We’ve had decades to come to grips with exactly how big of a monster Ted Bundy was. We’ve dissected from every angle the dozens of women he murdered, the way he did it, and how long he was able to continue killing before finally being caught. We’ve seen his crimes, persona, and actions inspire dozens of films, including the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs. We’ve forgotten one thing. For a decade, Ted Bundy, one of America’s most infamous serial killers who murdered and mutilated at least 30 women from 1974-1978, had so many people fooled.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy and directed by Joe Berlinger, who also directed the Ted Bundy Tapes documentary series on Netflix released earlier this year, is an exploration of just that. This is not a movie of watching a man become a serial killer—this is the story of watching a serial killer convince the world he’s never killed.
The film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was released in theaters today across the Middle East, has been controversial since it was first announced, as many worry that the film will glorify the killer, with Variety saying the film “is compartmentalizing Bundy’s evil.”
“The conversation around the film is focused on the subject of whether or not it glorifes Bundy,” I say to Berlinger, who is sitting next to Efron ahead of the film’s release in Los Angeles, California.
Berlinger rejects that notion outright.
“I think if you watch the movie, it’s hard to say the movie glorifies. What we’re doing is showing a three-dimensional portrait of a psychopath,” Berlinger says, sounding annoyed, and even suggesting I haven’t seen the film later in the interview.
“I second that,” says Efron.
In order to distance itself from its murderous subject, the film is told from the perspective of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend Liz Kloepfer. We only see Bundy as she saw him—with suspicion, but still with doubt that he could truly be evil.
“The goal here is to give the audience the same experience that Liz Kloepfer and anyone that was fooled by Bundy. I wanted to have the same emotional experience, not just intellectual experience. This means initially we want you to invest in the relationship between Ted and Liz, and we want you to almost forget that this is movie about Ted Bundy, but rather it starts off as a film about two people who are in love and this guy falls into some legal entanglements,” says Berlinger.
Does that stop it from being a glorification? Somewhat, but not completely. It’s hard to argue we would be as fascinated with getting into the mind of a disturbed individual if we weren’t, on some level, also titillated by the monstrous things that they do. After all, Bundy was charming, and at times the film drifts too far away from Kloepfer, unable to resist Bundy’s magnetism even as it implicitly condemns it. Efron and Berlinger don’t agree with me on that—in fact, Efron tells me outright that he wouldn’t have done the movie if he felt it was a glorification.
For Efron, the key to the character was tapping into his manipulative abilities, to show the world how a handsome face, a kind smile and a gift with words can be used for the worst ends imaginable—especially for young people who never have seen a demon like Ted Bundy.
“One of the harder things for me was right out the gate, and that was just figuring out if I had a way into the character that was honest, that was different, that meant something to me, that could show us something probably we need to know, and important for this generation to know, and the next,” Efron tells me..
Though Efron is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Extremely Wicked was filmed quickly on a small budget, making use of real sets rather than fancy studios.
“There was a portion of the movie, the last three weeks, where we shot in an abandoned jail, which was really big. It was pretty large. No heat. Cold. I was in cells—that was my holding room, a communion cell for a couple people for a few days. It was great. The filming process with Joe was fun. Brandon Trost, our director of photography, had to have fun crawling through various prisons,” says Efron.
“People think because Zac was involved that this was a huge movie—we had 28 days to shoot this movie in the dead of winter in rural Kentucky which has nothing to do with this story!” says Berlinger, referencing that the film’s key locations—Florida, Utah, Colorado—are nowhere near where they filmed.
For Efron, the role of Bundy was a risk—after all, he rose to fame playing Disney’s Troy Barnes, the singing basketball player with a heart of gold. Taking risk, however, was the whole idea.
“At the same time, [I want] to continue to push the envelope, and try new things,” says Efron.