Realscreen West ’19: Joe Berlinger on timing, tenacity and his Ted Bundy projects

True crime has been enjoying a massive surge in popularity for some time now in both the scripted and doc spaces, so there was something rather intuitive about director Joe Berlinger taking ...
June 7, 2019

True crime has been enjoying a massive surge in popularity for some time now in both the scripted and doc spaces, so there was something rather intuitive about director Joe Berlinger taking on the story of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in both a docuseries and narrative feature simultaneously earlier this year.

Berlinger was on hand at Realscreen West in Santa Monica yesterday (June 6) to talk about both of his Netflix projects: Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, as well as other aspects of his career as a documentarian.

Berliner credits at least part of his success with the two projects to luck and timing, though digging deeper, he clearly made some smart choices.

He was initially approached by Stephen Michaud, who had hours and hours of audio tape of Ted Bundy, recorded in the lead-up to the killer’s execution in 1989 for Michaud’s book Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer, co-authored with Hugh Aynesworth.

Michaud had just come across his old tapes and reached out to Berlinger thinking they might make for captivating true crime content, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s death. While wary of taking on such a well-known — and well-documented — case, Berlinger signed on when realizing his college-age daughters were unfamiliar with Bundy.

Berlinger has explored throughout his career various miscarriages of justice and myriad multifaceted criminal cases, perhaps most notably the story of the West Memphis Three in his Paradise Lost trilogy. With this opportunity, he saw a way into the narrative through the possibility of a generation of viewers learning something from the Bundy case.

“I take all of my crime stuff very seriously,” he told Realscreen editor and content director Barry Walsh, who was moderating the talk. “There has to be an element of social justice for me to take something on, and I felt like the lessons of Bundy can’t be overstated enough, especially for a new, younger generation who had never heard of him. Just because somebody is charming and good looking doesn’t mean that they’re trustworthy.”

From there, he got to work on the four-part docuseries Conversations with a Killer for Netflix and also began toying with the idea of a narrative feature, having worked on the scripted side in his career too, and that’s when he landed on a screenplay in the Hollywood Black List of popular but unproduced scripts. Former teen heartthrob Zac Efron soon signed on to play Bundy, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile was a go.

While many people assumed the two projects were part of a package deal at Netflix, Berlinger actually took the independently financed narrative feature to the Sundance Film Festival looking to find a distributor, and some fortuitous timing helped him seal the final deal with the streaming giant, as the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution fell on day one of Sundance.

“The doc series dropped on the first day of Sundance and did really well immediately. Netflix did a brilliant job marketing it,” Berlinger said. “Netflix had passed on the feature without even looking at it, initially, because they felt, ‘We don’t need two Bundy projects.’”

As it turned out, Netflix did need both when the film was a hit at the festival, no doubt attracting attention after the series’ success too.

While the unscripted and doc space has been capitalizing on intellectual property across platforms and genres for some time, the Bundy double bill felt like something of a reversal. Instead of developing IP and expanding from there, Berlinger became a kind of hub for amalgamating the Bundy story into more than one piece of content.

Is that reproducible?

The answer to that is complicated. While Berlinger is already building off of the successes of these two projects with two new projects on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — one doc and one narrative feature once again — it’s not necessarily a strategy that will work every time, and it certainly shouldn’t be emulated on the fly, without a clear plan.

“Acquiring all rights, scripted and docu, means you probably need to pay more money, for example,” said Berlinger. And putting in substantial preliminary work on a project that might not happen is not a sustainable strategy.

Still, the Bundy series and film are a promising case study, and the strategy now has proven potential. Whether and how often it works again will offer further insights into ways to capitalize on a story worth telling.

(Photo by Nelson Blanton)

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.