In much of his work, filmmaker Joe Berlinger ’83 has provided a voice for the wrongfully accused. But in his newest narrative project for the silver screen — Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile — the subject is Ted Bundy, the infamous kidnapper, burglar, necrophile, and rapist convicted of killing more than 30 people.
The film pushes the audience to consider Bundy’s complex character separately from his horrific acts. “I think the big mistake in dealing with psychotic people is assuming they’re just evil and two dimensional,” Berlinger says. “People have multiple sides to them.”
The audience experiences the story through Bundy’s girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, who views Bundy not as a sadistic serial killer, but as an attentive boyfriend who’s a surrogate father to her young child.
“[Bundy] convinces her that he’s a victim of circumstance, and throughout most of the movie she believes him, because he’s a good salesman,” says Berlinger, who traveled to meet the real-life Kloepfer and her daughter.
Much of Berlinger’s documentary work has focused on supporting victims of crime and defending the wrongfully accused, but Kloepfer is different from the people he’s advocated for in the past. “[Manipulative people like Bundy] can disguise themselves and be the person you trust the most,” he says. “For me, this is a film about how one can be seduced by somebody and become a victim.”
Berlinger takes the audience through Kloepfer’s emotional journey, from believing wholeheartedly in Bundy to realizing his deception.
“She’s a courageous woman,” Berlinger says, “and as you see in the film, in the end, she had a dramatic final reckoning with him.”
Bundy denied his heinous actions for decades, especially in the courtroom. This scene in the film, Berlinger says, is the first time the audience realizes just how evil Bundy is. The camera zooms in on the killer, from a wide shot of his body, with the whole courtroom in view, to an extreme close-up of his eyes.
“I think it’s an award-winning moment from Zac Efron [who plays Bundy],” Berlinger says. “He’s such a heartthrob; it’s a bold and risky choice to be allowed to be seen as an evil person.”
Making a movie about someone who was executed nearly 30 years ago leaves lingering questions. For Berlinger, the most pressing one also drives the film: “Was Ted Bundy actually capable of love despite having killed women in the most horrific of ways? That’s what I want people to ponder.”