How Netflix's 'Night Stalker' Brought The Fear Of A 1980s LA Crime Spree Back To Life
The killings began to ramp up in July of 1985, and for two months, Los Angeles was terrified as "The Night Stalker" killed, raped, and robbed seemingly random Angelenos by night. The new Netflix documentary series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer goes in-depth on the rampage, interviewing police, victims, and reporters about the search and ultimate capture of Richard Ramirez.
Director Tiller Russell was writing for TV dramas Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. when his producing partner and friend Tim Walsh came to him with a source. He said that he'd just met a cop that worked the Night Stalker case, Gil Carrillo. Walsh thought there might be a documentary here.
"As soon as I sat down and saw [Carrillo] in this old school '80s-esque restaurant, and he began to unfurl the story, I thought 'Wow, here's this amazing canvas in which a bygone L.A. is a huge character,'" Russell told LAist.
As Carrillo started talking about the child abductions happening at the same time as the murders, Russell was drawn to his vulnerability.
"Literally, tears began pouring down his face," Russell said. "I was so struck by how it had affected him as a human being. As a cop, but also as a man, as a father, as a husband."
PUTTING IT ON FILM
Russell felt that it was an iconic story in an iconic city -- with an iconic killer. In an era with numerous ripped-from-the-headlines docuseries, Russell realized that the story of the Night Stalker had never been told on film in a detailed, definitive way.
In narrative terms, Russell thought Carrillo was a great character, with his tale an unexpected hero's journey. The documentary pairs his story with Frank Salerno, in the role of the grizzled veteran cop.
"It was straight out of a James Ellroy novel, the pairing of those two detectives," Russell said.
The series had a rigorous style guide that steered its aesthetics, making sure they captured the feeling of 1985 L.A. just right. It works to put viewers back in that time and place with a combination of nightly TV news, crime scene photos, and more.
Russell wanted to avoid overly modern camerawork for the period piece. Rather than going with the highly identifiable look of drone footage over Los Angeles, the series used helicopter shots. They also filmed using vintage lenses.
"We went and got amazing helicopter pilots," Russell said. "It's a subtle distinction, but it's in keeping with what would have been shot in the day, and also in keeping with the pre-existing archival footage that exists."
But beyond just a look, Russell wants to evoke a feeling. He worked with the director of photography to use the language of film, particularly horror and noir, to get this story into your lizard brain.
With the crimes all taking place at night, and the police showing up at night, Russell saw much of the series as a noir film.
"We shot the entire thing at night, to give it that nocturnal, noir feel," Russell said.
WHAT IT MEANS TO CENTER THE STORY ON COPS IN 2021
One way the story is being told differently now than it would have been in the past, according to Russell, is a focus on diversity in the story. There's Carrillo as Latino cop, Ramirez as Latino killer, and Latino citizens on the street that ultimately apprehend him. The victims also came from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, with victims' stories being a key part of the narrative.
The documentary anchors its story in the perspective of the two officers telling the story, but Russell wanted to make sure the viewpoints of victims, survivors, and family members were also included.
"It became critical to tell those stories in a very intimate, and personal, and hopefully emotional way," Russell said. "We understand the human impact and that terrorizing feeling that everybody had that summer, of anyone could be next -- it could be me."
At the same time, there's also the issue of centering the story on the words of police in a time when policing is being re-examined by the culture at large.
"It's not just a crisis, it's a failure in policing that needs a complete, radical reimagining," Russell said. "And yet, this is a story in which, in my opinion, those guys are heroes."
Russell wanted to evoke the diversity of Los Angeles in this story, but also found many of those elements baked in. In the end, the publicity around the Night Stalker ended up being his downfall, with people on the street apprehending him.
"It was the people from the very neighborhoods that he's praying and unleashing his depredations," Russell said. "There was this beautiful, amazing poetic justice to the city itself rising up to capture this guy. If you made it up, it would be a terrible pitch, but because it's real, it was this amazing narrative gift."
Russell's built a career making movies about the criminal underworld. He described every movie he makes as being the same, in a way.
"All of them are mapping the criminal underworld, and the thin and sometimes porous boundary between cops and gangsters," Russell said. "Each one of these is a step on my attempt to leave my record of human experience behind."
COULD THIS CRIME SPREE HAPPEN TODAY?
One reason that it would be more difficult for Ramirez to commit his crimes now, according to Russell: This all took place before the widespread use of DNA evidence, or even computerized fingerprint databases.
"To match a print, you literally have to manually hold up a magnifying glass and match one print to a pre-existing known print that belongs to a specific person," Russell noted. "It's a totally different ballgame."
That lack of investigative options weighed on the police, according to Russell.
"In a way, at the time, for them to catch the killer, they constantly needed another body, another victim," Russell said. "That weighed on their souls, because that was the methodology in some sense for working the case."
The crimes were also taking place across multiple jurisdictions, which made it more difficult to connect and investigate it all.
"There are innumerable societal, technological, cultural changes -- this exact set of murders couldn't happen again," Russell said. "But I suppose it remains to be seen whether something this shocking and horrific will happen again."
Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer is available on Netflix now. If anyone ends up wanting to tell the story again, there may be a screenwriter with a unique perspective to write the story -- Ed Solomon, who wrote the Bill & Ted movies, recently posted his own Night Stalker story involving police coming to his home in 1985, when he was identified as a suspect.