Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Nick Broomfield has come a long way from his first years as a documentary filmmaker in the early 1970s, when he made shorts about British housing projects and borrowed equipment from Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker—although his crew is still distinctly small. Accompanied for decades by his former partner, frequent co-director and cinematographer Joan Churchill, Broomfield became infamous for blundering about in front of the camera wearing a pair of giant headphones and wielding a boom mike. In 2002 Jon Ronson crowned Broomfield as a key member of “Les Nouvelles Égotistes“—a group of “faux naïf” celebrity documentarians that included Michael Moore, Louis Theroux, and Ronson himself, who were in vogue during the late Nineties and early Aughts. Two years after Ronson labeled the group, Morgan Spurlock started vomiting up Big Macs on camera, and the rest is history. Thankfully, Broomfield's own shtick may have reached its apogee in 2011 with Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, when he traipsed around Wasilla in a furry Elmer Fudd hat and pestered Palin's neighbors.

Ronson was right to single out Broomfield in his article as the best investigator among the so-called Égotistes, less grating than his peers, and less polemic than Moore (which isn't saying much). Broomfield has developed a knack for approaching his subjects from the outside in, and not only because many of his star interviewees avoid him like the plague. To Broomfield's credit, he is more interested in the social, cultural, and economic circumstances animating his subjects—which has lead some of his less attentive fans to misconstrue his films about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Biggie and Tupac, and Aileen Wuornos as corroborating conspiracy theories. While it is true that Broomfield is ineluctably drawn to tabloid fare (his films profile murderers, prostitutes, rock stars, politicians, and white supremacists), his perspective is often more balanced than one might assume. He is also capable of being surprisingly considerate of his interviewees.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which focuses on the notorious serial killer of South Central L.A., is Broomfield's finest film to date. He decidedly paces around the perimeter of his subject and does not interview his ostensible central character, Lonnie Franklin (aka the Grim Sleeper), even once. Broomfield instead “rides” with his neighbors (as they did with Franklin for years), while tracking down and interviewing the surviving victims. Broomfield is much quieter in this film; his son Barney has taken over as cinematographer and he spends most of the film out of the camera's range. When he does pop into the frame, he is a bit sheepish (recoiling clumsily when a pit bull barks at him), and his trademark boom mike is much smaller, less intrusive.

FILM COMMENT spoke with Broomfield when he was in New York for its DOCNYC screening, two months after its U.S. premiere in the New York Film Festival. Tales of the Grim Sleeper airs April 27 on HBO.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Tales of the Grim Sleeper lacks what you've described in the past as your “elephant traps”—sudden ambushes or provocations of your subjects.

Yeah, because I didn't think the film needed it. The LAPD was certainly deserving, but I didn't have the opportunity to interview them. The neighborhood people didn't need that much help from me at all, and I really felt that was one of the reasons it was such a wonderful film to make. They were incredibly good at describing their situation in an amazingly articulate way that was full of humanity.

Everyone in New York complains about the car culture in Los Angeles, but there's something about interviews conducted in moving vehicles that has a nice immediacy to it.

Yes. Well, it's always difficult to get movement into documentaries so I enjoyed shooting in cars. People in the neighborhood were living on the streets and a lot of the women didn't have a fixed address, they moved around a lot. Most people were reluctant to take us into their homes, to be seen with and known to be involved with us. We'd either interview them in a car or have them come to our office—I call it an office but it was more like a bunker. They loved being in the car, it was a massive old Mercedes from the mid-Nineties that I bought for next to nothing. Simple, comfortable, and yeah—any excuse and they would leap back into it.

The method you employed reminded me of your film about Sarah Palin, You Betcha!, which is as much about the community of Wasilla as it is about Palin.

Yes, this is far more a portrait of a community and a tale of two cities, a tale of the strange apartheid system that operates in Los Angeles. Once it became apparent very early on that there was overwhelming ballistics and DNA evidence pointing to Lonnie, it clearly wasn't going to be a story about whether he did or didn't do it. It became instead a story about how it was possible that this happened, and about the circumstances that enabled this community to be so completely cut off from the rest of Los Angeles. There was almost a genocide that took place. Margaret Prescod, for example, would probably say that there were three, maybe four hundred women who disappeared within a 35-year period of time. This would raise eyebrows even in the most primitive banana republic, but when you think that this happened in Central Los Angeles, it's pretty scandalous. I think that all of these questions still need to be answered.

