In TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER, filmmaker Nick Broomfield (AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER, KURT & COURTNEY) takes an in-depth look at the Grim Sleeper, a notorious serial killer who terrorized South Central Los Angeles for over 20 years. With the over 100 young women estimated to be victims of the Grim Sleeper, the story sounds like it could be a blockbuster thriller invented by a Hollywood screenwriter. This tale, however, is real.
As an outsider in South Central, Broomfield uncovers a cast of characters who interject dark humor into an otherwise grave and hopeless setting. These people provide vital insight into the mentality of the neighborhood as well as the mind of Lonnie Franklin, Jr., the man purported to be behind the gruesome killings. Broomfield’s documentary also brings to light the police misconduct that took place in a community ravaged by crack addiction.
AFI spoke to Broomfield his experience making the film, which will be a part of AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi.
AFI: What, if any, preconceptions about South Central LA did you have going into the making of the documentary, and how did those notions change throughout the process of making this film?
Since the late 1970s, most of the funding for South Central has been reallocated and the area has become totally cut off from the rest of city. The common attitude about it from the outside is so negative that the most frequently asked question I got when I started making the film was what kind of back-up and security I’d have. In fact, neither I nor cinematographer Barney Broomfield ever felt threatened when shooting in the area. We ended up developing friendships with many people in the area who were interested in talking openly about their lives.
AFI: In a community skeptical of outsiders, you managed to get a lot of key people to open up to you. How did you accomplish this?
NB: Generally, people wanted to be able to talk about themselves and their lives; this was probably the first opportunity to do so for many and I think they felt respected and valued. But I think making the film opened some of the existing wounds in the community. For example, a long-time feud between Richard and Lonnie’s son Chris actually goes back many years when Richard’s own son received a 22-year prison sentence, for which Richard blamed Lonnie. Sometimes making films acts as a catalyst — these wounds were already there but were all too complicated to put into the film — I think we simply got caught up in an ongoing process of dealing with the communities’ issues.
AFI: Why do you think Lonnie Franklin’s wife didn’t suspect anything?
NB: No matter whether you’re talking about Lonnie’s wife or friends, you have to remember that the community has been blighted by a raging crack epidemic, which causes people to be far more accepting of strange and unexpected behavior. Having said that, it’s hard to believe that Lonnie’s wife was unaware of his nocturnal comings and goings over the years, as well as his fascination for women on crack. I think they may have worked out some kind of arrangement so she only spent a couple of days at the house at a time and led a very separate life for herself.
AFI: Your focus in GRIM SLEEPER moves from a grisly serial killer to the mentality of an entire community and the Los Angeles Police Department, and then finally rests on the victims. Were you expecting the film to take this direction?
NB: These were things I discovered along the way. I thought it was going to be a much more straightforward story, which is one of the reasons I like to make documentaries without a prepared script; reality often leads you to places you’d have never expected to go.
AFI: You began the film by asking how could it be possible a serial killer could go unknown to a community and undetected by authorities for 25 years. By the end of the film, was that question sufficiently answered for you?
NB: I think the question was answered. I felt that it was, in a wider context, understandable from a political perspective that it was not a priority of the police force to solve these murders. This doesn’t apply to just South Central, it applies to similar inner-city areas across the country. Until it becomes a political priority to respond to the needs and wishes of communities like South Central, similar situations will keep occurring. So it’s not just a story about Lonnie and a series of mistakes made by law enforcement, it’s a much deeper and wider question that still needs to be resolved.