'Night Stalker' Director Tiller Russell on the Explosion of True-Crime Docs During Pandemic

TheWrap magazine: “Why are we so culturally obsessed with the dark side? It’s something I reckon with as a filmmaker,” Russell says

This story about “Night Stalker” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

Making a documentary about sadistic serial killer Richard Ramirez, also known as the Night Stalker, was no easy feat for filmmaker Tiller Russell. The director/producer knew he would have to respect the victims’ trauma while showcasing Ramirez’s crimes, which were extremely violent in nature. By anchoring the story in the perspective of Gil Carrillo, one of the detectives who helped solve the case, he was able to carefully craft the Netflix docuseries, “Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” set to the tone of Hollywood noir.

“Had I not met Gil or Frank (Salerno, Carrillo’s partner), I would’ve never done the story,” Russell said. “It was their experience of it that anchored me to it. Frank and Gil were this odd couple of detectives who had this journey which you can tell was the case of a lifetime for them. Gil had this incredible vulnerability to him, and this is never something you see in homicide. I knew that it would be the beating heart of the series.”

Russell used archival footage, crime scene photos, old school choppers and vintage lenses to hone in on the era in which Ramirez went on his crime spree — and, he said, he made it a priority not to sensationalize Ramirez’s crimes but to tell the human story of those whose lives were so severely impacted by the man who terrorized the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas from June 1984 to August 1985.

“You are taking the most traumatic experience of someone’s life, so we treaded very lightly,” he explained. “What happens often with these victims, it becomes dehumanizing. You become a statistic, so it was important for us to bring these people to life. But everyone, from Gil to the victims we interviewed, went into it with trepidation.”

True crime has a deeply rooted fanbase that gained even more momentum during the pandemic, with shows like “American Murder: The Family Next Door,” “Murder on Middle Beach,” “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” and “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” hitting the streamers. Russell believes that the unprecedented year we had plus changing viewer habits contributed to the explosion of true-crime docs.

“We are living in unreal, surreal times — what America has been through in the past four or five years, it’s been moment after moment of unprecedented shock,” he said. “Perhaps there was a reaction to the kind of lunacy of daily life that leaves people hungry for these true stories. I’ve made docs for a long time, and suddenly the global appetite for them is shocking to me, and it’s exciting to see that.”

Coming in a moment in which streaming thoroughly dominates pop culture, “Night Stalker” made Netflix’s Top 10 and took control of conversations on social media. “I have my own moral questions, though,” Russell added. “Why are we so culturally obsessed with the dark side? It’s something I reckon with as a filmmaker. It’s something you have to pause to ask yourself, at least with the desire to illuminate and educate. Our cultural fascination is our way of exploring the dark side of our own psyche.”

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.


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