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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

Director Nick Broomfield Talks HBO’s Tales of The Grim Sleeper [Exclusive] 

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

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.

How was he able to get away with these murders for so long? Why didn’t the LAPD devote more time and resources to these serial murders? Who is Lonnie Franklin and why was he never suspected of these crimes? I talked exclusively to director Nick Broomfield about how he heard about Lonnie Franklin, aka “the Grim Sleeper,” how he got access to so many great characters for this film and how the LAPD has completely failed this community.

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

TV GOODNESS: How did this subject come to your attention and when did you know you had enough material to make a film?

Nick Broomfield: “I remember the arrest of Lonnie Franklin and then I also ready so very good articles by Christine Pelisek in the LA Weekly about the case. Christine was quite involved and she was the person who actually broke the news that there was a serial killer operating in South Central; the police only announced it after she broke the story. So there were some very good pieces. There was also a very good piece in Newsweek that I read. It was a basis for the film.

I didn’t have any of my characters and I made a different film, really from the community point of view. But that was the basis for it. And I probably carried on filming much longer than I had originally anticipated, mainly because the trial was indefinitely postponed. It was supposed to have happened in the Spring and then it obviously still hasn’t happened. At a certain point after we’d been filming on and off for a year and a half, we decided to sit down and see if we had enough of a film without shooting the trial. And the result is what you saw.”

Photo Credit: Barney Broomfield/HBO
Photo Credit: Barney Broomfield/HBO

TV GOODNESS: You talked to some really interesting characters. I loved everyone you talked to, but I’m specifically thinking of Pam, who was such a great resource. How did you find her?

Nick: “Completely by accident and that’s what I love about documentary is that had I sat down and made this film in the way that most documentaries are made, which is you write a script and then get all the people and sit them down in beautifully lit chairs and cut between them, none of this would’ve happened. We obviously wouldn’t have found a character like Pam. But as it was we bumped into her on the street. We were introduced to her by somebody else who lived on that street with Lonnie Franklin.

Because we had an office close by, a number of people would drop by often around lunchtime or for tea or something and we would all go out together and get something to eat and Pam struck up a relationship with my son Barney, who was shooting the film. They were both into playing dice and were always squabbling about who owed each other more money. So she would come around when she wasn’t doing something and then we would take her out often in the car, when we were driving around the streets. Pam was able to introduce us to people and characters that she knew because she knew the neighborhood so well and was so accepted. We were able to make a film that we simply couldn’t have made without her.”

TV GOODNESS: So many people in that neighborhood don’t trust the police, don’t talk to the police and you found so many interesting people that the police haven’t even interviewed yet.

Nick: “Yes.”

TV GOODNESS: And you included that in the film, which was great. It certainly seems to give us a fuller picture of what’s going on, but what made you want to include their stories as well?

Nick: “I feel it’s a portrait of a community that have been sidelined, neglected, abused, told they’re invalid, a community that don’t really have a point of view that anybody’s listened to. More and more I felt this film was their mouthpiece, their opportunity to talk about things that they want to talk about that haven’t ever been asked about. I’m giving them a voice in a way.”

TV GOODNESS: I wanted to ask about the LAPD because they seemed extremely unhelpful. They didn’t want to go on camera with you, they didn’t seem to want to give any type of comment. How frustrating was that?

Nick: “It was very frustrating and then I realized that, of course, they want to have the glory of arresting Lonnie Franklin, but they don’t want to answer any questions about why it took them so long or why it was a computer that caught him rather than them. There should be an inquiry into what happened and, obviously, the LAPD don’t regard it as their duty to protect and serve that community.

But I think it’s part of all these bigger questions that need to really be asked about policing all over the country, whether it’s in Ferguson or it’s in South Central. It’s the same thing, really. It’s something you need some kind of directive from, either from the Supreme Court or from Congress which would redefine the role of the police in some of these areas, in terms of their relationship and respect for a large number of citizens in this country.”

TV GOODNESS: Let’s talk about Lonnie Franklin. I thought it was so interesting that so many people you talk to say he’s “a good guy,” but they always use a qualifier. They’ll say, “He’s a good guy, but he dealt in stolen cars.” Or, “He’s a good guy, but he’s also a dirty old man.” Why do you think so many of his friends and the community wouldn’t even entertain the possibility that he could be The Grim Sleeper?

Nick: “I think the elephant in the room is the crack epidemic. Lonnie Franklin was seen as a very functioning human being. He had a job, he had a family, he was offering employment. He was doing rather well. He was probably the wealthiest person on the street. There was a raging crack epidemic. Most people were out of work, most of the young people were in prison for one reason or another, quite apart from the crack, which changes people’s behavior and makes them completely dysfunctional. There were terrible health problems, obesity, very few people in the area graduated from high school, people die about 20 years younger than any other part of Los Angeles.

Lonnie was regarded as a rather successful person, I think. People had such overwhelming problems then. The thing is until the crack epidemic is treated in some systematic way, it’s very hard for the community to pick itself up and carry on.”

TV GOODNESS: I like that you ended up talking a little bit to Lonnie’s son Christopher, but let’s talk about his wife Sylvia first. Richard pointed her out on the street when you were out filming one day. Did you ever end up talking to her?

Nick: “No we didn’t. We were just completely unable to really get hold of her. We tried so many different ways to approach her – through Richard, through Christopher himself. She had every opportunity to talk to us if she wanted to. I think people felt she had a right to her privacy, which we should expect.”

TV GOODNESS: It seems impossible that she and Christopher didn’t have some idea of what was going on in their own house. I really like that you got Christopher’s perspective. When you talked to him did you get the sense that he was willfully ignorant about what was going on? Or do you think he knew something was happening?

Nick: “I personally think he knew that something was going on, but he’s very protective of his father. [He] clearly didn’t want to tell tales on his father, was already feeling very guilty about his father’s arrest. Plus, I think Christopher was worried that he was gonna have the same kind of problems that Lonnie had. He’s a very conflicted young man. He really wasn’t gonna tell us very much more than what he did.”

TV GOODNESS: After people watch this film, what do you want them to take away from it?

Nick: “That there are a lot of wonderful people down there who deserve respect, who are articulate, bright, who have a part to play in our society who shouldn’t be marginalized and who are part of this bigger story that we’re seeing played out now of people who are being systematically abused because of their color, because of their lack of income and lack of political representation. This needs to change.

When you see the pictures we’ve been seeing just [last] week from Baltimore – this young man [Freddie Gray] doubled up, treated like a piece of meat – this is simply not acceptable. We need to have legislation and controls and if the police break the law they need to go to jail themselves. These communities need to have some kind of power that they don’t have any more in order to have safeguards for the future. The real problem with South Central and all these other places is that they don’t have a political infrastructure, they don’t have proper representation. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be happening.”

Edited for space and content.

Tales of the Grim Sleeper premieres Monday, April 27th at 9/8c on HBO.

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