Tenacious, inquisitive, intelligent, and relentless, filmmaker Nick Broomfield has carved out a unique place for himself in the documentary community over 25 years. He embarks on production with only a subject and a cameraman, yet always emerges with something raw, informative, and fascinating. Past triumphs include the near legendary Aileen Wuornos films, Kurt And Courtney, Biggie And Tupac, and Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam. His latest feature Tales Of The Grim Sleeper just might be Broomfield’s finest achievement to date and Collider got a chance to chat with him about it at this year’s New York Film Festival. Hit the jump for the details.
When Nick Broomfield set out to make Tales Of The Grim Sleeper (read my review here), it felt like return to familiar serial killer subject matter. The Grim Sleeper is Lonnie Franklin Jr., who was arrested in 2010 for upwards of 25 murders in Los Angeles stretching back to 1988. The reason it took so long for the LAPD to catch Franklin was that his victims were African American prostitutes and crack addicts whose murders the police didn’t consider worthy of inquiry. As Broomfield slowly to dug deeper into the community he discovered an astoundingly disturbing level of disinterest from local authorities topped off with a little corruption. Through people like Pam (a former crack addict who was able to find living victims of Franklin who the police long considered dead) and the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murder (who had been investigating the crimes on their own for decades before police stumbled onto the culprit), Broomfield found connection with a tragically ignored group of people in Los Angeles and emerged with one of his most powerful and effective movies to date.
The film was picked up for distribution by HBO Documentary Films shortly after premiering at TIFF and is in the midst of a further festival run now on it’s way to inevitably becoming one of the most discussed documentaries of the year. We recently chatted with Broomfield about the motivations, production, and revelations of Tales Of The Grim Sleeper.
Question: So what was it that attracted you to this material? Did you have a general interest in making another film about a serial killer or was there something more specific about this case that drew you in?
NICK BROOMFIELD: Well, it’s quite different from the Aileen Wuornos story. That was a very personal story about Aileen and trying to understand her. This is much more of a story about the circumstances that enabled Lonnie Franklin to exist and get away with murder for 25 years and then be caught essentially by coincidence rather than any intrepid police work.
You always let the your films evolve as you’re making them. So what did you set out hoping to find initially? Did you know about the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders or anything like that?
BROOMFIELD: I didn’t know about the Black Coalition. I read a Newsweek article that was my introduction, I believe in 2010. Having lived in Los Angeles, I knew about this other part of the city that I never went to that had been abandoned essentially by the rest of the city. I thought this was a story that would allow me to look into that world. That was my main reason for wanting to do it. I think the situation has gotten progressively worse in the last few years. There were many more welfare programs there before as well as medical centers and educational programs. All of which lost funding and that part of the city became completely isolated. There was no real interaction between it and the rest of Los Angeles. I think when that happens, trust breaks down and people feel like there’s no hope. In that circumstance, injustice happens.
When you started filming in the streets and people were yelling at you (who turned out to be Lonnie’s friends), was there any trepidation on your part to approach them or was that a moment of excitement?
BROOMFIELD: I was very interested in delving into the community with someone who was respected and trusted. I knew that was important and then when I met Pam shortly there after, I always went around with her. There was always someone who could help usher the two white boys from Britain around. That made all the difference really. I wasn’t frightened or nervous. I always felt safe. I think that’s a bit of a hangover from the reputation of South Central Los Angeles, which nobody goes into anymore. So, it’s become thought of as a kind of voodoo place dangerous lurk. It’s a bit like the irrational fear of people who live in the forest or barbarians outside the gate. I think that happens when there’s a social breakdown of communication between one part of the city and the other.
Did you really think “peckerwood” was a term of endearment when they shouted that at you?
BROOMFIELD: I did! (Laughs) It sounded inoffensive to me. I thought, “Peckerwood” that sounds cute. I looked it up later and found out it was the title of a white supremacist prison gang, The Peckerwoods. A horrible bunch of people who murdered in prison, but I didn’t know that at the time.
Can you talk a little bit about Pam and her involvement in the film? Because it really feels like it would have been impossible to make this movie without her.
BROOMFIELD: No, we couldn’t have. I was lucky to find her. She lived on the streets since she was a teen and was addicted to crack. For some reason, politically there’s a distinction between cocaine and crack. Cocaine is not a felony conviction because it’s used by middle class and wealthy people. Crack, which is used by people in South Central, carries a felony conviction. So Pam got a felony conviction and as a result was ineligible for the program to help get over crack. If you get a crack felony conviction you’re ineligible automatically for I believe it’s called Program 36, which is about getting you off the drug. So for years she was on crack and was eventually able to get into some sort of rehab program, which was incredibly difficult for her. Somehow in 25 years on the street she was able to meet many of the people who Lonnie Franklin had photographs of and were presumed dead. She knew that some of them were alive and was able to find them for us. The police had done very little to find out who was alive and who was dead, but she was able to round up these women and get us a series of interviews at the end of the film. She was incredibly important.
Have you been able to show the film to her or the Coalition or anyone else involved yet?
BROOMFIELD: Yes, both Pam and the Black Coalition have been able to see the film. I showed it to them in a much earlier stage when I was still editing. So I got their input and they helped a lot throughout the production.
BROOMFIELD: I did, but we didn’t have much luck because it was such a political hot potato. Basically, the police and everyone involved on that side just want the minimum possible amount of publicity. They want the guy depicted by their case to be the only image in the media and they want it all to go away. So there was no hope of that happening.
Did you expect to get any involvement from the LAPD?
BROOMFIELD: I did think the LAPD might cooperate. I spent a long time trying to get them to cooperate. I used detectives I knew to approach them. I tried to approach them through various vice squads we knew. I tried everything we could. I even tried talking to coroners and so on. There was just no chance. I can only guess what they must have felt about this film being made.
This film is much more visually ambitious than your usual work. Was there any particular reason for that?
BROOMFIELD: Well, a couple of reasons. I felt that the story lent itself to it. It was a challenge to depict the character of South Central Los Angeles, which feels cut off but at the same time looks a bit rotted. So I felt it was important to show that and find ways to make South Central a character. Plus technology has come along to a point where it’s possible to shoot on video in a way that looks like film and this was a chance to embrace that.
You worked with your son Barney for the first time on this production. How did that come about and how was your working relationship together?
BROOMFIELD: Well, the initial cameraman that I had became very intimidated. He was with me on the famous ‘peckerwood’ day. Although I gave him a lot of chances, I think he felt frustrated that he couldn’t quite do the work. So he went back to England. Barney happened to be available when I needed someone. I was nervous about working with him for obvious reasons, but it turned out to be fantastic. We got on incredibly well and he got very close to Pam and various other people. I think he did a wonderful job with the cinematography.
Do you ever keep in touch with your subjects after production? You seem to get quite close with them, particularly Pam in this case.
BROOMFIELD: I do. They’re very much a part of my life. I actually just returned from England where I went to the funeral of the woman who was in my very first two films 25 years ago. So yes, I stayed very close to her and her family and started to feel like part of the family. I’m not close with everyone who I’ve worked with like that, she was an incredible woman. I’ve always become very involved with the people in these films and some people in particular led to incredible friendships that keep going when I’m not filming. That means a lot to me.
Do you have any thoughts about what your next movie might be yet?
BROOMFIELD: Well, I’m still working on this one. We’re entering it for Academy consideration. I think that’s going to be quite a lot of work, so I’m not even close to thinking about the next one. This has been a big commitment and I want to follow through with it and attend as many screenings as I can to hopefully open up a debate with the goal of bringing some form of positive change to that area.