By Netflix OLDRime scene: Disappearance at Hotel Cecil re-enacts the 2013 death of Canadian student Elisa Lam at the notorious hotel in downtown LA, highlighting a story that sheds light on the rise of murder and online bullying, the infamous history of hotels, the current status of Skid Row LA, and the mental health stigma. Director Joe Berlinger discusses the challenges he faced completing the series and why he didn’t want to simply make a “spooky, spooky house story”.
What is the motivation for this project?
When that elevator scene [of Lam at the Cecil Hotel] went viral in 2013, I was hooked by it but never really thought I could add anything to the lines because it’s such a famous story. All thoughts on this story [was] that people know what the outcome is, but people want to believe the circumstantial evidence without any endorsement. I’ve been thinking a lot about the times in which we live and the death of truth, and how can I put that into words? When I agreed, I thought, “This is a fun way to express this idea.”
Worked with other true crime stories like Heaven is lost trilogy, is there a particular challenge in telling this story that you haven’t encountered in your previous work?
How do you tell a story where you are serving an audience that knows it all while trying to tell a story to people who know nothing about it? There is a good line you have to jump. And then the other challenge is having unreliable storytellers. I wanted to give viewers the experience that explorer webs have while the story is going and the different things they believe in and why, to test the viewer’s own sensitivity to believing these things. But at the end of the day, we realize that all of that is totally fascinating but not exactly. How do you tell that story without making the viewer feel cheated because you’re leading them down a certain path that you fixed at the end?
Another aim is to really respect the victim in this case. All the other stories of this story have really relied heavily on the occult, on the spooky, trying to make it seem like Cecil is really a haunted place. And for me, to reduce the story of Elisa Lam and write it down into a spooky, haunted house story, that’s disrespectful to the victim.
Did the response to the documentary surprise you in any way?
I think the critical reaction is very mixed, like right in the middle. I’m a bit surprised because I think the show is a very clever and ingenious dissection of the very genre I’m running: It’s kind of a reflection on the nature of real-life crime phobia, and mostly Most critics don’t see that. But in terms of the popular reaction, it is extremely positive and shocking in terms of how popular it is.
What do you hope viewers learn from this documentary?
We as filmmakers can’t just come up with arguments: You have to combine the ideas you want to convey in a point-based way into one easy-to-understand entertainment. So first and foremost, I always want people to watch the show and be stimulated and think and quote – “enjoy” what is presented. Obviously, when you’re talking about the death of a real person, the show’s “enjoyment” is enclosed in quotes. I want people to be intellectually aroused and to test their own prejudices and stereotypes in whatever I do. And certainly at the most basic level, I hope people take away the enjoyable experience through good storytelling, then a door to these larger issues. – KK
The edited interview is long and clear.
Four real-life crime documents that defy expectations
Many of these stories delve into fraud, terrorism, and murder – each with a unique and compelling twist.
I’ll Walk In The Dark (HBO)
CEO Patton Oswalt has produced this trove of documents based on his late wife’s book, Michelle McNamara, chronicling her haunting search for the identity of the Golden State Killer who terrorized people. Californians from 1976 to 1986.
Love scam (Showtime)
Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have hired private detectives and a bounty hunter named Carla on their wild and unexpected quest to track down Richard Scott Smith, a serial fraudster and the a persistent man who defrauds many women through sex scams.
Murder on the middle beach (HBO)
Director Madison Hamburg tries to solve the 2010 murder of her mother, Barbara, and heal the family rifts her death left behind after it happened. But Hamburg’s murder exposes dark secrets, further complicating his search for the truth.
A wilderness of bugs (Hulu)
Marc Smerling adapted Errol Morris’ book on the Jeffrey MacDonald murder – famously chronicled in Joe McGinniss’ Fatal vision and a follow-up miniseries – and check out our collective obsession with the true-crime genre.
This story first appeared in the June issue of The Hollywood Reporter. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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