Joe Berlinger is a name true crime fans are already aware, being one of the most prolific filmmakers in the genre, and we recently caught up with his recent Netflix binge Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel. Now, he teams up with brave true crime writer Jillian Lauren and her efforts to uncover some of the names of the victims that serial killer Sam Little left on his trail of horror. CineAddiction had a chance to speak about the STARZ‘s new show and how hard was to process the impact of Sam Little’s reign of terror, as well as understanding how hard it was to capture Jillian’s struggles while speaking to the murderer that took more than 90 lives. Confronting a Serial Killer premiered this sunday and will keep going on for five weekly episodes until it wraps, only on STARZ. For the viewers of the show to enjoy it fully, some questions of the interview regarding spoilers have been ommitted.
CineAddiction: Hi guys! Jillian you are the bravest woman we have seen on screen for so long! How are you after all of this?
Jillian Lauren: Oh! Thank you! When he [Sam Little] died… it’s been a lot to process. I’m well, This project put me back against a wall, there’s no doubt and has really forced me to taking my own healing seriously and looking in PTSD in a different way, but I’m doing well and feeling stronger and very excited to share the project with the world.
CineAddiction: Joe, we have been such huge fans of your work! How do you feel your work has evolved throughout all these years?
Joe Berlinger: That’s an interesting question! I feel like I do it in different ways, but I feel like I’m pretty true to what has interested me, which is to use film to shine a light on social justice issues or something that needs light shining upon it. There are exceptions to the rule, the Metallica film it’s about something else, pepper thoughout my resumé are profiles of cultural icons and not everything falls in the same pocket. But generally speaking, I like to bring social commentary to the floor using film, and I like to explode stereotypes, you know, like just because you dress in black and listen to Metallica makes you a devil worshiper it’s just insane! Even the Metallica film, the Tony Robbins film, and the Paul Simon film fall in the category of just wanting to explode stereotypes. I’ve tried it in different ways, and we happen to be living in the golden age of the docuseries, and so I’ve done a lot of docuseries lately. Somehow I feel like everything has a throughline, and I tried to do so many different things: scripted movies, like, with Zac Efron (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile), I’ve done a couple of scripted television series as well like Homicide; I used to direct a lot of commercials, but I’m done with that…
CineAddiction: Will you keep making true crime documentaries for me?!
JB: Yeah! It’s interesting, I mean, true crime is having a lot of pushback these days, and a lot of people think this is a terrible thing to do, and I obviously don’t agree with that. I think that there’s a lot of irresponsible true crime that just seems to wallow in the misery of others without a larger statement of social justice or some ill you are trying to address. I think all the crime stories I tell have a larger reason. Here we wanted to shine a light on deep systemic problems that allowed a monster like this one to exist, and the hopes of avoiding creating a future monster… so I do like this space, and I will certainly continue to work in it. There is a certain scroll of thought that all true crime is terrible and that no crime storytelling should happen, and that it’s disrespectful to victims to tell that story, and I think the pendulant has to swing in a certain way in order to get back to the same place and be normal. I think that’s in a extreme view, and I think there is a lot of irresponsible true crime that’s made, but there is also very responsible true crime. And that’s me. My films have gotten people out of prison, who were wrongfully convicted, and shine a light on other things, and other people have done the same. As an element of storytelling and to get the social justice part of it, crime and criminality since Cain and Abel has been a basic aspect in who we are as human beings. Do we stop making films about love or stop making films about jealousy or do we stop making films about ambition? I mean, crime is a fundamental aspect of who we are. So the question shouldn’t be “should there be crime or not?”, but the real question should be: “how responsible should the crime filmmaking be?” Of course it needs to be very responsible, because it’s a special category of storytelling when you are in true crime space because you have a victim involved, and I always have the victim in mind in anything I do. And to me, the measure of any show I do is to deliver the living victims or survivors here you go, and would be very proud if they watch the show. If I can’t say yes, I think we’ve done something wrong.
CineAddiction: And how did you two meet?
JB: Jillian and I?
JB: We joke saying that we met in Paris, because we had lunch in this caffé in LA called… what was it called?
JL: I think it was Caffé Paris!
