Screenwriter Michael Werwie On the Decade It Took To Get His Ted Bundy Biopic Made
January 22, 2019
Michael Werwie never intended to write a script about Ted Bundy. As he recalls, he was busy writing another screenplay when he decided to procrastinate by picking up a book about the famed American serial killer. Werwie couldn’t put it down. He began devouring other material about the man who committed unspeakable crimes and confessed to 30 murders in the mid-1970s; reading and watching everything he could get his hands on about Bundy’s story. Soon, he found himself crafting his own script about Bundy’s domestic life. Specifically, Bundy’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer (who is played by Lily Collins in the film).
“I didn’t think this script would do anything for my career whatsoever,” Werwie says. “I think it was my thirteenth completed script at that time.”
But the script took off — slowly. It gained traction at first by landing on Hollywood’s prestigious Black List, and later won the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship; high honors in the writing world. But these accomplishments didn’t translate into immediate success for the film itself.
“Almost nine years of my life has been trying to put this movie together,” Werwie recalls. “I started working with a great producer, and the two of us spent six years pounding the pavement, trying to put the pieces together. We’d come together and fall apart various times. A little over a year ago we got Zac Efron, and our financier attached. At that point, the train finally left the station.”
Now, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is set to premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. But the road to the film’s debut was as tedious and arduous as its pre-production stages. Growing up in Milwaukee, Werwie always aimed to write screenplays. “I was handwriting scripts when I was eight or nine,” he says. Just 11-years-old when he bought both Syd Field’s Screenplay and Final Draft; “On a three-and-a-half-inch floppy disk,” recalls Werwie.
He moved to Los Angeles after high school and graduated from the University of Southern California with a business degree. From there, he got a job as a bartender, thinking his days would need to be free to take script meetings. “But I basically had no meetings at all,” he says. “It was depressing. It was hard. But I think you have to develop an air of detachment about the whole thing. The longer you’re in this business, the more you realize that the good news and successes are few and far between.”
Even now, having had Extremely Wicked produced and getting hired to write other projects, Werwie still feels anxiety about the process. “If anything, I think it gets harder because I get angry at myself for thinking I should know how to do this by now,” he admits. “Every new project feels like it's the first time I've ever written… That the last movie was just a fluke, and the imposter syndrome is real.”
He continues, saying; “You look back after you finish something, and you've been through a nine- or ten-year marathon like I have with Extremely Wicked, and you wonder how you even got to this place. You remember all the stumbles along the way, the dark alleys and wrong directions. But it's all part of the process. There's no instant gratification. It is a long, long process.”
So how then, over the course of a decade, did Werwie stay hopeful his film would ever see the light of day? According to the writer, he planned for failures, and he’s also “very stubborn.” Werwie chuckles, “There’s this sunk-in cost where I'm like, ‘Well, I've already put in five years, I might as well go for six. I put in six years, I may as well go for seven.’ It just kept going like that.”
Other forces contributed to Werwie’s steadfast optimism, like being part of a writer’s group and taking screenwriting extension classes to hold himself accountable for creating new material and meeting deadlines. “I would have to show up every week and bring pages. It was less for the education and more for the accountability. I wrote every single morning and still do. It’s not that I enjoy it — even still I wake up and have that feeling of dread when I don’t want to get to work writing, but I made it a habit over time.” But isn’t that what they say is the key to being a writer? The habit of it?
Werwie agrees. His advice to writers who are struggling to get noticed or have their work produced, “There’s no better advice than to literally sit down and do it. It’s as simple as that. Put in the time, the hours. I've had friends that weren't able to do that, and they didn't stick it out. Over time it’s hard, it wears you down. But that’s where having a grind helps. Just day-to-day, putting in time because at a certain point you’ll have a mess of stuff that you can go back and make sense of. Slowly but surely, things add up.” In Werwie’s case, it means seeing ten years of hard work paying off at the largest independent film festival in the United States.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile will premiere Saturday, January 26 at the Sundance Film Festival.
Written by: Anna KlassenAnna Klassen is a screenwriter and journalist living in Los Angeles. She can be found on twitter and Instagram at @annajklassen.