For over two decades, Lonnie Franklin (dubbed the “Grim Sleeper”) terrorized South Los Angeles, brutally killing prostitutes before getting caught in 2010. While murders were reported throughout the years, law enforcement was generally quiet about most of them, withholding information from the public, and not issuing so much as a warning to those he explicitly targeted. His friends, wife, and kids didn’t have a clue what he was up to.
Nick Broomfield’s documentary, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” (read our review), picks up the story right after Lonnie is arrested, exploring the community the man lived in and those he left in his wake. The movie investigates why Franklin was able to get away with this dangerous behavior for so long, but its interest mainly lies with the people surrounding the killer, lending an compassionate eye to the casualties of both a psychopath and a system that discarded them long ago.
Tender and cogent, “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” packs a wallop and happens to be one of the most humanistic films we’ve seen in a long time. Director Broomfield was kind enough to sit down with us during the 2014 New York Film Festival to chat about his movie, which you can see now via HBO.
What made you want to make this story into a documentary?
I heard about the story around the time of Lonnie’s arrest. In LA, it’s strange that there are actually two cities — the super wealthy one and the other city which you don’t go into, where the poor people live — and there’s a complete abandonment of that part of the city. They don’t interact at all. Lonnie’s case bizarrely shows what happens when you abandon a people and they’re no longer a functional part of the community. You get these kind of situations where it is possible for someone in a 25 year period to kill probably over a 100 people and not be caught by a police force because those people are not a political priority. So I thought it was fascinating and I wanted to meet Lonnie’s friends and the other people in the community because I wanted to put a human face on this situation.
How do you feel about documentary filmmaking picking up the slack where both law enforcement and journalism have failed?
I think documentaries are so good at creating empathy between an audience and situations that they don’t know anything about. There’s this real belief that people in South Central are like the bogeymen, that if you go there you’re going to get shot. And I think what I like about a film is that these people come across as charismatic likable people, you have empathy for them, and they deserve a better deal than what they’ve been getting. And I think that’s first and foremost what the film does. I think what the documentary does in terms of finding information that the police should’ve done just sort of underlines the fact that the police force is completely inefficient. They have no respect in the community. They are not responding to the needs and wishes of that community. They are responding to the political priorities to another part of the city, not the needs of those people who are living in poverty and drug addiction. They are not served by the police force that represent them.
Do you think things will change?
A lot of people have been disenfranchised because they have prior convictions, but they need, like the people in Ferguson, to take the political position and make sure they have representatives that represent what they want. They need to be more organized on a political level. But that is only really going to happen when some money is thrown at it and there’s a real attempt to reintegrate that city back into greater Los Angeles and use the people and not just pack them all up to prison, which is such an inefficient and expensive use of people.
Are you optimistic about a change for the better?
I think that there will be change. What we saw with the Trayvon Martin case and the Ferguson case is a need to change and redefine many things about those kinds of communities, the police force being part of it. I think one has to be optimistic that there can be change, because the current situation is unacceptable, inefficient and expensive. It just doesn’t serve anyone’s priorities.
The structure of the film feels extremely natural — as if it starts right when you first turned the camera on and continues from there. Was this always the case? Did the film go through any different paths? (Potential Spoilers Below)
Initially we saw the whole thing as the separation of the sexes, so we tried to reflect that in the structure of the film by having the women first and the men later, but it didn’t really work. It seemed that there were two quite separate stories — Pam’s (an ex-prostitute who helps Broomfield find Lonnie’s surviving victims) story, very much about the women and the women’s plight, and then there was a contradictory side of the men who worked closely with Lonnie and shared many of his feelings about women but also felt a great deal of guilt about the reality that they were very close to someone who would kill women. The structure fell into place once I realized that the interview with the surviving women had to be at the end of the film.
It’s a really touching, powerful ending. I can’t imagine it coming at any other point.
We had it in the middle of the film for awhile and I guess just dramatically it was impossible to follow it, really, because it was so devastating.
It’s interesting how much his friends change throughout the film. At first they wholeheartedly defend Lonnie’s innocence, but then think back and see things in a new light. And even admit to some troubling things.
I think Gary and Jerry had a pretty misogynistic attitude towards women, but they were also essentially kind people who weren’t proud of what they’ve done. The arrest of Lonnie and the belief that he was responsible for these killings made them very troubled about their own roles I think. So it’s quite a complicated story with them and it was important to get out all those strands. You can’t portray them as terrible people, which is a really easy thing to do and, in fact, was coming out in many earlier cuts.
Were you disappointed that you didn’t get an interview with Lonnie’s wife?
I let her know through a few people that I wanted to talk to her and she had my phone number, but I didn’t want to go further than that. I wasn’t prepared to harass her. I thought she was tortured already and going through a great deal of pain.
I wonder how much she could even comment about the case. They didn’t appear to be close.
I think her story is very complicated because she wasn’t really living in the house with Lonnie, she had a second home of her own. She was probably trying to make a separation between them but trying to be around for the kids, you know? I guess I felt the pain and I felt Christopher, their son’s pain. When you’re making these films, it’s important to not allow your enthusiasm for the film to contribute to their pain by pressuring them beyond what is really acceptable. Maybe at an earlier age I would’ve just went up to her when I saw her on the street, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.
Yes, that’d be really exploitative, but it must also be a fine line because you can’t always know what is going a bit too far when interviewing someone about something really personal.
I think you have to be sensitive to your own feelings or comforts, or what’s justifiable or what you think isn’t. She hadn’t talked to anyone, and I talked to journalists through the LA Times who put phone calls in through her job and she just screamed and put the phone down. So I figured you have to believe that there’s some chance that they’ll respond positively if you get them, but you can’t torture them in the name of trying to find out about torture. I think we were lucky to get Chris.
I was surprised.
Yeah, and I think his torture comes across pretty clearly.
So this is going to go on HBO, which has been great for documentaries and will be a great platform to get this story out there, but are you going to miss a traditional theatrical run?
I think we’re doing theatrical as well. I’m not sure how that’s going to work out, but there are some possibilities. I want to do some grassroots work with it and show it in the community and generate some discussion, hopefully to try and get some change going.
What are you thoughts on the current landscape for exhibiting films?
HBO is great and really supportive. They’re really behind the film. And it’s always great to get some form of theatrical release. It’s a lot harder now than it ever has been. You don’t get a lot of people willing to drop some money on a theatrical campaign because it’s so expensive and they probably won’t get their money back. And obviously Netflix and all those digital platforms are very much the area in which a lot of people where people expect to see documentaries now. Most of the films I made when I was starting were all shown theatrically, but there were chains that would do it. There were much more open communities for it. But I think this film lends itself to a grassroots screening, that sort of thing. I’m talking to Margaret Prescod of the Black Coalition to set up some screenings around, so we’ll see what happens.