By ROCCO T. THOMPSON
Now available from RLJE Films, NO MAN OF GOD stars Elijah Wood (Maniac) as Bill Hagmaier, the real-life FBI agent who got one of the most notorious serial killers in American history, Ted Bundy, to open up about his crimes. Also starring Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), directed by Amber Sealey (No Light and No Land Anywhere) and written by Kit Lesser with Wood and Hagmaier himself producing, NO MAN OF GOD presents a fascinating, unvarnished and non-exploitative look at the criminal’s final years on death row.
We sat down with Wood to discuss the film’s production, what it was like having a legendary FBI profiler as a resource, and why he felt it was important to have a female director heading up the project.
You and your producing partners had been trying to get NO MAN OF GOD made for a while. What compelled you about this story in particular?
I’ve been interested in true crime for a long time. Right before we started shooting this, I found my old copy of [the] Time Life book of serial killers with Ted Bundy on the cover. So, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading about and watching interviews with Ted Bundy and other serial killers, just having the same curiosity that we still have with that subject matter. So, that was the initial kind of, “Oh fuck, that’s interesting.” But then, even further, it’s the story about Ted on death row and his relationship with Bill Hagmaier, this FBI profiler. It’s a story I wasn’t familiar with. It was, obviously, an extremely significant one for Ted in that Ted considered Bill to be his best friend. And then, the film was largely comprised of these interviews, these meetings over the course of four years, which is so structurally interesting. There were no flashbacks, there was no depiction of his murders. It was just these conversations and one person looking to understand the why and the other person, Ted, trying desperately to evade death. So, it’s a combination of those elements that [made] such a compelling, exciting, and powerful script, and an angle on the Ted Bundy story that I [hadn’t] heard before. It felt so unique.
So much of it is just you and Luke Kirby locked in and sharing the screen. Are scenes like those something of a rare gift for you as an actor?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it felt, at times, like we were making a play. You just sit in a room and work prior to the shooting. And Amber, myself, and Luke met on Zoom on a number of occasions and just worked through each of the scenes structurally. What’s being said? What’s behind what’s being said? When are there sort of shifts in the dynamic of the scene? When is there a power shift? And we’re just kind of working out all these details in a really interesting sort of script analysis way. It was really fun.
Then taking that, all of that sort of planning and putting that on its feet in the room with another actor, was awesome. So fun and challenging and exhilarating and scary because there’s so much fucking dialogue! [Laughs]
That’s tough, right?
It was a lot of work, but it was really gratifying too. So, yeah, to your point, just engaging in that creative process, almost, you’re sort of on stage or in a play [but] it’s really distilling the filmmaking process down to its barest elements. It was really gratifying.
Bill Hagmaier also produced and worked closely with the cast. What was it like having him as a resource?
So incredibly valuable, and we are so grateful to him to have availed himself so much to us. The only regret that I have is that we shot the movie last September under COVID compliance and he couldn’t visit, and we couldn’t go back East to spend any time with him. That’s my only regret. I just would’ve loved to have sat down with him for hours and heard stories and gotten to know him more. So, I still look forward to that eventually.
Beyond that, we got to speak to him on the phone, ask him questions. Amber emailed him constantly and he always provided answers to her questions. Luke spoke to him as well about Ted. I mean, it was extremely vital to have him a part of the process and to be so forthcoming informationally, and also to have his blessing was incredible, really important.
Did you have access to all of the archival recordings?
Yes. There were hours of interviews with Bill, and then there’s hours of interviews with Ted. Tons of that. So, yeah, we had access to everything, which is kind of incredible, an amazing resource. And then also recognizing how truly accurate the script really was. Just amazing to sort of see stories retold in interviews and then, that’s exactly how it is in the script. There was a lot of detail, a lot of detail, for sure.
Can you speak a bit about having Amber Sealey on as director? It seems like an important aspect of the film considering Bundy’s targeting of women.
She brought so much, and it felt really important that the movie be made by a woman. Plenty of space has been given for Ted over the years. As is often the case with any serial killer, the serial killer tends to get the attention, not the victims. So, it was really important to have a woman’s perspective. And she brought so much to it. I mean, the montage sequences were her idea. This idea of bringing in archival footage that could articulate the era, the sort of male-female relationships on the more toxic side from the era. Also, articulating, in a sort of interpretive way, Bill’s internal journey throughout the film. Those were really integral in the storytelling and the dynamics and structure of the film. Also, just giving [the audience] a break from the prison. We’re sort of in that prison for so much of the film, so [it’s] a way to get out.
And then this idea of having women sort of peppered throughout the film as these silent observers was also her idea. Bill listening to the audiotapes at the beginning of the movie and the woman pulling up and being disgusted by what she hears. One of my favorite moments of the film actually is the sort of camera assistant listening to Ted talk about these heinous things, and the camera just slowly zooms in on her as she has this really emotional reaction. It’s just really a lovely texture that’s sort of…it’s not the victims’ voices, but it kind of gives a presence in a really interesting, experimental and beautiful way.
As a horror magazine, we obviously have some overlapping interests with true crime junkies, but we’re always having this discussion about what’s appropriate versus exploitative. And I think the film really gets to the heart of that. How and where do you draw that line as a viewer and producer?
In terms of content, that’s a really good question. I know that I differ, for instance, with my producing partner on this. I sometimes think provocation is actually interesting as it pertains to cinema. I think about people like Gaspar Noé, for instance, or Lars von Trier that make deeply provocative movies to provoke. I actually think there’s a real space for that, and I think that’s interesting, and I appreciate that.
I think, where it goes too far is when exploitation is in service of itself, where it’s just exploitation but there’s nothing else gleaned from it. I think that’s sort of the line that I draw. I think gore and violence and even provocation [are] okay as long as it’s in service of something meaningful. If it’s not meaningful or you can’t take something away from it, then I don’t really think there’s a place for it that much. Now, having said that, we all take in a lot of horror. I’ve seen a lot of horror that has gore for gore’s sake, and I love those movies too because they’re super fun! They all have a place. I’m not particularly interested in making those movies. I think I draw a line to, and this era’s kind of over, but the sort of torture porn era where it’s just, “How grotesque can we make it? How much can we fuck people over and just watch them squirm?” I can only take so much of that because it’s sort of a little nihilistic and, again, it’s not really in service of anything bigger. But I have more of a stomach for that kind of thing than I think one of my producing partners does. I like some provocation. For instance, I think Climax is fucking incredible. It’s a very uncomfortable movie, and I do actually like the idea of making people uncomfortable. And again, as long as there’s a good reason for it.
Cinema is ultimately about eliciting a reaction, and the thing that’s really exciting and vital about genre cinema, and horror specifically, is that its whole design is to sort of scare or disturb. It’s supposed to elicit an emotional reaction, and I like that about it. I think that’s also what’s interesting. It’s sort of part of the tools that you have to wield. So, I think everybody has their limits, and I do definitely think there are lines to be drawn for sure.
NO MAN OF GOD is now in theaters and on demand and digital.