How Joe Berlinger Got a Blacklisted Ted Bundy Script Greenlit in 5 Weeks

'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile' is a new kind of Ted Bundy film, told from the perspective of the killer's long-time girlfriend.  

With the grave exception of his victims, those who knew Ted Bundy prior to his arrest saw him as a charming, convivial guy. He was a friend to many, a promising law student, a devoted boyfriend. That was the grotesque allure of his case: he was a wolf in sheep's clothing, embodying the idea that serial killers roam undetected among us. 

Elizabeth Kloepfer, Bundy's long-time girlfriend, experienced him through the same lens as everybody else. He was reliable and fun.

Kloepfer was a single mother; Bundy doted on her and her young child. Although he would disappear for stretches of time, he could talk his way out of anything, and always had a good reason. Over the years, Bundy earned Kloepfer's love and trust. She adored him, and he adored her. If you didn't know Kloepfer's boyfriend was a serial killer on the side, you'd even root for their love.

That's the premise of Joe Berlinger's new film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which premiered at Sundance last week.

While it's clear to audiences that Bundy, played by a dynamic and committed Zac Efron, is indeed portraying the notorious serial killer, we are seeing him through Liz's (Lilly Collins) unwitting eyes. Berlinger withholds any depictions of Bundy's violent crimes until one critical scene at the very end of the film. Without bearing witness to Bundy's horrific acts, and bolstered by Bundy's near-convincing insistence of his own innocence until the final moments of the film, one can begin to understand how the charismatic killer had so many people under his spell. By telling the Bundy story through Liz's perspective, Berlinger paints a compelling portrait of cognitive dissonance and compartmentalization. (When Bundy finally confessed to his crimes on death row, he did so only in the third person; Berlinger's Bundy appears as desperately wanting to be capable of a normal life.) 

It's not until Bundy faces trial that his facade begins to crumble. As Liz finds it increasingly difficult to turn away from the truth, Berlinger begins to portray Bundy as a cunning, self-congratulatory con man who is using his boy-next-door persona to deny his unimaginable crimes. In the courtroom, Bundy does a lot of flamboyant grandstanding.

Berlinger depicts these less subjective events in the latter half of the film with careful attention to the details as they occurred in real life. He was armed with an arsenal of archival footage and interviews from his own four-hour Netflix docu-series, Conversations with a Killer, which premiered last week on the 30th anniversary of Bundy's sentencing. (Netflix also reportedly bought Extremely Wicked out of Sundance.)

"It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom," Bundy's presiding judge, Edward Cowart, famously said while reading Bundy's verdict. "You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner."

No Film School sat down with Berlinger to discuss how he wound up making a Bundy doc and narrative concurrently, how he approached narrative directing as a documentarian, why he thinks even psychopaths are capable of real love, and more.

"The original script had a much more Catch Me If You Can tone. I felt the humor and that tone needed to be dialed down."

No Film School: You did the documentary series Conversations with a Killer, which is about interviews with Ted Bundy while he was on Death Row. What was the impetus, then, for wanting to go ahead and make a Ted Bundy narrative?

Berlinger: It does seem like some grand master plan on my part to be the Bundy guy who has a scripted movie and an unscripted series coming out at the same time. But like many things in life, it just kind of happened coincidentally. On the other hand, on a larger level, I think everything happens for a reason. The two projects together reflect nicely off each other. I think it's really interesting from just a filmmaking perspective that I had the opportunity to cover this subject both ways. I can't think of another time—I'm not saying this to brag, I'm just saying it's a unique set of circumstances—that the same filmmaker has covered the same material, but from two separate points of view, both scripted and unscripted. I think it's interesting that I had that opportunity.

In early 2017, the author of a book called Conversations with a Killer from the '80s, based on these audio tapes, came to me and said, "Hey, I've never done anything with these audio tapes. Do you think there's a show there?" And I thought to myself, "Well, there is a lot on Bundy already, so the tapes better be special." listened to the tapes and I thought it was a fascinating look into the mind of a killer. And I thought there was a new way to tell a very comprehensive story about Bundy.

I was already working on that when in April, I just happened to have lunch with my agent at CAA, and I said, "I'm doing this fascinating series on Bundy. I've been doing a lot of crime, and I think I'd like to try my hand on a scripted movie." It'd been a long time since I'd done one. A light bulb kind of went off and he said, "Well, there's this Hollywood Blacklist script about Bundy. You should check it out." 

