Telling True Crime Stories
This week on On Story, screenwriters Michael Werwie (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) and Guinevere Turner (Charlie Says) discuss the challenges of crafting compelling entertainment while respecting the human stories affected by the crimes.
- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller
is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."
[multiple voices chattering]
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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.
A look inside the creative process from today's
leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.
This week's On Story,
Charlie Says screenwriter Guinevere Turner,
and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
screenwriter, Michael Werwie.
- When I'm in a writing phase, my sole concern is
telling a compelling, dramatic story,
and I don't want to do anything that's so glaringly wrong
that it defies reality,
but it is a narrative film, and so I always prioritize
emotional truth over the factual truth.
[Narrator] In this episode,
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
screenwriter Michael Werwie,
and Charlie Says screenwriter Guinevere Turner,
discuss the challenges of crafting compelling
entertainment while respecting the human stories
at the heart of the crime.
- Clearly there's a huge interest in this,
and I don't know whether it's the growth of podcasts again,
the sort of coming back certainly seems to have
fueled a lot of it.
Why was Netflix so interested in creating two Ted Bundy
projects at the same time?
- People are just fascinated by kind of the strange
and the taboo, and the things that are shameful
to talk about in public.
I think when my script went around in 2012,
I was taking a million general meetings and people were
almost confessing in secret their secret fascination
in serial killers and true crime.
That was before Serial and before The Jinx ,
and before it was a cool thing again.
And I think there's always been an appetite for it,
it's just nobody's felt comfortable talking about it.
But now I think podcasts really deserve a lot of the credit
because there are so many that examine these
And there's just something, I don't know,
there's something dramatically enticing about that.
- I've been thinking a lot about why people love
true crime and why people love serial killer
stories and cult leaders, and it's this,
to be honest, it's this "us and them"
kind of mentality.
Like, "My life is fine because I'm not like those people."
Or, "I would never get sucked into that."
- So let's start talking about your two main characters,
and what was the attraction to telling a story about them
and how you got started.
- I actually had never intended to write a movie
about Ted Bundy.
I was trying to...
I was a bartender at the time and I was writing
spec after spec, and trying to game the system of
big action thriller commercial material,
and I just hit a block, I didn't care about
what I was writing about.
So I picked up a book about Ted Bundy.
I always loved true crime, but I didn't really know anything
about him, and I thought I was just reading it to
procrastinate, and I saw a story that was just
too good to pass up.
And I know it had been done and told before,
but never from a perspective of the people who knew him.
And to me, I saw that as an interesting way into
an otherwise familiar story, to tell a serial killer story
with no serial killing in it.
In kind of the same way that Reservoir Dogs is a heist movie
with no heists in it.
I just like the unique perspective into this story.
And as for Ted Bundy himself, like I just,
I think aberrant behavior is interesting
and I thought it was even more interesting to
tell this story in a way where you don't see that behavior,
and you kind of get seduced by the man, and it becomes--
it's a con man story really.
It's "Catch Me If You Can" for adults.
- And Guinevere, yours is actually kind of
a sideways way in, to Charlie Manson, right?
It's from the perspective of the women who were with him.
It focuses on the prison time of the women who killed
for Charles Manson.
So it's a very different perspective on that story that,
to be honest, when the producers came to me and said,
"We want to make a film about the Manson girls,"
it was a big fat eye roll.
I was like, "Really? Why?"
My first film was a romantic comedy,
I'd just like to point out, somehow I found myself here.
So I started doing research, as you do, and trying to find
something new to say about this whole story.
And eventually I found a book that is the basis for
a lot of the movie, which is a book that was written
by a grad student,
is on a Canadian academic press, that is about the woman who
spent five years teaching them when they were on death row,
and then suddenly we had a story.
- Something for you to take a look at for next week.
- The Bible is the only book Charlie let us have around.
- Charlie says that authors are evil,
trying to play mind tricks on the reader.
- So do you feel like you'd be doing something bad
by studying with me?
Because if you are going to do these classes with me,
you're going to have to read books.
- It took them seven years to stop starting every sentence
with "Charlie says," which is why the movie's called that.
I was interested not in, "Ooh, they're crazy, and he's crazy,
and everyone's crazy," and there's all these things
I was interested in.
The question we all have when we think about people in cults
and the extremes that they go to is:
how did he get them there?
And so I really wanted to see if I could dig into that.
How did he get them there?
That he knew them for less than a year when they were
killing strangers for him.
- Yours was also sort of based on--
even though it was a spec script, it was that the woman
had written a book about being with Ted Bundy.
- It was told through the perspective of his longtime
girlfriend, who had written a book in the 80s about
the long slow process of learning these horrific things
about the person she loved.
