Author Jillian Lauren with friend Justin Hairston, who works with homeless vets
You can call filmmaker Joe Berlinger a "true-crime pioneer," as many have, but he much prefers to be known as a "social-justice documentarian."
"There's a lot of irresponsible filmmaking out there that just wallows in the injustices of other people without any kind of social-justice element," Berlinger says. "My threshold for wanting to get involved in a story is, is there a light we can shine on it? Is there a greater reason to tell this story?"
This Emmy-winning producer-director of groundbreaking true-crime documentaries — including the Paradise Lost trilogy (codirected with the late Bruce Sinofsky) and Conversations with a Killer:The Ted Bundy Tapes — knows an important story when he sees one.
Early in 2018, he became intrigued by an excerpt that appeared in New York magazine of a true-crime book being written by memoirist Jillian Lauren (Some Girls: My Life in a Harem). The book details Lauren's unsettling relationship with Sam Little, a serial killer who, after years of denying his crimes, began confessing to her in explicit detail.
Those confessions — and Lauren's personal mission to bring closure to the victims' families — became the springboard for Confronting a Serial Killer, a compelling five-part docuseries for Starz, directed and executive-produced by Berlinger. Also exec-producing are Jon Doran, Jon Kamen and showrunner Po Kutchins.
The series, premiering April 18 across all Starz platforms, is produced by Lionsgate TV, Third Eye Motion Picture Company and RadicalMedia.
Little, whom the FBI called the most prolific serial killer in American history, murdered 93 women across the United States over a span of four decades. The series illuminates the failures of a distracted law-enforcement system that allowed him to go largely undetected, despite what Berlinger calls a "mind-boggling rap sheet."
It wasn't until 2014 that Little was sentenced to life imprisonment, when advanced DNA technology linked him to three murders that took place in Los Angeles in the 1980s.
When the series begins, Little is 79 years old and uses a wheelchair. Aided by his phone confessions and extraordinarily lifelike drawings of the victims, Lauren conducts her own investigations, as she tries to identify as many victims as possible while the killer is still alive (Little died in December 2020).
As Berlinger recounts, Lauren stumbled onto the case by accident. She'd been researching a mystery novel on one of L.A.'s most famous unsolved cold cases, the "Black Dahlia" murder of 1947.
At the end of a meeting with LAPD detective Mitzi Roberts — who has both appeared on and been a technical consultant for the Amazon Prime series Bosch — Lauren asked Roberts which of her cases made her most proud. Roberts cited Sam Little, whom she'd helped put away. The detective suspected that Little was responsible for many more murders than the three he'd been convicted of, but most of those cases had gone cold.
As seen in the series, Little deliberately targeted marginalized women — prostitutes, drug addicts or homeless persons — correctly assuming law enforcement wouldn't pay much attention. "There's a disregard for people of color and a disregard for women, especially sex workers," Berlinger says. "The attitude is: they deserve it. That stuck with Jillian because she'd been a sex worker. She thought, 'That could've been me.'"
A survivor of addiction, domestic abuse and attempted strangulation (Little's preferred method of killing), Lauren forges what Berlinger calls a "perversely profound" connection in her phone conversations with Little. Believing her to be a kindred spirit of sorts, he opens up to her in a way that's equal parts fascinating and horrifying.
"If you weren't locked up, I'd probably be dead right now," Lauren says at one point.
"You're right," is his chilling response.
Their twisted cat-and-mouse relationship inevitably conjures up Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.
"The serial killer in both took a liking to his interrogator but also preyed on their psychology, taking advantage of each of their respective past traumas," Berlinger says. "And Jillian definitely felt there was a quid pro quo — she agreed to listen to Sam and to be his friend and to take his calls until his death... in exchange for Sam being truthful."
The series is supplemented with interviews, archival footage and cinematic re-creations that suggest, rather than depict, the terrible crimes Little describes. Berlinger traveled to 10 cities across the country to interview cold-case detectives and victims' family members, putting faces to what had previously been Jane Does on a police report.
"I didn't want to just wallow in the sensational aspects of the story," Berlinger says. "I wanted to tell a very victim-focused story, as well as a story that talks about the baked-in misogyny and racism in the system and how it took a group of powerful women" — meaning Lauren, Roberts and L.A. Deputy District Attorney Beth Silverman — "to bring him down."
Early in his career, Berlinger was mentored by the Maysles Brothers, who were forerunners of documentary cinema verité, sometimes called direct cinema. Some elements of the Starz series capture that technique's shot-in-real-time spontaneity.
"Nothing was scripted up front," he says. "We don't know where the story's going; we just start filming it."
In one memorably awkward scene, Laurie Barros — one of Little's few surviving victims — requests a meeting with the San Diego prosecutor who'd been unable to secure a conviction after she'd testified against Little in 1985.
Barros, who'd been a prostitute at the time, becomes incensed when she senses the prosecutor blaming her for not being a sufficiently credible witness. "It was one of the most uncomfortable scenes we ever shot," Berlinger says. "It was very real, very raw, but it was a window into the failure of the justice system."
Ultimately, Berlinger hopes the series can amplify long-standing systemic inequities. "Sadly, we still live in a world where women who are victims of sexual assault are often not believed," he says. "I think it's changing greatly, but not enough. If you have the money, you can buy a better outcome for yourself."
Since Berlinger and Sinofsky's debut film, the 1992 true-crime documentary Brother's Keeper, the genre has exploded on television and film.
Back in the early '90s, "The unscripted series didn't exist," Berlinger says. "Generally speaking, we were the bastard stepchildren of the entertainment business. If you weren't selling your doc to HBO or PBS, you weren't selling it. The advent of streaming has made documentaries an international business."
And as seen by the proliferation of specialized true-crime channels like Discovery ID and the rebranded Oxygen, audiences can't get enough of crime stories.
"I think we're wired for danger from our days as hunter-gatherers in the cave," Berlinger says. "Women are particularly interested in true crime because, sadly, women live in fear every day of violence against them, so this is a way of looking at that fear."
From a story standpoint, Berlinger notes that true crime often provides a natural three-act dramatic structure. "There's an inciting incident, the search for the truth and, hopefully, a satisfying ending."
Catch-up viewing of Confronting a Serial Killer is available on the Starz app.