In 1980, Ted Bundy was sentenced to death by electrocution. In the years that followed, he agreed to disclose the details of his crimes, but only to one man. No Man of God is based on the true story of the strange and complicated relationship that developed between FBI agent Bill Hagmaier and an incarcerated Ted Bundy in the years leading to Bundy's execution.
Director Amber Sealey corners her flawed characters in her new film No Man of God, by tapping into human connection, trust and deceit. In this interview, Amber and I discuss what draws her to flawed characters, effectively communicating with her cast and offers advice for budding filmmakers.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Your portfolio is rich with strong character pieces. I'm curious, what is it about the human experience or flawed people that attract you as a storyteller?
Amber Sealey: Oh, maybe because I'm flawed. [laughs] I mean, you hit the nail on the head. I think we're all flawed. I think that's part of the human condition is that we are all imperfect. And I love that about us, we all have good parts and bad parts and we all have good and evil and I think that's kind of what the movie is talking about, right? Bill is looking at Ted and going like, “Oh my god, am I like you? Could I do this? Could I be like you?” And the truth is he could, we all could, and it's our choices and our actions that define who we are but we all have flaws and dark parts of us. And that just interests me. And I'm also really interested in honesty, and so to me like talking about our flaws and talking about our faults, is really honest. I think I personally am always drawn to characters that are flawed, and that you can see their flaws, and that those flaws are poked and prodded a little bit. It’s the dark corners that interest me no matter what the subject matter is, no matter what the storyline is.
Sadie: I like how you were able to balance those character dynamics between Bundy and Bill, it seems like such a huge undertaking for a filmmaker, because it's just so intense. And there's such a big sense of trust that you're dealing with between the two characters and I think also with your audience as well, in humanizing Bundy and making sure not to steer off course.
Amber: It is about humanizing him to me, to show the real him. Not to show sympathy for him. I mean, certainly, I think we can all feel sympathy for anybody, especially at the end of their life. I think it's impossible not to if you see someone who's about to die, it's possible not to feel some sort of human connection. But to me, it was about showing the real him because I wanted to see the real him, I wanted to see the person that I saw as equally insecure, deeply narcissistic, psychopath, obsessed with others thinking he was smart and interesting - that's the real him, and that's what I wanted to show.
Sadie: When communicating with both of the leads, Elijah and Luke, how were you able to communicate how you wanted these characters portrayed?
Amber: Well, they're both so brilliant. They’re both just like putty, mold them in any shape and they'll take that shape, and we had such a great rehearsal process when we really dissected these men - who are they? Why are they saying this? Why are they doing this? - really breaking it down, breaking down the script and so much of the script was based on actual recorded transcripts, between Bill Hagmaier who was a producer on the film, and he gave us those hours and hours of recorded tapes that he had of him and Bundy. And we listened to those and it was just like, OK, this really happened in real life, why did these guys do this? Why did these guys say this? What's going on for them? And then there's also the larger part of what are we saying here in the film. But the conversations between the two of them was really about this mental swordplay. They were both performing for each other. They both want to get something out of the other one and they want the other one to think something about them, and I love that. That to me is so great when somebody is kind of performing for the other person. They’re both pretending there's this friendship going on and there is a friendship going on and they did get quite close and quite intimate and they did share a lot of stuff with each other, but they also have these ulterior motives. And that was fascinating to me.
The process of working with actors is so natural for me. I used to be an actor and I love actors, I love the process and it's the most fun part for me, directing. It's working with actors who are game and want to try and think and want to really dig deeper and both Elijah and Luke are like that. They're just consummate professionals and so fun, and also just so sweet and kind. There was a real love for each other and a love for the making of this movie. We were one of the first films out after the pandemic and there was the shutdown, our industry completely stopped for a while. So, when we got back up, we were the first films that got back up in LA and we love our industry, we want our industry to survive. And we love each other, and we love humans, and so it was kind of a life-affirming experience for all of us.
Sadie: I love that and what a perfect movie to come out with, it's so intimate that you know you could shoot this during COVID and still make it safe.
