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Nick Broomfield talks Tales of the Grim Sleeper

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Barney Broomfield/HBO

In one of the most compelling, anger-inducing documentaries of recent years, director Nick Broomfield (Biggie and Tupac) delves into the case of Lonnie Franklin, the alleged serial killer called the Grim Sleeper, who was arrested in 2010 on multiple murder charges. The film isn’t about Franklin’s guilt or innocence, but instead the community of South Central Los Angeles where the killings took place. And where for more than 20 years, the local police lacked the sense of urgency to stop it.

Not a single person from the LAPD would speak to Broomfield for the film—which both justifies and energizes the movie’s sense of outrage—though he recalls a conversation with the lead detective on the case at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. And he gives an update on the remarkable Pam Brooks (pictured, above, with Broomfield), a woman who narrowly avoided becoming one of the Grim Sleeper’s victims. 

Tales of the Grim Sleeper premieres tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET on HBO.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I went into to this movie thinking it would be about the Grim Sleeper himself. That’s not the case.

Nick Broomfield: Yes, you thought it would be a profile of Lonnie Franklin. One of the fantastic things about making documentaries is that you never really know what you’re gonna get. I had thought that I would look more closely at Lonnie Franklin. I had also thought that I might get some cooperation from the LAPD, forensic experts and so on. But because the police were so adamant about not saying a thing—and they were adamant about not giving me access to Lonnie Franklin—I was forced into making what is probably a much better film, which is about that community and how these murders were allowed to happen.

It’s actually more effective that you paint a picture of Lonnie Franklin through his friends.

You get a sense of him. He was popular and he was considered in that area, which has been so decimated by crack, to be a pretty pragmatic, functioning human being by most people. And that made him a sort of kingpin in the community.

It sounds crazy but I guess the LAPD helped you to make the film as it is.

Yeah, by being absolutely uncooperative at every step of the way. I think a mandate went out, which said that on no account should anyone take part in this Nick Bloomfield film. So even though they were very happy to get all that praise from that press conference they held when they arrested Lonnie Franklin, they weren’t prepared to answer any questions I might have. They really don’t want to answer the question of, “Why did it take you 25 years to get this guy and what were you doing all that time?”

Has anyone from the LAPD spoken to you since the film’s been finished?

After the screening at the Egyptian Theatre in November, I met with the lead detective on the task force. His name is Dennis Kilcoyne and he’s now of course retired. I had expected him to be very defensive but he said, “I think that was a great film; you came up with so much stuff.” It was very nice of him. But I asked him how come, for example, he never spoke to this guy Jerry, one of Lonnie’s friends. He said, “Well, he never would have told us what he told you.” Which I thought was an incredibly weak defense. He also said that there were over 300 detectives working on the case. I don’t know what they were doing.

It’s amazing that you walked into South Central with a camera and once people got over the sight of you, they really opened up and were grateful that someone was asking for their story.

That’s the incredible thing—it wasn’t that difficult. I suppose a proper functioning police force should be able to do that too.

What was that first day like, where you arrived in South Central?

One person you don’t see in the film is this amazing woman called Tiffany Haddish, who’s quite a well-known comedian. She was born a street away from Lonnie Franklin and had grown up in that area and is a bit of a local hero. She was somebody I happened to meet by chance and she came down with us to introduce us to the community. I always thought it was very important to not go in unannounced. So Tiffany went over and talked to everybody before we went over. She’s very funny and sassy and personable, and she said, “Why don’t you at least talk to him?”

Did she not want to appear on camera?

I think you see her very briefly by the ice-cream truck. But her life has moved on outside of the neighborhood. I felt the characters that were going to emerge from the film should still be living in the community. But she was extraordinary for us.

Lonnie Franklin will stand trial for about 12 counts of murder, but it is absolutely staggering in the movie when we realize that there might’ve been hundreds of women killed.

Yeah, this is the incredible thing. And of course it makes you imagine it happening in another part of L.A., where it would have been handled completely differently. When I went to see police chief Bernard Parks, who had been the chief during a lot of that time, his reaction was that they had not wanted to announce anything because they didn’t want to tip the serial killer off. You want to say, “Oh, yeah, really? How many more people do you want to get killed just so that you can surprise the guy?”

It seems like a convenient excuse for not doing their jobs.

Of course. The more you read about what’s happened in Ferguson, the more you realize that South Central is basically identical. The only time we really saw a big police presence on the street was them handing out speeding tickets or stopping motorists or collecting fines. They’re on a money-raising kick for the municipality, but they don’t do any kind of major crime solving there. They just let the area police itself.

We learn about the use of the slang phrase, NHI, which stands for “No Human Involved,” and which the LAPD used to describe the victims in this case. The existence of such a phrase seems like a scandal in itself.

