No Man of God tells the story of the strange friendship that occurred between FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier and notorious serial killer Ted Bundy during the latter’s last years on death row. Directed by actor-director Amber Sealey, and starring Elijah Wood and Luke Kirby as Hagmaier and Bundy respectively, the film looks at how the relationship forms between the two men and the toll it takes on them both. FilmHounds was lucky enough to sit down with director Sealey for a conversation about the film.
As a director, how do you go about making a film that is essentially a series of conversations between two men, and not make it feel like it’s a stage play?
I think because I have a background in theatre, I wasn’t worried about that anyway. I was like “if it ends up like a filmed stage play it doesn’t bother me”. In the beginning, I was thinking I have these two actors in this room, and it’s not even an interesting room. Interrogation rooms are by their very nature very plain and simple – there’s nothing on the walls. But the human face is just endlessly fascinating. I love humans. Just give me anyone. Well, maybe not anyone, but most people I’m just fascinated by them. I want to know what makes them tick, what makes them work, the mechanics of it.
Then when you have Luke (Kirby) and Elijah (Wood), who are just so talented, I could watch either one just read the phone book, to be honest. So I settled into that, and when I started shot-listing, I realised there’s actually a lot you can do with just four walls, two people, a table and two cameras. I found that as I was shot-listing there was more that I wanted to do than we even had time to film. So, then I just wasn’t worried, and when you get into the edit we had such great options, in terms of their performances and choices.
So yeah, maybe I should have been have been worried but I wasn’t.
How do you strike the balance between making Ted Bundy a human being without being too sympathetic, and making sure people know he’s a cold blooded killer without him becoming Hannibal Lecter?
To me, it was always about connecting to the truth and the honesty of the moment, and the person. And that’s always what I’m interested in, as a director, what’s really happening for that person. Why are they saying this, why are they doing that, what do they want? And, I think that if you focus on that, then everything else sort of falls into place.
I certainly did not feel any responsibility towards portraying him in any sympathetic light. I was like “the guy’s a complete asshole”. Whereas with Bill [Hagmaier]… I’m saying something about any person who would sit opposite evil, there’s bound to be an impact on your own psyche and the way that you look at the world, and I’m saying that about Bill. And I was nervous about that, because I didn’t want Bill to feel insulted in any way, but I am making a critique of humans, and he is a human. He is the face of that critique I am making about humans.
But with Bundy, it was about getting to the truth of it. Why is he doing this? Why is he saying this? What is he really feeling here? And when you do that everything else just sort of comes out. I mean none of us wanted to make him feel sympathetic because none of us feel that for him. Even though most of us on the production are anti-death penalty, none of us felt like “aw that’s too bad he’s going to be executed”. It’s kind of a complicated thing, you know, you can’t help but watch anyone who is about to die and not feel some sympathy for him. At the end he’s in pain, and he’s scared, and we show that. But, it’s natural for us as humans to feel some sort of sympathy or empathy with him right there. But it wasn’t a conscious thing to make people feel sorry for him, it was about people seeing the truth here.
That’s understandable. Has Bill Hagmaier seen the film?
He has. He still takes my calls, so we’re good.
Did he like it? I can imagine that would be a tense exchange if he’s like “you made me come off really badly, and it’s a film about a serial killer”.
No, he’s a sweetheart. Bill’s a wonderful guy. All the way through he said “I know you’re going to make a great film, and I support you”. There was one thing that him and his family went “you would never say that”, and I cannot think what it was — oh, it was about his father. When he said, “I hated him”. It’s true his father was an alcoholic and did some things that weren’t great. So, that line was something we decided that line was something he would say in order to get something out of Bundy.
But that was the one thing he said he wouldn’t have said. Other than that he didn’t have any criticisms or complaints.
In that regard about gaining of trust, there’s a moment where Bundy refers to Hagmaier as his best friend, and he appears to mean it. Do you believe that Bundy genuinely saw Bill as his best friend or was it just more manipulation?
No, I think he really did think Bill was his best friend. And Bill would say “we were friends, there was a love there”. So, I really do think Bundy saw Bill as his best friend. He tried to will all of his worldly possessions, when he was executed, to Bill, and Bill actually refused. They ended up going to his lawyer, who we call Carolyn in the film. But, yeah I do think, I know, that they really were friends. I don’t think Bill would say Bundy was his best friend, I think that made him quite uncomfortable. But he took everything as far as he had to because that was his job, and to get Bundy to really open up as much as it did. To take that friendship that far.
With a lot of serial killer media, which Netflix has turned into a cottage industry, there’s almost a salacious desire to show abuse visited upon women and at risk groups. Your film avoids that entirely, it deals in the aftermath, there’s no shots of women’s dead bodies. Was that a conscious decision to not revel in people’s suffering?
For sure, it was very conscious. From the beginning when I had my interview and producers were saying because there were these long Bundy monologues “maybe there could be recreations or flashbacks”, and I was saying no. I’m just not interested in that, I personally don’t need to see another movie about women’s lives and bodies being mutilated. I just don’t.
A) that’s been done. B) I don’t think it’s relevant to the telling of this story, this story is about Bill and Ted – Bill and Bundy – I always try and say Bill and Bundy, so it’s not Bill & Ted’s Excellent Interrogation. But it’s about their relationship, and as I show that relationship was about the exchange of power and the exchange of information. That’s what I wanted to show.
