On Story

S10 E7 | FULL EPISODE

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.

AIRED: May 23, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

[lounge music]

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller

is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."

[multiple voices chattering]

[Narrator] On Story offers a look inside

the creative process from today's leading

writers, creators, and filmmakers.

All of our content is recorded live

at Austin Film Festival and at our year-round events.

To view previous episodes, visit OnStory.tv.

[Narrator] On Story is brought to you in part

by the Alice Kleberg Reynolds Foundation,

a Texas family providing innovative funding since 1979.

[waves]

[kids screaming]

[wind]

[witch cackling]

[sirens wail]

[gunshots]

[dripping]

[suspenseful music]

[telegraph beeping, typing]

[piano gliss]

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.

[paper crumples]

[typing]

[typewriter ding]

[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.

[typewriter ding]

- 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

stranger-than-fiction events.

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.

- Yeah.

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.

[typewriter ding]

- 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,

[laughing]

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,

then animals

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]

[inhales]

[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.

[dramatic music]

♪ ♪

[Liz gasping]

[inhales]

- 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.

[typewriter ding]

- 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 ♪

[dog barking]

♪ 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.

- Yeah.

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.

[crying]

- Lulu, what's wrong?

- You ever start to think that maybe Helter Skelter

isn't coming down at all?

That Charlie was wrong?

- No.

No!

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.

- Okay.

- 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.

[typewriter ding]

- 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?"

Maybe.

- 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.

[chuckles]

[laughing]

Be my mirror.

[laughing]

[hums]

My name's Charlie.

[kiss smack]

[laughing]

- 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,

through his--

he was articulate, he was a law student,

he was able to really exploit that.

- I have to question the competency of this

expert witness.

- 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]

[gavel banging]

- 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 not--

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.

[laughing]

- 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.

[typewriter ding]

- 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]

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

- No.

- 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?

- Ted.

Ted Bundy.

- 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.

[typewriter ding]

[Narrator] You've been watching Telling True Crime Stories,

on On Story.

On Story is part of a growing number of programs

in Austin Film Festival's On Story project,

including the On Story PBS series,

now streaming online,

the On Story radio program,

the On Story podcast,

and the On Story book series,

available where books are sold.

To find out more about On Story and Austin Film Festival,

visit onstory.tv or austinfilmfestival.com.

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

[projector clicking]

[typing]

[typewriter ding]

[projector dies]

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