The Other Bill and Ted

No Man of God director Amber Sealey talks to Dominic Corry about her Ted Bundy two-hander and answers our Life in Film questions.

It was important to me that all that production-design stuff was really authentic. I liked to know, like, ‘what were your haircuts like then, Bill?’” —⁠Amber Sealey on FBI agent Bill Hagmaier. 

Amber Sealey has been very acknowledging of the fact that her new film is one of many to center around the horrific crimes of serial rapist and murderer Ted Bundy. As she outlined in her Tribeca Q&A with Letterboxd, one way she intended No Man of God to stick out from the pack was through the use of consciously silent background characters who represent Bundy’s voiceless victims.

The structure and source of the film also help distinguish it from other Ted Bundy movies: No Man of God is based on the recordings of FBI agent Bill Hagmaier (played in the film by Elijah Wood), who was tasked with interviewing an incarcerated Bundy in the years leading up to his execution, in order to help determine whether or not he was criminally insane, which could’ve helped to remove Bundy from death row.

With many of Bundy’s victims never officially attributed to the killer, Hagmaier also sought to draw confessions, and something resembling remorse, out of Bundy, to help bring closure to those victims’ families. As detailed in the film, much of which was taken directly from transcripts of the interviews, Bundy and Hagmaier’s relationship was complicated, and the intimacy that develops between them informs No Man of God in often uncomfortable ways.

Luke Kirby and Elijah Wood in a scene from No Man of God.
Luke Kirby and Elijah Wood in a scene from No Man of God.

Wood (also a producer on the film) and Luke Kirby turn in career-high work as Hagmaier and Bundy, respectively, while Sealey textures the film with some of the most emotive stock-footage montage sequences this side of The Parallax View. Among positive reactions to the film, Claira Curtis, in a four-star review, writes: “Perhaps one of the most successful elements lies in Amber Sealey’s uncentering of the ‘genius’ moniker that has followed Bundy through his years of infamy.” On the pairing of Wood and Kirby in the leading roles, Connor Ashdown-Ford notes that “the chemistry between them both is so authentic it’s darn right unsettling”.

Unsettling is right. Late in the film, Sealey depicts a real-life TV interview that took place between Bundy and evangelical preacher/​author/​psychologist James Dobson (played by stalwart character actor Christian Clemonson), who uses Bundy to forward his anti-pornography agenda. Throughout this scene, the camera lingers on a young female member of the TV crew (played by an uncredited Hannah Jessup) as she silently reacts to being in Bundy’s presence. Emblematic of Sealey’s aforementioned philosophy in constructing the film, it’s a moment that appears to be having an impact on audiences, as detailed in Nolan Barth’s review: “She might have one of my favorite performances of this year? She shows us fascination, guilt, disgust and fear in like only 30 seconds of screen time. Give her an Oscar. Please.”

In an awkward incident that represents a perhaps unanticipated effect of there being so many contemporaneous movies with the same subject matter, director Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, the Paradise Lost trilogy), who recently directed both the Zac Efron-starring scripted Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and the documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, sent an email to Sealey ahead of No Man of God’s Tribeca premiere about remarks she had made while discussing how her film differentiated itself from the existing Ted Bundy movies. He felt she had accused him of glorifying Bundy. After Sealey took the exchange public, she explained to Variety that she had never singled out Berlinger’s films in any of her remarks.

In a conversation with Letterboxd, Sealey delves into her approach to No Man of God, and talks about some of her filmic inspirations.

No Man of God director Amber Sealey.
No Man of God director Amber Sealey.

There is really effective and creepy use of stock-footage montages in this film. Sometimes you see that sort of thing at the beginning of a film, but it’s interesting that you keep going back to them after using them in the opening credits. What was the thinking in using those montages and how did you select the footage?
Amber Sealey: The thinking for those was a couple things: One, we don’t leave the prison, and I wanted [the audience] to know a little bit what’s going on outside, in terms of the cultural zeitgeist, like what’s the tone of the time? What movies are popular? What books are popular? What are people wearing? I wanted to have there be a kind of cultural touchstone outside of the prison, but at the same time I wanted it to represent potentially a little bit of what was going on inside Bill’s mind. So the story of the montages as they go on, it gets a little bit more fucked up, for lack of a better word, for Bill, inside of his head.

We were originally going to shoot the crowd scenes [of protesters outside the prison] and recreate them and then because of Covid restrictions, we couldn’t do that anymore. So then I knew we were going to be using archival footage for the crowd, and I didn’t want the archival crowd footage to suddenly jump out as being so different from the rest of our film. We’re shooting on an ARRI camera, [so it’s] not going to look like a Hi-8 from the 1980s. I needed to incorporate this look, this ’80s grainy look into the rest of the movie so that it feels like it’s part and parcel of the film, part of the storytelling.