- I just finished watching Michael's movie this morning,
because I actually really don't like scary movies,
and I was so...
I started watching and then I'm like, "I can't, I don't want to
have the murder part, I don't want to see the murder part,"
but then I realized I kind of, professional respect,
had to see the movie.
And I was like, "Oh, he's doing a really interesting thing.
We're not showing the murder."
But, unlike my movie,
which is unapologetically sympathetic to murderers,
yours is not.
It really feels like it's, as I now realize,
it's that woman who almost married him, it's her story.
So I'm just interested in that as well, just sort of,
how you felt you were skirting the line between showing
this man was charming and he genuinely loved her.
But can you genuinely love someone when you've just
killed woman number 43 in some brutal way?
- Well that is kind of the central emotional question
of the movie.
And hopefully that's what's debatable when you
come out of it,
and there's no right answer and nobody can ever fully know.
But the intention of writing it that way was to put the
audience in the same perspective as his girlfriend was,
as the public was, the entire time in that era.
I mean, we obviously go into the movie with the baggage of
knowing that he did it.
But if we're successful, the chemistry between Zac Efron
and Lily Collins is the love story is what you buy into.
And if we get seduced into that dynamic, the relationship with
the characters, then the big twist of the movie
is not did he do it or did he not do it,
but is he going to be honest with this woman
for the very first time in his life.
- And if she was deposited in the woods,
could've conceivably done something like that.
- Animals don't do that.
- I'm not a bad guy.
- You need to release me, Ted.
- So it's kind of a deceptive twist, when the spec script
went around, it wasn't known as the Ted Bundy movie.
Nobody knew what it was, nobody knew that Ted was Ted Bundy
until deep into the script.
And so there was kind of a big Keyser Soze moment
in the spec stage of it all.
- What happened to her head?
[sets phone on counter]
[squeaking on glass]
[suspenseful music builds]
- The drama was never constructed to be dependent
upon Keyser Soze, it's, "Oh my God, he just said this to the
one person he has to sever all ties with at this point."
And so that was the goal, and we wanted to approach it that way
because it at least gave more integrity to a story that's
caused so much suffering, and still so,
with victim's families, and people that are still around
who remember the aftermath of it.
- That moment when he writes the word on the window,
that's from her book?
- That is not.
So it was not an adaptation of her book.
I read eight books, all by primary sources.
Hers was one of those books.
But she obviously was not part of so many things
when he was in jail and on trial.
But it is a narrative film,
and so I always prioritize emotional truth
over the factual truth.
I try to stick to the facts as much as I can,
but if it doesn't change history
and it doesn't change the end result of what you're saying
in the bigger picture, that to me is
all I care about when I'm crafting a story.
- The hacksaw moment in particular is kind of a
fusion of, he did confess to her, he did it over the phone,
and he did write hacksaw to explain one of his crimes
to a detective who was getting a confession.
And so that was, I felt like, preserving the emotional truth
of him still admitting to her the way he did it,
and doing it in a way that, I remember when I first read
that hacksaw detail in this obscure book,
I got chills when I read it,
and I always remembered this moment, and I knew that was
my ending from even before starting the script,
so I kind of worked backwards from that.
- How do you pare it down to what's an audience
going to be entranced by, where are we going to--
what story are we going to be interested in following,
to what angle are you going to want to tell?
And you each clearly had one.
So can you talk about how you went through that process of
all that material and then narrowed it down?
- I mean, when I research, I just inundate myself
with as much as I can.
I read, watch, and listen to everything I can find.
And I prefer primary sources, if possible,
and there was a lot with Ted.
And what became interesting to me, and the kind of the
common thread of all of these books,
was just this kind of magnetism that he had,
or some odd attraction that they had
despite some of them knowing about the crimes.
Others didn't know it until much later.
And to me that was interesting to tell a story where it was
really kind of a seduction, it was a con man story of sorts.
In order to get that betrayal, I knew that we had to kind of
pound the other side and buy into the relational dynamics.
I wanted to start it after all the crimes had happened,
so I didn't have to worry about that,
it was just all the denials of it.
- And how about you?
You did show some of that.
- Well, I had written the script with the crimes
being really just flashes of images,
because I thought to myself,
I don't want to be exploitive,
I don't want to show this stuff one more time.
That's not the point of this movie.
The point of this movie is understanding these women
and how they got to where they are.
And so in my script they were very impressionistic, almost.
And then when Mary Harron, this is our third film together,
she came on as a director, and we had this long,
really interesting conversation about,
do you look like you're too forgiving
if you don't face it head-on,
and what's exploitive and what's just saying,
"Let us not forget, this is the horror of what happened."
