Tiller Russell, director of Night Stalker on Netflix, and others explain how to create thoughtful true crime without lionizing perpetrators
Courtesy of Netflix
Night Stalker Richard Ramirez played to the cameras at his trial.
The latest true crime docuseries creeping onto Netflix this month is Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer. The four-part series revisits the terror Richard Ramirez inflicted on people in Los Angeles in the mid-80s.
His murder spree lasted from June 1984 to August 1985 and dominated headlines, provoked panic and has had a lasting influence on pop culture. The detectives who worked the Ramirez case consulted on Michael Mann’s 1986 movie Manhunter.
The relationship between serial killers and Hollywood entertainment isn’t lost on Night Stalker director Tiller Russell. The former crime reporter points out that there’s something about Los Angeles that attracts serial killers like Charles Manson and the Hillside Strangler.
Like Manson, Ramirez, who died in prison in 2013, courted media attention with his antics during trial, worshipping the devil and playing into what Russell refers to as a “celebritization of serial killers.” Night Stalker, which premiered on Netflix Canada this week, limits its coverage of Ramirez’s courtroom stunts, as if refusing to play up the notoriety the serial killer wanted.
“It was incredibly important that there was never any lionizing or making a hero of this guy,” says Russell, adding he was mindful of the need to navigate a genre often packaged as entertainment in an ethical and purposeful way.
If the sheer volume of true crime content on Netflix is any indication, audiences are serial consumers of ritualistic stories that can, at times, be craven and voyeuristic. True crime shows have tropes, and it falls on filmmakers and journalist to find purpose, empathy and respect for victims in telling these stories.
In interviews that took place over the past year, we asked CBC podcasts executive producer Arif Noorani, Uncover: Sharmini host Michelle Shephard and comic and podcast producer Matt Baram about the culture’s obsession with long-form crime storytelling and the purpose the genre holds.
“There’s something about us as a culture that has this tremendous appetite for [crime],” says Russell, who adds that we’ve grappled with this obsession in different mediums or media in different eras.
Somehow serial killer movies – from Manhunter to David Fincher’s Zodiac – gave way to true crime podcasts and high-end Netflix and HBO series like Don’t Fuck With Cats: Hunting An Internet Killer, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark and now Night Stalker.
“What does it say about us as a culture?” Russell asks.
In Uncover: Sharmini, former Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard revisits an unsolved case that has stayed with her 20 years later. Fifteen-year-old Sharmini Anandavel went missing in June 1999. Her skeletal remains were found four months later near the Don River. Shephard pores over old evidence and conducts new interviews, with police, Anandavel’s family and friends and even her suspected murderer.
In retelling the story, Shephard makes a revealing case for how and why Anandavel was murdered. The teen came from a marginalized family of hard-working immigrants, which made her vulnerable. The podcast also helps Shephard and her audience find some closure.
According to CBC executive producer Arif Noorani, Uncover is guided by “investigative journalism” and “unanswered questions” that need to be resolved.
He draws a line between the ethical work done on Uncover and its influences like Serial, The Accused or In The Dark, and sensational true crime entertainment like 20/20, Dateline or Don’t Fuck With Cats. The latter limited series told the story of Canadian killer Luka Magnotta through the eyes of amateur internet sleuths who tried to track him down.
Noorani points out that shows like Making A Murderer and podcasts like Serial or In The Dark can have purpose. All direct the public to the faults in the justice system. In The Dark, in particular, pressured a deeper look at the case of Curtis Flowers, a Black man who was tried six times by system that appeared motivated by racial bias. At their best, true crime podcasts shed light on an urgent issue and effect or inspire change.
Noorani is uncomfortable with even associating some of CBC’s most influential podcasts with the true crime genre. Among them is Missing & Murdered, which investigates the 1989 murder of Alberta Williams, an Indigenous woman. In the second season, Finding Cleo, host Connie Walker searches for the missing member of a family that was torn apart by the Sixties Scoop. If Missing & Murdered was part of the genre true crime, it finds the Canadian government guilty.
Uncover’s third season, The Village, looked at the pattern of neglect that made Toronto’s gay community vulnerable to a serial killer like Bruce McArthur. The podcast, hosted by journalist Justin Ling, uses the McArthur case as a prism to look at a cold case murders that date back to the 70s.
“One of the big factors that allowed those murders in the 70s to happen over and over again is none of the men wanted to come forward and say their friend was missing,” says Noorani.
“The closet kept information from being shared with the police. Your friend that you see at the bar every week doesn’t show up for months. You don’t want to come out and say, ‘I go to the Charles Street Tavern or the Parkside Tavern and so-and-so is isn’t around anymore,’ because you are married and have kids and you have a job. Folks were so marginalized, they couldn’t even speak out about it.”
The same neglect and vulnerability that led to the murders in the 70s, Noorani explains, is victimizing trans women today.
True crime can also have an empathetic function, say Noorani and Shephard, particularly when it tries to understand what motivates criminals and their actions. Uncover, along with shows like I’ll Be Gone In The Dark and Night Stalker, take the time to investigate the abuse that created the murderers they cover.