In fact, there’s one frame, when Bundy is opening the file and there’s a police photograph and you see a victim – some legs and a skirt. That’s the one moment of violence, and I still think that whenever I see that frame, I think we linger a little longer than I would’ve wanted. Whenever I see the movie, I think we should have picked a different frame. But it was really important that we not show that. We know what the destruction of a woman’s life and body looks like, we know what a woman being raped looks like.
I’m not saying that doesn’t have a place in any movie, like there are certainly movies where you need show it, you need to see it a different way, and I’m not saying that I will never show violence to women in any film. But, for this movie, for this story it wasn’t needed. It’s much more useful and interesting to think – why are we so interested in it? And that’s more the question I was trying to ask rather than showing it. I think it’s much more powerful to hear him say it, and to see Bill’s reaction to it, than to recreate it.
Elijah Wood is the star of the film, and he produces, was there ever a question of him playing Bundy? It seems like a role most actors would be desperate to play – this great true crime figure – or was he always in the running to play Hagmaier – which is the harder role.
No, he was always going to be Bill, he wasn’t interested in playing Bundy. Oddly, neither was Luke. Certainly there are actors who did want to play Bundy, I don’t know for me as a director having someone who desperately wants to play Bundy, that wouldn’t really be the right person for this role. What I really loved about Luke was when we asked him about this role, he said no. His reluctance made me want him even more. The fact that he doesn’t want to play this part means he understood how we’re going to do this film. This was never going to be a film that gets into the gore, and the fact that he had the same emotional reservations meant he wasn’t even more the right person for the part.
Given that this is a very serious film, is it a serious set to be on, or do you keep it light with jokes or keep the gravity of the situation?
Well, it was sort of a serious set because it was during the pandemic. So we were like “keep every alive”, so we were very serious about keeping to the rules, keeping masks on, keeping the air ventilated. But, no, it was actually a very jokey, happy, loving set. Because it was our first time being out of our homes in eight months. We locked down in LA in March of 2020, and no one left their house. So, this was the first time that we’d all been back around other human beings and back to work. There was a joy at seeing another person, and we get to make movies again. In a sense we had a joyful set we just had to counterbalance the darkness of the subject matter. It was actually a really loving, intimate set.
With Bundy he’s one of those killers that’s probably as much a household name as any movie star or pop singer. He doesn’t even have a nickname. He’s just Ted Bundy, he’s not Son of Sam. What do you think it is about him that makes him so – for lack of a better word – popular?
I think popularity breeds popularity. It’s a little bit like the Kardashians getting more popular means more people are going to go “wait, what?” and then it becomes a little bit like what happened with him. But his whole schtick was “I’m just a normal guy!” Whereas a lot of the other serial killers, like [Richard] Ramirez, he preferred to be like “I’m weird, i’m dark” he’d always stare at the camera. He got off on being othered. Whereas Bundy got off on being like you. I think that that being his shtick, and him being an average Joe. It contributed to people’s interest, they’re like “well wait, he’s just an average guy”.
I do think he was smart enough to realise that was his thing. There’s a lot of serial killers that when you look at him you’re like right away you’d cross the street when you saw him. Whereas with Bundy, if you looked at him, you’d think “he looks like my banker”. So, I think that’s part of why he’s one of the more “popular” if you will. But, I also think that popularity breeds popularity. There have been so many films and documentaries – I think it’s something like twenty-two documentaries and narrative films – made in total. That just breeds more – if everyone is talking about something then more people people, including me, will weight in. It’s just a sort of ball rolling, unfortunately.
That said me and the producers do hope that this is the period at the end of the sentence. I really do hope that, and I know that’s a little bit rich or hypocritical of me to say that, but I do hope this is the last one.
Just finally, as a woman in male dominated field, do you feel there’s a shift in the industry? There’s more talk of women behind the camera – writing, directing – but on a practical level do you feel there are changes being made?
That’s a really hard question, and a good question. I mean, on some level yes, awareness certainly helps. Every time I look at the numbers, a year or so more statistics have shifted. They’ve shifted on television. I think the numbers have gone up, and they’ve gone up for women of colour, which is fantastic. I think in terms of feature films the numbers are still not great. You hear white men saying “yeah it’s harder to get jobs”, and you’re just like – are you kidding? You realise women are still directing like four percent of the films being made, we’re fifty percent of the population.
I know so many talented female directors, I’ve been in this industry as both an actor and a director for twenty years, I’ve seen so many of our male counterparts just skyrocket and racism is so deep, and so is sexism. It’s institutional. When I started out I was an actor and it was because I didn’t even think that a woman could be a director. I didn’t really see female directors, all the famous directors that I knew were men.
So some of it we’re just not seeing, but it’s really true that women are not getting the budgets that men are getting, we’re not getting the opportunities are getting, and it’s really sad. I think there are people out there trying to make changes. There’s all these mandates, but you still hear in television when there’s a series, they have ten spots for directing and they say “oh sorry we already have our woman”. People are still saying that. Our woman? So there’s still a tokenism happening, and that bums me out.
I want equal opportunities for all, and for people to get to do the things that they want to do.
No Man Of God is released digitally in the UK September 13.