You seem to have discovered a kindred spirit in Margaret Prescod, who founded the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders. The way that she grabbed the microphone and hijacked the LAPD press conference—that must have appealed to you.

She certainly doesn't take any prisoners. I think people like Margaret are so impressive because they've been battling for so long without receiving any help from the authorities at all. It was incredible to see this great group of women all meet at the Southern California Library on Normandie, a rather amazing library with a lot of history involving the L.A. riots and so on. I think they want wider political questions asked, they want a congressional Committee looking into how it was possible for the investigation to take so long, why there was so little information coming from the police.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

You often home in on circumstantial details and contingencies—clearly you're posing the question in Grim Sleeper, what would have happened if the victims were white? In your two documentaries about Aileen Wuornos, you place a lot of weight on her fraught upbringing and how it influenced her criminal behavior. Even in your drama Battle for Haditha (07) you include this heavy moment where one of the Marines requests psychological help and he's told that he'll have to wait until after his tour. Then he participates in a massacre. It's like you're showing us a chain-link of circumstances that lead up to every tragedy.

Very often we live in a world where things are very black and white, where most people have a very fixed idea about who they are and who these other people are. I think so much of what happens in our lives and what happens out in the world is a lack of accident or a combination of the two, and I think it is a protective thing to dismiss a lot of situations, to say that all of these people are lazy or they're drug addicts.

Of course, in this film for example, if Pam—who is an enormously capable person, super bright and completely reliable—had grown up in a different part of the city, in the white part of the city, or would have gone to a white school, she would be incredibly accomplished, running some sort of business or corporation, and have a chauffeur or whatever. But the circumstances were such that she obviously isn't. And I found exactly the same thing in South Africa—you know, there were kids in the township who were super bright, incredibly well read and very good at writing, but they went to shitty schools and there was no way they were going to go to universities and there was probably no way they were ever going to get out of the township, even in the new South Africa. So I think that's always kind of interesting, because I think audiences don't think that far ahead even when it's so obvious. Something the documentary can do is get an audience very close to a character like Pam, to allow them to enjoy her personality and like her, and then suddenly realize that her life options are actually so minute and teeny.

And in L.A. there's the unfortunate fact that so many people in low-income neighborhoods aren't able to vote because they have felony convictions.

Yeah. They get convicted for a teeny possession of crack, whereas if it had been cocaine it would have been a lesser charge. The other irony is if you've got a felony conviction for crack possession you're excluded from most of the rehabilitation programs. So you're really living a twilight existence once you get your first conviction.

You can see why no one in Lonnie's community wants to talk to the police. Their cageyness is definitely warranted, but there's something more that slowly emerges within the film—that some of the neighbors were possibly complicit in the cover-up of the murders. What were you thinking when you first noticed these changes in their stories?

I think I was surprised initially. When I heard the guy say “Well, I burned his car for him and there were all these bloody clothes in it” . . . the thing is, I'm coming from a very prosperous part of Los Angeles, and where I live in Santa Monica there isn't really a crack problem—but I think living in a community where there is a crack epidemic must be like being in a war zone and when someone's strung out on crack you get the weirdest forms of behavior. So for instance people in that community are used to seeing people run naked down the street [like one of Lonnie's victims] or people just shouting apropos of nothing or people showing some weird irrational type of behavior. So I think their tolerance level for weird things is pretty high. They don't ask questions, they kind of get on with their lives, and I think there is just this incredible fear that if they raise questions it's only going to get them into a lot of trouble. Like Nana Gyamfi from the Black Coalition says: “I tell my son that the last thing he should do is call 911.” That's really how people think there.

When you interviewed Chris Franklin's ex-girlfriend, first she describes the Franklin family as normal but then goes on to reveal that what was going on in the house was not what most people would consider normal at all.

[Laughs] Yes, and there were other stories about things that Lonnie did that I didn't include in the film. Apparently he had this white woman who was kind of his slave whom he'd bought and was always naked in the back of his van. He was just driving around with her like that and no one said anything.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Do you think any of the neighbors are worried about the community reaction to the film considering what they revealed about Lonnie?