And so she really talked me into the fact
that we needed to have at least one scene.
And these crimes were particularly messy,
and these were not professional criminals,
they'd never killed anyone before,
so just sort of living with that was important.
And I think she was very right, and I'm glad I did that
because I realized it would have looked like I was
just too much of a chicken to make scary scenes, which,
let's face it, I am.
- Well, one of the challenges I found was excising
the right material that didn't serve the story.
I mean, I came across so much fascinating research that was
just too good to not put in the script.
And for a long time these things were in there
because they were just...
They're stranger than fiction,
but they didn't ultimately serve the story,
they're kind of muddying the waters and got us off track.
So it was painful at the time to lose certain things
in the writing phase, but that was required in order
for the less sensational things to still play.
Because even though something actually happens in real life
doesn't mean it's going to sell dramatically,
and those are hard choices to make.
- Well, you had some funny, really funny moments
in your script.
When he jumps out that window,
that was an out loud laugh.
♪ ...for an aeroplane ♪
♪ Ain't got time to take a fast train ♪
♪ Lonely days are gone, ♪
♪ I'm a-goin' home ♪
♪ My baby, just wrote me a letter ♪
♪ I don't care how much money I gotta spend ♪
♪ Got to get back to my baby again ♪
♪ Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home ♪
♪ My baby, just wrote me a letter ♪
♪ Well, she wrote me a letter ♪
♪ Said she couldn't live without... ♪
- For the longest time I opened the script with
jumping out the window because I thought that was the tone
that you could look at it and that he presented it to you,
if you knew him in that moment.
And so to me, that felt true.
I could justify an absurdist tone
because that's how it would have been.
Now if it wasn't like that in the moment,
it would have been disrespectful on so many levels.
You have to put yourself kind of in the time space
and the headspace of those people.
Well, and I mean to that point, you really did that.
I mean, those scenes where they're in the prison
are very powerful moments because they've--
it feels like exactly what you're talking about,
what the hell do you think about in here.
I have to reflect at this point on what, where,
how I got here, what happened, and yet it took them a long time
to reach that point.
- Because they were sentenced to death and then the
death penalty was lifted, they were not allowed to enter--
they were stuck on death row and not allowed into
general population, which is the worst thing you can do to
someone who's been in a cult, is leave them with each other.
[echoing] [Charles Manson] ...like the black man's work.
Blackie's been waiting for this, Blackie's ready.
And then the piggy cops will come down on Blackie when
they find the rich dead piggies,
and the revolution will begin.
You understand me?
Helter Skelter is upon us.
- Lulu, what's wrong?
- You ever start to think that maybe Helter Skelter
isn't coming down at all?
That Charlie was wrong?
Don't let this place get to you.
It would be happening right now if we weren't in here.
Please don't give up now.
- And so that was also part of the point of my movie
is also just being sympathetic to people who have
been in cults, that nobody understood the psychology of
what they need.
It was like other people who are like,
"What [bleep] are you talking about," is one place to start.
- How do you, again, how do you embody that character?
Because you had to--
it wasn't just them in your film.
You have a lot of Charlie, I mean, you have him being--
- Yeah, I really didn't want it to be Charlie's movie,
but obviously in order to tell the story,
you have to see the part where he was charming and charismatic,
and then just watch it turn.
What I really want people to feel is,
"Wow, if I was 19 and it was 1968 and I met this guy
and all these people, would I?"
And then that's to me always the implicating--
in the same way that you were saying that you thought,
"Would I have helped him?
Would I have chatted up Ted Bundy in a bar?"
- What do we have here?
- Gypsy said Leslie would be happier with you.
- ♪ Gypsie, Gypsie, Gypsie, my baby Gypsie. ♪
You brought someone, just like I asked.
Now that's a good soldier.
Be my mirror.
My name's Charlie.
- I just remember thinking about it in the way
that people talk about abusive relationships.
How people get in them and how people get stuck in them,
which is to say, tell you that you're beautiful in a way
that no one else has told you.
Then morph that into tell you that no one else
sees how beautiful you are.
Isolate you from the people who love you.
And then, just when you're feeling safe,
take that love away, make you dependent on it
and then give it back.
And that's just then as I just described just a
two-person abusive relationship.
- I took much the same approach.
I thought about it like an abusive relationship.
I thought, can we gaslight the audience,
who knows they're being gaslit,
and still be successful in the end?
And that was always very fascinating to me,
and I keep going back to the fact that I always think of it
as a love story, and it's basically Romeo and Juliet
with a court case in between the two of them.
It's a romantic tragedy is really what it is,
and they have to come to the first moment of truth
in the end.
