As the first woman to make a documentary about Ted Bundy, Celene Beth Calderon has a lot she wants to change about how true crime stories are depicted in the media.
Given problematic films like “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” Bundy’s gruesome story could use a different perspective from someone who cares to give the victims of Bundy’s hate-fueled violence a platform instead of the unrepentant serial killer. And, with her debut film, “Theodore,” Calderon and her co-creator, Timothy John Psarras, are just those people.
“As the first female director, I feel it’s my responsibility to tell this story right,” Calderon said. “When I started this project (in January 2017), it sounded obscene to people and I got a lot of backlash. I did a lot of local promotion to generate leads. The biggest thing in the last year has been I think I’ve counted about eight or nine films worldwide on Ted Bundy, and then we have been sitting over here. Give us a chance! People want to know, ‘How is this different than other films? Why should we invest?’ We’re screaming on the street, ‘We’re covering the stuff that no one else is talking about!’ I’m trying to jolt society and telling them this is the story. This is what you need to hear. As a female filmmaker and minority – I’m a Latina – I’ve had to use my voice.”
Calderon had been talking about making the film for years, well before she began working with the Sundance Documentary Film Program and the subject came up again. She decided to ask what it would take to make a documentary about a serial killer, was told that she should do it, and decided to begin the process the very next day.
“I live in Salt Lake City, so Bundy was always a boogeyman. He’s who I thought was the closest serial killer in my personal life, but I found out that Richard Ramirez murdered three people in grandmother’s neighborhood. … Here in Utah, you hear the name Bundy and someone has a story about him, whether it be, ‘He was in my class in law school,’ or ‘My mom went on a date with him.’ The stories are unreal.”
The film initially started out as a way to capture the lore of Bundy, but Calderon quickly realized the project was going to have to be much bigger than that. Too many victims of his crimes wanted to share their experiences for her not to shift the focus.
“When I look at everyone I’ve interviewed, in one or another they’re all victims. Maybe not in a typical way that we view victims in true crime, but down to the law enforcement officers and his friends, they all share a true trauma. They’ve had to see some gruesome things and lived with it for 40 years. With true crime becoming a mainstream thing, they’ve had to grapple with that idea that people are making money off of their pain. What started so small turned out to be so much bigger than what I imagined. Even up until last week I’ve had people reaching out to me wanting to talk, and it’s not my place to tell people that they can’t tell their stories. … It’s a cautionary tale with a modern twist. I want to show everyone what it means to be affected by a truly evil person.”
They visited places in Colorado like Vail and Aspen for the documentary, where Ted Bundy was active. He even made his first escape attempt at the Pitkin County Courthouse. Calderon said they had to beg their way into filming at the building.
While Calderon has some misgivings about the idea of profiting off of other people’s pain, she hopes that continuing to tell the stories of men like Bundy will unite women and keep others safe.
“Two of our Utah university students (Mackenzie Lueck and Lauren McCluskey) were murdered in the last couple of years. That really shook our community and opened the eyes of young women here.”
No, she’s not in love with Ted Bundy, a question she gets a lot. Aside from its sexist connotations (we doubt any man who’s made a documentary about Ted Bundy has been asked this), it opens up the doors to a conversation about the romanticized version of Bundy that we see so often portrayed. He’s usually the dark, handsome, educated, and charming stranger who’s had a career in politics and is the ultimate bad boy, according to so many media depictions, rather than the arrogant, lying, self-centered psychopath who brutally murdered women, children, and teenagers, said Calderon.
Despite being upfront about the series’ goal of focusing on the victims of Bundy’s crimes, Beth often has to delete comments on the documentary’s Instagram page of people stating how attractive he is or how they’d like to have sex with him. If you ever want to lose your lunch, she said, just search the term “Ted Bundy” on Etsy and you’ll come across all manner of products, from pajamas to pillowcases embroidered with his face.
“There is an actual medical term: hybristophilia,” Beth said. “That, for me, is something I’m trying to understand but I’m struggling to. You have this handsome actor playing him, but then this narrative of this constant reminder that he was handsome, charming, and educated. But then when you talk to the people (who) actually knew him, you hear all these claims. He was arrogant. He stole. He would dodge certain questions. The media has created this portrait of a beautiful individual. Let’s peel that back.”
She hopes that with “Theodore,” she can help break the magical hold of those fantasy depictions. Since more victims continue to come forward to tell their story, Calderon hopes the film will be ready for this fall, with an end of the year or early 2020 release. For more information, visit theodorethedocumentary.com.