Nearly everyone, unfortunately, has heard of Ted Bundy before. But it’s time that the light shifts from his story on to those who he made suffer around him. Let’s hope director Amber Sealey’s No Man Of God is the last Ted Bundy film. Her perspective perfectly concludes his infamous life journey, de-glamourizing the serial killer and giving us the desperate, attention-seeking, and deeply disturbed man that he was. Performances from Luke Kirby (Ted Bundy) and Elijah Wood (Bill Hagmaier) are, to say the least, noteworthy and Sealey’s attention to detail opens up conversations we’ve hardly had when it comes to true crime stories.
FRONTRUNNER chatted with Sealey on how it’s time to stop idealising psychopaths just because we think their minds are a puzzle for us to solve, the unspoken act of women walking dark streets with keys between their fingers, and where it goes all wrong with representing female pleasure on screen.
Ted Bundy’s story had quite the buzz, recently. What made you choose to tell his story in such a short amount of time after the release of Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile feature film?
Putting it simply, I felt like I have something to say. I know there have been a lot of films made about Ted Bundy, and certainly the argument that there have been too many films about him is not wrong. However, I felt like I had something to add to the conversation particularly as an outsider to the genre. As a woman, I know what it’s like to walk down the street and feel scared at night and be taught to hold your keys with the key sticking out so you can hit someone, if you have to. In some ways, it felt like a female experience that hadn’t been infused into those films. At the end of the day, it is a business and we are here to entertain. People are interested in the content, and if there was going to be another Ted Bundy movie then why should it not be made by someone like me who doesn’t see herself as part of that world? I consider myself to be very much a feminist and an outsider. Certainly, it’s a lot more complicated than the feeling that I had something to add to the story.
It’s crazy to think that most women walk down the street being scared at night, and we talk about it as it is an everyday thing. I imagine that all of the women who were Bundy’s victims had this exact feeling on a day-to-day basis.
I don’t know a woman who doesn’t know what it is like to be scared of someone walking behind you.
It’s a breath of fresh air to see that a woman, in this case you, directed No Man of God. I struggle to work out how a male director is supposed to understand the female victim’s perspective when it comes to serial killers. How do you get members of the audience, producers, crew, and actors to a place of understanding and changing minds about why we also need female filmmakers?
That’s a good question. Luckily, when I went to interview for the job, I sat down and I said, “Look at the end of it. I don’t care if you don’t hire me, but in this day and age you can’t make a movie about two men sitting in a room talking about raping and murdering women especially when there have been 20 movies made about Bundy.” Fortunately, they agreed and were on board with the idea. They were already aware of the gender conversation that was coming, so I didn’t have to do any convincing with the production company. SpectreVision is at the top: two women and two men, they are all progressive and forward-thinking. We were on the same page about the kind of film we wanted to make, what was important to get across, what it was we were trying to say about Bundy, and why he did what he did. It’s an issue in the industry. I don’t know what the statistics are right now, but I remember a couple of years ago women made 2% of all movies, and yet we are 50% of the population.
It’s embarrassing and it’s not right. I know so many brilliant female directors who are trying to make it. I have seen a male and a female friend, at the same year they have a movie at Sundance and the woman’s film is well-reviewed and the man’s sort of well-received and then he gets a 30-40 million movie next and she is still charging along. I don’t know what the answer is; smarter people than me try to figure this out. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and The Sundance Institute have done studies but just repeatedly the numbers are disappointing when it comes to female directors. It’s improving little by little and there are more initiatives to hire women. I hope these women get to make movies about other things than just female stories. That was the other idea I liked. Traditionally, a man who has a history of making movies about serial killers would have directed No Man Of God. The fact that SpectreVision was willing to hire a woman who hasn’t had experience with this genre, I thought well, this is fucking cool. They were willing to be brave and forward-thinking so I knew they were the people I want to work with.
You did not show footage or reenactments of the murders, or the lifeless women’s bodies on the screen. It’s important to stop showing women in vulnerable states and emphasise other aspects of the story. They become objects to gaze at. Was this a conscious decision? Have you cracked why other storytellers believe that mutilated and murdered women add value to a film?
I wish that I had cracked it, but I don’t have the answer. I don’t want to see any of that. We have seen women being raped and mutilated in so many films and I am not saying that there is never a place for that, but I am saying that in this film I didn’t need to see it. It wasn’t part of the story. The recreations and the flashbacks are another story; they weren’t part of my concept. Luckily SpectreVision were on the same page. When I interviewed they said I could do whatever I want. We have seen that so many times and I don’t think it is important here. I am not saying that violence and sex are not needed in movies, but they belong in certain movies and not in No Man Of God.
I am sure we agree that male pleasure is normalised on screen, whereas female pleasure is still taboo. I thought about this as Ted Bundy often stalked women and masturbated afterward. Necrophilia wasn’t a foreign thing for him either.
