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Nick Broomfield On Pissing Off the LAPD for ‘Tales of the Grim Sleeper’

Nick Broomfield On Pissing Off the LAPD for 'Tales of the Grim Sleeper'

British documentarian Nick Broomfield is known for tackling provocative subjects ranging from “Kurt & Courtney” to “Biggie & Tupac.” But while those movies engaged with mysterious events from the past, his latest non-fiction effort has more immediacy. Focusing on the legacy of the South Central serial killer known as the “Grim Sleeper,” Broomfield’s “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” takes place in the aftermath of killer Lonnie Franklin, Jr.’s 2010 arrest after he spent 25 years murdering dozens of women in a low income, mostly black neighborhood. Broomfield shows less interest in the reasons for Frankin’s crimes than the murderer’s ability to get away with them for so long, and places much of the blame a neglectful LAPD for turning a blind eye.

As with most of Broomfield’s work, the filmmaker is present on camera for much of his investigation, but largely cedes control to an assertive ex-prostitute named Pam who now works as an activist. The result is Broomfield’s most involving film in some time, a galvanizing look at communal unrest that doubles as a history of tensions between low income African American communities and beaurocatic officials stretching back several generations.

The only documentary in the New York Film Festival’s main slate, “Tales From the Grim Sleeper” airs on HBO early next year. Broomfield spoke to Indiewire about how the project changed over the course of his involvement with it.

The movie follows an erratic path: We know it’s about the Grim Sleeper early on, but only with time do you make it clear that you’re going to focus on the neglect that made his killing spree possible. How did you expectations for the project evolve?

One of the things I love about documentaries are the ones that are not from a pre-written script where people go out to prove something. There’s a whole school of documentary filmmaking that’s all carefully scripted, interview-based, with archive stuff in between and reenactments, an orchestrated score, beautifully-lit shots — kind of the antithesis of Pennebaker and Leacock. If you’re going to make a scripted film, or make a great series, fine, but don’t make something you call a documentary that’s really constructed — that doesn’t have that spontaneous energy, or that quest for reality. That’s what I like to see. Even if the film doesn’t work particularly well, as an audience member, you’re seeing this world that you don’t necessarily know anything about.

So you want the viewer to see your investigative process unfold in front of them.

Exactly. Those are the kind of films I like to make. With this one, I didn’t go in with a preconceived idea. I was interested in the overall subject because it seemed to be so amazing that somebody in the middle of Los Angeles was able to kill so many people for 25 years. It had barely made the press and when he was caught, he was caught by a computer. It wasn’t some Clouseau-like activity. No one seemed to give a shit. It was from that part of the city where it’s kind of like the barbarians from behind the gate. A wall has come down across the wealthier part of Los Angeles and the poor part. Up until the end of the seventies, there were a lot of great social welfare programs, reeducation programs, interesting medical centers that had gone in there to create a better world. There was much more interaction between the richer and poorer parts of the city. Then that funding all cut off and those kinds of people — caring people from the richer part of the city — never went in there. The crack epidemic started up. It’s still in existence there. It’s never been treated as a communicative problem. The community has been sort of abandoned.

How did this story come across your desk?

There were a couple of pieces about it. There was a very good Newsweek piece done after his arrest in 2010, which I think was the first thing I read. Then there was a series of articles that the journalist Christine Pelisek wrote in the L.A. Weekly, which were pretty comprehensive. They were very influential. In fact, I tried to get Christine involved in the film when we started, but she had her own project with Lifetime on the same subject. It came out last Easter. It’s much more the story of Christine and the LAPD. It’s not a story of the community. I don’t want to say too much about the film, but it’s much more about her forging the way.

Did that impact your production?

Not at all because it didn’t have anything to do with the community, which was what I was interested in. I was helped in a way by the fact that the place wouldn’t cooperate anyway. I was interested in the kind of characters who were close to Lonnie and had been a part of this world that had enabled the situation to occur.

We don’t see as much of you in the film as we have in some of your other work.

And I’m pleased about that. The Sarah Palin film [“Sarah Palin: You Betcha!”] was very difficult, because she wouldn’t take part or cooperate. If you’re making a film about somebody who doesn’t want to talk about what you want to talk about, you have to find a different way to tell that story. The only way I’ve been able to think of it is to be the thwarted character, to involve the audience in the attempt. Sometimes it’s painful and you get into these films too deep. You’re past the point of no return and have to carry on. The Sarah Palin film was a painful one to make. It’s no less work than this one, but it just didn’t go well. Some of my earlier films, when I created that style, it was fun to do. After I did “Driving Me Crazy” and “The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife,” it was creating a new form. Once I did that, it was fun to play around with it, because you’re making something different. By this stage, in this film, the people were very capable of talking for themselves. They didn’t need me talking for them. It would’ve been inappropriate for me to do that for them. So I really enjoyed taking much more of a backseat. It didn’t require much buffoonery. That’s always fun to do, but it wasn’t quite appropriate in this story. So the role is different depending on what’s required to tell the story.

