SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel,” streaming now on Netflix.
From his “Paradise Lost” trilogy that began in 1996 to his 2009 documentary “Crude” that looked at the pollution of the Amazon, documentarian Joe Berlinger has spent a lot of time in his career and his personal philanthropy exposing false narratives and telling stories of wrongful convictions. But, he has also been interested in exploring how geography can impact criminal behaviors, such as in “Paradise Lost,” 2014’s “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” and 2019’s Netflix docuseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.” Now, he has teamed back up with the streamer for “Crime Scene,” a true crime docuseries that allows him to dig deeper into these elements than ever before.
The first season of “Crime Scene” is subtitled “The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel” and investigates the mysterious disappearance of college student and tourist Elisa Lam, who was staying in the infamous Cecil Hotel during her visit to Los Angeles. When she went missing in early 2013, a videotape of her alone in an elevator went viral and internet detectives began to hypothesize about what happened to her, including considering the supernatural, in addition to murder by another former hotel guest.
“I remember when this elevator footage first came out and I was absolutely fascinated by it. It was haunting, it was bizarre, but even more importantly, this was one of the early cases where web sleuths got involved, and I was fascinated by that phenomenon,” Berlinger tells Variety.
Admittedly “fascinated by the nature of truth,” especially in a time “where the nature of truth is under attack,” Berlinger says, he set out with journalist Josh Dean’s story about Lam as his initial entry point for the project. “But, because the story’s been told in the past, let’s do it in a different way, which is to create a series that talks about place, but uses Elisa Lam as the A-story,” he continues.
“How do you tell a story in a way where you serve the people who know what happened and you also serve the people who are new to the story? We just decided that the approach was to give the viewer the same experience that the web sleuths had in the unfolding theories of the case. Obviously, that meant withholding selective information until the right dramatic moment.”
Here, Berlinger talks with Variety about the importance of web sleuths, why the Lam family wasn’t involved in “Crime Scene” and early plans for Season 2.
So much of this docuseries focuses on the conflicting theories around Elisa’s case that came, not from the police who had combed the hotel, but from citizens online who were responding to what they heard about the investigation. How much do you feel that muddies the water in telling stories like this?
There were some very well-intentioned people who really felt a connection to Elisa and really wanted to solve her crime, and I think their intention and focus on her case really lit a fire under the Los Angeles police department, so I think it was helpful there. In general, there have been cases where web sleuths and people fascinated with a case have helped move it forward. In fact, the granddaddy of them all is when “Paradise Lost” came out in ’96. It was just when the internet was hitting its stride; there was no such thing as social media but like-minded people were finding themselves on the internet, and “Paradise Lost” sparked tens of thousands of people to reinvestigate the case and advocate for the release of the West Memphis Three. On the other hand, with the rise of internet trolling and cyberbullying, we saw some people trading in all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories, and that’s no good.
And accusations of murder against musician Pablo Vergara. What did it take for you to convince him, or some of the web sleuths who admitted they were wrong, on-camera, to you to agree to do this?
It made a deep impression on me, interviewing him, just how painful all of this still was for him. It made him stop making music. Whether his music is your taste or not, he is a creative artist, but he felt shut down from doing anything for seven years. So there is a dark side to false accusation, obviously, and trading in conspiracy theory. But I have to give them credit, it didn’t take a lot of convincing to have them participate. They were interested in sharing their experiences.
You interviewed a lot of people who have never spoken about this case publicly before, and a lot of them easily could have gone on the defense when you’re asking questions about the safety of the hotel or the mistakes made in police work. Did you find yourself having to reassure anyone?
The filmmaker-subject relationship is critical in these things. Luckily a lot of the folks we talked to were familiar with my work and they know that my work has integrity to it. They can just take a look at my IMDb and they’ll see a number of credits there. I’ve been doing this for a long time. And then I just explained why the show appealed to me, why I wanted to talk to them, what my goals were. And we have people like Amy Price, the hotel manager; Pablo Vergara; Tim Marcia, one of the detectives who is in the show, who have never talked before. You just have to be straight-forward with people and not have an agenda.
On the flip side, Elisa’s loved ones are not involved in this docuseries. Did you reach out to try to get them involved?
We made multiple attempts to speak to the family. We reached out to friends. The family didn’t respond, and the friends responded that they didn’t want to participate. Nobody told us, “Don’t do this,” which made me feel better about it, but nobody wanted to participate.
Did that affect the way you wanted to tell her story?
It lit a fire under me to really make sure that I make sure I follow my own rules about when to pick a true crime story and when not to. I consider myself more of a social justice filmmaker who spends a lot of time in crime. I won’t take on any story unless there’s a larger social justice reason to tell the story. I felt there’s been so much true crime focus on the perpetrator that this allowed us to do a very victim-focused show. So knowing that the family neither told us “no” nor “yes,” I felt it was important to bring her to life in a very three-dimensional way to show the impact she’s had on other people.
Do you think Elisa’s case, or specifically, that elevator footage, would have gone viral if it had been from some nondescript hotel, instead of the Cecil?
It’s all about the place. Here’s a hotel that has been the home to the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez; the Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger for preying upon basis. As we try to document in the show there’s a whole history of well-known murders and suicides. This place has a lore to it so that when this elevator footage was released, I think it would have been interesting to people no matter what, but I think it went viral and people assumed something nefarious and maybe even supernatural happened very much because of the location.
What did you make of web sleuths finding parallels between Elisa and the plot of “Dark Water,” a movie that had come out almost a decade earlier?
Those are all mind-boggling connections, from her being buried in the cemetery, to the registrar where the bookstore is, to the LAM-ELISA test for tuberculosis. It’s fascinating to me, but it actually underscores the thing that I had been championing throughout my career: that circumstantial evidence, no matter how compelling, doesn’t replace actual proof. To me, these are just amazing examples of how you just can’t go by circumstantial evidence.
The real crime in this story seemed to be how mental health is mistreated. Is that going to be a thread you carry into the second season of “Crime Scene”?
I don’t want to say mental health is something we’re leading with, but it happens to be a factor in many places where you see multiple crimes, and so mental health, certainly, is a recurring theme — as is marginalization of certain communities, as is baked-in prejudices in certain police investigations. There are certain core ideas that contribute to a place becoming more dangerous than others and therefore why crime happens [there], so indirectly, yes, you will see the mental health thread next season. But I don’t want people to think every season will be a red herring; next season there were legitimate crimes that happened that we’re exploring.