He was a necrophiliac and Bill Hagmaier told me that almost all serial killers are necrophiliacs. I completely agree with you. If you’ve seen my short film, How Does It Start, it’s about female sexuality. I don’t think we have female sexuality and desire normalised on screen yet, at all. How Does It Start is aimed to address that. The film also relates to No Man Of God, as I don’t care if Bundy was turned on by what he did. It’s not interesting to me. I don’t need to see that.
Then I naturally thought about that if a woman was to do the above, the world would turn upside down and the people in it would be eternally shocked. With Bundy, we still say, “Ah yes, that was his thing.”
I don’t know enough about serial killers, but has there ever been a female serial killer who repeatedly killed men and assaulted them? I don’t think so. I think there are very few female serial killers and usually, the women that are called serial killers, murder one or two men they were in personal relationships with. From what I know those who murder large sums of people are always men and don’t quote me on this but the ones we know about are male and they are murdering multiples of women. That’s worth looking at. Women are not committing these crimes, men are. What does that say about us?
I can see a connection to the 1970s Women’s Movement, which may have affected his behaviour and made him angry and frustrated. We could even say he took his irritation out on women to satisfy his “needs”. We still have fanatical groups of men who religiously want to eliminate women, to take revenge. I can’t help but see the link. How do you think Bundy developed this mentality?
I think he was a psychopath. I agree with you, I think he was very much impacted by the Women’s Movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Certainly, what was going on politically or with regards to gender dynamics affected him. There are connections between that and now with the “incel” (or so-called, “involuntary celibate”). The incels who think that their desire to have a date or get a woman is more important than the woman’s comfort. That’s very similar to Bundy: he felt like his desire to have these “experiences” with women were more important than their lives. I believe it essentially comes from institutionalised misogyny, men feeling like their time on this earth is more important than women’s. Their satisfaction is more important than women’s lives. I think that women’s liberation movements sadly, but often, receive a reaction from camps of men who feel threatened. Those men (I am generalizing, here) are not in a fine mental state. They feel threatened by something being taken away from them, rather than being able to see the world not in terms of scarcity, but in terms of having room for everyone and that we can all have a seat at the table.
I’ve listened to podcasts and interviews that discussed Bundy. Most hosts began their conversations with how they thought he seemed to be an intelligent, gentlemanly-looking, and harmless guy. How can we still feed this misconception to the public? It’s infuriating to think after many years we are still surprised he is a bad guy.
To me, he was a narcissist and deeply insecure. He was certainly able to be charming in some ways, but I don’t see the kind of mastermind, intelligent, charming guy in him when I watch his videos and listen to his interviews. I see someone who desperately wants everyone to like him and [for] everyone to think he is great. He was obsessed with money and the idea that his family didn’t have any. Although his family wasn’t completely poor, they were middle-class people. He was consumed by perceptions and prestige.
Taking a 180-degree turn here: I am sure you’ve been asked many times how can young people go forward in the industry, so I have no intention of asking that. I would rather like to know how can those who realize their dreams later in life enter the industry and become directors, producers, or and/actors? I never see advice from people in the industry for them.
I love that question. I love it. I think our industry has such an obsession with youth, and it’s silly. There are so many grants and programs for the first-time filmmaker, but what about the woman who is 60 and decides she wants to make movies? This industry is sadly skewed towards supporting the young filmmaker. We like the story of the 25-year-old boy just out of college who comes and writes a script and it’s a huge hit. Yes, most of the time, a boy. I am not kidding. I don’t read these stories about female filmmakers. I hope they exist. That’s why I love the story of The Forty Year Old Version (2020), directed by Radha Blank, so much. She is 45 years old and I love that. Where are the stories of the older women coming in and wanting to make it in the industry? I know Meryl Streep funds a screenwriting initiative for women over 40 that’s run by New York Women in Film and Television. I hope that more women like me, as we age into the industry, keep talking about encouraging women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to come into filmmaking, and to not be frightened by being older, and not having yet made it. I see my career as a slow growth. Each movie does a little bit and the next, and I am fine with that. It’s not the story we love that your first feature is a Sundance hit and you become huge and famous, but I think that narrative is so old. If we had an 80 year-old woman who had a Sundance hit, now that would be interesting to me.
What’s on your plate, next?
I am going to shoot the feature version of my short film How Does It Start next year. I’m also attached to a comedy based on a true story about a young woman who, at the age of fifteen, took on her local school board to try to get them to teach sex education in her school; they had the highest rate of teen pregnancies and STDs in the entire country. It’s socially and politically relevant because here in the United States, there are a lot of issues with trying to make abortion illegal, shutting down abortion clinics, and stopping access to healthcare for women and real sex education. Sadly, it’s relevant but it’s also funny and couched in an energetic teen comedy. I am also writing my own material, which I always love doing.