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Q&A: Director Nick Broomfield on His South L.A. Serial Killer Documentary ‘Tales of the Grim Sleeper’

An astonishing new documentary about a serial killer in a setting we’re not used to seeing.

For all the documentaries, prestige dramas, and podcasts that have been made about serial killers in recent years, there’s never been a story quite like the one told in Tales of the Grim Sleeper, the new film by British documentarian Nick Broomfield, premiering Monday on HBO. Not only is the accused killer in Grim Sleeper alleged to be more prodigious than most, but the larger implications of what made the killings possible point to how crimes committed against certain communities are often ignored, if not implicitly condoned.

Unlike The Jinx or Serial, Grim Sleeper isn’t a whodunit-style mystery. The film doesn’t present any doubt that Lonnie Franklin Jr., a popular neighborhood fixture charged with 10 counts of murder for killings in South Los Angeles between 1985 and 2010, is guilty. What does seem unclear is how anyone could get away with killing prostitutes and drug addicts for so long, especially since the extent of the crimes might be far greater than what’s been officially confirmed. The media began using the Grim Sleeper sobriquet because there is a 14-year gap in the homicides that Franklin is accused of, but Broomfield suggests that the LAPD and local media simply stopped paying attention as women in South L.A. continued to go missing.

As disturbing as the particulars of the killings are — the film describes Franklin as a “freaky motherfucker” who relished degrading and assaulting women before shooting or strangling them — the most discomforting aspect of the Grim Sleeper is Broomfield’s convincing assertion that the victims, who were black and often poor, were considered disposable by the authorities. For years, local newspapers and TV news didn’t report on the Grim Sleeper’s victims, and the police subsequently felt no pressure to step up their investigation. Now, nobody knows for sure how many people the Grim Sleeper might’ve killed: The body count could be in the hundreds. When Franklin was arrested, police discovered Polaroids of 180 women they couldn’t identify.

In some ways, this is familiar territory for the 67-year-old Broomfield, who lives in both L.A. and the U.K. Broomfield rose to prominence in the ’90s by making documentaries about lurid, borderline tabloid subject matter: the truck-stop hooker turned killer Aileen Wuornos, Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, the unsolved killings of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. His most infamous film is 1998’s Kurt & Courtney, which explored (though didn’t endorse) the conspiracy theory that Courtney Love had Kurt Cobain killed. Broomfield at the time was compared to Michael Moore because he appeared on camera in his films as a gently mocking narrator and protagonist. He also hounded subjects who had no intention of talking to him with faux-naive peskiness.

With his clunky headphones, staff-like boom mic, and aristocratic accent, Broomfield cuts an unassuming, somewhat dorky figure onscreen. But, at heart, he’s a sharp cultural critic and moralist who specializes in films about how the class system forces women and minorities into desperate, no-win situations. Tales of the Grim Sleeper might be his best film yet in that regard, as it focuses as much on South L.A. as it does on the man accused of multiple murders. Broomfield (working for the first time with his 33-year-old son Barney, who shot the film) appears less onscreen than usual, ceding the story to inspiring characters from the neighborhood like Margaret Prescod, who lobbied the LAPD for years to investigate disappearances in South L.A., and Pam, a former prostitute and recovering crack addict who acts as Broomfield’s guide to a besieged underbelly populated by disadvantaged and discarded young black women.

I phoned Broomfield last week to talk about Tales of the Grim Sleeper and the impact it has already had after a round of festival screenings. I also asked for his thoughts on HBO’s upcoming Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, which, unlike his Cobain film, was made with Love’s cooperation.

When you started filming Tales of the Grim Sleeper in 2012, was your initial interest in Lonnie Franklin, or was it always going to be a film focused on the community?

Well, I think one of the big questions that really launched that film was, how is it possible in a metropolitan area the size of Los Angeles, [which has] a highly sophisticated police force, for someone to be killing for 25 years undetected? I just thought that was so unbelievable. How come the police didn’t catch him? That just seemed, to me, to be an amazing first question.

With the kind of documentaries that I do, which aren’t all beautifully scripted and worked out before I start shooting, you need to keep them spontaneous and actually pick up characters in the process of shooting it. I probably thought I was going to do much more of a traditional portrait of the mind and life of a serial killer. The defensiveness of the LAPD, and the sort of impossibility to actually get to Lonnie Franklin himself — again, because of the LAPD — made it much more about the community than I’d probably originally intended.

Lately, there have been a lot of documentaries and television shows about serial killers. But this is the first that I can think of where the victims are black and the accused killer is black. Typically these stories are about white victims and a white killer. Was that part of what drew you in initially? And why do you think these stories are always about white people?