JB: Yeah! I’ve read Jillian’s article in the New York Magazine, and it was kind of an excerpt book she was planning on, and in the process of writing, and it told the story of how she came to meet Sam Little and interrogating him, and at the third paragraph I was hooked! It was fascinating, and I thought the bravery of Jillian was displaying in taking this on was amazing. I felt like the little I knew already, it was interesting that several powerful women, Jillian, Detective Mitzi Roberts, and Prosecutor Beth Silverman, and the surviving victims, taking control of the narrative. I thought it was a fascinating dynamic, so I read the article and felt like this would be an amazing documentary or documentary series, and I reached out to Jillian in Los Angeles at this Caffé de Paris or something like that [LAUGHS], and had a nice lunch, and I felt we were kindred spirits chasing the same concern and that made sense we collaborated.
CineAddiction: How about you Jillian? How do feel being recorded throughout these days?
JL: I met Joe the same way you did! He was such an influential artist for me, and in some part definitely lit that fire in me for social justice. Joe is really exciting, but being on camera was really difficult and I got frustrated, and in my profession I tend to spend much of my time alone for a reason! And all of a sudden I let all these people in to this process that is sort of intimate and private was difficult and interesting, and also I’ve felt support that I haven’t had before. What it meant to be aligned with people in a creative way and to have me supported in this endeavor and saying: yes, your voice is important too! And the victims voices are important. To have these lightthinking artists you can collaborate with is amazing.
CineAddiction: Did you managed to identify any more victims of Sam?
JL: Any details that he gave me on unsolved homicides, I turned over to law enforcement, but there were a number of details of the murders that helped identify them some way or another.
CineAddiction: This is a question for the both of you. What do you think triggers these serial killers to do what they do? Do you think it’s insanity, difficult background… what is your take on this?
JB: Despite the many projects I’ve done, It’s still a mystery to me. How somebody can do the things that are done to other human beings, not to excuse the crime of passion or somebody finds a spouse is cheating on them and they are so enraged that they kill… no killing is acceptable, but I can wrap my head around those crimes, but to knowingly torture another human being and do it over and over again, and in this instance to derive sexual satisfaction through it, I just find it mind boggling. I know many people that had difficulties during childhood and they don’t become serial killers. What is insanity? You know… of course it’s insane to do something like that, and you don’t want to be wrapped up in the legal definition of insanity, because then the person won’t be eligible to account, although I’m vehemently anti-death penalty. I am anti-death penalty from a statistical standpoint, not from a moral standpoint, because I know innocent people have been executed… Damien Echols (from the Paradise Lost trilogy) almost became one of those people. There have been 20 DNA exonerations on death row and DNA is only present in a minority of cases, so I’m against any system that would kill any single person who is innocent. If you’re going to have a system that kills anybody who’s innocent, you can’t have a system at all. Anyway, this is a sidenote. But I mean… what is insanity? Anybody who can do this to another human being and then recounted to an author so callously is certifiably insane… but what does that mean? I think he understood his actions, and the definition of insane is not understanding your actions… I don’t have a clear answer at this instance. The more I cover these kinds of stories, the more perplexed I am that somebody could spend 5 minutes doing this to another human being during four decades.
JL: I think, you know, from a clinical perspective there is almost always in serial killers a few things present. There’s a genetic component, and you’re talking about almost always the dark triad… a malevolant personality, anti-social personality disorder, what we think can generate psychopaths, machiavellianism and narcisism. And then, there’s often head injury, child abuse… so you can also have all these things and not turning into a statistical serial killer, so there’s this mystery piece… It can be something epigenetics, and some of it may be truly mystery. The mistreatment of humanity, and for Sam, he just thought God made him that way. He really believed that! “God doesn’t make mistakes”, and that there are different parts in any ecosystems, but I think there’s never any clear answer of why. There are also certain parts of the brain, and when they do brain scans on pyschopaths, they just don’t light up as much… they don’t have frontal lobes, which is impulse control, you know… you don’t even grow one until you’re 27… they don’t really even grow them at all. So there’s all of that and the mystery piece. At the end of the day, I could study this all day long, and I did, and I still can’t find the right answer. There are ways that we are cruel and sadistic, and these are much more mundane, and I think that by looking into these extreme examples maybe can help shine a light on that too.
CineAddiction: How do you feel about the popularity of true crime?
JL: I think I love stories. I love stories, I love people… I am an endless well of curiosity and mischief, and I want to see worlds that I have never seen before, so I am driven more by curiosity, and I think there is certainly an element of the true crime that is exploited and it’s not thoughtful or reflective, but I think crime is, exactly as Joe said, is integral to humanity as love, and warrants that much of close attention. I just try to be very careful that I’m being responsible with it in my writing and the projects I chose to participate in. But I love crime as a storytelling view hole. It shows so much about the ways that we’re broken as a society, as a justice system, and also there are high stakes, and fascinating characters, heroic characters and villains. I just think it needs to be done well and really consciously.
