Celebrity Interview: Director Joe Berlinger Talks on His Newest True Crime Netflix Series

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Conversations With a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes, an intimate three-part series from Netflix and Joe Berlinger, presents a shocking portrayal of one of America's most notorious serial killers, his victims, and how he escaped justice.

Having the opportunity to interview Director Joe Berlinger, this is the first installment of a two-part interview. His true crime stories have become part of the global psyche as he brings to streaming devices around the world the alarming, and horrifying truths that expose deep flaws in the criminal justice system which allow many to hide in plain sight as they continue their senseless brutalities.


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Janet Walker: Congratulations on the docu-series. It's shocking to say the least so you know describe you know in the city of sensational serial killer stories how you decided on this one?

Joe Berlinger: Well, I've always been fascinated by, well there's a particular period from [Charles] Manson in '69 to [Jeffrey] Dahmer in '92 where there are a number of serial killers who have a lot in common which is extreme police ineptitude in capturing them. In this is the case with Gacy and a lot of that has to do with the social values of the day and the prevailing attitudes towards the LGTBQ community which I thought was a good reason to pull back and tell the story again.

The other common link between many of these serial killers of this period. Is well they're white and they presented themselves as very functional people in society. Richard Cottingham, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, you would never guess they were serial killers if you knew them during that period.

And I find that horrifyingly fascinating and much more consistent with the reality of crime then our perception of it. We like to think that serial killers are evil 24/7 you know that they emerged from the shadows dripping with blood and looking creepy. That gives us a false sense of comfort. Because that's how they're portrayed in movies like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs or this idea that serial killers are evil 24/7 gives us this false sense of comfort that well we can avoid being a victim because we can easily recognize them prior to becoming a victim.

But the truth is, in my experience, in covering crime in the past 30 years is that the people you least expect and most often trust are usually the ones who do evil. Whether it's a priest who commits pedophilia or Bernie Madoff who you know used his Jewish identity to bilk and to gain the trust of other wealthy Jewish people and not so wealthy in some cases to destroy the lives of many people with a trusting avuncular smile that's what's I find so fascinating about Gacy in particular.


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I mean he was a clown and democratic precinct captain the envy of the neighborhood through these lavish parties a busy local contractor active in democratic politics. He was a democratic precinct captain the fact that people vouched for him when he was first arrested.

I find utterly fascinating because that's how evil in the world actually operates. So, to me reminding a younger generation that's not familiar with these stories I think is a, it's a lesson I want my daughters to have that just because somebody acts a certain way it doesn't mean you should trust them. So that lesson I think can't be overstated enough. Since this is a story that's been told before why tell it now well, I think it's important to pull back and look at it through a social justice lens and to see how the attitudes of the day allowed Gacy to flourish.

In particular the attitude towards the gay community. If you were victim of an assault, you were afraid to come forward because in some places it was still illegal to engage in homosexual activities police had generally had a bad attitude towards people who came in with those kinds of complaints and when you look at the history of his crime the fact that police didn't put two and two together way earlier is just you know utterly shocking.

Janet Walker: It is definitely. There are so many alarming elements in each episode and like you said horrifyingly intriguing and interesting. So, describe the making of process? How did you approach this story as opposed to any of the other investigative crime series that you've made?

Joe Berlinger: Well, when you have a serial killer story in particular, you have to always be very sensitive to the balance of a victim portrayal to serial killer portrayal so that was always in forefront of my mind.

I'm happy to say that we have several people participating in the show that had never participated before. In particular, the victim Steve Nemmers who luckily, he survived but has a harrowing tale to tell. So that was one aspect is the balance between victim portrayal and deep dive into Gacy. So that's always on our minds and then the other thing that's on my mind is how to how to best utilize the audio tapes because Gacy is an unreliable narrator, which means he lies a lot, which means you certainly don't want to give oxygen to his falsehoods but to me the inclusion of those falsehoods.


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The literal facts of what he's talking about in some instances is not interesting to me it's a portrait of a of a of a sociopath so you see him blaming others even blaming others for, he with one victim had already put the knot around his neck and then went to go answer the phone and when he came back the victim was dead almost as if he saying the victim killed himself. And so, it's important to understand the psychology of these kinds of killers because they truly have no remorse no empathy and they frequently shift the blame to others and so how to utilize the tapes was forefront of my mind.

And then the third, I think, third element of what do you keep in mind when you're making this kind of a show, which I think is what your question, was versus other shows is that this show because I know how well the Bundy, you know the first season was Ted Bundy and to my surprise you know it did extraordinarily well. It was very popular. It was the number one unscripted show or documentary unscripted whatever you want to call it was the number one unscripted show on Netflix in 2019 and a significant number of that audience came from outside of the United States.

So that told me and informed me while I was making this one that I'm actually serving two very different audiences the first audience is the U.S. based true crime aficionados who know every detail of the Bundy story and the second very large group of people as it turned out from the Bundy experience is that there are a lot of people coming to Netflix for this type of programming who don't know the Bundy or the Gacy story and they're coming at it needing to hear the full 360 story for the first time.


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So how do you serve an audience that doesn't know the story and while simultaneously serving an audience that knows every detail about it and so for me that's about leaning into what's new and what hasn't been told before and so we have a number of people who you know who have not participated in previous Gacy shows you know like the aforementioned victim Steve Nemmers another technician Dan Gentry who heroically led the excavation of that site. By the way when I talk about police ineptitude it's not about the people in the show itself.

It's about all the missing clues and effort prior to him being arrested but I give all the all the cops that were in the show and investigators from the moment they suspected him through the excavation of the home they all just did a heroic job, so I just want to be clear when I'm talking about police ineptitude I'm not talking about the cops in the show.

My point was in serving both audiences I wanted to make sure that we have you know very complete storytelling but using new elements that haven't been heard or seen before or something that excavation footage hadn't been seen before. There are quite a few people in the show that have been participated before even exploiting the angle of the fact that they're doing new victim identification, so you want to give the casual viewer who knows nothing a complete experience but the people who know and I've seen every other Gacy show you want to make sure you're offering them new information and a new perspective.

Conversations with a Killer: The John Wayne Gacy Tapes premieres on Netflix April 20, 2022. Disturbing and horrifyingly intriguing! See it.

 

Country: USA.

Language: English.

Release date: April 20, 2022.

Runtime: Three Episodes/56 minutes

Director: Joe Berlinger.

Executive Producer: Joe Berlinger, Catharine Park, Jon Doran, Jen Isaacson, Jon Kamen, Mike Mathis.

Co-Executive Producer: Ted Schillinger.

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