I invited everyone to the screening at the Egyptian, and the only people I wasn't able to contact were his three friends. All of their phones had changed—everyone changes their phone constantly—so none of the numbers worked. Richard's girlfriend told me that he's no longer in her life, and not to call her again. Gary's phone—I drove to his house and left a couple of notes and noticed that they were still there the next day. I think the house is being sold and Gary's not there, so it's going to take me probably two or three days of hanging out there until I bump into one of them. So I don't know really, because in a way they are the ones who are the most vulnerable. It's something I'm going to have to do when I go back to L.A.

Men and women don't really talk to each other much in the film. I read that you initially considered splitting Grim Sleeper into male and female sections.

It's a weird thing. I think that one of the effects of crack is that it polarizes the sexes so there's a complete breakdown of trust and respect. Lonnie's weird introduction to crack is that he was very lonely in school and he could never get the sexy girls. Then when crack came along, he was able to provide them with drugs and he could get what he wanted from them, but there was always this sort of lingering contempt.

I think there needs to be some kind of systematic approach to the crack epidemic, because so many of the women end up on the streets and it's almost like there's a war between the sexes. It can't be treated as an individual problem, which is how it has been treated. And yeah, at one point during the making of the film we had sort of grouped together the interviews with the men and the women, but I think in the initial cuts the men were coming across much less sympathetically than they do now, because their position is a pretty tough one to accept. I was very concerned for people like Gary who said things like: “I just divorced, and yeah, I did things that I'm not proud of.” It was important to put that in the film because I didn't think that they were intrinsically bad, rather they were just in a situation where women are obviously incredibly exploitable.

I think with a lot of the guys whose marriages broke up, there was no permanence in their relationships and there was a contempt for the women in their lives. I think his friends are obviously very keen to distance themselves from murder or abuse. I don't get the feeling that Jerry was into abuse particularly, I think he was more into the crack and he was bringing women to Lonnie. He was probably very concerned about his proximity to the murders, and I think the others were too.

Some of the men that you interview are disturbingly funny. You often cut directly from those scenes to a string of interviews with Lonnie's victims, giving a sobering face to these women whom the men were just cracking jokes about.

Yes. Well, the women are very strong. Again, there are other things that I didn't include in the film. Jerry—the guy who was missing teeth who used to pick up women with Lonnie in the evening—he was horrified for example that Lonnie was so rude to his mother, because the mother is the big thing in the family unit. So there is that respect for women within the family, for the mothers.

People assign that same stereotype to Italian-American mobsters—that they have extremely close relationships with their mothers.

And completely contemptuous relationships with their molls, probably.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

You pass quickly over the polaroids that Lonnie took of different women, undressed and sometimes tied up. You spend more time on the police photographs of Lonnie, where he's cuffed and practically naked and he has to lift up his shorts and be photographed from every angle. Did you draw any connections between the polaroids and the photos of Lonnie? Both sets come across as particularly demeaning.

I guess he is a sort of captured animal at that point in time, but there was also just a quality about those polaroids [of the women] that really interested me. They're beautiful photographs in a lot of ways, and the detail in them is incredible. I thought the person who took them is actually a pretty good photographer. I guess they got a lot of practice. [We both laugh awkwardly; most likely for different reasons] Some of the people in the community found the police photographs of Lonnie quite distressing because they felt that they made Lonnie look like a slave on the block, and I think that's true.

Those photographs certainly have that weird feeling in them, and I don't think I intellectualized them in that way but I can still see it. You know, when all is said and done Lonnie is obviously a product of a weird system, and he was able to get away with the murders for so long because of that system, because these are all considered disposable people—himself included.

“NHI” or “No Humans Involved” is the acronym the LAPD supposedly use in reference to crimes against prostitutes, crack addicts, and other people who are poor and of ill repute. When Chris Franklin admits that detectives congratulated his father for “cleaning up the streets,” I thought of Aileen Wuornos, who also used the phrase “cleaning up the streets” in another one of your films—although she went so far as to allege that the police were encouraging her to murder her johns.

That's right. I mean, I do think that the LAPD think that way. Funnily enough, the only woman who's managed to have a series of interviews with Lonnie is this English journalist Victoria Redstall, who is kind of a police groupie—this blond girl from Surrey who managed to blag her way into the jail by saying that she knew Lonnie. She would go there once a week to see him for quite a long time, although I don't think he said anything particularly profound. She's somebody who is really close to the sheriff's department—all her best friends are sheriffs—and I did a couple of interviews with her. She didn't end up in the film, but I showed her a rough cut, and she told me that if you look at it from their point of view, the police kind of like Lonnie because he was somebody who was “cleaning up the streets” for them. They feel that they're there to protect and serve the tax-paying citizens of the city, not to deal with a bunch of people who take up all of their time and cause them problems, people who they re-arrest every two or three weeks. And that was a strand of the film that I worked on much more toward the end because I wanted obviously to make a film that I felt was accurate, but that wasn't in any way a conspiracy film. But when Christopher said, completely unannounced, “My father's got a lot of fans in the sheriff's department,” that carried a lot of weight for me, because I didn't ask him the question, he just came out with it.