Well, in fact, one of the real ingredients of this story is that it wasn’t reported. It wasn’t reported in the L.A. Times. It wasn’t even on the local news. Black-on-black violence is not regarded as newsworthy. Had it involved a white person, I’m sure the story would have been all over the country, particularly with these kinds of numbers. So I think that was always very much a part of the story. There’s a sort of apartheid, almost, in news reporting.

That part at the end where you talk about NHI [No Humans Involved], which was a code that police used for murders involving prostitutes and crack addicts, really drives that point home.

I think that is the prevailing attitude. And we’re all shocked by it, but at the same time, it’s very much part of our everyday currency. It’s not just the police. I think probably dog and cat homes receive more contributions than most people give to caring for other human beings who are less fortunate, or living homeless, or are of the wrong color, or have a drinking problem. I think our society has become, unfortunately, very dismissive of a lot of people who are perceived as not succeeding in the way that they’re supposed to succeed, and are then regarded as sort of disposable. It’s particularly bad for black people, or people of color, but I think it also exists with poor white people, disposable white people.

What also separates Tales of the Grim Sleeper from a lot of films about serial killers is that this film never really presents any doubt that Lonnie Franklin is guilty. Was there any point during the film where you doubted his guilt?

When I first met his friends who were saying “Lonnie’s a good guy” and “Lonnie Franklin was very much a pillar of the community.” He wasn’t some reclusive weirdo who was found to be killing. He was a family man, he was out in the street, he was very social, had a great sense of humor, very engaging with people, very liked in the community. He still does not admit these crimes. He insists he’s innocent. He insists that it’s not his DNA, those kinds of things. So, I was, for a while, very much interested in that approach, that maybe he’s innocent, maybe there’s some mistake here. Why are these people so supportive of him? And then slowly, I felt amongst his friends — and you see it in the film — there was more and more doubt.

One of the functions of making a film is that you are a bit like a mirror — you tend to reflect people back on themselves and they become much more introspective. They ask themselves questions that they probably didn’t ask before. And then I simply became more and more convinced that he was probably guilty. I mean, I still am hoping to learn things that are different, but I think that the ballistics and DNA evidence is pretty overwhelming.

You said it was “impossible” to interview Franklin. Why?

I put feelers out to interview Lonnie, but I was met with such resistance from the sheriff’s department, who basically, in the first phone call I made, said, “You’re never going to get permission. Don’t waste your time.” His lawyers, actually, were quite keen for me to interview him, but I think there’s such defensiveness from law enforcement on this whole case. I was actively stopped from doing so many things — it wasn’t just Lonnie. I was prevented from talking to forensics people, detectives involved in the case, even just local police officers. I think the police are very embarrassed by the case. They want to take the glory of having made the arrest, but they don’t want to answer any of the questions surrounding it.

I think I ended up making a very conceptually tight film. It’s a film that’s really dedicated to a community of people who were all intimately involved with [the case]. And I think in so doing, the focus of the film is so much more penetrating than it would’ve been had it been sort of dispersed in that normal way of making a film, where you have a little bit of this and a little bit of that. So, in a way, I’m very grateful that I didn’t really get any significant cooperation from the police.

Right. If you had talked to Franklin, it would have been another movie about a man accused of being a killer. Instead, you made a movie about the victims.

It’s always interesting to see the mind-set of somebody who is protesting innocence even when they might be guilty, but I do think that’s a different film. I feel, conceptually, this was absolutely the right film. I think there is an interesting film to be made there about a serial killer who has probably killed countless victims, and is still denying that he did that, and is protesting his innocence, and is also amusing and jokey and likable. But it’s obviously a very different film, and I think the strength of this film is that it’s so much more about our society at the moment, at this moment in history, that is so divided, really, that this kind of thing can happen. And I think because of that it raises a much wider political question. It’s not just the police force that has messed up here, because I think the police are a representative institution. They represent the sort of political priorities of our society, and I think if there was a lot of pressure put on the police force from Congress, they would have to react to that, and they would have to modify what they’re doing. But there aren’t those pressures, I think, within the two big prevailing parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s not seen as a priority.

When I watched your film, I couldn’t help but think of Ferguson, and how this was almost like the flip side of that. In Ferguson, the police had this overbearing, militaristic presence. In this story, the police are absent. They’re nowhere, and they seem to have no interest and, in a way, almost condone that these killings are taking place. As one of Franklin’s friends puts it, he was “cleaning up” the streets. 

I think those two situations are actually rather similar, which is that the only time you see the police really active in South Central is handing out speeding tickets and pulling over motorists for teeny little infractions — like their taillight’s out, that kind of thing — and fining them. The police do very little to protect and serve in South Central, and they do very little crime-solving. They pretty much let the community take care of itself, which is why they don’t really care about black-on-black violence. They let the gangs run the community, and I think that’s exactly the same as in Ferguson, which is that the police are protecting the white sections of their community. They’re not there to protect the black sections.