We got [the footage] in different ways. I have an old friend that I’ve known since I was like, two, he lived next door to me, and my cousin, they both had video cameras in the ’80s and would film everything. So some of that footage is old family footage of their family or friends. There’s a couple shots in there of my neighbors when I was growing up. Then some of it, we did a lot of research on [stock-imagery services] Getty and Pond5, just finding archival footage that we could use that really told the story that we wanted to tell with the montages. It was a lengthy process finding all of that footage for sure.

What was Bill Hagmaier’s involvement in the film?
Bill is an executive producer on the film, so he was very involved. The transcripts of those conversations between Bill and Ted, we got from Bill. Bill gave us so much great stuff to work with—the newer FBI files that he was allowed to share with us and the recordings, and when the script was originally written it was written based off of those recordings, and the writer originally spoke to Bill and then when I came on board, I talked to him and then I changed the script, even more from conversations I had with him. He was just a resource.

Almost every [character] you see on screen, those are real people, and he hooked us up with a lot of those real people. I spoke with the prison guards and the wardens and all of that. Then he was just a resource in terms of like, I would ask him, “what color were your shoes?” “Did you carry this kind of briefcase or that kind of briefcase?” Because it was important to me that all that production-design stuff was really authentic. I liked to know, like, “what were your haircuts like then, Bill?” So he was available to talk about the emotional side of things, and then the real just humdrum kind of things. He’s just a lovely guy, he’s really supportive of me and of the film and he just wanted to be accessible as much as he could and he was. He’s a very humble, generous person.

Aleksa Palladino plays civil-rights attorney Carolyn Lieberman to Luke Kirby’s Ted Bundy.
Aleksa Palladino plays civil-rights attorney Carolyn Lieberman to Luke Kirby’s Ted Bundy.

What films did you watch, or cite as reference points in preparation for No Man of God?
Literally hundreds and hundreds of movies. When I’m looking for my creative look, I just watched so many films, and a lot of old films. I’d have to go back and look at my look book to tell you all of them but I pull images from the weirdest places. But once I get past figuring out the creative look of the film, I don’t then like to watch the movies a lot because I try to really make it its own thing and I worry too much that I’ll be copycatting other artists and I want to try [to] avoid that.

What’s your favorite true-crime movie?
Oh god, what was the one about the guy who like, went to the bathroom and confessed, accidentally? He forgot his mic was on? Do you remember that one?

The Jinx?
Yeah. Even though it’s a documentary, I’m going to go with that.

What’s your favorite big-screen serial-killer performance?
It has to be Luke Kirby. Luke Kirby as Bundy.

What was the first horror film you saw?
My dad had me watch Cat People when I was nine. Does that count?

The Val Lewton one?
The ’80s one.

Oh, the Paul Schrader one?
Yes! The Paul Schrader one.

Nastassja Kinski in Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982).
Nastassja Kinski in Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982).

When you were nine years old?
Yeah. I also watched Blue Velvet when I was nine. Oh wow, thank you Dad.

What’s the most disturbing film you’ve ever seen?
Most disturbing, hmm… Kids.

What film made you want to become a filmmaker?
It was Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs. My first film was a reaction to that movie. I’m a huge Winterbottom fan. That’s a great movie, but also it advertises itself as being a real relationship and real sex and I watched it and I was like, well that’s not like any… it was like two models, you know? Their sex scenes were like a perfume ad and I was like, well that’s not what real sex looks like for real people. I made my first feature after that.

What’s your go-to comfort movie?
Oh, so many, let’s think. The Proposal. I love Trainwreck. I really like rom-coms, like if I’m sick or something, I’ll watch rom-coms. Roman Holiday, stuff like that.

What’s a classic that you couldn’t get into or that you think is overrated?
Umm. Star Wars. I’m trying to think, there’s something else that I just don’t like… everyone loves that singing movie. What’s that singing movie that when Moonlight won the Oscar, it got announced?

La La Land.
Yeah. I was not into that.

What filmmaker living or dead do you envy/admire the most?
Yorgos Lanthimos. Or Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

If you were forced to remake a classic movie, what would you remake?

Who would be in the cast of your Grease remake?
Oh I don’t even know but it would be much darker. It would still be a musical and still be funny, but much darker.

I would like to see that movie.
I would too.

No Man of God’ is in theaters and on VOD from August 27, 2021.

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