The filmmaker opens up about his work in the true-crime genre and season two of his criminal justice series, 'Wrong Man.'
Three decades after Ted Bundy’s execution, filmmaker Joe Berlinger reignited interest in the serial killer with the back-to-back Netflix projects -- the documentary, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, and the scripted film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron and Lily Collins.
The latter was based on the 1981 memoir The Phantom Prince, written by Bundy’s longtime girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall. In a reprinted edition of her book, she wrote that “if the story was going to be told again, the only way we could influence the outcome was to work with the film and documentary makers. We decided this was the most empowering way to proceed.”
Kendall went on to say that she and her daughter, Molly, “were able to face our fears and watch the finished film,” featuring Efron as Bundy and Collins portraying her. “It was well-directed and well-acted. We were left with the feeling that Zac Efron and Lily Collins got it right,” she wrote.
“I was delighted,” Berlinger says of her reaction, revealing that he was aware before the memoir was republished in January that she and her daughter had finally watched it. “Molly had reached out to me to tell me. And then they let me know what their reaction was and obviously, I’m very happy that they were satisfied with the portraits, in part, because there’s been some criticism of the movie.”
Some critics believed that the film glorified Bundy and did not do enough to showcase the victims. “It was a polarizing movie,” Berlinger admits, while explaining that his intention was to show that “just because someone looks and acts a certain way doesn’t mean you can trust them.”
Kendall and her daughter “are the only two people on the planet who know what their relationship with him was like,” he says. “They feel that we got it right. So, I feel like that kind of validated the intent of the movie.”
With the Bundy projects behind him, Berlinger is focused on the second season of Wrong Man, the Starz docuseries shining a light on the problems within the criminal justice system. Each season features three different murder cases as a team of experts re-examines the possibility of wrongful convictions for three inmates serving life sentences. With a team of legal experts, season two will continue their efforts to prove that Kenneth Clair, Patricia Rorrer and Vonda Smith, are, in fact, not guilty.
The inspiration for the series first came from the filmmaker’s work on the trilogy of Paradise Lost documentaries, which focused on a group of teenagers wrongfully convicted of murdering three children. His films, which he co-directed with Bruce Sinofsky, “helped spark a movement that got three people out of prison,” Berlinger says. “That really taught me a lesson that film and television programming on this subject can really make a difference.”
Following that experience, he wanted to do it again -- but on a more immediate and intimate level. Hence why he hired a team of legal experts -- a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, a retired NCIS agent, a defense attorney and an investigator -- to aid the investigations into each of the three cases profiled each season. “This would be a more expedited way of trying to achieve what we achieved with Paradise Lost,” he says.
And to his credit, the series was successful in making a difference in the lives of the wrongfully convicted killers in the first season, including Curtis Flowers, who was recently granted bail, and Christopher Tapp, the first person to be exonerated from a crime via genetic family tree DNA technology.
That kind of real-world impact is what Berlinger says sets his work apart from most of the entertainment that audiences have seen with the recent explosion of the true-crime genre. “A lot of true crime really wallows in the misery of others without any real redeeming social value,” he says. “I want to make sure there’s some sort of social justice involved. What greater level of social can there be when you do something to indicate that somebody in prison is actually wrongfully convicted.”
“The fact that there is such an important and necessary function to the stories I choose to tell, I feel good about the kind of storytelling that I do,” Berlinger adds. “And the good results that we got on Wrong Man means that genre can be very serious and taken very seriously.”
Wrong Man premieres Sunday, Feb. 9 at 9:45 p.m. ET/PT, with new episodes airing Sundays at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT.