How do you make a movie about Ted Bundy without making a movie about Ted Bundy?
That’s the question No Man of God hopes to answer. The fourth film from director Amber Sealey, working from a script by C. Robert Cargill (under pen name Kit Lesser), No Man of God approaches serial killer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby) with a critical eye that’s conspicuously conscious of feeding into the same sensational coverage that envisions him as some sort of grisly superlative. True crime has never been a bigger genre, and Bundy media has been riding that wave. No Man of God attempts to follow in the footsteps of its other subject, FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), by replacing an often exploitational agenda with demystification and closure—justice served not just for Bundy’s victims, but for those living in fear thanks to a culture that’s far louder about bad men than about those they destroy.
While this is Sealey’s first film where she hasn’t also written the screenplay, many of the movie’s best scenes came directly from her: One sees Bill driving, listening to tapes from work involving gruesome crimes with the windows down, when he pulls up alongside a woman, speakers blaring. He’s immediately self-conscious of being part of the problem, an unintentional perpetuator of a misogynist culture. A handful of other sequences highlight silent women, meant to evoke Bundy’s victims, observing—almost haunting—the tête-à-tête between men. “We dressed them and made them look like specific victims,” Sealey explained to Paste.
“It wasn’t in the script at all and it was something that I felt like, ‘I just can’t make this movie and not have a nod to the victims,’” Sealey said. “I want this to have lots of layers: Yes it’s about Bill and it’s about Bundy, but it’s also about us as a society, and our interest in these kinds of films and these kinds of people. It’s also about the victims and how they’re voiceless and they don’t have a say. And the fact that nobody’s making movies about them.”
It was just another layer of nuance Sealey added to the script, which pulls the bulk of its material from archival recordings of Hagmaier and Bundy’s conversations. “Everything with a woman was me,” Sealey said. “We’re on a limited budget, so only a few of those women were roles that had names in the credits. Many of them were just background actors. They were wonderful, particularly Hannah Jessup who was the young girl in the scene…when Bundy’s pretending that it was porn that was at fault.”
Jessup’s scene is indeed one of the most impactful of the film, alongside one where Bundy and Bill’s personae blur as they’re intercut, delivering the same speech. Both Wood and Kirby excel in their roles, but Kirby necessarily shouldered a bigger artistic burden. And no, he wasn’t immediately on board when Sealey approached him for the role. But she ended up winning him over.
“First of all, she allowed me a lot of room to gripe and express all of my revulsions and fears about investing in a story that is—by virtue of whatever it is, it’s a mystery to me—always sensationalized,” Kirby said. “She and I shared this feeling of responsibility that we wanted to do everything we could to limit that.”
Since the film takes place after Bundy’s imprisonment, during the lead-up to his execution, it wasn’t hard to avoid. The victims are merely audiences; the crimes only his recounted memories. The text is just two people stuck in a cell. That reframed setting and the realities of the current world sparked Kirby to the film.
“I met [Sealey] on March 16 of 2020, flew back to New York the next day and went into quarantine. Then I was left with that conversation, which was able to germinate in my mind. Being in that kind of isolation certainly spoke to the tenor of the movie,” Kirby said. “It started to feel a little prescient and then it was just like, ‘Let’s get out of this fucking apartment and go meet some new people!’”
One of those new people was Hagmaier himself (credited as an executive producer on the film), who was a reassuring resource when the creatives reached out. “Every time I was speaking with him, he was affirming what was on the page,” Kirby said. “Just hearing it from him gave it that extra bit of depth that made you feel confident chewing on it. We went to the direct wellspring.” Not only did Hagmaier help assuage any trepidation the cast might feel about the script, he offered a little perspective just by virtue of his experience. “Here was a guy who was actually there and had to go home every night. For his whole career, exploring the worst features in people,” Kirby said. “It kind of made any of my hesitations feel a little toddler-like in contrast.”
And to get his performance ready, Kirby needed to dive into some disturbing research, immersing himself in tapes and recordings of the killer. But Sealey, who’s also an actor and acting coach, was clear that mimicry was never their intention. “They both were playing real-life people and I didn’t want it to be a caricature of that. To me, what mattered more was the performance being grounded, and being real and believable. That was always, for me, primary,” the filmmaker said. In fact, she had a read on Bundy rarely seen in media—and one that was confirmed from an unexpected source.
Sealey’s mom’s best friend was one of Bundy’s “dry runs” before he was captured. “At the time it was like, ‘I just gave some weirdo a ride,’ but quite soon after that he got famous and she knew who he was,” Sealey said. “So she remembered back and was interviewed by the police. What she basically remembered was that he was sweaty. Like his whole face, his forehead. He was nervous, and he seemed really insecure and desperate to please. What I liked about that is that really aligned with who I saw when I researched him. When I watched the interviews and listened to the recordings, that’s what I saw: An insecure guy.”
So nailing that version of Bundy, one without an ounce of pedestal-placement, was paramount. “And then secondary to that is going to be bringing on the physicality, the voice, the mannerisms. All that stuff,” Sealey said. “And luckily, both Elijah and Luke are so talented that they can handle both of those things.”
“With Elijah he had a little bit more freedom because there’s not as much video out there of Bill—he’s not as well-known—so he had a little more flexibility with his physicality. We settled on a sort of stillness. He’s often sitting still: He leans forward, he leans back, he crosses his arms, he uncrosses his arms. For Luke, his job was a little harder in that people are very familiar with Bundy’s physicality. But Luke is a natural at picking up that kind of stuff. He watched all the videos that were out there, he listened to so many hours of recorded conversations between Bundy and Bill.”
Some of Kirby’s research took place in the car, taking long drives listening to tapes with his wife. Don’t worry, Kirby told Dread Central, “she’s a bit more ghoulish” than he is and had no qualms about it. Because of this, it’s almost a poetic reversal of the film’s aural imposition, a necessary and healthy companionship that helped confront and handle the disturbing realities of our culture. “Without company, you start to look at the walls to see who else might be present. What sort of spirits might be lurking over your shoulder,” Kirby said. “One of the aspects of those drives was that there were big fires in L.A. at the time, so the city was covered in smoke.” Add one COVID-19 pandemic and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a bad time.
“The city felt like—listening to these tapes, you just had to laugh at how end-of-the-world it felt,” Kirby said. “I was just grateful for her company, to go down that road with me and give me a little confidence that I could come back at the end of the day.”
What does it take to make a Ted Bundy movie without making it about Ted Bundy? How do you comment on a culture of ingrained and institutional sexism, of hate, without feeding into the problem? For Sealey and Kirby—and even for Bill Hagmaier—it’s all in the placement of priorities.
No Man of God is out on August 27.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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