Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, is about two things. First – but not foremost – it’s about the so-called Grim Sleeper, a serial killer who murdered 100-plus women over two decades (the exact figure is still unknown, but to give you some perspective, Ted Bundy murdered 30-plus women). Second, it’s about South Central, LA, an area where laws, apparently, differ from the rest of the city.
I spoke to Nick Broomfield about people’s misconceptions about South Central, how these murders went on for over twenty years without the local community being alerted, and why the LAPD ostensibly didn’t give a crap about solving the case.
GFW: How do you think the case of the grim sleeper ranks historically among other serial killers – like, say, Ted Bundy?
Nick Broomfield: Well, it remains to be seen because the main trail hasn’t really happened yet. This was somebody who probably killed far more people than Ted Bundy. Maybe the two of them shared a certain charm. Also, I think there’s a belief among certain serial killers that they’re somehow doing society a favour: that they’re ridding them of people that are socially undesirable in some way.
It remains to be seen how many people Lonnie Franklin did murder; 200 women disappeared in Los Angeles in that 25-year period. Obviously they’re not all at the hands of Lonnie Franklin, but I think his murders are almost a sort of genocide that happened in Los Angeles.
But in terms of kills, he seems like he’ll go down – eventually – as more notorious perhaps.
I think so. And also because he was allowed to just get on with it. I’m not saying the police knew it was him; I think they just didn’t care. In fact a lot of them were pleased that it was happening because it was the very people they didn’t want to be dealing with – the gang members, the prostitutes, the 'socially undesirable' – who he was killing, and they just didn’t bother following up on them.
Did you initially think you would frame the story around the idea that Lonnie Franklin might not be guilty?
When his friends at the beginning said “we think he’s innocent” I was obviously interested. When you read the grand jury document, there seemed to be incontrovertible DNA evidence that he was responsible for these murders. At the press conference it was pretty outrageous before the trial and everything; they just said “we’ve got the guy responsible for these murders”.
If you grew up in Los Angeles you’re taught not to go to South Central; you’re taught that the bogeyman lives down there and terrible things will happen to you.
When you first go into that neighborhood, you get some verbal abuse. Did you think twice about going into that area with a boom and a camera?
In a way I wasn’t that surprised. I was asking questions about what’s probably the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened in that street and I guess they were tired of journalists coming round and asking exactly the same questions. It was only when they realized I was going to be around longer and was hanging around with members of the community, that I was taken more seriously.
But in terms of the neighborhood itself, which seems quite sketchy, were you scared?
I wasn’t really. Partly because I’ve made a lot of these kinds of films. I think before you go in you always expect the worst; you imagine yourself being shot down in the street, and all those awful images you can drum up when you’re lying in bed at night. But then when you get down there and you meet the people, you realize all they really want to do is tell their story, and they’re not particularly different from anybody else.
One of the things that happened when I was making the film was a lot of my friends who – because the city is so segregated they’ve never been to South Central – realized that actually there are pretty decent people down there, people who are articulate, intelligent, fun to hang out with. If you grew up in Los Angeles you’re taught not to go to South Central; you’re taught that the bogeyman lives down there and terrible things will happen to you. It’s like, don’t go into the woods and play.
Is it true your first cameraman quit for those reasons?
Yeah, my cameraman left after four days. Which is how I came to work with my son [Barney Broomfield].
Was it easier or harder, working with your son?
Well, we get on incredibly well and we love each other. But we do have terrible arguments sometimes so we were a bit worried.
You never feared for his or your safety?
No. If I really thought it was dangerous I would have never asked him to take part. But I really believe that people have a story that they want to tell, and just because it’s a part of town that’s been completely neglected and no one cares about, I think all these stories and this rumour about its reputation has been allowed to build up.
If these murders had taken place in Beverly Hills, how would it be different?
If there had been just two murders in Beverly Hills the whole place would have been locked down. I think there’s no way this would have happened. If you think of the murders that happened in Westwood, where a couple of students got shot in a drive-by by mistake – it was a gang shootout, the whole place got closed down, the whole city got closed down. The papers didn’t have anything in them other than those incidents for weeks. It was like, gang violence comes to Westwood. But when you think of the 200 women who’ve disappeared in South Central, LA: this barely made it into the LA times.
If this had happened in Beverly Hills, they would have brought in the FBI, they would have brought in massive machinery and power to deal with it. This was not a priority. There was no real attempt made to get to the bottom of what had happened. This wasn’t prioritized, the victims were viewed as non-human beings.
Shockingly, most cases were labeled as NHI, meaning “no human involved”. Do the officials stand by that description?
Politically, they’ve found a different way of addressing this. I think the same mentality is there. But I think no one would dare use that particular acronym. It was part of the police glossary at one point but I think that’s changed.
Were you conscious of the film’s thriller potential – you being a sort of P.I. character?
Yes. I think these films work best when they have a thriller dimension to them and I think it’s a great way of holding an audience. I think that element of a whodunit is so compelling. Even though the main question was not “did Lonnie Franklin do it or not do it?” there is still that thriller element and I think it’s a really powerful storytelling device.
When you approach people for the first time, you have the camera rolling already, which seems like a risky move. Do you always do it that way or do you sometimes go in unarmed as it were?
I do. I mean, I’m one of those people who likes to make documentaries that aren’t all scripted and pre-planned; I think the difference between documentary and fiction is that documentary is shooting off the hoof and getting all those very spontaneous reactions that you don’t get a second time. Once you’ve gone in and met somebody you can’t really recreate that, and often the most important things they say are in the first three minutes so I would tend to regard making these films as a bit like writing a diary.
I have a golden rule, which is I don’t ask people to do things twice. I don’t say to people “oh, can you say that again and say it with more” something or other. I don’t direct people.
Does your rule extend to things like editing as well? This film has a few long takes.
I’ve always liked long takes because I think films feel a lot less manipulated. Uninterrupted time – ten or five or three minutes – can tell you a massive amount about a particular person. It’s not about quick cutting, particularly in documentaries, it’s about showing an audience what it’s like to be with this person for three to five minutes.
I think a lot of filmmakers are very insecure. They don’t trust the attention span of the audience and they don’t trust the interest of their subject, and this is a real problem. I think you have to try and believe in your subject and tell a story in such a way that you really involve an audience in that. It’s not the end result that’s important; it’s the description of them and how they get to it that is often most fascinating. So it’s not all about the conclusion.
Follow Oliver on Twitter: @OliverLunn
'Tales of the Grim Sleeper' is released on 30 January.