JB: It’s interesting to me that the mantra now seems to be that true crime has never been so popular, and there’s this interest growing in true crime, and I question whether it’s more popular than ever vs. the medium in which it’s delivered has become more popular. I have been in this business for 30 years when I first started making documentaries, and if you haven’t sell your film to PBS or HBO, you wouldn’t be making a documentary unless it was privately financed, there wasn’t this thing called docuseries and the way we know it now… you know, it’s like the rising tide lifts all boats. All forms of documentary productions has never been more mainstream. Music docs have never been more popular, social justice docs have never been more popular, nature docs have never been more popular… to me it’s all just more popular now. Sure there’s a lot more crime programming going on, but I think it’s because over the decades we’ve migrated to this form. In the 18th century, you could buy tickets to public hangings, and large crowds would gather to watch the criminal get hung, and obviously we don’t do that anymore! In the 50s you had hundreds and hundreds of true detectives and true mystery and true crime magazines, because that was the media of the day… pulp fiction novels! Truman Capote opened a whole new world with nonfiction novel In Cold Blood and Executioner’s Song, and then it was a literary movement, so there’s a good reason for people to be fascinated by crime. I don’t think it’s more popular than ever… I think there’s a lot of irresponsible true crime, but also a lot of resposible programming. We are the makers who are trying to move the needle on issues. People can choose no to watch, we don’t force people to watch these shows, but crime has been part of the human condition since the beginning of time, and therefore you can’t cut that out from storytelling. There’s a lot of reasons people enjoy this genre. The brain is wired for danger. Your brains is always trained to look out for danger. I think that’s one reason we enjoy it, and the other reason is that it is just part of the human condition. Some people enjoy it because they want to solve the mystery… some people just love to participate in the genre, because looking for answers is part of the DNA of the programming. My true purpose is to be responsible towards the victims, and I think about that all the time. For me all of my work has passed that test. There’s always a social justice intent in telling these stories. That’s the basic barr to get it.
CineAddiction: Was it hard to have the victims families on camera?
JB: It took a little bit to convince them. One of the reasons I hired an experienced crime filmmaker, Po Kutchins, to be the showrunner… there’s a part of me, and maybe this is not policatilly correct for me to say, that’s deeply disturbed by the growing trend of that only black people should tell black stories, and only female should tell female stories, and I think that any competent filmmaker with empathy should be able to tell any story. However I do believe that my business is not equitable in opportunities, and of course in an opportunity standpoint, I think giving a female director the chance to tell a female story, I think is an important thing, and thank God the industry is waking up on that, and there’s definitely more to be done regarding that. So, one of the reasons I wanted Po on this show, is I know that is important, because I’m a white male, for the victims family members to have someone they could confide to during the filmmaking process. It helped me a lot to have made that decision. It wasn’t hard to film them, but it was hard to initially convince them because they have been betrayed by the system. They saw how much we were serious about what we do and felt comfortable sharing their stories with us.
CineAddiction: How hard it is to do your job right now during a pandemic?
JL: Me?? So hard!!!! The good thing is I’m in the very last edit’s phase of the book, but normally I use the old fashioned pavement, you know, I just sit somewhere until people start talking to me, and I am someone that just gets on the street and do everything interactively, so it completely changed my entire process and upended it a lot… and I will let Joe speak about the whole documentary process!
JB: It certainly made things a lot harder, I’ll be honest. Luckily we’d got most of the film in the can, pior to the lockdown, but we had a bunch of pick up interviews we had to do, particularly with Jillian, so remote shooting was challenging. The technical aspect of was really hard. I miss the whole comradery, but amazingly we managed to have a very productive year. We had to lose an episode! This was suppose to be a six-episode series, and additional interviews he had scheduled with victims’ families had to be cancelled unfortunately, and there were cases of potentially wrongful convictions associated with Sam Little and we were going on that direction, but became impossible to make it work. We literally did lose an episode as the result of a pandemic, but I’m very proud we actually had it done!
CineAddiction: Thank you so much for this interview and never stop doing your work! I feel like I’ve met just two of my biggest idols ever!
JL & JB: Thank you so much! We really appreciate that!