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Biopic examines Ted Bundy from new angle

Conversation with Producer Michael Simkin accompanies advanced screening by IFF, Netflix

Netflix’s “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” investigates the character of serial killer Ted Bundy  as well as the “vulnerability of humans,” according to Producer Michael Simkin.

Simkin, Zac Efron’s producing partner at Ninjas Runnin’ Wild Productions, spoke to an audience of students and community members Tuesday night after an advanced screening of the film.

The film allowed Simkin and Efron to explore a new genre in their work — the psychological thriller. Efron’s role as Ted Bundy was much different than that of Troy Bolton in Disney’s “High School Musical” trilogy, which thrusted him into the film scene, or of the comedic characters he played in “Dirty Grandpa,” or “Neighbors.” “You stick in a genre for a minute, and then you take a little jump,” Simkin said in an interview with The Herald, referencing Efron’s past as a comedic and romantic actor and desire to pursue something different.

The film follows Bundy as he morphs from the charming man that Elizabeth Kloepfer, played by Lily Collins and referred to as “Liz,” met at a bar to the sensationalized serial-killer that the world watched in the first televised murder trial. Bundy’s charm is evident not only in Efron’s portrayal of the killer but also in the movie’s initial tone. The film’s soundtrack is often upbeat, relying on the sounds of ’70s-era rock. However, it is soon punctuated by repeated sounds like the tinny rings of a telephone, the thump of Bundy’s leather boots on the prison floor and the clack of a gavel, creating an eerie tension between the meandering melodies and mechanical sound effects.

The music featured in the film’s first teaser trailer, released before the film’s premiere at Sundance Film Festival and before Netflix purchased it, played into the controversy that first surrounded the film. Responding to scenes of Liz and Ted’s initial romantic relationship, accompanied by bubbly rock music and warm, autumnal tones, viewers found the romantic appeal of the story concerning. “The initial backlash was, ‘Why is this fun? Why does this look like it’s fun and happy?’” Simkin said. After purchasing the film for a reported $8 million, Netflix released a new trailer, which more accurately represented the film’s goals. “The second trailer was able to really show … that it’s about the perspective of it. It’s about how it felt to his victims and to the world,” Simkin explained.

The film is meant to put the viewer in the shoes of not only Bundy’s victims but also the women across America who became enthralled in his trial, many of whom came to Florida to sit in the gallery of the court room and witness the circus that was his court proceedings. The film highlights the absurdity of this attention; at one point the judge reminds the audience that they are not on spring break, as cheers erupt in Bundy’s favor. Simkin said, “It’s also us through the viewing experience — it’s knowing that you’re going into a movie about Ted Bundy and still finding him charming and finding yourself kind of slipping down that path of understanding what people saw about him.”

Much of the film also focuses on the character of Liz, with whom Bundy had his longest romantic relationship. Short scenes depict Liz in her house as she pours herself a drink, plays cards with her daughter, smokes a cigarette, converses with a friend, pours another drink — all while fielding Bundy’s phone calls and watching the trial progress on television. As time passes, her face hollows, the chain on her door constantly taut.

“She made some decisions that end up really contributing both to him ultimately getting caught, but also freeing herself,” Simkin said, noting the complexity of her emotional story. She had been in love with Bundy, and he had even served as a father figure to her young daughter.

Zander Blitzer ’22, who attended the screening, said she found the choice to “keep a lot of the gore and violence off screen … was even more effective in getting you to think about what those scenes, what those pieces of the story were.” She added that seeing the story through Liz’s eyes allowed the audience to understand “how charming and how persuasive he was.” 

The film was directed by Joe Berlinger, who also directed Netflix’s “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” a four episode documentary that details the life and crimes of the serial killer. While the two projects each tackle different aspects of the Bundy story — the movie focusing on his manipulative charm and the documentary detailing the violent acts of his crimes — both speak to the psychology of the famous killer.

Bundy’s charisma is not lost even on the judge who decides Bundy’s verdict in the Florida case. Portraying true events, Judge Edward Cowart, played by John Malkovich, praises Bundy’s character after his guilty verdict is read. While Cowart begins, “The court finds that these killings … were extremely wicked, shockingly evil,” as the camera cuts between zoomed-in shots of his and Bundy’s eyes, he concludes, “I don’t have any animosity to you. … Take care of yourself.” It is in these final lines from the judge, pulled from the real-life televised trial, that the film finds its title — one Simkin said was attached to the original script.

Audience members Tuesday watched the film as a group, but Simkin acknowledges that this is not how most Netflix viewers will watch the film. Instead, they will watch it while cooking breakfast, they will pause it to go to sleep, they will watch it the way streaming has taught viewers to consume media — at their own pace. While the film’s release on Netflix means it will not offer most viewers the tradition and nostalgia of the movie theater experience, these new forms of distribution allow “more content to be shown, and makes it more accessible to more people,” Simkin said.

The event was preceded and followed by question-and-answer segments with Simkin. “I hope the audience got a glimpse into (a) myriad (of) topics from how sensitive issues are handled in films, including the need to respect the memory of victims, to how a production company geared around an A-list talent operates,” Sasha Pinto ’21, Ivy Film Festival Events Coordinator who led the Q&A, wrote in an email to The Herald. “At the end of the day, the Ivy Film Festival is about celebrating student filmmakers even as we admire the work of professionals, and it’s wonderful that Michael Simkin flew all the way from Los Angeles to help us do that,” she added.

The event offered Simkin the opportunity to not only hear students’ opinions of the film but also to reflect on his path and provide advice to students hoping to enter the industry. “I remember very clearly when I used to go to these things in college,” he said. “It’s very exciting to be on the other end of it.”

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