Serial killer Ted Bundy continues to fascinate the American public even decades after his execution. The latest demonstration of that comes with the popular success of the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger. The four-part series is now contending for Emmy nominations.
It’s by no means the first documentary examination of Bundy’s string of brutal sex crimes in the 1970s, a fact not lost on Berlinger.
“The bar is awfully high to do something on Bundy, because it’s a well-worn tire,” the director recalls thinking when he was first approached with the documentary idea. The pitch came from Stephen Michaud, co-author of the book Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer, who had recorded hours of interviews with Bundy in the 1980s while the convicted murderer sat on Florida’s death row. Hearing the audio convinced Berlinger to move forward.
“I listened to the tapes, and I was immediately chilled,” Berlinger recalls, “and felt like there was a really unique and interesting way to take a deep dive into the mind of a killer, in a way we haven’t seen before, and a way to comprehensively tell the Bundy story.”
Bundy’s story was always unusual, even among mass murderers. To those he met, he appeared to be an intelligent, charismatic, attractive guy.
“Bundy defies our expectations of what a serial killer is,” Berlinger notes. “We want to think that a serial killer is some strange-looking social outcast, who exists on the extreme periphery of the human condition, because that gives us some sense of false comfort that they’re easily identifiable, and therefore avoidable. Bundy teaches us just the opposite.”
Bundy was a law student in Tacoma, Washington when women in the area began disappearing in early 1974. His first attacks came under cover of night but he later brazenly approached women in daylight, using the ruse of a supposedly injured arm to say he needed their help.
“In one day he was able to abduct and kill two different women…outside of Seattle in [Lake Sammamish] State Park,” Berlinger comments. “And in doing so he encountered quite a few women who rebuffed his request to go help him load a sailboat on a Volkswagen—which was what his story was, because he had a fake cast.”
The recordings of Bundy’s death row interviews are woven throughout the docuseries. He never directly confessed to his crimes to Michaud, but when the author suggested he describe events in the third person, Bundy took to it with unsettling zest.
“The realization to have him talk in the third person…allowed a floodgate to open,” Berlinger notes, “to start really talking about his crimes, and his motivations.”
Later in 1974 Bundy moved to Utah, ostensibly to resume his legal education there. More women disappeared everywhere he went. For his documentary, Berlinger spoke with one of Bundy’s intended victims, Carol DaRonch, who narrowly escaped death at the killer’s hands. It was the DaRonch kidnapping that put Bundy behind bars, but he would escape twice and kill again, ultimately being apprehended in North Florida in 1978 after three heinous murders there.
Berlinger drew from archival news reports, trial video from Florida and fresh interviews with investigators and prosecutors to construct his story. He could also rely on decades of experience documenting disturbing corners of reality.
“For better or worse, I’ve dealt with a lot of dark material in my day,” Berlinger observes, referring to a resume that includes the 1992 film Brother’s Keeper (co-directed with Bruce Sinofsky) and the Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three case (also with Sinofsky).
“I’m sometimes called a true crime pioneer,” Berlinger acknowledges. “The ‘pioneer’ part I like, because I feel like Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper were pioneering works in the space—not exclusively, obviously. [There’s] Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, a lot of other great examples.”
But Berlinger states being lumped in the “true crime” genre makes him “wince.”
“That conjures up this image that we are wallowing in the misery of others for entertainment purposes,” he says, adding, “The good true crime is exposing problems in the system, or some level of social commentary, or some thing you want to change. I think the bad true crime is just kind of voyeuristically looking at the worst thing that can happen to a person, which is becoming a victim of a violent crime.”
Conversations with a Killer falls into the good true crime category, Berlinger asserts, because it’s making audiences aware of something they need to know in a time of smart phone apps and misleading online profiles.
“The lessons of Bundy are extremely important,” he insists, “and can’t be overstated enough, particularly in this era of internet catfishing, where people create false identities online, this era where you have to really make sure you check the license plate of your Uber, and make sure you’re not getting into a predator’s car who’s pretending to be an Uber driver…Just because somebody looks and acts a certain way doesn’t mean they’re deserving of your trust.”
The subject absorbed Berlinger enough that he not only made the docuseries, but a scripted version of the Bundy story—Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile—starring Zac Efron as the notorious killer. Netflix also acquired the latter project after its debut in January at the Sundance Film Festival.
The title of Berlinger’s fictionalized take comes from an oration by the Florida judge who rendered Bundy’s death sentence.
“Even when he’s being sentenced to death, the judge is almost apologetic,” Berlinger marvels. “On the one hand he’s saying, ‘You did these depraved acts that were extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile, and we’re sentencing you to death,’ but at the same time he’s saying, ‘Wish you had gone another way, partner, would have loved to have you practice law in front of me. I have no animosity towards you’… Even at that worst moment of his life, where Bundy’s being sentenced to death, he’s evoking sympathetic reactions from people, and that’s what’s so scary about him.”