Amber: Yeah, we actually did a thing where we made all the locations have both an ingress and egress for air, so we had every location be on the ground floor so we could have a door or a window that always opened and we would re-circulate fresh air in the room every 15 minutes. And that I think is what kept us all safe. We had no positive tests on our shoot and I think it was really to do with how we planned, keeping the air clean.
Sadie: Going off that notion with your background as an actress, I feel like actors who go into directing and writing, have this way of really digging deep into characters and really finding nuances. Would you suggest to other filmmakers who don't have a background in acting to maybe consider taking acting classes or improv classes to better communicate on the page and with their team?
Amber: For sure. I mean, it's one of the things that I am constantly shocked by how many directors don’t really know how to work with actors and are really scared of working with actors. Some directors naturally know how to do it. I think if you have great social skills, then it can just work for you and I think a lot of directors, it just comes naturally. And then for some, it doesn't. And for those that feel nervous about it or feel like it doesn't, I would recommend taking acting classes, talking to your friends who are actors. Most actors love acting and they love just getting to do it. If you said, “Hey, I want to get a bunch of actors together and just workshop a scene in my backyard and I want to give you notes and then you give me feedback on how was I giving notes, and just kind of keep making open dialogue with your actor friends I think that's a really good way to get more comfortable with that. I think for me because I came from that world, I've been acting for like 20 years prior to this, so it's something that I just really love.
Sadie: How did this project come across your desk already written by Robert or did you two work together to flesh this out?
Amber: No, it came through the normal channels. The script was written, it had been with SpectreVision for a few years, they were trying to get it made for a while. And then it came across my manager's desk, and my manager knows the production company, and she sent it to me to consider and I read it and my first thought was like, “Me and a Bundy film, what?" and then I thought, actually that's kind of weird and cool and if these people are willing to hire me to direct this then they're weird and cool, and that means I like them. And so I thought OK, I'll go and pitch on it and I did and they liked my pitch and I liked them. I'm not a natural fit for a Bundy film, and to me the fact that they wanted to hire me, it spoke to that they were willing to be courageous and daring, in a way that I wanted to be.
Sadie: It was a perfect fit. Shifting gears, tell us about your filmmaking journey, from your acting career to becoming a director and a writer.
Amber: Yeah, it was a really organic process for me. I started out as a performer and I was doing theater and then that moved into performance art, and then that moved into performance art with a companion video that I would perform alongside. And then I produced and helped edit and acted in a short film, and then that led to making my first feature film. I was living in London at the time and I was really inspired by the dogma film movement that was going on in Europe. And I was like, “Oh, I can just make this with my friends.” All we need is the camera and someone to record the sound and we're golden. And so that's what I did and it just spawned the love of cinema for me.
That first film ended up getting some small distribution and winning some awards and I just fell in love with the process. It’s moved along, like just step by step quite organically for me, but I've always been in the kind of storytelling performance world since I was a little kid. Becoming a director, was a natural fit for me but it happened kind of slowly and organically because I was always the kind of actor that also wanted to be in charge, [laughs] writing the stories and I can sort of steer the ship a little bit more.
Sadie: You’ve participated in some of the best fellowships for filmmakers from the AFI Directing Workshop for Women, Film Independent, and NBC Universal Directors Initiative, any general advice for a filmmaker that is thinking of submitting to one of these fellowships?
Amber: The programs are great and they're all different, and you know programs are sort of like a lottery - just keep applying. You'll meet great people, you'll make a network, a kind of community of other filmmakers and you learn something from all of them. Some are helpful in other ways, and in some ways, some are harmful, but I think that the programs are not going to get you work. Some of them give you say an episode of television but very few of them do that. They're more about honing your community. So, in terms of work, that's a separate thing - you have to keep making work and generating material and taking meetings and making stuff. And you do that however you can, everybody does it differently.
Sadie: Keep generating material, absolutely. Well Amber, thank you so much for your time. I’m looking forward to what you have in your film pipeline and hopefully, we get to talk to you again.
Amber: Thank you, so fun to talk to you.
NO MAN OF GOD is available In Theaters, On Demand and Digital August 27, 2021.