'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile'Credit: Netflix

Berlinger: He sent it to me, and I loved it, I thought the perspective of the movie—having the movie be [Ted Bundy's girlfriend] Elizabeth Kleopfer's experiences—was a unique way into a serial killer movie. It kind of turns the genre on its head a little bit, by not showing a lot of violence 'till the right dramatic moment. So here he's giving me a Hollywood Blacklist script, which means it's a film that people in Hollywood would like, but for some reason, people had a hard time figuring out how to make it. And in fact, Jodi Foster was attached to direct of an earlier version of the script, but that didn't come to fruition. And then another director was attached. So, it's a script that's been kicking around.

I had no reason to think that I would immediately start working on that movie. I thought that by reading the script, and getting on the phone with the producer—the producer owned the rights to the script—that this would be the first baby step of a multi-year process. As we all know getting indie films off the ground takes forever. 

But I read the script, really liked it, got on the phone with the producer, and told him my take on it. My take was that I wanted to tether it a little more in reality, for example; archival footage was not part of the original script. The original script had a much more Catch Me If You Can tone. I felt the humor and that tone needed to be dialed down, 'cause the film, even in its current form, rides that line between overly sympathizing with Bundy. The script was having a little too much fun.

"From the moment I was sent a script, whose existence I didn't know about, to the film being green-lit for production, was about five weeks."

I want to give respect...Michael Werwie wrote a brilliant script, much of which is retained in the final version of the movie. So, this is not a criticism of the original script. But original script relied on not knowing it's Ted Bundy until the end of the movie. It's a story of losing Ted, and we don't know it's Bundy until the end of the movie, so you could get away with that light-hearted tone. But I felt like the moment we announce, in this day and age, that a major actor, which happened to be Zack Efron, signs up to play this role, people are going to know it's Ted Bundy at the start of the film. There was a movie called The Crying Game years ago and people were very protective about the secret ending, but that was the pre-internet age.

So with Werwie's script, I dialed down the humor and introduced archival footage and some more facts about the case. I took my documentary experience and brought that into the movie. For me, the big reveal of the movie became that Liz understands emotionally what she knows intellectually. 

I pitched those shifts to the producer. Within weeks of me signing up for that script, my agent brought it up at a weekly meeting of agents at CAA, and Zac Efron's agent said, "Zac might be interested in doing this, should we have him read it?" That's not a light question, because in this business, since it's for film people, when somebody at Zac Efron's level says, "I'm going to read the script," it's called a reading offer. So if he reads it and says yes, you have to use him in the film.

I had no hesitation to have him read the script. I felt that was a brilliant idea. I've always thought that Zac is a terrific actor, but there're things that he hasn't been given a chance to try, and I thought he had the range to pull this off. He was kind of getting typecast into a certain kind of movie. In fact, I wanted to poke a hole in and to play with the idea of his teen heartthrob persona. To play with that real aspect of his persona in this movie kind of allowed me to tap into my documentary tradition. 

‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ Credit: Netflix

Berlinger: So, he reads it very quickly, loves it, we get on the phone very quickly, and then he agrees to do the movie right before Cannes of last year. As as you know, Cannes is not just a film festival. It's where you go to sell not just finished movies, but where you get deals to make movies. And with this script, and me doing it because of my true-crime background, and Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy was already attractive...it got set up immediately. From the moment I was sent a script, whose existence I didn't know about, to the film being green-lit for production, was about five weeks.

NFS: Wow, that almost never happens.

Berlinger: Not almost. Never happens! I mean, it's insane. I have been attached to other things where you're endlessly pushing the boulder up the hill and it takes years to get set up. That's why I said the whole thing was coincidental. The documentary fostered an idea and my agent to send me the script. I said yes to the script and it got set up immediately. Originally the movie was supposed to have been shot in October 2017 and we were aiming for having it ready for submission to Toronto in September 2017. But some of the cast were not available to shoot, so we pushed it to January, and that made the film available for Sundance instead in Toronto. But of course, you can't plan on getting into Sundance. We had no idea what the release date of the Netflix documentary was going to be. But then halfway through shooting, we realized that releasing the documentary on the 30th anniversary of Bundy's execution was just a good thing to anchor a release to. And then we got into Sundance. Sundance coincidentally starts on January 24th, which was the 30th anniversary of the execution and the day that the Netflix series dropped. It sounds like a great plan that everyone thought through, but it kind of just happened.

