Crime Scene Director Joe Berlinger on the Times Square Killer, Recreating Scenes and His Lightbulb Moment
The second season of Joe Berlinger’s “Crime Scene” docuseries for Netflix, premiering Dec. 29, centers on the so-called Times Square Torso Ripper.
“Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer” will focus on how the danger and depravity of New York’s Times Square in the late 1970s and early 1980s allowed serial killer Richard Cottingham to commit heinous acts of murder for 13 years. Cottingham, along with Times Square and New York’s self-proclaimed porno king, Martin “Marty” Hodas, are all key characters in Season 2, which is split into three parts.
The first season of Berlinger’s series, “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” launched in February and explored the real-life mysterious disappearance, subsequent death and conspiracy theories surrounding tourist Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. Netflix says 45 million households checked out Season 1 in the first four weeks of its debut. The streamer subsequently renewed the docuseries for three more seasons.
Berlinger, best known for his work on the “Paradise Lost” trilogy with co-director Bruce Sinofsky, directed all three episodes of Season 2, which is produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Documentaries, RadicalMedia and Berlinger’s Third Eye Motion Picture Company.
The “Paradise Lost” trilogy helped pressure the Arkansas Supreme Court to weigh new DNA evidence against the West Memphis Three, a move that led to their release from prison. The third installment, released in 2011, was nominated for a doc features Oscar that season; Berlinger has also won two Emmys. His other credits include “Brother’s Keeper,” “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” “Crude,” “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.”
Here, Berlinger talks with Variety about exploring how geography can impact criminal behaviors, the social impact he hopes Season 2 will generate and using recreations in documentaries.
Was the “Crime Scene” series your idea?
Imagine came to me with the idea of doing Cecil Hotel as a doc subject, and then together we said, “No. Let’s pull the lens wider to tweak the true crime genre.” So instead of just looking at an individual crime, let’s use the Cecil to launch a series that takes a look at how specific locations and social forces around those locations aid and abet crime.
Then in 2019 I took my daughter to see “Hamilton” in Times Square and we were on the street, and I was looking at the Disneyfication of (the area) and I turned to my daughter and said, ‘When I was your age you would take your life going into Times Square. It was a very different place.’ And that’s when the light bulb went off. I knew about the story of Richard Cottingham, and to me Cottingham and what happened in Times Square is the perfect encapsulation of what we’re trying to do within the show. There was a lot of social forces at play that led to the creation of this zone in Manhattan, which was nearly lawless, anything went and there was a lot of predatory behavior that police didn’t care about at the time.
Instead of crime scene photos, you used a lot of recreations in “The Times Square Killer” to capture the Cottingham killings. Why did you want to use recreations as opposed to actual photos?
I don’t think the crime scene photos evoke the kind of emotion that the right kind of recreation can evoke. (Photos) are flat art and I also think in some ways it’s more disrespectful to the victim to use some of the more grizzly crime scene photos. I don’t think recreations are right for everything, but in this genre and for this kind of storytelling, I think recreations work. Actually, one of the things I’m most happy about with the (second season) is the look, because I tried very hard to evolve the language of recreations using a color palette and real Super 8 film. I wanted it to feel like this gritty 16 millimeter that evoked the era.
What do you think of documentary purists criticizing the use of recreation in a nonfiction films?
If you had interviewed me 20 years ago, or even 15 years ago, I would’ve told you, “Recreation’s no way.” So I have evolved in my thinking about the use of recreations.
In addition to the Cottingham murders, the series also concentrates on Times Squares’ evolution into a red light district and the man who made that a reality — Martin “Marty” Hodas. Can you describe how you structured the series to encapsulate all of these storylines?
It was an evolving process like it always is. Earlier cuts of the show had much more of the history of Times Square in particular, the history of how the sex business went from (sex) magazines to the peep shows to live peeps to live sex on stage. There was a much deeper dive into that history in the original edits of the show, but it just felt tonally off to then be intercutting with this horrible story of what this man did to women. So we dialed it back, and the focus became exclusively to tell the story of what the social forces and economic forces were that allowed somebody like Cottingham to exist. So anything that fell outside of that focus felt a little gratuitous and tonally off.
“The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” ignited a global conversation about issues ranging from mental health to the impact that the internet has on crime investigations. What conversations do you think part two of the series will ignite?
It’s still a problem today that not all victims are treated equally. Police departments used to refer to finding victims who were sex workers as “no human involved,” which was euphemism for, we’re not gonna investigate this. That, I don’t think exists as strongly today, but there is still a stigma against sex work. So part of what I hope is discussed is that all victims deserve equal treatment under the law. All victims deserve justice.
An interview with Cottingham from 2014 is used in the series. Did you reach out to him and try to get him involved?
We did have some reach out to Cottingham, but there was an indication that there would have to be a payment, and we don’t pay for interviews. As soon as payment comes up, I turn off. Obviously, we’re not gonna pay a serial killer. The archival footage of him is quite powerful, but we were very conscious of focusing more on the victims.
Hotels are featured prominently in both Season 1 and 2 of this series. Will that trend continue to exist in the third and fourth seasons of “Crime Scene”?
I can’t say much more than there’s no hotel in Season 3. It’s a very different landscape.
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