And when I reduce it to that,
to the archetypal love story of it all,
I'm not in a dark headspace every day when I'm reading.
If we were in a relationship with somebody like that,
that would be the point of view we would have, and only that.
Nobody ever sees a serial killer in action.
A movie can see that because you choose the perspective.
But in real life you see who's with you in the kitchen
making eggs and you see the guy on the TV screen
running the trial like a charade.
He really was the first reality TV star,
it was the first time there was cameras in the courtrooms
and he understood the power of that before anybody else.
He was able to make an impression through his looks,
he was articulate, he was a law student,
he was able to really exploit that.
- I have to question the competency of this
- Your Honor, I question the competency of this entire trial,
this is a farce.
- Well, Dr. Souviron on that we could not agree more.
[cheers and applause]
- I feel duty bound to remind you in the gallery
that you are not on spring break.
You are not waiting for the
Flipper and Friends show at SeaWorld.
It is a capital murder case.
The court has already ruled on this witness's expertise,
counselor, and you are skating on thin ice.
And ice does not last long in Florida.
- Yes, Your Honor.
- The hope is that that's where the movie turns
and you're no longer being seduced by him,
but you're watching this slow motion train crash.
There's a feeling of dread and disgust that starts to build
at that point.
And if you watch it a second time, I mean,
I think it feels like a horror movie.
It's just very dark,
because you know these awful, awful things.
And I look at it as a movie of purging trauma almost.
You have to confront this and acknowledge it
and sometimes that takes ten years in her case.
And you only get rid of something like that
when you confront it.
- Well, in your case though, your film went the opposite way,
you're actually going through all this to help us
see these women in a completely different light,
not as horrific as they have been made out to be.
- I'm trying to paint a portrait that's just complex.
I'm not forgiving them.
I'm just trying to say,
"This could be you."
A lot of the stuff about the women that I wrote about,
talks about, one of them was this exotic dancer,
and one of them,
her parents got divorced when she was a teenager.
People trying to put this sort of--
things that happened to them or experiences they had
in their childhood made them cold-blooded murderers.
I loathe this idea that the A to B to C of just
trauma and experiences we have is going to make us this thing,
because I'm sure many people in this room have had
traumatic experiences and are not serial killers.
So when the mom shows up in your movie, I was like,
"Oh God, please don't ruin your movie by having it be like,
'the mom was X, Y or Z.'"
And you didn't.
But it did make me want to Google what the mom was, but...
- I mean I Googled that too.
- Where was she, and they had such a weird dynamic.
But I was glad you didn't go down that path.
So that was a really important thing for me too,
is to say anyone could be here,
and it's not about your difficult childhood.
- I think you should leave here.
I came to help you do that.
It looks like you're being made to stay here against your will.
I can take you right now.
You can drop that broom, get on my bike, and we'll be gone.
Nobody will stop us.
[low dramatic music]
- I found myself thinking,
what do you do when you are just in a cell,
and you're thinking over and over and over
about how you got there, and I'm sure you just
get down to that choice that you made.
The way the actress, Hannah Murray, plays it,
I think also is she almost wants--
she considers it.
And that would have been the best decision
she could ever have made.
- In your film, one of those moments that I found
really impactful as well with a decision about where's this,
since it was from her position, from Liz's position, right?
Is that, she's thinking...
she calls the police.
- I'm the one who gave his name to the police.
[Reporter] He was described as 5'7" to 5'8",
neck-length hair, brown to light brown,
dark tan, 160 pounds,
cast on the left arm.
[on phone] King County Sheriff's Department.
- Back when those girls disappeared from
Lake Sammamish, I saw the sketch.
It's a minor resemblance but it's very, very minor and-
[on phone] What kind of car did he drive?
- It's a 1968 Volkswagen Bug, but it's kind of a light beige.
[on phone] Let me stop you right there.
It's the right car, but it's the wrong color.
He's not the guy.
I can put his name down if it'll help you sleep at night.
What is his name?
- Can you talk about your reasoning for that
and where you were trying to lead us?
- It was kind of doing a parallel track of
both of our main characters.
The way that Ted Bundy had these awful secrets,
she also had an awful secret.
In this whole time she's blaming herself,
believing that she put him in this mess.
And this is based on a series of multiple phone calls
she actually made.
And then for years and years and years thought that she
was the reason why all of these things were happening to him,
and it was a very slow process of acceptance.
But we wanted that to be a big struggle for her emotionally.
She became a very unreliable narrator at a certain point too,
and I thought that was interesting just from a
story craft point of view,
if you had two characters that are very similar,
but you don't really know that in the middle of the story.
[Narrator] You've been watching Telling True Crime Stories,
on On Story.
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