Shephard and Noorani also refer to the CBC podcast Hunting Warhead, which investigates child abusers and pedophiles. Host Daemon Fairless takes a scientific approach to understanding the human behaviour and psychology of perpetrators.
“Through his investigation, he shows that pedophilic tendencies are actually hardwired in one to two per cent of the population,” says Noorani, who says not all act on those tendencies.
“As a society, you can choose to completely demonize those people. Or you can say, ‘Okay, given that it’s hardwired, what are ways we could allow them to come forward and share, and provide alternatives to them in terms of dealing with it.”
Comic Matt Baram has some doubt about such “intended” purposes of true crime shows – to understand “what makes people behave in notoriously criminal ways.” He wonders whether educational purpose is undermined by the more sensational tendencies in the true crime genre.
“It turns into a kind of voyeurism,” says Baram, referring specifically to the craving for all the “gory” details. “What is that going to teach us about stopping our neighbour from picking up a gun or a knife and enacting the crime percolating in their brain.”
You may recall that Don’t Fuck With Cats addresses voyeurism. The subject of the series, Luka Rocco Magnotta, craved attention. He sought an audience for his 2012 murder of Jun Lin, an international student at Concordia University, putting video of the heinous crime on the internet.
As a final note, the series implicates the audience for giving Magnotta exactly what he wanted, by watching. After serving up the most sensational thrills and tropes a true crime series can offer, Don’t Fuck With Cats finds a last-minute purpose.
Courtesy of Netflix
A scene from Don’t Fuck With Cats.
According to Baram, the true crime genre has taken the “aerial footage of O.J. Simpson’s SUV rolling down the freeway to the most extreme degree.”
“Now we’re all in the helicopter,” says Baram, who alongside his wife Naomi Snieckus created a true crime parody podcast, Someone Stole Something. What is more indicative of the popularity of a genre than a successful parody of that genre?
Baram and Snieckus’s serialized mocku-mystery leans heavily on tried-and-true true crime tropes to unravel the mystery around three missing chairs that seem to have been stolen from their cottage during a party.
“Our take on it in Someone Stole Something is taking the murder out of [true crime] and making it about something completely mundane,” says Baram. The podcast has the pulsating score and cliffhanger story editing that keeps listeners or viewers hooked. Baram and Snieckus latch onto the cliches, tropes and trade secrets as if to show how any story can be as riveting as true crime with the right string instruments.
Though he mocks it, Baram is also a fan of the genre. He shares his appreciation for Truman Capote’s infamous novel In Cold Blood to the new era of serialized shows, which began taking off with the podcast Serial and the limited series about Robert Durst, The Jinx.
“We all get to play detective at home,” says Baram, adding that there’s a comfort for audiences who rely on the familiar structures and tropes of the storytelling, whether it’s in true crime or Law & Order.
Noorani adds Agatha Christie to that list of influences on the genre.
“The reason people love true crime or they love mysteries is because they draw on narrative storytelling that has been there since Shakespeare and earlier,” says Noorani.
Shephard adds that even journalism can follow similar rules to true crime storytelling, like those details that leave an audience hanging at the end of each episode, prepping them to binge.
“When your local newspaper article or magazine has a break, it’s usually a bit of a tease just to make sure you read the next paragraph or the end of a chapter,” says Shephard.
Courtesy of CBC
With Uncover, Shephard had to ride the fine line between gripping storytelling to keep the audience listening and respect for whose story she was telling.
“You really are keeping people going along and that carries certain risks,” she says.
For Russell, keeping the more “gripping,” “riveting” and “entertaining” tropes at bay in Night Stalker was particularly challenging when the Richard Ramirez story feels shaped by the movies, or perhaps vice versa.
“It inherently has these kind of sensationalist elements to it,” says Russell. “It’s a serial killer [in] an iconic city with these iconic homicide cops [pursuing him]. There are these familiar genre elements that you’re working with. And yet this isn’t a fictional story. These are real people and real lives.”
“It’s an incredibly complicated moral and storytelling issue that you literally are negotiating question by question in the interviews, frame by frame in the edit, note by note in the score and all the way throughout. And then you’re constantly adjusting and modulating and moderating it.”
Shephard says that for Uncover, her and co-producer Kathleen Goldhar tried to re-listen to every element in their podcast as if they knew the victim; as if Sharmini Anandavel was a daughter, sister or friend.
“If you actually can do that, there’s certain things that jump out,” says Shephard.
Russell, Shephard, Noorani and Baram also agree that the victims’ stories need to be centred for the true crime genre to even be moderately respectful. You’ll notice that the CBC podcasts are often named for the victims, whether they be individuals like Alberta Williams or Sharmini Anandavel, or an entire gay community like The Village.
Don’t Fuck With Cats in particular drew criticism for treating Jun Lin like an afterthought in its narrative about internet sleuths chasing down a murderer who craved celebrity.
Russell explains that the most important step in the effort to not lionize or feed into the celebritization of Richard Ramirez in Night Stalker was allowing survivors and families of victims to tell their stories and “evoke the horror of what they lived through.”
“Doing that in a way that made it real for people.”