The effect is devastating.

Yeah. And I don't think Christopher had any idea of the significance of what he was saying, he was just reporting a fact. And it gave what Victoria had said a lot of credibility. I then researched it a bit more, and there is quite a lot on the Internet about this phrase “NHI,” and I'd also met an ex-police chief from the Seattle area who wrote a pretty amazing book, in which he also writes about that phrase a lot. So it's not just the LAPD, it's pretty widespread. I think there is that feeling that they are kind of cleaning up the streets, and there is very little enthusiasm for solving those kinds of crimes.

Even Margaret Prescod says that a captain or someone on the force said: “Why do you care, they're prostitutes?” I'm assuming he meant, you're not a prostitute so don't worry about it, you're safe.

It's also probably the reason why the Los Angeles Times didn't publish some of the stories about the murders, because no one wanted to read about it and the story wouldn't sell newspapers.

You've made several films about almost every level of prostitution, from Chicken Ranch (83) to Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (95)…

Chicken Ranch became more like a portrait of a dysfunctional family. I think they're all different stories, they're all different films. Aileen was a prostitute too, but I guess they're very much on the edge of society, it's this sort of taboo thing. An awful lot is revealed about our society and our world by the people who are slightly on the edge of it, who invoke a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of prejudice.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

Are you working on anything new now?

I'm doing a four-part series for the BBC based on a book called The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett, who is a very political Irish writer. It's set in the Belgian Congo just at the time when everything collapsed, but it's really a love story between a rather cynical and disillusioned journalist in his forties and a very passionate girl, an Italian journalist who becomes involved in the cause. It's a very interior story about a main character who is full of self-loathing. Ronan is writing the script, but I think he's having lots of problems with it. I think it's sometimes hard for novelists to write scripts.

Is any of that story familiar to you?

Not to that extent. No. I went through a very short period of self-loathing. [Laughs] I think it's—no, no, not to that extent. In fact, I wrote the script because originally we were going to do it as a feature and I made the character a lot more likeable. What you can do in a series, and what we've seen in all of these series lately, is that you can really go into the darkness, really go into the contradictions of the character. So going back to the novel and getting all of that stuff out again is exciting. And shooting it in a completely subjective way thrills me. For instance, you're filming a dinner, but actually you're not because you're with this character, and then everything kind of comes to pieces because he's so wrapped up in himself, he finds himself completely on the wrong side, and on the other side of her, too, who he is obsessed with and has actually betrayed. Because the situation is so extreme, he suddenly has to engage with reality and take on a position, so he becomes a hero but in a rather peculiar way. It's interesting and very strange and I am excited by it, but I think it's going to be difficult getting it there.

Are you looking forward to directing another drama?

I am looking forward to this. It's taken me ages and ages, but it's a great excuse to go to the Congo, which I've always wanted to do. Of course, locations in the Congo are too crazy so I went to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, all over the shop—which Channel 4 paid for—to find the locations. Africa is an amazing continent. It's unbelievable, enormous, and full of dangerous things that want to kill you. It's sort of addictive. It took me ages to get a real through-line on how to direct it, but I think it's all about the interior monologue of this guy who's so involved with his self-loathing that when he arrives in Leopoldville he really doesn't engage properly. He's ostensibly there, but a lot of the time he's just watching people's lips and thinking about entirely different things and then his whole world goes completely to pieces.

Weren't you one of the first directors to shoot in Jordan with Battle for Haditha?

Yes. And now that's pretty commonplace. It's funny, my crew became like the crew from Mutiny on the Bounty. They were all married men with families back in England, and they all just stayed in Jordan. They went from my film, which was the first one, to Redacted, to The Hurt Locker—they all went blam, blam, blam! And they all ended up with Jordanian families and girlfriends. It was most peculiar.

Maybe you can initiate that in the Congo.

I think we're shooting that one in Tanzania.