NBCUniversal streaming platform, Peacock, has released its first foray into true crime programming with the chilling six-part docuseries John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise. Director Rod Blackhurst (Netflix’s Amanda Knox) dives into the comprehensive history of one of America’s most notorious serial killers, showing never-before-seen footage of a 1992 interview FBI profiler Robert Ressler conducted with Gacy, known to some as The Killer Clown, and suggesting there’s more to this story that is yet to be uncovered. The film results from Blackhurst’s collaboration with Alison True and Tracy Ullman, independent journalists from Chicago. The two women had been working for almost a decade to unearth more about the historic case.
Gacy was eventually convicted of assaulting and murdering at least 33 young men and boys throughout the 1970s in Chicago. He buried many of his victims under and around his home, and was sentenced to death by lethal injection in 1994. Devil in Disguise raises questions about whether or not Gacy acted alone, the extent of his crimes and the six victims who have yet to be identified. It also examines that era’s Chicago Police Department and dismissive attitudes towards victims who were gay, used drugs, or said to be runaways. Gacy’s involvement in his community, which entailed participating in local politics and performing as a clown at hospitals and special events, has led to questions about who might have been protecting him. While he was questioned numerous times by police, Gacy continually avoided jail. Once imprisoned, he seemed to receive preferential treatment.
I spoke to Blackhurst about his experience working on such dark material. We also discussed where he sees film going in a post-pandemic world and his hopes for the future of the film industry.
Risa Sarachan: What made you want to revisit this case?
Rod Blackhurst: John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise is largely the product of, at this point, ten years of research done by two independent Chicagoland journalists and producers – Alison True and Tracy Ullman. They had a story lead land in their laps, and they felt like somebody needed to shine a light on something that had been kept in the dark for far too long. If nobody else would report on it thoroughly and afford it the nuance that the story required, or certainly that history needed to be shown, that they should do it.
So, when I was called and asked to make this show, I thought well, one, there’s an incredible story here that does need to be told. Two, these are also two incredible journalists whose work and efforts are worth me supporting. So, it really was in my life and in my filmmaker existence like the perfect Venn diagram. Something that had something to say and people that were helping.
Sarachan: Has anything about your work on Devil in Disguise changed the way you view the role of the press in cold cases like this?
Blackhurst: It’s a shame that journalists oftentimes end up being the ones to have to solve crimes or cold-cases, or in this case, documentarians. That onus should not be on us, and yet it is because people care. And so there’s a burden and a responsibility that comes from doing this sort of work. If nobody else is willing to do it, then somebody should. The press back in the seventies that was reporting on John Wayne Gacy and his crimes were only privy by and large to the things that they were being told by their sources inside of the police or the government. So, there’s an element of this whole conversation in this whole story that is – how do you know what is true? If somebody said it, is it actually accurate? Or is it just the information that was given to them because people who are in power wanted the narrative to be written a certain way? I think that speaks to the very reason why we needed to make the show. To make sure that the record was recorded accurately and updated to reflect the nuances and the questions that still exist both about John Wayne Gacy and about the ecosystem that surrounded him back in the sixties and seventies.
Sarachan: It was infuriating to watch all the times Gacy was almost apprehended, got out of it and then went on to commit more heinous crimes. Why do you believe that happened?
Blackhurst: Something that’s always fascinated me about this story is that everybody from that era wants to blame somebody else. Nobody wants the buck to stop with them. That still is the case to this day in the way that a lot of people who are part of the story even talk about it. I’ve often wondered why that is, and I don’t know.
People have said, well, that was the culture at that time that young men were determined to be homosexual and or drug users and that the way society regarded them at the time had reduced them to second-class citizens. Well, not all of John Wayne Gacy’s victims were gay and or drug users. Also, just because you’re gay and or use drugs, doesn’t mean you want to be murdered.
Maybe it was a cultural reaction to it. But I think that more telling is who John Wayne Gacy was and what he was trying to do. He was ingratiating himself into powerful social and political circles in the seventies. He knew there was a way to grow his business and to acquire clout and influence. And that certainly helped him. It helped him find his lawyer, Sam L. Amirante, who was on the Norwood Park Township Lighting Committee, which was an extension of the political machine in Chicago. Gacy knew that by being a part of the circles and of those ecosystems, that he would be regarded in a different way. One thing that always fascinated me about that was that when Gacy was first arrested, Robert Martwick Senior – whose son Robert Martwick Jr. is still a very powerful political figure in Illinois – at the time initially did a TV interview vouching for Gacy. [He was] saying there’s no way this person would be responsible for these things that we’re hearing. He very quickly corrected course. You have to wonder – what did he know or not know? Did somebody tell him to correct course? It again raises all these questions that I don’t have the answers to because people wouldn’t speak to them or some of these people are no longer living. But I hope that the series raises all these questions, and if there are people with answers out there, they start to come forward, or they say something so that history can be recorded accurately.
Sarachan: It seems like oftentimes programming like this can lead to answers on cold cases because it reaches such a large audience.
Blackhurst: I hope so. I know that this research in this investigation has consumed, at this point, ten years of these two independent journalist’s lives. Not that they wanted it to, they just felt like, well, nobody else is going to do it and hold people accountable. The work that they’re doing has a lasting impact on both history and this case for the other victims that may be out there, the other families that think their children may have been a victim of John Wayne Gacy’s. Or if there are larger mysteries or things that need to be discovered that have been ignored and or purposely pushed aside – maybe somebody will come forward, and maybe more of the nuances will be known by not just people who are interested in this sort of thing, but by history in general.
