“I’m not an animal. I’m not crazy. I’m just a normal individual,” Ted Bundy says in a snippet of an interview at the beginning of the new Netflix documentary series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Of course, as one of the most notorious serial rapists and killers in U.S. history, Bundy’s self-assessment is beyond suspect. But these sorts of statements make for fascinating television, even when it seems like every channel that used to survive off sappy movies or reality TV is now careening into a constant flow of true-crime.
“I trace this explosion that we currently live in, this insatiable appetite for [crime] programming, all the way back to the Big Bang of the Ted Bundy trial,” director Joe Berlinger tells Rolling Stone. Berlinger, the filmmaker behind the four-part Netflix series, should know. Best known for his films Brother’s Keeper and the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy — which focused on wrongful conviction and the broken U.S. legal system — Berlinger also directed the buzzy forthcoming feature Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which tells the story of Ted Bundy through the eyes of his long-time girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer.
As fascinating a character as Bundy may be, Berlinger insists he never planned to go All Ted, All The Time. “It was all kind of coincidental,” Berlinger says, noting that he was already working on the Netflix documentary when the script for Extremely Wicked fell in his lap. “I can’t think of another example of the same filmmaker, at the same time, using two different mediums — a scripted narrative and a documentary — and exploring the same subject using two very different approaches.”
He says the two projects “informed and helped one another to be better.” Specifically, he recalls department heads from Extremely Wicked using elements from the documentary to help shape the feature as they worked on it in real time. “We were shooting the movie in Kentucky, while back in New York I had my full documentary team working on progressing the series,” he says. “It was a great resource for the production designers, the EPs, the art director, even the screenwriter. We changed the script during pre-production. Being able to call upon my doc team for confirmation of factual information, and being able to look at archival footage to help inform production design, was a great [help] for the feature film. People will see that in the feature, even though it’s got some style, it feels very authentic and real.”
The Netflix series, however, is a departure from Berlinger’s usual documentary storytelling style. “It’s not the typical film that I usually make, which is cinema verité, or following a story unfolding,” he says. “This was more of an editing job, telling Bundy’s story [after the fact].”
Berlinger admits to having a long-standing fascination with the perversely charming Theodore Robert Bundy, the serial killer, rapist and necrophiliac who murdered at least 36 women before being captured in 1975 and sentenced to death. On January 24th, 1989, Ted Bundy was executed in the electric chair at the Florida State Prison.
Berlinger was intrigued by the spectacle that surrounded Bundy — especially during his courtroom proceedings, which, as the first trial to be fully televised, was “the first time that America got to watch [real-life] murder as entertainment.”
“There’s a lot of serial killing in this country, and yet the name ‘Bundy’ always floats to the top,” Berlinger says. “I wanted to dive into that and understand why. Why is it Bundy with this perverse, almost rock star-like status?”
The docuseries attempts to answer that question using chilling, extensive archival footage and, more intriguingly, Bundy’s own words. “My goal was to give people the emotional ride of being inside of the mind of this killer,” Berlinger says. “But we quickly realized that Bundy is an unreliable narrator, and certain stuff needed to be contextualized.”
Berlinger based his series upon more than 150 hours of audio interviews Ted Bundy recorded in prison sit-downs with journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth (the transcribed interviews were first published as a 2005 book). As Michaud, an author and former Newsweek writer, explains in the film, he originally met Bundy on Death Row in 1980. Their meeting had been arranged after Michaud’s agent told him that Bundy wanted to share his story in the hopes of clearing his name and getting his case re-examined. Michaud believes Bundy chose him for this dubious honor because the killer may have seen Michaud, then an enterprising young journalist, as naive and easily manipulated.
Despite his expressed desire to prove his innocence, Bundy was reluctant to speak about the crimes at all until Michaud and Aynesworth, a Pulitzer-nominated journalist who was then Michaud’s mentor, suggested that Bundy try referring to himself in the third person. “Only by listening to him, engaging with him and hearing this full interaction can you get a sense of why he was so believable to so many, and yet so evil and dark,” Berlinger says of the audio tapes, in which Bundy began opening up about everything from his childhood to his ex-girlfriends to his extraordinary prison escapes.
Various experts have attempted to posthumously diagnose Bundy. Was he a psychopath? A sociopath? Did he suffer from dissociative identity disorder? The lack of consensus about what, exactly, was wrong with Bundy is one of the most compelling things about him. But Berlinger says that the quality about Bundy that intrigued him most of all was what he calls Bundy’s “believability:” his charisma, good looks and ability to feign normalcy at any cost.
In the Netflix series, Bundy calls the part of himself that felt driven to assault and murder women his “Entity” — yet he was also capable of sustaining close, caring relationships with the women in his life, both as friends and lovers. “He was a guy who was extremely believable to many people,” Berlinger says. “That goes right to the core of the darkest fear [we have] as human beings: how do you really know the person next to you is worthy of your trust?”
Unlike other serial killers who derive a deranged sense of pride in what they’ve done, Bundy never fully accepted or acknowledged the sadistic excess of his acts. He lied until the very end, and ultimately seemed to blame his pornography addiction for fueling the violent fantasies he carried into reality. “After most serial killers are caught, they love to spill the beans about the depravity of their crimes,” says Berlinger. “Bundy’s different in that he denied [them] up until the last few days of his life. He only started to admit [things] a few days before his execution, as a ploy to buy more time.”
Berlinger believes the levels of compartmentalization that Bundy was able to achieve is rare, even among serial killers.
“In my feature film, and in real life, Bundy [told the court that] he didn’t accept the sentence that was being imposed on him because the person who committed these crimes was not standing here before you,” Berlinger says. “Is he so compartmentalized that he truly does not see himself as that person, or was that just more spin verbiage? It’s something we’ll never know.”