You literally take a backseat once Pam, the ex-prostitute, takes charge.

That wasn’t planned in advance. Richard was at one point was supposed to be a bigger character than he is now. I kind of wanted to them to be the guides who were leading us through the story. They were the central characters who had the insights. They were the ones who enabled us to get into the community and meet people we otherwise would not have met. As the film is all about a community that had been abandoned, a very important part of it was the likability of the people — to create an empathy, an inroad and a perception, that actually these people are great, are getting a rough deal and deserve better.

How much did you have to push back against appearances? We see you at the start of the film encountering hostility from the community. But even as they grew accustomed to your presence, you couldn’t erase your status as a white British guy.

It’s all about whether people end up liking you or not. We went in with this comedian, Tiffany Haddish, who was a kind of local celebrity. She’d lived on the street next to Lonnie and is now a regular on the Kevin Hart Show.

You don’t mention that in the film.

No, because we didn’t really film her very much. But she was there that first day and people liked her. When people were calling me “peckerwood,” she’d go over and say, “Hey, guys, cool it.” She’s beautiful, 35, sassy. They all got into flirting with her more than wanting to bust my balls. From there, we met Pam and she took over. But your initial way in is your most important thing. So you’re not just two white guys who just start filming the most painful thing that’s ever happened on the street, which everyone’s feeling sore about anyway. Tiffany is very engaging and lovely, so that was sort of perfect. Although I did lose my first cameraman, who got freaked out. He left.

Because he felt unsafe?

Yeah. He just felt completely rattled. Then my son happened to take over. I thought it was completely safe. I never felt worried. If people see that you’re not worried, you’re open, not being judgement, they enjoy hanging out with you.

Did anyone discover your filmography as you went along?

Only one of the detectives, who had seen “Biggie & Tupac.” I guess he’d seen it because it’s about the LAPD, and his partner had written a book about the same topic. So he’d seen some of my films, but I think the police very quickly felt we were the enemy.

When did that start?

I remember we were filming with Enietra Washington, who’s the sole survivor [of the Grim Sleeper], who’d been shot and had been a police witness. Enietra had crawled a couple of blocks and wound up at this friend’s house. We’d tried to interview the friend, so the first time I went there with Tiffany and she was charming, so they said they’d think about taking part in the film. Then I didn’t hear anything from them. Then I arrived at their doorstep with Enietra herself. They kind of went ballistic, saying, “Who are you, anyway? The first time you come here with a bloody comedian, and the next time with the sole surviving witness of a serial killer! Fuck off!” So they said they were going to call the D.A. And they told him Broomfield was bringing comedians around. I think the LAPD was just furious that I was talking to Enietra.

Certainly on some level the film does position the police as the enemy. How do you think the police force could do its job better?

As the Ferguson case pointed out, you need to have a police force that is representative of and sensitive to the wishes of the community. You can’t operate as an alien force that represents the political desires of Beverly Hills politicians. You need to serve the community that you’re a part of and build up positive relationships with that community — and understand the priorities and needs of the community. You can’t treat them like non-humans, which is what is happening in South Central, in Ferguson, in most inner city areas.

And you think this film could help change that?

Well, I’d like it to at least contribute to that debate. It’s just a logical thing that needs to happen. It’s so inefficient at the moment. You’ve got a community of talented people. Some work needs to happen, but sending them off to prison, which is so expensive and inefficient, makes no sense. Then you have a police force so out of touch with the community they can’t function properly. They can’t do even the most elementary things because no one trusts them. There’s no logic as to why you would trust them. So I think the film should be able to contribute to a debate and change in that way.

Was the Trayvon Martin case going on during your production?

Yes, that was certainly happening. This community was very involved with that case — the political arm of the community, anyway. If you’re on crack you’re not necessarily aware of what’s going on. People like Pam knew about the case. I think people were influenced by that. I think the time is good for people to gather around this issue and move it to a different place.

READ MORE: Telluride Review: Nick Broomfield’s Powerful ‘Tales of the Grim Sleeper’ Puts a Serial Killer in Unique Light

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