Netflix's Cecil Hotel docuseries director explains why respecting Elisa Lam's story was of utmost importance
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel puts the facts on the table but many web sleuths still consider this case unsolved.
Elisa Lam traveled to Los Angeles in early 2013 in search of adventure.
The student from Vancouver found lodging at the Stay on Main, a front for the notorious Cecil Hotel, where serial killers like the Night Stalker Richard Ramirez lived during part of his murdering spree in the mid-80s, and where others have met untimely deaths due to varied and sometimes mysterious reasons.
Lam disappeared from the Cecil on Jan. 31, the last footage of the 21-year-old was captured inside an elevator by security cameras, which showed her looking worried or confused, and pressing multiple buttons though the lift's doors would not close. Her body was discovered in a water tank located on the hotel's rooftop 20 days later, she had accidentally drowned and law enforcement stated her bipolar disorder, specifically not taking her medications as prescribed, played a significant role in her death.
Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel director Joe Berlinger spoke to EW about the internet sleuths who still consider Lam's case unsolved, the importance of respecting her story, and whether or not he's interested in revisiting this story if her parents were keen to talk.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Elisa Lam's story connected to many people and some are worried whether or not Crime Scene is respectful of the subject. What steps did you take to ensure it would be?
JOE BERLINER: One of the critical issues with the true crime genre is that some stories are done irresponsibly, in my opinion. I never want to take on a story where I'm wallowing in someone's tragedy just for the sake of telling that story. I always want to widen the lens and have some social justice message or some kind of social commentary, a larger reason to tell the story. That's the first way, I think, we were respectful to Elisa Lam. We wanted to dissect the truth and not to dismiss her tragedy as a demonic possession, or a haunted house story, or that something supernatural has befallen her. To me, that is very disrespectful to the victim by not honoring the truth.
The first season of your anthology series also tells the story of the Cecil Hotel. How did you find the right balance between telling both tales?
The whole point of the series was not just to tell the Elisa Lam story, but we have an ongoing series of which this is the first season. We're looking at a place and analyzing what contributes to crime in this area, and what contributes to the perception of crime. And in the show, we talk about these very issues: mental illness and how poorly Los Angeles has handled assisting those with mental health issues. The Cecil Hotel is located in this area known as Skid Row, where homelessness is out of control. By focusing on issues like this and on issues like cyberbullying and what happened to people like Victor Vergara, is how we pay the ultimate respect to the victim. It gives a larger context for telling her story than the haunted house approach.
You interviewed internet detectives who have many ideas about what happened to Elisa, some of which nearly cost Victor his life. What does this teach viewers about the responsibility behind investigating cases?
I believe we live in a post-truth era. We only have to look at presidential politics, the assault on the Capitol, and QAnon conspiracy theorists being elected to the U.S. Congress. We seem to have lost the ability to have an objective truth. Not that the show is so much about that but I wanted to look at it through that lens. There's a danger in not accepting and understanding that you need corroborating evidence before you put a theory out there. Bullying Victor, who had nothing to do with this case, to the point where he almost took his own life. On one hand, I applaud the effort of people who are concerned about someone else's welfare that they take the time to try to investigate. But sometimes people get carried away and are unable to distinguish between what's real and what's an odd coincidence that sounds fascinating but is not based on facts.
We learned in the docuseries that the hatch of the water tank Elisa was found in wasn't actually closed. Was this already known?
There are other tellings of this story that haven't revealed that but the information is accessible. The docuseries didn't dig this up. This is the perfect example of how people want to tell the story they want so things are omitted and it leads to conspiracies.
There are still people who consider this case unsolved. Do you feel it is?
People still want to selectively tell the story by leaving information out like the hatch. To me, it's a solid case. I can't give you an answer for every little detail, like with any case there are open questions. In any case, you can't answer every question, but the preponderance of the evidence makes me very confident in the idea that it was a tragic accident. This was somebody who was having a mental health episode and a tragic set of circumstances collided. She thought she would be safer by crawling into that tank and she became trapped.
Elisa's friends and families did not participate in your docuseries. If they changed their minds and were willing to talk to you one day, would you revisit the case?
I don't know that I would be interested in revisiting the case on film. I feel like we did a pretty good job of telling the story. But if they were open to talking about it, I certainly would love to talk to them. If they wanted to have their views represented, I would try to convince Netflix to do a fifth episode.
All four episodes of Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel are currently available on Netflix.