It's a Saturday night at Northern Kentucky University, and the academic buildings loom quietly over campus.
It's been one of those late winter nights, where the sky doesn't know whether it wants to rain or snow, so it just does a little of both and leaves the ground with a layer of chilled slush. There's an ever-present haze slinking across campus. It's like a page out of an Edgar Allan Poe story.
I'm led through the abandoned upper level of Steely Library, and down to the bottom floor. The place feels eerily quiet without any students or staff in the building. It's in the lobby that I first come face to face with one of America's most notorious serial killers, and live to tell about it.
Okay, okay, so I didn't actually encounter a real life serial killer in Highland Heights, Kentucky.
Fort Thomas Matters was invited on the set of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile while the cast and crew shot scenes throughout Northern Kentucky University's campus. The film is Elizabeth Koefler's account of her experiences with boyfriend Ted Bundy. It showcases a notable cast of actors - Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich, Kaya Scodelario, and Dylan Baker are some of the talented cast members bringing this story to life on screen.
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Director Joe Berlinger is no stranger to true crime cinema. He is an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and has covered every subject from Whitey Bulger to Metallica. While he has spent a majority of his career making documentaries more so than narrative films, there's no doubt that he's the perfect person for this job. While I was on set, the shoot became a family affair for Berlinger. His daughter had flown in for the day to be an extra, and to spend time with her dad.
Lily Collins, who plays the film's protagonist, Elizabeth Kloepfer, wrapped her scenes the day before I visited the set. I was present for scenes that Efron was filming with some extras in full 1970s attire. During the scenes, Efron enters the building's lobby before being confronted by a security guard. What strikes me is how strange it is to look at someone's face – a face you see splashed across magazine covers and movie screens – and while you recognize the person, you also quickly realize that it's not that person at all. Yes, his handsome features are still in tact under the hair and makeup. There's no denying that this is Zac Efron. However, there's an underlying creepiness to him that isn't there when he's out of character. This role will certainly be a departure for Efron, and is darker than much of his previous work. It's clear, however, that Efron is more than game for the task at hand. This isn't just Troy Bolton masquerading as some psychopath, this is a role that Efron has seemed to fully embrace throughout the production process.
According to Tonner-Connolly, the Northern Kentucky area has provided the perfect backdrop for the film's scenes to take place. “It's been great shooting in Northern Kentucky. It's really nice because it's a period film and there's a lot of original architecture around here, so we're able to find a lot of that. Shooting this film, we have a lot of different locations, a lot of different states that we're trying to set the film in. We've really been able to find a lot of different looks for things here between Covington, Newport, and that kind of area. It's been great and really versatile,” said Tonner-Connolly.
The film's art department also benefited from the variety of period items available from local vendors. "It's been great transforming the sets, mostly because there's so many great resources here in terms of shopping with great thrift stores, great antique stores, great vendors, who are all providing the kind of period furniture that we need. It's really fun," said Tonner-Connolly.
Director's Assistant Tim Young also discussed how positive the overall experience had been for the production crew while working in the Northern Kentucky area. “It's been great. In my experience, everywhere we shot has been really accommodating, and everyone has been friendly and open to the idea of having us film in the locations,” said Young.
While on set, there was a lot of chatter by various crew members about the Kentucky tax credit, and how it played a major factor in bringing this film to the area. “Normally, productions that I've worked on use the Ohio tax incentive,” said Young. “The fact that we were able to utilize the Kentucky one, and do most of our shooting on this side of the river has been really cool, and sort of surprising for me.”
The locations throughout the Greater Cincinnati area are versatile, and along with the tax credits offered on both sides of the river, don't be surprised to see more productions coming to town.
Although I did not personally speak with the actors about their time in Kentucky, I was told by numerous crew members that they enjoyed the area. This is also evidenced by one of Collins' Instagram posts that was pointed out to me by a crew member. After wrapping her scenes, Collins captioned a photo by saying, “Goodbye Kentucky! It’s been a wild ride. Thank you for giving me a new lease on life and strengthening my appreciation for the little moments. I will miss breathing in your fresh air and seeing all your smiling faces...”
This particular production crew not only appreciated working in the area, but also understood that age-old notion of "leaving something better than how you found it." They helped stimulate the economy, hired local talent when possible, and gave back to the community. It has been documented that the crew donated leftover food on multiple occasions. They also partnered with Bombas to donate socks to homeless shelters. They get that productions are not an excuse to use or exploit an area's resources, but instead a chance to be part of a community for that time they are given to work in an area. These positive experiences with the crew also help to maintain solid relationships between locals and any future productions.
I've been lucky enough to land on a variety of sets over the years, each varying in size and scale of production. There's nothing at all glamorous about filmmaking. Everyone is in the trenches together, whether it's a Production Assistant or one of Hollywood's biggest stars.
Filmmaking is undeniably full of hierarchies and its own special set of rules, but the minute the camera rolls, all of that is stripped away. The work and dedication that each crew member puts into a film becomes the great equalizer. In this case, much of that hard work came from local crew members and talent. It's films like this one that make me excited to see what's next for the area, and how our little part of the country could evolve into a full-fledged production town.