Interview With Michael D. Sellers, Who Produced “Karla” for MovieBank Studios
The following is an interview with Michael D. Sellers, who produced (with the help of intrepid moviebank studios investors) the controversial film “Karla” for MovieBank Studios. The film depicts the crimes of the notorious Canadian husband and wife murder team of Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo. Its release in Canada was met with howls of protest from Canadian politicians and media outlets.
Q: This is undoubtedly one of the most controversial, violent stories in modern Canadian history, and it is essentially still unfolding. Karla Homolka, who was just released from prison a few months ago, was still in prison when you began making this film. Did you ever feel
you were making the film “too soon”?
A: Well, when the idea of doing a project on Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo was first brought to me by director Joel Bender, it was January 2004 and “Monster” was in the theaters. The murders in that movie took place at about the same time that these do so initially, no, we thought plenty of time had passed. Indeed, now, as the film is being released — the murders themselves are 15 years in the past. But there
are unique aspects to this case which have kept it alive in unusual ways — Karla’s plea bargain and resulting short prison stay, her release this past summer, the court overturning the post-release restrictions. All of these things have kept the story alive and made it seem like the crimes were committed yesterday. But it’s been fifteen years, and we think that is a reasonable, and respectful amount of time.
Q: You did research a great deal about the legal ramifications of telling this story, and were in close communication with representatives of the victims’ families. Could you discuss that process a bit and what the outcome was of your discussions?
A: From the beginning, Tim Danson–the attorney who represents the victims’ families–said that the families respected our right to make the movie and would only oppose it if the film contained depictions of their daughters which could reasonably be construed as either disrespectful or pornographic. Tim defined pornographic as nudity or simulated sex on screen by the actresses portraying the victims. We never intended to include either of those elements in the film, so there was really no problem. When we finished the edit, I took a copy to Toronto and showed it to Tim, and they concurred that it was not pornographic and they would not oppose the release of the film. Misha Collins and Laura Prepon in “Karla”
Q: There were reports that you removed some scenes at the families’ request.
A: We removed 8 frames — 1/3 of one second — of a long shot across a room because Tim felt that if you played it frame by frame on a DVD you might detect a flash of nudity which was not detectable when played at normal speed. We agreed to do this. That was the only change. You have to remember — there had been an ongoing and productive dialogue up to the point where we showed the movie, and that dialogue did affect the edit in certain ways–not in the form of demands from the family, but just from dialogue and discussion. So there were some changes, but not as a result of the screening.
Q: What kind of changes?
A: Well, Tim was able to provide additional background on some of the sensitivities of the families, things that really were important to them,
and we took that into consideration. One example would be the issue of Leslie Mahaffey being locked out of her house, and that playing a role in her getting accosted by Bernardo. We downplayed that aspect because it’s a sore point for the family and not critical in any way to our story.
Q: What was the point-of-view from which you wanted to present the film?
A: Point of view in this film is interesting, and challenging. On the one hand, it’s Karla’s story. We meet her at the beginning as she is about to undergo an extended psychiatric evaluation in the fall of 2000, eight years into her 12-year prison term. We see all of the
events in the past–everything from the early scenes with Paul through the crimes and eventually a little bit of the trial–from her point of view. But that point of view is repeatedly challenged by the psychiatrist who is interviewing her. He doesn’t “buy into” her story, but rather tries to peel away the layers of the onion, exposing Karla’s attempts at “spin”, forcing Karla to acknowledge things that she doesn’t want to acknowledge.
Q: Did your approach to the story evolve over time?
A: Yes and no. I always felt that it was Karla’s story, not Paul’s. But I think, as we got deeper into it, we began to understand the ramifications of this on more levels, and that led to some changes.
Q: Such as.?
A: Such as the decision to use the interviews with the psychiatrist as a wraparound. We basically felt that yes, it needs to be Karla’s story, but you need a counterpoint–you can’t let her just tell it her way without any counter-argument being presented.
It felt like it would be irresponsible and misleading to not create a “dissenting voice” to her story.
Q: What problems — logistical, legal, ethical — did you encounter in commencing production?
A: Logistically, we were shooting Los Angeles for Canada, which is a switch since usually it’s the other way around. We did find houses which closely matched the actual houses in St. Catherines, but we had to be careful–too much panning around with the camera and palm trees
would be visible. And red tile roofs, things like that. We thought originally that we would go up and shoot some second unit in Canada–but after the filming was complete and we had been editing for awhile, it began to seem less important because the story is so much about this kind of hermetically sealed world in which these two people live. It almost felt like attempt to bring in “local color” from Canada would
just confuse matters, rather than add value.
