Editing: <I>No Man of God</I>
Issue: May/June 2021

Editing: No Man of God

Editor Patrick Nelson Barnes recently cut the film No Man of God, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Directed by Amber Sealey, the film stars Elijah Wood as FBI analyst Bill Hagmaier and Luke Kirby as serial killer Ted Bundy. The film takes viewers back to the 1980s, when the FBI employed a new approach - profiling - to criminal invetigation. Hagmaier sat down with Bundy for several interviews at Florida State prison, and what started as a straightforward assignment, ultimately turned personal.

The project marks the fourth time he’s worked with director Amber Sealey, and here he details his work on the feature.

You’ve worked with Amber Sealey in the past. Can you talk about that relationship?

“We have a really great creative relationship and friendship. She called me up and said, ‘How’d you like to make a Ted Bundy movie with Elijah Wood?’ The whole thing seemed so out of left field at first, but she described it to me as a sort of feminist take on the usual male serial killer story and that made it immediately interesting to me.”

Patrick Nelson Barnes 

Tell us a bit about the film and your editing approach?

“The film is based on the writings and recollections of FBI agent Bill Hagmaier, who was one of the original five ‘profilers’ at the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. This was a branch of the FBI started in 1984 by president Ronald Reagan in an attempt to try and understand the psychology of violent serial offenders in the hopes that it would give them insights to effectively combat future crimes. Bill Hagmaier was a rookie at the time and he volunteered to interview notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. The film explores Bill’s complicated relationship with Bundy as they become closer over the five-year period before Bundy’s execution.

“Much of the film takes place in the same room where they met at Florida State Prison and it was an exciting challenge to edit what is essentially a psychological chess match between these two characters. Bundy was notorious for playing head games with people and Bill was trying to extract useful information from him and eventually realized he might be able to get Bundy to confess to his crimes. So much of my editing approach was shaping and highlighting the subtext underneath their conversations, so that the audience can follow who currently has the ‘advantage’, if you will. I was also very focused on highlighting both Bill and Ted’s respective emotional state as they shift and change over time because with the limited amount of scenes outside of the prison and the yearly time jumps, this was key to keep the audience engaged in the story and to understand what each person wanted from the other at any given time. I think as they got closer, Bundy became needier and was searching for meaning in his life, and Bill became more assured in who he was and what his values were.”

Do you have a favorite scene from the final edit?

“Working on the ‘under the water’ scene, where Ted recounts his crimes to Bill, was definitely a favorite. Instead of shooting this scene as scripted, where only Ted is speaking, Amber shot both Luke Kirby and Elijah Wood performing Ted Bundy’s words, and then though editing, I created a sort of ‘cubist’ approach, where the viewer is experiencing both Ted and Bill’s point of view, and maybe moving through time and space as well. It’s a very powerful and emotional scene.”

What kind of dialogue did you have with the director as production and post evolved?

“Amber and I discussed the film at length before shooting began. She was very clear that this was not to be another romanticization of a serial killer, and she wanted to give voice to Bundy’s female victims in some way. She wanted to approach this as study of two men who were ostensibly on opposing sides of a moral line, but who in actuality, were both products of the same toxic masculine culture. Both men whose lives revolved around the particulars of heinous crimes and spent a lot of time alone thinking about it. 

“We were in editorial during the the fall of 2020 when the pandemic was still raging, so I was cutting from my home editing studio and all of my interaction was over the phone and Zoom, showing cuts and ideas to her and also working closely with the amazing producer, Daniel Noah at Spectrevision. The three of us would get into many late night discussions dissecting scenes, talking about tone, Bill’s moral arc and how to flesh out Bundy’s ‘character’ without making him sympathetic.”

Can you talk about some of the unique editing styles that you used?

“One of the big ones was the integration of these sort of ‘experimental montages’ that occur throughout the film. (They) incorporate ’80s archival footage and found footage that served to both advance the story with timely information (and) also delve into Bill’s subconscious, and touch upon the larger themes of the film—toxic masculinity, representation of women in ’70s/’80s popular culture, as well as the kind of bloodlust that is evident in the crowds that came to Florida State Prison for the execution. It all adds to the texture of the story in a way that I think makes this film very unique, and more poetic than your typical crime movie. 

“Another unusual element, that was Amber’s idea, was placing women who looked like Bundy’s actual victims into several scenes and having them looking directly at (the) camera, breaking the fourth wall. It’s a bold choice and I really love the way these moments turned out. I was able to bring them back again when Bill is ‘under the water’ and I think it’s really effective in keeping the victims front and center in this tragic story.”

What advice can you share with other aspiring film editors?

“Read books, watch great film and television, and learn about the world, about history, and human psychology. It will serve you well in the cutting room!”