Fresh from the UK premiere at this year’s FightFest, the superb film No Man of God is heading to digital platforms. We caught up with the director, Amber Sealey, to find out about the film that looks at the relationship between FBI agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) and mass murderer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby).
STARBURST: What was it that made you want to make a film about Bill Hagmaier’s book?
Amber Sealey: Well, the script existed before I came on, and SpectreVision, the production company, already knew the story they wanted to tell because it was a part of Bundy’s life that hadn't really been told before. How Bill Hagmaier related to Bundy in there, you know the whole forming of their friendship and we felt like Bill's life story had never really been told. From my side of it, I just felt like this was a perspective that I hadn't seen on the Bundy story before and it was a way of both looking at Bundy and looking at Bill and also looking at our own interest in this kind of film and this kind of story.
Bill was an executive producer on the film; how hands-on was he during the production?
He wasn't hands-on, but he was very involved in terms of giving us information. He was a wonderful resource and a friend, and he was there to give information and support. He was very much like “this is not my world. This is not my business. You guys go and do what you do and want to do”, and so he was really great. So, in that sense, he was the best subject, because he didn't put in place any demands. He gave us his recordings, photos, and videos and I had so many long phone calls with him, so he was just really like a great resource and friend.
What were those tapes like to listen to?
Not fun. There's a lot of them; each time Bill and Bundy would sit down, they were talking for two to three hours at a time. It was hard to listen to. It was obviously really interesting, I felt like it was just really raw. You're getting to know Bill and Bundy so much from those recordings, both how they are professionally and personally. It was interesting but I wouldn't call it pleasant.
We can imagine. How did you go manage to cleanse your system afterwards as it must be something hard to listen to?
Wow, good question. I should have maybe done some lighting of candles or things. I think that the thing that was cleansing was that at the end of each day, I was coming home to my kids and my husband and our home and that was very cleansing. I think because our industry had shut down because of the pandemic for the six months before we got to film - we were originally in prep when we got shut down - and the fact that we were getting to be up and filming again was really life-affirming for many of us when we came together on set. That was the first time that we had all been with anyone else outside of our homes in like six or eight months. We were feeling like our industry might survive, so that was a nice counterbalance to the subject matter of the film. The subject matter was so painful and so dark and atrocious, so we have this other side of it.
Your film is probably the only one that doesn't glamorise Bundy, you allow the horrendous things to come out of his own mouth rather than show them. You've got Luke Kirby, who is a very handsome man yet it still shows him as a monster. How intense were those scenes to film?
Yeah, it was certainly emotionally intense for all of us. It was really important to me from the beginning that it was not about recreating his crimes. I have no interest in seeing that and that's been done before, and I didn't see the purpose of it. I think it was really important to me to show how I saw him when I listened to his tapes and I watched the videos that are out there of him. I see a deeply insecure, really narcissistic guy and certainly as you say, you know, Luke is a good-looking person and people always say Bundy’s good looking, but I find him just average looking. I think Luke is certainly more handsome than Bundy is! But Luke is such a good actor that I still wanted to cast him. We tried to ugly him up a little bit so you know, we couldn't maybe make him as unattractive as Bundy was. I was not at all interested in glorifying Bundy or making him appear as a kind of rock star, sexy super-smart charismatic guy like some have done. I don't see that, I see him as average intelligence, I see him as really desperate to please. He wants everyone to like him. He's always trying to perform for whatever room he's in. So that's who I saw when I did the research and that was really important to the writer as well. Luckily, Luke could still tap into that insecurity and desperation and portray that really well.
What was the biggest challenge during filming?
Probably the pandemic. I was like ‘no one's going to die on my watch!’ When you're the director, and for the producers as well I feel this but we all feel like, you know, it is our job to keep everybody safe and I was not down with anyone getting sick. We worked really hard to ensure everybody's safety. We stopped filming every 15 minutes and we re-ventilated the room so we only picked locations that had both ingress and egress to flush out the air. We also had an amazing health and safety manager and we hired air specialists; we just constantly made sure we had fresh air in any location, and we had everything outside that we could possibly have outside. We were really strict about all the health and safety measures, and I'm really proud of it, no positive cases. This was before vaccines, it was eight months into the pandemic. So that was the thing that scared me the most honestly, you always care so much about your cast and crew and keeping them safe. At the same time, we had crazy wildfires out here in California where we were filming. So the air was really in danger, both in terms of the air quality from the fires and also the pandemic so that was intense
That must have taken up a lot of the budget too.
It did, for sure. Now people understand that that's going to take up something like 30% of your budget, which will be spent on testing and PPI. That's just the new reality of filmmaking but for us it was we were a really low budget film so we certainly had to make some different creative choices, because we had a lot less money to spend on the production. So even though it was maybe a bummer that we couldn't have more cars in the background or something in a scene that if it meant we could properly test everyone and properly mask everyone, then it was worth it.
You've touched on this slightly but what were Luke and Elijah like to work with?
So great, I just can't say enough good stuff about them. I love the two of them. They're both so just kind, humble, smart, and talented and I'm not making this up, they're just wonderful, wonderful people, really good guys.
Why is it do you think people are fascinated by serial killers?
I think it’s a bunch of different things. It can both be healthy and unhealthy that we're interested in serial killers, I think it's unhealthy that we know Ted Bundy’s name and we don't know the names of all his victims. It's unhealthy that we put so much time and focus and attention on him certainly and I'm as guilty of it as the next person because I also made a movie about him. So that's unhealthy. On the other hand, I do like to think that there is something at the core of our interest in serial killers. It's like when you're driving on the freeway and you see a car accident and you turn to look. I think that interest in turning to look comes from a place of worry and concern about other humans, I think we're going “Oh no, what happened to them?” I don't think we're looking going, “Oh, I hope I get to see something really gory”. I think we're thinking we hope it doesn't happen to us. So it comes from a place of concern about other people. And I think being interested in serial killers, is connected to that. And I also think we like to feel love and sadness and fear, and horror films or serial killer films make us feel fear and feeling those things sometimes make us feel really alive. It's a human thing to want that emotion and to want to be entertained in that way. One thing I was trying to do with this film was point out that we have this interest in this person and it’s curious that someone could be so evil, and we want to understand so hopefully, it doesn't happen again. And at the same time, we hope that interest in him will just die down, and we can start making films about other more interesting people. I'm also really trying to point the camera back at us and say why are we interested in these people and why are we looking at him so much and not looking at the victims or not looking at the woman in the room, what does it feel like for her? She's the one who knows what it's like to walk down a dark alley and hear footsteps behind her and get scared; half the story is hers.
How easy was it to go from acting to directing?
It was easy for me, it was a seamless long process. I was living in England at the time and I was acting and was really inspired by the Dogme 95 films that were happening in Europe, and I just wanted to make a no-budget movie with my friends and that's what I did. I acted in it my first two films, and so it was kind of an organic process. And as I became more and more of a director, the acting sort of fell away. I mean, acting is my first love, I'll always love it. If friends ask me to be in things, I'll happily do it but I don't audition or pursue acting in the way that I used to.