Legally, there were a number of issues. The most significant one, and the one that affects the story the most, is that we could not depict anyone in the Homolka family other than Karla, a convicted felon, and Tammy, who is deceased. That posed problems but we worked through it, without, I think, compromising the story.
Ethically, it was a matter of constantly remembering, and reminding everyone on the show, that this is not a thriller, this really happened. We felt that this imposed a very strict burden on us to be accurate. No flights of fancy–just try to tell the truth as we understood it.
And that involves a lot more than the simple facts of the story. The simple facts–this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened–are meaningless unless we are able to supply insight into the “why” of these things. Why did Karla let Paul talk her into the
rape of Tammy? Why did she stay with him? Why, when he brought Leslie Mahaffey home, did she join him? Why did she go out on the street and help him abduct Kristin French? Why did she finally turn on him? The film tries, to the very best of our ability, to deliver meaningful insight into these questions. We felt that, ethically, the film would only have value if it did this–that we only had a right to make it if we were doing our best to shed light on these questions.
Q: Among the aspects that seem to have transfixed the media and the public with this case are how ordinary, attractive and wholesome Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo seemed. How did you approach casting these “couple-next-door” killers?
A: In a way, it would have been much easier to cast a “killer couple” who were in some way overtly creepy. Finding people to play that kind of role is relatively easy. But we had to find actors who could be convincing–as Paul and Karla were–as “regular, normal” people, and who could also be convincing as the killers that they ultimately became. I had known Misha Collins from his previous work and asked him to read
for the part — which he did, along with hundreds of others. In the end, he was the hands-down choice purely based on the merit of his audition. Laura Prepon was another story. I don’t think any of us would have thought of red-headed Donna from “That 70’s Show” as the choice for Karla — but her manager saw the script and sent it to her, and she liked it and came in to read for it. As soon as she came in and we talked, then
read a little bit, I knew we had our Karla. She had a tremendous grasp of the character and an ability to bring out all sides of Karla.
Q: Some members of the Canadian government have called for a ban or boycott of the film. Your response?
A: The Canadian government, particularly the Ontario government, are viewed by many as having dropped the ball in the matter of achieving justice in this situation, and they clearly have a deeply felt (and politically understandable) need to show continued concern and vigilance. I’m not a Canadian so I don’t really want to comment on what crosses the line between legitimate vigilance and intrusive “big brother”-ness. That’s for Canadians to sort out. But I do understand where they are coming from. My only real complaint is that they made these calls without
having seen the film — or without even having read any legitimate reviews of the film. I would note that all of these calls that you’re referring to happened before any of the reviews came out. Since the first reviews did appear in August — there have been no more such calls from government figures, and the families have also publicly stated that while they do not endorse any movie about the crimes, they will not
oppose the release of this one.
Q: You’ve said — to paraphrase — that this film is not a referendum on Karla’s guilt or innocence, but rather an exploration of her character.
Could you please elaborate?
A: I think there may be a tendency in Canada for people, when considering Karla, to be overwhelmed by the notion of what she became–Paul’s killer accomplice–and to forget that this is, indeed, what she became–not what she was when they met. When they met, he was already the Scarborough rapist but she didn’t know that, and she was a high school senior with no history of illegal activities whatsoever. So how did this girl, a high school senior from a responsible, working family, fall in with Paul, and how and why did she make one decision after another that took her down a very dark road. We really felt that exploring that journey, rather than overtly judging Karla, was what the story was about. Everyone, even killers, have a point of view. They don’t’ start out as killers–they become killers. It is this “becoming” part of it that fascinated me. It seemed to me at the time we were studying and writing the story, that Karla started from what was for her a “normal” place, then made once decision after another, each one of which created a “new normal”, and which made it easier for the next bad decision to happen. If you look at it in totality it’s incomprehensible –but if you break it down into each step, each decision — then we, the film-makers, have a chance to deliver meaningful insight about it. That’s our job — to deliver meaningful insight. Audiences will judge KARLA, the film, but I really believe they will do so, after watching it, from a position of much greater understanding of the
factors involved as a result of having seen the movie.