On July 7, 2010, Lonnie Franklin was arrested as a suspect in the “Grim Sleeper” murders, which took place in South Central Los Angeles from 1985 to 2007. His arrest was not the product of painstaking detective work, but the accidental result of a computer DNA match linking him to a possible 20 victims.
TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER gives voice to a neglected community that has survived despite the odds, featuring candid interviews with people who knew Franklin and his alleged victims, including Pam Brooks, a recovered addict and former prostitute. Guiding the filmmakers around the neighborhood, she helps them find women who managed to escape from him, but were never interviewed by police.
An official selection of the 2014 Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals, TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER visits the neighborhood where the crimes occurred, following director Nick Broomfield as he explores how these killings could go unsolved for so many years. Conveying a sense of grave injustice that extends far beyond the case.
The chilling documentary debuts MONDAY, APRIL 27, exclusively on HBO. Anticipating the broadcast premiere of TALES OF THE GRIM SLEEPER, we spoke with Nick Broomfield about his approach to documentary, the tale of two Americas, feeling fear on location, and much more in an extended interview.
What aspect of this story were you first introduced to?
I remember reading about the arrest and then, several years later when I was looking for a subject, I remember reading some articles that Christine Pelisek had written in LA Weekly on it. Christine was actually the person who had informed some of the victims families that their daughters had, in fact, been killed by a serial killer before the police announced it themselves. The police only announced it after she announced it to them. On the basis of that I started the film.
I didn’t really know where the film would to take me. I knew that one question I had was: How was it possible that for 25 years, the police did not find a mass killer? I didn’t know where this question would take me; I didn’t know that the police would be uncooperative; I didn’t know I wouldn’t have any forensics experts to talk to; I didn’t know that the trial was going to be delayed; I didn’t know I would meet people like Pam or end up with the kind of story that I had.
What I think of as a powerful documentary is something that unfolds in the making. It isn’t interesting to make documentaries that are all talking heads, who are beautifully lit in chairs, and cutting between them to create a story with some nice graphics added. To me, that is a very weak way of making a documentary which is, in my mind, a journey into uncharted territory. It is something that is ultimately stronger than what you can write up on a piece of paper. I think so many documentaries these days are like fiction films. They are scripted, static, and a waste of the potential of what the medium can be.
So, as several aspects of, what would ultimately become, ‘Tales From the Grim Sleeper’ were avenues down uncharted territory, in terms of your approach to this, is it something you go into with any kind of apprehension? Personally, and as a filmmaker, would you say you actually welcome this unknown?
I do. I think it is a voyage of discovery without too much judgment. I think it is important to sit on your pre-conceptions because they are generally proved wrong. Also, to keep an open mind about the people you meet. Judge them, depending on what happens. Try and assemble a group of people who are likable, perceptive and engaged; people who will help you in the journey you are about to take. This is what I love about making documentaries.
As you were moving forward with the production and a narrative started to unfold, was there ever a point where you were concerned of becoming too connected with a character or theme? With your vérité, observational approach, did you find yourself too immersed in this world and decided you needed to take a step back?
Certain characters you start to discount because you think they aren’t telling you the truth or they have an ulterior motive of their own, let alone saying things to be dramatic on camera. I think you get a sense of the characters who are dependable and who you trust, and others who you are suspicious of. One of the main aspects of making these films is that you are constantly asking yourself if what someone is saying is true or not. With people like the victims, it is pretty easy to work this out early on. With other characters, like Pam, Richard or Gary, you have a longer relationship with them and depending on what happens you can gauge this along the way. At certain points, for example, I felt that Richard was not so trustworthy and that he had an agenda to say certain things. His family had a long feud with Lonnie’s family so I discounted some of the things he said regarding Christopher (Lonnie’s son).
Was there an interview or situation that was of particular personal impact?
We met the woman in the alley who talked about cutting someone across the throat late at night. These kinds of things reminded me of Dickensian London. It was like a horror show of strange people coming out in the middle of the night telling these horror stories and all in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. I remember being very surprised, thinking that this was amazing and terrible. Also, most white people in Los Angeles were so removed from this life even though they are only 5 miles away.
