There have been many depictions of Ted Bundy throughout the years. Some have chosen to glamorize and romanticize the serial killer as a charming, good-looking psychopath, while others have dropped his killings into the contexts of a horror film. No Man of God (Joey’s review is here) stars Elijah Wood and Luke Kirby and takes a different approach. The film focuses on real-life FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier (Wood) and the trust he gained through the art of listening during a series of sit-downs with Bundy (Kirby).
Elijah Wood, who is also a producer on the film, highlights that it’s the way that Hagmaier approached his methodology on the Ted Bundy case that makes him such an interesting character to play. The nature of Bundy and Hagmaier’s organic relationship not only made the profiler’s career but added a layer to No Man of God‘s crux.
Most scenes feature Hagmaier and Bundy across from one another at the corrections facility, which might feel stale, but director Amber Sealey’s point of view is so strong that it winds up working. As a producer, Wood pointed to Sealey’s vision as a turning point in pre-production — a process that happened mostly over zoom between Kirby, Wood, and Sealey. “She really had a specific take on the movie she wanted to make, and we were so excited about her vision for it. The movie really became hers.”
Awards Radar spoke to Elijah Wood about the process of becoming a profiler and more.
Niki Cruz: I recently saw your Hot Ones episode and it was great. How was that experience?
Elijah Wood: It was incredible. I’ve been a fan of Hot Ones for a long time, so just to get the chance to be on the show, eating the wings, and willfully subjecting myself to that pain was really fun. It gets really hot. I think what was so fascinating to me is that it gets so hot that it becomes very difficult to answer questions. Your brain becomes so hyper-focused on the pain you’re experiencing and the sweating that it does become very difficult for your brain to fire properly synaptically.
NC: There are so many cinematic perspectives of Ted Bundy, but this project is different in that it’s not a paint by numbers retelling of his horrible atrocities. As a producer, how did you approach developing the film?
EW: The script was pretty much there when we read it. It really is an incredible screenplay that was by and large based on transcripts and recollections of Bill Hagmaier, so it’s deeply accurate in what transpired between the two of them. As far as the development of it there wasn’t a whole lot of work to be done. The only thing that we wanted was to develop some of the internal life that Bill was going through. There’s a little bit of artistic license there because to be able to do this job, Bill keeps his emotional life in check and keeps his cards close to his chest.. he’s relatively open, friendly, and sweet, which I think is part of what he brings to the table, but he’s also stoic, so I think it was important for us to find these moments in this relationship that he’s having with Ted and how it’s having an impact on him.
NC: I was thinking of the parallels between an FBI profiler and an actor, and oddly enough, you have to be a great listener to do both.
EW: Yes! That is interesting. I never really thought about it that way. I think it’s really paramount for being an actor to be able to listen and respond. That interplay is hugely integral to that process, but it’s really true — for a profiler, specifically the way that Bill goes about it, too, it’s giving the person the space to feel like they’re being heard. A lot of what was successful about that relationship between Bill and Ted, and why Ted felt like Bill was his best friend, is because Ted felt like Bill treated him like a human being and didn’t come in with any judgment. He has an uncanny and unique ability to approach something from a human perspective and allow these people to feel human and not necessarily judged — not absolved of their crimes but not judged.
NC: Right, and you see how Bill builds that trust with Ted. How did that translate in the way you approached scenes with Luke? Because those were some grueling and emotional scenes.
EW: Yeah, and they are the foundation of the film too. We worked a lot of those out on zoom. We made good use of it — and Luke, myself, and Amber just walked through each of those readings and worked out all of the details. There are dynamic shifts from what’s being said, what’s not being said, and what is subtextual being said on the surface. You’re looking for all of the dynamics of those meetings and working out the architecture of those scenes. Once the architecture was in place, on the day, we can work within the context of that. It allowed us the freedom to play within that structure, and then it becomes part of the process.
NC: With that in mind, the emotional weight of those scenes is unnerving. While you didn’t have to go into the mind of Ted Bundy, you’re still in that darkness within the confines of that space. You hear a lot about vicarious trauma with investigators.
EW: Surprisingly there was a fair amount of levity on the set, and I think that’s surprising obviously given how dark the material was. I think we enjoyed being engaged in the creative process, so there was a fair amount of laughter and fun and joy after being in lockdown for a period of time. I think the dark burden fell a little bit more on Luke’s shoulders, unfortunately in that he really had to walk around with Ted for a while, and I don’t imagine that was pleasant. I think he was quite grateful to let that go at the end. He was reluctant with good reason to even play him. Spending time giving life to that person who had done so many awful things, and doing research, and listening to him talk, and be manipulative, and sort of spending time in that psyche was not awesome. I didn’t have as much of that burden, I was able to disconnect at the end of the day, and frankly, I had a lot to focus on at home with getting prepared for the next day with the amount of dialogue we had. So, as far as sitting in that space, I didn’t feel the burden of that too much. I didn’t feel like I wasn’t able to distance myself at the end of the day.
NC: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the way these FBI researchers profiled individuals?
EW: Not about the methodology in and of itself, but I think it was fascinating to learn about Bill and the way he operated, which I don’t think it’s entirely the case for everybody and everyone’s process. He feels unique in the way he goes about what he does, particularly in his ability to disarm, seeing people as human and taking them at face value and leading with an open heart, and having a genuine interest in wanting to understand how people function is kind of incredible and really fascinating. That case was massive. No one wanted to touch Ted’s case, and Bill got in there and managed to do what nobody else had been able to do before just by the very nature of being who he is, and that was the beginning of a very long career.
‘No Man of God’ is currently available on Digital and VOD
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]