it really had a deep impact on him. I thought it was a very theme of the show: as well-intentioned as people are in wanting to solve a crime that, unless you have all the facts, you have to be very careful of who you accuse.
Obviously, we’re also getting relevant right now with the explosion of conspiracy theories working some widespread, real-life damage.
We live in this very post-truth world right now, where whoever provides the best narrative seems to be the purveyor of truth. And I think, well, not that I made the show for that reason, but the nature of truth is something that has been a concern of mine from the earliest days of my filmmaking. We are living in some very treacherous times when it comes to false narratives really having a deep impact. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know what I’m talking about.
Are you, by chance, talking about a certain ex-president and those lawmakers who remain loyal to the guy?
I don’t want to bore you with examples, but we have members of Congress who believe that Jewish space lasers are causing California wildfires. We live in very strange times! So to me, this series became a meditation on the nature of truth and the need for an objective reality.
The truth might hurt in these cases, but a lack of truth ultimately hurts a lot more.
[One] thing that I want people to take away is that just because something looks sinister, it doesn’t mean that it is. And that is very important in the criminal justice realm, where I’ve seen too many people be convicted of crimes for circumstantial evidence, like the West Memphis Three. You need evidence. Just because something sounds creepy or sinister or nefarious doesn’t mean you can go cyber-bully somebody who seems like a suspect. Demystifying the spooky aspects of the story and reminding people that there’s an objective reality and truth is important.
So, I gotta say that you are known for doing a lot of bleak projects. Do you ever, you know, wanna lighten up?
You know, if we went out to dinner or something, you’d actually think I was kind-of a funny guy! So I feel like I do have a sense of humor, and it surprises me that I haven’t exercised that muscle. It is hard to do these stories sometimes. In the early days, I felt like I took the darkness home. I remember after a long edit-day of doing autopsy photos and crime scene video for the West Memphis case, I had an 18-month old child in a crib at home, and I remember coming home late at night after having these horrible images of 8-year-olds with terrible things done to them. I went into my daughter’s room and scooped her out of the crib, and I remember resenting the project because my fatherly innocence had been robbed from me because I had seen things that people shouldn’t see, particularly a new father. Over the years, I’ve been able to guard against that.
You’ve got lots and lots of practice there.
People think I delve into dark material, and that’s true, but to me, it’s more about wanting to have an impact where I see that I can have one. With stories of crime and filmmaking, I feel that my filmmaking can make a difference. Occasionally, I jokingly say to my friends that my projects fall into two buckets: music and murder. So after a couple of years of murder films, I tend to go off and do a music project, so not all of my work is dark, but I admit that a huge chunk of it is.
Well, if you ever do get lighthearted, I’ll totally click on it and watch it.
[Laughs] Sounds good.
Netflix’s ‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing At The Cecil Hotel’ streams on February 10.