…this is the tale of two countries narrative that America seems to embody these days…
…Yes, I find these things shocking and will always find them to be. I think you need to find these things shocking. The moment you start accepting things as just “the way it is” is where the problem starts.
Two particular instances in the film that stood out to me in relation to your immediate proximity with them, were in the alley when gunshots sounded off from the next street over and the sequence outside the crack house. You seem personable and adaptable, but do moments like these ever instill fear in you? To me, the appearance of the man outside the (completely dark) crack house seemed like something out of a horror film.
Yes, I did find the voyage into the crack house very spooky. I did feel like I was entering into a world I didn’t know anything about and it was unknown and scary. Clearly, Pam was also scared. She was very worried about what she was going to find.
It is interesting, as well as fun, how you mention in the film that you and Pam have a rapport, as well as holding a level of admiration for her. You actually describe her as adopting a production manager type role in the filmmaking process. Again though, there may be a certain disconnect between how she actually is and how she comes off to the viewer watching the screen, especially due to this wider issue of social disconnect we have been alluding to. What can you say is her energy?
Pam is super bright. She has a Richard Pryor motor mouth kind of vibe to her. She snowballs people into her confidence and enabled us to make a film that we could not have made without her. She was obviously very popular on the streets and had a charisma people are inherently drawn to. We were incredibly lucky to meet her and I will continue to proclaim how bright she is. The irony is, that every month she continues to struggle paying rent, getting a decent job, and is an embodiment of the social problems that exist in South Central Los Angeles.
Do you still have contact?
Yes. We are very involved in one way or another. In fact, I have been trying to get some of Pam’s felony convictions expunged, so we are actively involved in that. It is a hard and time-consuming business. I suppose what I’ve learned with this is that normal people who don’t have film crews following them, have a tremendously difficult time getting convictions expunged. So, even though they can do it, it is difficult. You would think there would be proper centers set up in South Central to help people with this process. Pam spent a long time telling us that you really do need to treat Crack in a systematic way. It is a whole community that is affected by Crack and until it is dealt with properly a lot of the other problems won’t disappear either. There doesn’t seem to be a commitment at the governmental level to do this.
…Well, that is a prominent conversation in America. To certain members of the legislative body, these issues fall under the arbitrary and ambiguous “personal responsibility” conversation. Utimately, it is a systemic issue and one that deals much more with issues of opportunity, or lack there of, as well as the inherently cynical outlook towards a society who does whatever it can to disregard and marginalize its most vulnerable.
As you have screened at prestigious festivals like Toronto and Telluride, I wonder if there have been any one-off screenings you’ve presented where, again, the emotional impact from the audience has been at its most palpable?
Yes! We have taken the film to Ferguson, MO, Oakland, Watts, and on Monday we will screen on Skid Row. I’ve also taken the film to Herb Wesson, who is president of the LA Council, to try and get a screening with Charlie Beck (Police Chief – LAPD) and Eric Garcetti (Mayor) would attend with people from The Black Coalition. Initially, they had committed to doing so but have since backed out.
We have tried very hard to use the film on both the local level and on a wider, governmental level to generate discussion and get different parts of the community to speak to each other. I think the film is capable of this and is very much a part of the national zeitgeist of the moment, which is looking at the racial divide. I think this film can play into that conversation, adds something to it, and is a key part of the story.
When I did see the film, I thought it does add a new element to the conversation, especially one being presented and dealing with a topic that is accessible to wider demographics…
It all makes a lot of sense. You can see these are good people. They are bright people and should be given a bigger part in the world, as well as some basic respect. The tragedy is, until some legislation is passed or the Supreme Court makes a decisive decision against members of the police force who have acted incorrectly, nothing is going to change. I do think there is enough of a groundswell of opinion that someone will take it up though. I think both political parties are completely unresponsive because they are all white males who don’t give a shit and black communities don’t have any real political power. This is the problem. I think people are appalled to see these things. I think they have had enough and they know this isn’t right.
If this issue hasn’t reached its boiling point it will soon. Better a constructive dialogue than continued acts of aggression in manners we have seen all too often recently and throughout the countries history.
– Interview conducted, edited & transcribed by Steve Rickinson