Editor's note: This originally ran in January 2019 as part of the Deseret News' 2019 Sundance Film Festival coverage. The film was released on Netflix and in select theaters nationwide May 3.
PARK CITY — “Did you truly love her?”
That’s what Joe Berlinger said he’d ask Ted Bundy, if he had the chance. The “her” is Elizabeth Kloepfer, Bundy’s longtime girlfriend and central character in Berlinger’s film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday.
While the film’s marketing and buzz has focused on Zac Efron, who plays Bundy, “Extremely Wicked” is just as much about Kloepfer — how the former Ogden resident got swept up in Bundy’s lies, stayed faithful through his various arrests and court trials, and how she eventually broke free. Last week marked 30 years since Bundy’s execution by electric chair. Kloepfer is still around, though understandably, she keeps a low profile. (She used the pseudonym “Elizabeth Kendall” for her memoir.)
Berlinger, who built his career as a documentarian, wanted to meet Kloepfer. And Kloepfer wanted to meet Lily Collins, the actress who plays her.
During an interview with the Deseret News, Berlinger described what it was like to meet the person who knew Bundy in a way perhaps no one else ever did.
“I think Liz was basically checking us out to make sure we were deserving of trust for the first couple of hours,” Berlinger said. “And as someone who had a loving relationship with Ted Bundy, you can imagine that trust for her is hard-won.”
Once Kloepfer warmed to Berlinger and Collins, she pulled out the relics of her former relationship: love letters between she and Bundy.
“And Lily holding those letters, written on these yellow legal pads — and Lily actually read them aloud — I think that was a very big moment for everybody,” Berlinger recalled of the meeting, “and crystalized … one of the controversial questions of the film: Is a psychopath capable of love? And why didn’t he kill her?”
Kloepfer showed Berlinger and Collins her old photo albums — “you know, these classic 1970s photo albums with a half page with three plastic sleeves on both sides,” Berlinger said. “And I was born in 1961, so it just felt like I was looking at my own family photos. There was this nice family unit of three going sailing, going camping, going hiking, having birthday parties, but that male figure was Ted Bundy.”
So, was Bundy capable of true love? And why didn’t he kill Kloepfer? At this point, those questions are unanswerable. “Extremely Wicked” doesn’t really attempt to answer them. The film is largely about how someone like Bundy could make people believe his innocence, however unlikely that belief might seem these days.
To that end, Berlinger decided not to show Bundy’s murders in the film. (Those he detailed in his new Netflix docu-series, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.") Efron’s Bundy isn’t really a likeable character — we know too much about Bundy to fall for that — but it becomes clear how someone could fall for it.
“We want to think that serial killing is some separate aberrant thing in some far dark corner of human behavior,” Berlinger said. “But I think psychopathic or sociopathic behavior is on one long continuum.”
On one side of that spectrum, he explained, are the horrible bosses who berate their subordinates. Further down that spectrum are religious leaders who sexually abuse children. And CEOs whose companies knowingly pollute the earth or foster opioid addiction.
“I’m sure those people are surrounded by the loving warmth of a wonderful family, and have a nice circle of friends, but they compartmentalize their actions and deceive,” he said. “On the worst end of the spectrum is somebody like Ted Bundy.”