No Man of God portrays the relationship between an incarcerated Ted Bundy (played by acclaimed Canadian actor Luke Kirby, recently seen as Lenny Bruce in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and FBI agent William ‘Bill’ Hagmaier (Elijah Wood, who also produces through his companies, SpectreVision and Company X). Hagmaier, a former high school guidance counselor, interviewed Bundy extensively in the years leading up to the killer’s 1989 execution.
The script, credited to one Kit Lesser, is based on transcripts of those conversations, during which Hagmaier tried to get Bundy to admit to further murders to bring the families of those victims closure. He was also charged with helping to determine if the killer was insane—as Bundy repeatedly claimed to be— and thus ineligible for execution.
Although it’s one of several recent Bundy-centric projects (which Sealey addresses in our interview), No Man of God draws the viewer in close, creating an uncomfortable intimacy with one of the 20th Century's most monstrous figures. Ahead of her film’s world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Festival, Sealey spoke to Dominic Corry for Festiville.
How did you come to make this film?
Amber Sealey: It came to me through the normal channels. My manager gave me this script to consider, and my first thought was: another Bundy movie? Really? Then I read the script and it was such a nice smooth read and I immediately had a take on it. I know the SpectreVision guys a little bit and I obviously was a fan of Elijah’s and I thought: well, okay let’s go and meet them and I’ll give them my ideas and we’ll see if we’re a good match. I went in and we were just a great match. Everything I pitched to them, they were into, and it all happened quite quickly. I was hired just a couple days later and then about a month later we started prep, and we were all getting ready to shoot.
And then the pandemic happened. We had stopped for a while, but in a way it was quite nice to have that long break. We really got to get the script to where we wanted, and I got to do a lot of deep prep and we all got to research. I enjoyed getting to know Bill Hagmaier [who is an EP on the film], getting to know Elijah and Luke, it was a really interesting process.
So the script came with Elijah Wood attached as the lead?
Company X and Spectrevision, which are sister companies, they’ve had the script for a few years and have been trying to get it made. Elijah really approaches things first and foremost as a producer for his production company and they see if it sort of fits where they want to go with the company, and it did. I think it wasn’t until much later in the process that Elijah realized that he was really fascinated by Bill and that he wanted to play that part, so he was attached as Bill when I came on. I was thrilled about that because I’ve always wanted to work with Elijah, I think he’s brilliant. The rest of the cast, I brought on.
As you mentioned, there have been several Ted Bundy films over the years, including recently. What did you feel this one could add to the discourse about him?
It was really important to me that if we were going to make another Bundy movie that we made one that stood out from the crowd, that had its own voice and wasn’t just playing up to the interests that culturally we have in Bundy. I was like: look, it’s really important that this be a film for art’s sake as well, and say something larger about our cultural obsession with serial killers—and give a voice to the victims in a way that hasn’t been done before. So that was the part that I really brought to it—all of the women.
There were no women basically in the script so I [inserted some]. Even though they don’t have a voice, they’re a very, I hope, powerful presence in the film. I’m trying to say what it’s like as a female living in society, knowing what it’s like to walk down a dark alley and be afraid of the person walking behind you, what that experience is like as a woman. Knowing that our culture is obsessed with these people that do horrible things to women’s bodies.
Those are some of the most incredible moments in the film, when the camera lingers on those peripheral female characters who we don’t hear from, but who say so much just by their presence. Was it a conscious choice to have them not speak?
I put them in the script, and then it was a conscious choice to have them not speak because the victims are dead, they can’t speak for themselves. But I thought, how can we have them be present? And not saccharin or cheesy or sassy, and also not just brushing them under the carpet. How can they be a powerful presence in telling the story? Because to me, you can’t tell Bundy’s story without also having the victims have a voice.
I thought, well how can we sort of speak for them? How can we show what it’s like for that young woman [a sound technician] in the scene where Bundy is being interviewed by [evangelical psychologist James] Dobson. That woman, she probably was in college and was afraid of him. She was probably afraid of being murdered by him, just a couple of years previously, and here she is sitting in a room with him, having to listen to him talk and watching him get all this attention. I just thought: what must that be like for her?
The obvious conundrum that is thrown up every time you depict someone like Ted Bundy is the idea that he is known for being somewhat charismatic, and that there’s a potential to glamorize him just by virtue of having him be embodied on camera by an actor who’s naturally charismatic. I’m not saying that this film is guilty of that, but were you conscious of that concern that people tend to have about depicting people like this?
I was very conscious of that. Luke Kirby is a very attractive guy, more attractive than the real Bundy was, I think. I wish he was a little less attractive because when I look at Bundy, I don’t see someone who's charming and charismatic and attractive; I see a reedy, thin, very narcissistic, very insecure, desperate-for-approval kind of guy.
I was really trying to portray him as I see him, which I don’t think the other films up until now have done. I think that often people like to portray him as this mythical, magical, charming rock star and that’s not, in my mind or in Bill’s mind, who Bundy really was. Bundy was, I think, a deeply insecure person who was constantly looking for what he could get from other people.
I cast Luke because he’s a brilliant actor. I definitely disagree with portraying [Bundy] as a sort of rock star guy because that’s not who I saw at all when I started researching him. It was really important to me to portray him how I saw him in reality.
What kind of discussions did you have with Luke Kirby about his performance as Bundy?
Well with both [Wood and Kirby], because they’re both playing real people, I said it from the get-go that it wasn’t important to me that they walked or sounded or held their bodies exactly the same way as the real Bundy or the real Bill did. I wasn’t interested in any sort of caricature of the real people. It was more important to me that the emotion and then the connection between the two of them be real and be grounded in reality.
That said, Luke is a good enough actor that he can do all of that, then bring in how Bundy walks and talks and holds himself. We talked a little bit about: are we gonna try and do the voice? We had those conversations, and then some of it I really think is an actor’s private choice. What matters to me is that the acting is good, not that they’re doing an exact replica of Bundy. Luke is doubling down because he can do this brilliant acting, and at the same time gets the mannerisms and the tilting of his head and the facial expressions. I think he deserves an award for this. He’s really just so, so good.