True/False Film Fest: Nick Broomfield on Investigating a Serial Killer in Doc ‘Tales of the Grim Sleeper’

Tales of the Grim Sleeper
Nick Broomfield, Pam Brooks, and Barney Broomfield talk about “Tales of the Grim Sleeper” at the True/False Film Festival 2015 | Melanie Votaw Photo

“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” is a fascinating documentary about a serial killer in south central Los Angeles nicknamed “the grim sleeper.” His real name is Lonnie David Franklin, Jr., and he murdered perhaps 200 women over a 25-year period before he was finally caught in 2010. The nickname was given to him because it appeared that he took a break from killing for 14 years, but there is also considerable evidence that he did not take a break at all.

Through gaining the trust of the people in Franklin’s community, including the man’s own son, the filmmaker managed to include a number of enlightening interviews of people who were friends of Franklin.

Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. in court in "Tales of the Grim Sleeper"
Lonnie David Franklin, Jr. in court in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper”

“Tales of the Grim Sleeper” also alleges that institutionalized racism within the Los Angeles Police Department could be largely responsible for the fact that the man was allowed to kill for so many years. A group was formed to advocate for the lives of these black women, many of whom were prostitutes and drug addicts. The group contends that the LAPD did not care about these women.

Most of the people interviewed in the film were never questioned by the police, although some of them readily admit that they would not have been forthcoming with law enforcement. The distrust between the police and the community is evident. One woman in the film – a lawyer – says that she has always told her children not to call 911 if something happens because it’s all too easy for a black victim to be turned into a perpetrator in the minds of the police.

As a result of all of this, the film has become much more than a portrait of a serial killer. It is a portrait of a marginalized community and the police who perhaps fail to protect and serve that community.

Director Nick Broomfield appeared for a Q&A last week after the screening of the film at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, along with his son, cinematographer Barney Broomfield, and one of the film’s subjects, Pam Brooks.

Pam Brooks in "Tales of the Grim Sleeper"
Pam Brooks in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper”

Pam readily admits in the film that she was a prostitute and a crack addict who had sex with Franklin for money. She’s lucky, however, in that he did not try to hurt her. She helped the filmmakers gain the trust of the people in the community and even led them to a few women who barely escaped from Franklin with their lives. Pam is one of those people who tells it like it is without an ounce of pretense, so some of her comments in the film provide much needed comic relief.

Pam is now six years sober, currently works as a caregiver for the elderly, and has been attending film festivals with the director.

Below are some of the highlights of the Q&A:

Nick on what he hopes will happen as a result of the film:

I think the film will start, hopefully, a discussion going in Los Angeles, but I think as we’re in a sort of Ferguson-land area here, it’s a national debate really that’s happening. I don’t think what’s happened in Ferguson or South Central is particular to those communities. Interestingly, I guess you’ve all read the reports about Ferguson this week that there’s a kind of systematic and institutionalized racism within the police force, within the court system. So, it’s a kind of bigger thing.

I guess what attracted me to the subject was I thought, “Where else is it possible that these murders could happen – not only for so long but that 200 women could disappear from the center of a major city in America, one of the most affluent?…” I think it’s a massive problem that needs to be addressed. It’s a bigger political problem. It’s not just the police force. It’s an attitude.

Nick on interviewing people for documentaries: 

I tend not to pre-interview people or contact people that I might eventually film because I think one’s initial contact with people is the most important and exciting. And it’s never the same when it’s a second conversation.

Barney on his role in the making of the film with his father:

This is the first proper film that we’ve made together, but obviously, I’ve grown up with it. It was a pretty unique experience because it was really just kind of the three of us. We had a production office right in the community, and a lot of meetings were conducted there because they [the film’s subjects] were too afraid to be seen on the streets with us.

So, it was a really interesting dynamic that happened when people sat down for interviews. It was almost like a confessional because at first, people were very, very reticent about talking to us. Then, eventually, over time, it became almost this therapeutic thing for them.

Nick Broomfield, right, interviews one of Lonnie David Franklin's friends in "Tales of the Grim Sleeper"
Nick Broomfield, right, interviews one of Lonnie David Franklin’s friends in “Tales of the Grim Sleeper”

Nick on how they gained the trust of the community:

I think a lot of it is if you spend time with people. I think a lot of the news crews have obviously just gone in for the day and asked the most embarrassing questions off the street. So, initially, people were reluctant to cooperate with us. I think there was a feeling within the community that people should stick together and protect each other and not really deal with outsiders.

But the film was shot over the course of about a year and a half, so people just got to know us. I also think it’s the downtime you spend with people that’s most important, when people have some fun with you and when people just hang out with you and enjoy your company. Everybody in that community has a story to tell that they want to tell, and it’s probably one of the few times they’ve been asked to tell it. They were very forthcoming after a while.

Pam on how she got Franklin’s son to agree to an interview:

Nick can’t drive worth a shit…. I was so nervous because Nick just stopped, and oh my God, and then, Barney wasn’t trying to help me. So, I just finally got myself together, and I got out and gave him [Franklin’s son] my number. And he said, “I heard you’ve been looking for me.” I said, “Yeah, we want to do an interview, so call me when you’re ready, right?”

I walked him to a corner, and I said, “Are you going to call me?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “Yeah.” A couple of weeks later, he called, and he gave us the interview. When we met him, he’s really damaged…. I feel sorry for him because he’s broken…. I stay in contact with him. He calls me all the time.


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