"I have my shot list and I know what I wanna do in a day. But I am so ready to throw that out of the window if something else is happening."

I think the two projects work so well with each other. Because it's not like, "I saw the documentary, so why should I see the scripted film?" The documentary is a deep dive into the mind of the killer—to understand why he was so believable and to understand why he did what he did and to spare no detail as to the gruesomeness and the horrendous nature of his acts. That kind of cataloging and deep dive into his evil does not work for the film, because the whole point of the film is to be a deep dive into the mind and experience of being a victim. How does one become seduced by a psychopath?

The ride I wanted to take the audience on is, even though you intellectually know that it's Bundy, you have this weird thing happen during the film, because Bundy is so charming and charismatic, especially if you don't know all the details of the case. You, yourself as an audience member, find yourself almost rooting for their relationship, questioning his guilt potentially, because he had that effect on you. And so, by the end of the movie when the truth is ultimately revealed, when Elizabeth Kleopfer really holds Bundy accountable in that final scene, and she emotionally now realizes what she intellectually knows, I hope the audience experiences and goes through has that same revelation.

That's the lesson of Bundy for me: the people who most do evil are the ones you often trust the most. You can't trust a priest who commits pedophilia, a high school coach who crosses the line, or a sexual predator like Bundy. I think you can't learn that lesson enough. That's the whole point of the movie.

‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ Credit: Netflix

NFS: In playing Bundy, you're asking a lot of Zac. The role requires complex levels of performance that are constantly changing, as psychopaths act differently depending on the circumstance. How did you, as a director, work with Zac on making sure that there was the correct balance of the elements of Bundy?

Berlinger: I'm not a big believer in rehearsal. I don't like to rehearse things because I'm a documentarian. I'm so used to just capturing the reality of the situation. I go into a shoot day with a game plan, of course, because if not, you're in trouble. So I have my shot list and I know what I wanna do in a day. But I am so ready to throw that out of the window if something else is happening. And so, that's why I don't like rehearsal. So "rehearsal" for us was just sitting around and talking about character.

"[Bundy] compartmentalizes his life—his evil and his need for normalcy. The audience needs to feel that that love between the two of them is real."

The thing we talked about the most is that, from a character perspective, Ted compartmentalizes his life—his evil and his need for normalcy. The audience and they, as characters, need to feel that that love between the two of them is real. Some people will question, "Can a sociopath love?" I would argue for very complex reasons that I think all human beings are able to love, even if they are capable of horrendous acts as well. That's a controversial position, but that's my belief. Therefore, I felt like the most important note I could give them is everything has to go back to them believing they are in love with each other and everything comes from there. But Ted also has this need to hide and protect, and so those were the other layers.

I gave Zac a ton of archival footage of Bundy. That was the beauty of doing the documentary and the scripted movie at the same time. By the time the movie was in prep, the documentary was deep into the editorial phase, so I felt I could leave my team editing the doc while we started prepping and shooting the movie. And our department heads on the movie could call and interact with the doc team in New York for archival photos and references and factual checking. That's why I think the film feels very authentic. 

I had a lot of archival footage that I put on a drive for Zac to study his character, to understand who Bundy really was. But I made the choice—and Lily agreed—not give her anything. I advised her, "Don't go on the internet. There're tons of stuff on Bundy. You should not know anything about him."

It's funny. The trailer just came out. That trailer was not my choice. The marketing people make the trailer and whatever, it's not my choice of how I would have necessarily done it, but that's their thing. The trailer showed a lot of violence—the few bits of violence we had in the movie—and peoples' reaction was that we are glorifying Bundy because we're showing violence. Now people have seen the movie and the naysayers are like, "Oh! You're glorifying Bundy because you don't show the violence." 

NFS: You can't win.

Berlinger: There are certain segments of people for whom this is just an offensive story and no matter what you do, it's not right.

But I asked Lily to not look at any of the archival footage—not to do too much research on Bundy himself—because you need to be in the audience's mindset of only seeing what she would have seen. I think that was an important directorial decision that guided the entire film. 


For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.     

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Haven't seen the movie yet, but would love to! I know Efron mostly from stupid comedies, so that would be a nice change. Also, it would be interesting to watch Bundy's story. Hope the movie will live up to my expectations, as those are high :)

February 6, 2019 at 4:05AM

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