When we did the film, it was before Ferguson. And I thought this story was kind of a revelation about the malfunctioning of the LAPD in South Central. But then I became quite involved with Ferguson. We showed the film there, and I became involved with other groups in different parts of the country, and you realize it’s the same all over, where there’s a police force that is not representative of the black community, doesn’t give themselves to serving the black community, and is completely dysfunctional.

What was the response like to the film in Ferguson?

There was a fantastic response to it. In fact, Margaret [Prescod] was back in Ferguson again last week, showing the film. And the film has been shown in Berkeley, with the Hands Up movement. And it’s been shown in a lot of largely black meetings and gatherings, often to do with Ferguson, or issues like that across the country. So that’s been one of the rather valuable outcomes from the film.

We tried very hard to get the dialogue going in Los Angeles, to use this film as it had been used in so many other parts of the country. We tried very, very hard to get this meaningful dialogue going, and it was very disappointing that there’s such a reluctance to engage, to go over the mistakes that happened in the past. I mean, really there should be an official inquiry of some sort into the deficiency of the LAPD in dealing with these murders. And I very much hope the film causes sufficient outcry so that happens.

There’s a great scene early in the movie when you’re interviewing some women in the neighborhood, and these guys across the street start calling you “peckerwood.” And then you go over there and find out that they’re three of Franklin’s best friends, and they wind up being major characters in your film. How long did it take to earn people’s trust in Franklin’s neighborhood?

Well, it took a while. I think at first, they just expect you to be like all the news crews who pass through very quickly. One of the great things about working with Barney, my son, is he’s got a great sense of humor, he’s very entertaining. And I think humor is an enormously useful thing. If people enjoy your presence and have a good time with you, that’s almost the best way of getting to know people and getting them to want to help you. We were there long enough to do that, really. And then we met people like Pam, who was fantastic, who helped us a great deal.

It’s often the downtime you spend with them that will get you there, maybe going out to a meal with them, or in Barney’s case, with Pam, they would endlessly play dice together. They were always gambling, for a dollar here and a dollar there, and they just had a lot of fun.

During that “peckerwood” scene, did you walk up directly to those guys? Are those situations awkward for you?

It was awkward. We knew a woman called Tiffany Haddish, who lived next door and is well respected. She’s a rather successful comedian now. [She went] over and sort of calmed them down and said, “These are good guys.” So that helps a great deal. I think they were all charmed by Tiffany, and it became a lot more reasonable after they were very kind of threatening, initially. In fact, they were so threatening that my original cameraman decided there and then to leave the production. But I think you just have to work through those situations and be reasonable and show people that you care and you’re not just there to do some sort of sensational piece. Most people in the community that we met really have a story to tell, that they wanted to tell. And when they realized that we were really interested in hearing what they had to say, they couldn’t have been more cooperative.

How did you meet Pam?

We actually just met her completely by chance on Lonnie’s street, probably in the second or third day of filming. In fact, the interview that we did with her on that third day is actually in the film, where she’s talking about being photographed by Lonnie. That was the very first thing we did with Pam. And we then looked her up again, and then she would often come ’round to our office, which was in that area. As I said, in between the filming, she and Barney would play lots of dice together. And they really struck up a great friendship. And then when we were out riding in the car, we obviously noticed that it was so different having Pam, who knew the women. It meant we could ask questions and do things that we could never possibly have done without her. And so she became more and more sort of indispensable to the film, really.

Before you go, I wanted to ask about the new Kurt Cobain documentary, Montage of Heck, which airs on HBO the week after Tales of the Grim Sleeper. Heck is an authorized biography, whereas your film Kurt & Courtney was actively opposed by Courtney Love. Did you, in a way, prefer not to have her cooperation for your film?

I think Brett Morgen did a fantastic, creative, artistic job with that film. However, I think part of the price of working with Courtney Love was he had to give her the last word, and that word was around the question of his suicide, which is really what the whole film leads up to, what both of our films lead up to. She has the last word and she says, “I never cheated on Kurt,” and it’s not just said once, it’s said a couple of times in that film. Everybody knows — I mean Brett knows — that that’s a lie. And yet that is the overwhelming impression that his film gives, that somehow [Cobain] was in a sort of drug haze, he didn’t really understand the reality of what was going on.

Was he driven to suicide? Was he murdered? I came against that in my own film. But was there some kind of knowledge that he had prior to committing suicide? Why was Tom Grant, the detective, picked out of the Yellow Pages by Courtney? He was somebody who had no knowledge of Seattle, who was just an ex-L.A. cop living in L.A., and he’s sent up to Seattle by Courtney? I think that whole aspect of the story, because of [Morgen’s] access, may have been compromised. Despite the fact that I think he did an incredible job in defining Kurt’s artistry, making an amazing mosaic montage, that central question got fudged.