I originally heard about it when I read the biography of Norm Stamper, the ex-police chief of Seattle. I think it’s actually a pretty widespread thing within the police. It refers to human beings who aren’t seen as being worthy of a proper forensic examination. They will probably remain John Doe and Jane Doe. And that’s how these Grim Sleeper murders were treated. The PR department under current LAPD police chief Charlie Beck is slightly better, but I don’t think anything has really changed within that community. The story that [lawyer and activist] Nana Gyamfi tells, about people in trouble not wanting to call 911, is still the prevailing attitude.

How did you decide on the title Tales of the Grim Sleeper?

We went through a whole lot of different titles. This was a difficult one because it’s not really a film about Lonnie Franklin. It’s more about the stories and the world around him, which reveal a much bigger situation.

And of course the irony of the title is that he was called the Grim Sleeper because the LAPD believed he’d stopped killing for 14 years. When, in fact, he’d been killing all along. They just weren’t paying attention.

That’s right, he never paused. I don’t like the name Grim Sleeper, particularly, because it’s so ominous and slightly off-putting for people who have a queasy stomach. But it’s unfortunately the name by which he is known, so to a certain extent I was limited by popular culture. It’s a name that grabs people’s attention.

Talk about Pam Brooks, the former prostitute who becomes your guide in the film.

I just saw her this morning. I was at her house about an hour ago.

Really? What were you two doing?

Somebody wanted to do a radio interview with Pam at her house. And if you’ve seen the movie you’ve seen that she has that slightly excited dog. He doesn’t bite, but I was rather anxious to get there before the radio interviewer, to calm the dog down.

How is she doing?

Pam’s in good form. She still struggles every month to make the rent. It’s difficult because she’s a qualified health worker but that doesn’t pay very much. We’re trying to get the felony convictions on her record expunged. But it’s quite a complicated and time-consuming process to do that. And everybody knows this now, but possession of crack is a felony and possession of the equal amount of cocaine, the white person’s drug, is not a felony. The making of the film really made me see how a lot of drug law legislation has been drafted with very direct racial overtones.

In the film we find out that she was turned down for a job as a bus driver because of her felony conviction for crack possession.

When in a different situation she’s be running her own corporation. She’s such a charismatic person and so super bright. We all admired her. I just felt so lucky to meet someone like her. She made the making of the film kind of a pleasure actually, even though it’s obviously a tough subject. We had a lot of fun.

It seems like she becomes more and more a main character as the movie goes on.

Well, we could have made a whole film of Pam. But the film’s quite long as it is, so I think it’s pretty much the right balance. One could always have more Pam.

Another person who stands out is Margaret Prescod of the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders.

What an incredible person. I regard her as a very close friend now, but Margaret took the longest to win around. She thought, “Oh what are these people doing? Is this another sensationalistic, flash in the pan kind of thing?” Margaret has invested so much of her life in this story that she’s understandably defensive with the women and she doesn’t want their privacy invaded. It was very hard to get her trust, but having got it, she’s been quite amazing towards me. As with Pam, I’ll remain friends with her. As I will with Nana Gyamfi, another remarkable person. She teaches a course at Cal State that I went to about a month ago. I keep learning so much from all these incredible people. And learning from how they manage to deal with these things with their own special sense of humor. They’re not jaded or cynical and that means very much to me.

Your son Barney is the camera operator on the film. He replaced your original cameraman, who left after a couple days. What did he say to you when he left?

We had done a couple features together, Battle for Haditha and Ghosts. And he’s also a very brave person, so I expected this to be a breeze for him. But I think somehow people wound him up a bit. You know that kind of bravado that exists, “Oh, I’ve seen people shot right where you’re standing.” And I think he just freaked out a bit. He imagined himself caught in a hail of gunfire, taken out of there in a coffin. So he asked if I could find a replacement, would that be okay. And my son was available. He was in the office playing dice with Pam.

You made two films about serial killer Alieen Wuornos. It’s interesting that this film connects to those, not really because they’re all about a serial killer, but because they deal with some of society’s outcasts.

People who are judged really toughly, yeah. And people who no one seems to really care to find out about. I remember Aileen being portrayed as a witch who should be burned at the stake. There was that horrible feeling right before she was executed. I certainly think that [Florida Governor] Jeb Bush was very much running for reelection on the fact that he was sending her to execution. The last interview I did with her was heartbreaking and has stayed with me to this day. She had clearly lost her mind.

To me the biggest snub at the Oscars last year was that the documentary branch overlooked your film. It wasn’t commented on enough in a year when “Oscars So White” became a meme. The Oscars ignored a movie that’s all about black people being ignored.

Yeah, it was obviously a little disappointing, considering that I think these issues are part of the zeitgeist right now. But the HBO broadcast will help a lot to get the film seen. I think perhaps sometimes HBO sits on things too much. I might have preferred getting the film out there a bit earlier. But all in all I’m very happy that it’s them who are going to be showing it. And I’m looking forward to a very interesting response. This is a story that’s far from over.

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