Nick Broomfield. Courtesy of HBO.

When A.i.A. first began speaking with documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, we asked him how many films he had actually made. He replied with a laugh, revealing his eternally amused demeanor, "Probably about 30-odd-or-so . . . I think." Broomfield, born in London in 1948, is now based in Los Angeles. His film's subjects have ranged from psychopaths to Sarah Palin to Tupac Shakur. He considers doc masters Frederick Wiseman and D.A. Pennebaker to be "healthy" role models because of their relentless productivity. His latest film, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, plumbs the depths of one Lonnie Franklin Jr., a longtime resident of South Central Los Angeles. Lonnie was arrested in July 2010 for what is thought to be a 25-year killing spree—which may make him the most lethal serial killer of all time. The film premieres Apr. 27 on HBO.

 

1) A word that I keep thinking about when considering your films is "precarious." You are constantly putting yourself in extremely precarious situations. Can you think of any particular point at which things went too far? Have you ever feared for your life?

The whole enterprise of making documentaries—if you're really making what I call documentaries—is necessarily precarious. You don't have a script; you don't know the future. That's precarious. That's what frightens me the most. Maybe it frightens me so much that I don't even notice the physical danger. I think there's a trend now to make highly scripted documentaries—they're almost feature films. That to my mind is filmmaking by the numbers: it's neither good nor exciting. Those films are not about the precariousness of reality or the thrill of spontaneity. In documentaries you can film and capture actual moments within real time—which you can't do with, say, journalism or any other form of storytelling. That's the magic. It's not about putting people in chairs and hopefully having them say intelligent things.

I was nearly raped by inmates while making Tattooed Tears [1979], a film that we shot in Chino prison in California. That was a terrible moment. I did think, "I'm in too deep. Oh shit." We pretty much had the keys to the institution, and then I was in the wrong part of the prison at the wrong time. I found myself surrounded by 10 guys. I did want to hit the panic button, but I knew if I used it the film would be shut down.

When we were making The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife [1991] about the last days of apartheid in South Africa, supporters of [the far right-wing separatist politician Eugène] Terre’Blanche wanted to beat us up. There were just three of us in an enormous stadium filled with thousands of Terre’Blanche supporters. His own security guards protected us. We had become friendly even though we didn’t agree on politics. We drank; we made each other laugh. People will do anything for you if they like you. We would have been beaten to a pulp otherwise. Humanity, especially its humor, is an incredible thing.

2) It sounds like you’ve dealt with some pretty horrible people. Who’s been the most heinous?

Let me think! The person who freaked me out the most—once I got to know who she actually was—was Margaret Thatcher. I think she’s quite an evil person. She scared me the most. Unfortunately, Tracking Down Maggie [1994] is not one of my better films. We were in Houston or Dallas; we had gotten Thatcher’s itinerary from someone in the Foreign Office who also hated her. We were following her around, stalking her; we even knew where she was getting her hair permed. We suddenly realized we were being followed. We’d been interviewing arms dealers who had been supplying things like night-vision goggles to Saddam Hussein—all of the kind of stuff that Thatcher was actually behind. We’d also been dealing with the Israeli Secret Police, who are not a part of international law. That’s when journalists do get killed. They do end up hanging in closets. It’s a dirty world. You enter that murky hinterland where there is no law.

3) Let’s talk about Grim Sleeper. I’d like to ask about a few random yet specific details. Please define for our readers what NHI means.

NHI is police slang for No Human Involved. It’s the code the officers or detectives call in when there’s a homicide involving a John or Jane Doe. It means “don’t bother with normal forensics; rush it through; it’s a homeless person or a prostitute or gang member or drug addict.” It’s slang for disposable people.

4a) Talk about pizza.

Pizza! They got Lonnie’s DNA from a piece of pizza he had bitten into. They matched the DNA to the victims. It’s ironic, of course, that he was caught by a computer and not by diligent police work. Twenty-five years of killing was solved by a computer running 24 hours a day just automatically matching things.

4b) Visine?

I Googled Visine: You can use it to put people to sleep, but if you use too much it can kill them. One of the call girls got scared and used it on Lonnie. She put it in his cognac. Aileen Wuornos talked about Visine too. One of her johns rubbed Visine all over her and caused her terrible pain. Visine seems to be a running theme. I’m not sure if the company would use me to advertise their product.

5) During the filmmaking process with Lonnie, did you ever think, Perhaps this man is innocent? And linked to this thought, do you consider yourself a character in your own film?

In the very beginning I may have thought he was innocent. But I kept coming up against this wall of DNA evidence. DNA and ballistics have blocked out a whole realm of storytelling—the whole he-said-she-said routine is gone. It’s so definite. Circumstantial evidence and witnesses are, in some sense, irrelevant now. I grew up in a tradition in which documentary film was supposed to be objective—the tradition of the balanced argument. In the era when I started, the BBC would insist on this balance. And of course what they made were really terrible films. You could never really get into the story. With Lonnie it’s very hard for me to be objective. I’m in there. But I tried to extricate myself as much as I could. These people are much better at telling their stories than I ever could be. I thought of myself not as a character but as a sort of linking device. But maybe I’m wrong!