‘Confronting a Serial Killer’ Director Aims to Expose ‘Dark Forces’ With True Crime Stories
A few years ago, before director-producer Joe Berlinger embarked upon making a docu series and narrative feature about Ted Bundy, he asked his daughters what they knew about the serial killer. Both were college-aged and “the prototypical Bundy victim,” he says, and neither one of them knew who Bundy was, let alone the extent of his crimes.
Although he was already seeing pushback on such projects, with many wondering why serial killers should get such large platforms, Berlinger felt it was important to make “people aware that this stuff really happens,” he says. “You can’t remind people enough that there are dark forces out there that one needs to guard against.”
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That was part of the motivation for Berlinger doing the 2019 Netflix docu-series “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and 2019 scripted feature film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” starring Zac Efron as Bundy.
The same belief fueled his work on “Confronting a Serial Killer,” his new five-part docuseries for Starz that follows author Jillian Lauren’s attempt to match cold cases to serial killer Samuel Little. Debuting two years after his duo of Bundy projects, Berlinger admits the criticism the genre has received was never far from his mind while making this new series, but what made it worth putting a killer in the spotlight was the lens through which he would be seen.
“For me, the whole reason to do the show was to do it through Jillian’s point of view and to make it a very victim-focused show,” Berlinger tells Variety. “It’s shining a light on decades of a system that does not value a certain kind of victim.”
Samuel Little was a career criminal who was first arrested on small charges, such as theft, before eventually admitting to and being convicted of murder. His first murder charge came in 1982, and while he was not indicted for that crime, he was transferred to a different state’s jurisdiction to be tried for another woman’s murder concurrently. He was ultimately acquitted in that later case because the witnesses were not trusted.
Eventually he was convicted for murders that took place in 1987, 1989 and 1994 — but not until 2012 for those first two and 2018 for the third. During his time talking to Lauren he confessed to many more crimes, and before he died in December 2020 he was claiming to have killed 93 women.
Little preyed upon women — primarily women of color, sex workers and drug addicts, or some combination of those three things, and that is why Berlinger feels he was able to get away with what he was doing for so long, and why he wanted to shine a light on the “built-in racial and gender bias in our criminal justice system.”
“He was a guy who the police arrested, paid attention to for the petty crimes, but their suspicions that he was mainly preying upon Black sex workers, that’s where the indifference came in: law enforcement did not feel compelled to bring him off the street because the victims were victims who were of lower priority,” Berlinger says.
Laurie Barros was, unfortunately, one such victim. The woman had participated in sex work so when she took the stand to testify that Little abducted and strangled her in the mid-1980s, she wasn’t seen as credible, simply because of her part-time profession. Decades later, Berlinger filmed interviews with her for “Confronting a Serial Killer” and also captured a present-day sit-down with prosecutor Gary Rempel, during which he displays these same biases.
“That scene was so staggering and we actually took it easy on him,” Berlinger says. “We didn’t plan for this; we didn’t know that conversation was going to go this way. Laurie asked to meet with [him]. It was one of the most uncomfortable scenes I’ve ever filmed because I didn’t want to re-traumatize Laurie. The revealing of the biases, even after the camera was turned off, he still doesn’t realize what he said. And that’s the danger. There is this institutional bias about certain kinds of people that has affected all levels of society.”
The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have helped provide cultural awakenings and therefore have reshaped the way people think about how crime stories are told. Berlinger points out that in the case of Little, “it took strong women to hold this monster accountable.” He cites the work of Lauren, LAPD Det. Mitzi Roberts, Los Angeles deputy D.A. Beth Silverman and some of the surviving victims such as Barros.
Lauren, whose first book was a memoir about her time in a harem, “is a very empathetic person,” Berlinger notes. That empathy fueled her wanting to solve cases and get closure for surviving family members, as well as to understand the motive behind Little’s actions. This sees the story detour into tales of childhood neglect and possible inappropriate familial relations as a young adult. Her empathy also helped Little open up to her and admit to crimes he had spent years denying, Berlinger continues. The docuseries records many of Lauren’s conversations with Little, who was in prison at the time, and shows the drawings he sent her of his various victims.
“Jillian is so committed to continuing to match. There’s still several dozen unmatched cases, and her deal with the devil, as she says in the show, was she would continue to communicate with him until he died. He thought he had a friend and she thought she had this perverse deal with the devil that was a vehicle to get information for her book and more importantly to solve the cases,” Berlinger says.
Little’s death in December came after Berlinger had already turned in cuts of “Confronting a Serial Killer” to Starz and the rollout plan for the show (debuting at SXSW and then premiering on linear in early 2021) was already set. The only thing that changed was that he added a title card at the end of the finale episode to mention Little’s death.
While he shares that Little’s death “created a lot of emotional drama for everyone” involved in the series, he admits he did not consider adding anything else to the show to respond to it.
“His death was disappointing to all of us because aesthetically it would be a compelling ending for her to be stuck with this deal with the devil. It’s probably a less-impactful ending when you know he’s died [and] that deal with the devil has ended,” he says.
But on a personal level when it comes to Lauren, “I’m actually happy for her that he’s dead,” he continues. “It was such a dark journey.”
“Confronting a Serial Killer” premieres April 18 at 9 p.m. on Starz.
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