Actor Zac Efron has film lovers buzzing again, but this time it’s not for his popular singing and dancing parts in movies like “The Greatest Showman” and “High School Musical.”
Efron took on a vastly different role for his latest project as serial killer Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”
The movie, showing at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival in the “Premieres” section, follows Bundy’s crimes through the eyes of his longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, played by Lily Collins, who refused to believe the truth about Bundy for years.
“This is not your typical serial killer movie,” director Joe Berlinger said at the film’s world premiere Saturday in Park City.
Bundy murdered 30 or more young women in Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, California and Florida in the 1970s.
“This opportunity to explore the impact of somebody who everyone thinks is innocent because they’re charming and good looking but is actually guilty of these heinous crimes I just thought was such a clever way in that I had to do this,” Berlinger said.
Berlinger said he wanted to explore what it’s like to be deceived and how victims become victims in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”
“Liz is a victim of his deception, and most victims didn’t survive because Ted used his charms to lure them to their deaths, and so this movie is really about how that kind of pathology exists,” Berlinger said. “As Ted says at the end of the movie, people want to think that a serial killer comes out from the shadows with long fangs and blood dripping from his chin. That’s chilling because that’s not what it is. It’s the people you least expect.”
The director said Efron, “a teen heartthrob for a whole lot of women,” was his first choice to play Bundy.
“Zac, I knew, had the chops to pull off the role. I felt this was an opportunity for him to stretch in a way he hasn’t stretched before,” Berlinger said. “We are kind of subverting the perception of Zac in the world, and for Zac to bravely embrace that I think is pretty cool.”
Efron and Collins were asked in a Q&A following the premiere how playing real people influenced their methods of preparing for these roles. Efron said he didn’t want be stuck trying to impersonate someone he’d only seen recordings of and found he and Bundy had similar mannerisms and charisma.
“(We) did not want to glorify or glamorize Ted Bundy in any way. What he did was horrific,” Efron said. “The most intriguing part of the character for me was right at the end I think when he’s looking at Liz and says, ‘I’m not a bad guy.’ He wants to believe that.”
Collins said she and Berlinger visited Kloepfer, who showed them photo albums with pictures including Bundy “that seemingly were of a happy family” and handwritten love letters he sent. Collins also decided not to research or look at any images of Bundy’s crimes until her character did in the film.
“I didn’t do any of that because Liz didn’t believe he did it. She didn’t see any images,” Collins said. “I did prep, but I also kept myself limited.”
In addition to Efron and Collins, the film’s star-studded cast includes John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Angela Sarafyan and a cameo by Metallica’s James Hetfield as a police officer.
“Everyone actually just did an amazing job and worked so hard, the crew as well,” Berlinger said.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” complements a recently released Netflix docuseries about Bundy that Berlinger created at the same time, titled “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.”
“Both projects actually just kind of fell into my lap and the timing just worked out,” Berlinger said at the premiere. “But it’s actually quite fortuitous because ‘The Ted Bundy Tapes’ … is a deep dive into the mind of the killer, and we spare no details, and so if you really want to know all the things that Ted did right from the start and you really want to know how evil he was, that’s the place to go, and this film for me represented the other side of the coin.”
Berlinger was asked at the Q&A whether it got tiring for him to work on both Bundy projects at the same time.
“It didn’t get tiring. It got pretty (expletive) dark,” Berlinger said. “I jokingly say to my friends that if you really look at my filmography, it kind of falls into two buckets: murder and music, and I need to go do a music film right now because it’s been pretty dark for the last two years.”
The director said he has spent a lot of time in his documentary work evaluating whether wrongfully convicted people are telling the truth and that there is “one long continuum of pathological behavior.”
“We want to think that serial killing is this separate, bizarre thing, but it’s all this one continuum of this kind of behavior,” Berlinger said. “If you want to understand how these human beings operate, you have to see them not as two-dimensional monsters but three-dimensional human beings, so that you understand how people become victims, and that is what the script allowed me to do.”