The opening night selection at this year’s Phoenix Film Festival was Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the controversial drama about Ted Bundy, told mostly from the point of view of his girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. The film, which opens this Friday, May 3rd, on Netflix, has been met with some controversy; by not graphically depicting Bundy’s crimes until near the end, and even more so by casting teen heartthrob Zac Efron in the role, the film has been accused of glamorizing the notorious serial killer, who murdered at least 30 women in the ‘70s.
PHOENIX magazine had the chance to talk to Extremely Wicked’s director Joe Berlinger during his visit to the Phoenix Film Festival. The veteran of several modern classics of true-crime filmmaking like Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (made in collaboration with Bruce Sinofsky), Berlinger gave us his thoughts about Ted Bundy and Hollywood glamour. Answers have been edited for length.
PHOENIX magazine: How was this project initiated?
Joe Berlinger: I’ve actually done two things about Bundy. I did Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a documentary series about Bundy on Netflix that has done very well. These projects were made around the same time, and came out within days of each other, which is pretty crazy and all very coincidental. In January of 2017, a guy named Stephen Michaud, author of the book Conversations with a Killer, reached out me. He had these exclusive interviews with Bundy on death row. He was a fan of my true-crime stuff, and he said, “I have these tapes that I used for my book; in this new world of Netflix and streaming, do you think there’s a show there?” So I said there’s a lot of Bundy stuff that’s been done already, let me take a listen. So I got the tapes and they were utterly fascinating because it’s a deep dive into the mind of a killer. [Bundy] talks a lot in the third person, because he didn’t want to implicate himself, but he’s clearly talking about himself. So by April, I was deep into doing this documentary series, but I was sitting with my agent in California at CAA, saying I really want to do a movie, you know, a scripted movie. I did a bad movie about twenty years ago (Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2). I think it was hated more than it deserved to be. But that was the last time I had done a scripted movie, and it was a bad experience because the studio took my cut and put it into a meat grinder, and I lost control of the film in a way that I don’t on the docs. On the docs, I have final cut. So by coincidence, I said I’m doing this thing about Bundy, so my agent said you know there’s this script kicking around called Extremely Wicked, that’s on the Hollywood Blacklist. You know what the Hollywood Blacklist is? They’re scripts that executives and producers in Hollywood really like, but they’re difficult, and for one reason or another nobody’s been able to figure out how to make them. But it so happened that my agent mentioned this at a weekly meeting at CAA, and Zac Efron’s agent said hey, Zac is looking to do anything different…So the movie was financed immediately because of Zac’s desire to do it.
PM: What was it about this story that made you want to treat it?
JB: I’ve always been fascinated by Bundy. Bundy defies all of our stereotypes of what a serial killer looks and feels like. We want to think a serial killer is some odd-looking, creepy social outcast you can spot a mile away, because that gives us some sense of safety, because if you can spot him a mile away, maybe you can avoid this horrible fate. But Bundy teaches us that the people you least expect and sometimes most often trust, are the people who do the worst in life. And having done crime for 25 years, that is my experience. The people you least expect are often the purveyors of the worst evil, whether it’s a priest that commits pedophilia and then holds mass the next day, or whether it’s Michael Jackson. People have been saying well, how could the parents have allowed those kids to be with him? Well, because he presented himself in such a way that he was incredibly believable. Same with Bundy. No one could imagine it, because he was such a hail fellow well met.
PM: Aside from his personal charisma and cunning, do you think there were larger social reasons why Bundy was able to get away with what he did for so long?
JB: Yep. I think Bundy rather uniquely conned the media, who even though they knew he was a killer, fell in love with him and made him a star, conned the legal system because he was allowed to represent himself, which is absurd; in Colorado they didn’t think they needed to put a killer in chains and treat him like a killer. Can you imagine a person of color having the rights and privileges this guy had? The movie takes its title from Judge Edward Cowart, played by [John] Malkovich, sentencing Bundy to death for his atrocious acts, but after he says this, he then goes on to say I have no animosity toward you, you’re a smart fella, you went another way partner, but no hard feelings, I wish you’d practiced law in front of me, you would’ve been a good lawyer. Can you imagine if that was a black dude? He’d be in an orange jumpsuit, in chains, having the book thrown at him. So my interest in Bundy is he’s the master manipulator. Some people have said, you’re casting somebody like Zac Efron who’s a pretty boy, so you’re glamorizing him. The fact that he was willing to play with his teen heartthrob image suggested that he was really committed to doing a good job, and he was good. It’s not glorifying the killer to cast somebody like Zac, it’s just the opposite. It’s portraying what it’s like to be seduced by a psychopath. Because this guy seduced everyone around him.