Sarachan: I had to take breaks when watching this series because the crimes are so brutal. How did you go about handling such a difficult subject matter?
Blackhurst: John Wayne Gacy was a monster definitively. He did at least 33 awful things and more even if you just look at the other people he assaulted and got away with it. I’d like to think that as filmmakers and journalists that it’s our responsibility to look that evil in the face and make sure that it doesn’t go unseen. So that we can learn from it and so that light could be brought to that darkness. If they are other victims out there whose stories can be known and families can have closure – it is hard to operate in this space personally – but I feel like it’s something worth doing. These are stories that need to be told, and there’s a reason to tell them. That is a journalist and a documentarian’s responsibility.
So, I don’t particularly enjoy the label true crime. I prefer to say that these are true stories about crimes that occurred. It’s not an entertainment bucket to me. It is certainly a way to tell stories that can change our understanding of things or allow us to grow as a culture. I would hope that the salacious elements of the show exist to support this larger investigation, and there are these larger questions that are being raised. There are certain people who will come for those pieces. Certain people are fascinated by those sorts of things, and I don’t blame them. They want to know who the bad guy is, and they want to know that it’s not them and that’s okay. If that’s the thing to draw somebody to watch this and then walk away knowing something completely different and having arrived at a completely different understanding about history and or a person, then that’s a beautiful thing and that’s the filmmaking process.
Sarachan: I’m wondering what you think our filmmaking might look like in a post- Covid-19 world? What do you think audiences will want to see?
Blackhurst: This is a million-dollar question that if I have the answer this question like I could run a studio in Hollywood.
There are two things that have been happening in the entertainment world that I see as problematic, and I hope that we correct course in these things. The first is turning everything into content. Filmmakers used to wave their flags proudly. The things that they made were films, and they were filmmakers. Content is by definition unidentifiable or nondescript filler. I think that too often the things we’re seeing made across the board right now are not going to be things that stand the test of time or make larger contributions to society or culture. They are just transactional entertainment, and that’s a shame.
I know that like, you know, there’s this whole cart before the horse which comes to like the fact that all these streaming platforms exist and people need content. Literally, they need things to fill up their platforms so that their subscribers will watch. There are still incredible stories that have something to say and will be remembered in many years. They won’t just be something that was du jour and then gone forever.
The other thing I hope that we as an industry and as filmmakers figure out how to do better is to not just make things that are empty calories – things that are just entertainment for the sake of entertainment. I understand that we need palette cleansers. We need things that afford us a break from the stresses of our everyday lives, and certainly now, hopefully coming out of pandemic, we’re all under duress, and we’re tired. And so, things that do remind us of the good in the world would be beautiful, and there are many of those stories. But doom and gloom seems to sell. [Laughs]. I don’t know why that is, but I would like to think that more uplifting stories about good people and magic – stories that remind us of our commonality and joy and mystery will be something that we see more of. I don’t know, but I do know that those are the stories I’m going to try to tell.
Sarachan: I can’t wait. Could you share what you’re working on next?
Blackhurst: I’ve always said that I’m genre-agnostic as a filmmaker. If there’s a story that I know how to tell and that it’s worth my time and energy, I would like to tell it. I have a film that’s near and dear to me that my friend and I wrote that we sold Amblin, which is like a childhood dream come true to get inside of the Steven Spielberg orbit.
The story is very personal. It’s set in my hometown. The lead character is inspired by my mother, a lifelong public school teacher who devoted herself to trying to make the world a better place. It’s about an impossible, magical, mysterious, dark foreboding element that this woman finds herself inside of. I say this aloud because Amblin decided that the film was not right for them to be making, but that’s very much the project that I want to spend my time working on in trying to film.
So, as a filmmaker operating in Hollywood and in the industry at large, we’re all waiting with stories we want to tell and things that are near and dear to us. I’m constantly trying to find the balance between: what do I love doing? And what are the stories that I want to exist? And also, at a base level, how do I support my family? How do I be a good spouse? How do I be home more so that my daughter knows her dad is not constantly traveling to make documentaries and doing commercial jobs.
So, I guess this is a complicated way of saying there are a thousand things I would like to do next. Some of them I’ve been trying to do for years and years, and I don’t know how to accomplish any of them, but I will keep trying. And in the meantime, I will try to be a good partner for my wife and a good dad and hopefully continue to make my way. At the end of the day, I would like to think that the work that I do speaks for itself and that it makes a contribution. That it forces people to look in the mirror, or it forces them in a way to understand something differently or to see somebody in a different way. I’d like to think that all the work that I do does just that and that’s what I keep trying to do.
Sarachan: I’ve rarely heard anyone talk about how they want to be better to their family during an interview. That’s refreshing to hear!
Blackhurst: I read something that the actor Tom Hardy said about how what a great man is. You can find this quote. He basically said that a great man is somebody who doesn’t ask for attention. [Someone] that just does the work and shows up and does the right thing. My wife has spent many years following me as I tried to do the work that I was doing and navigate the industry of Hollywood. And I realized after making Amanda Knox and after making my first fiction film, that I needed to give her space to pursue who she was and what she had kind of put on hold. She had graduated from law school, and she had given birth to our daughter. She wanted to work in public policy, and she was able to find a job working in Nashville as the Director of Public Policy for the Alzheimer’s Association. I needed to give her room to do that. Our daughter was several months old at that point. Everybody told me, you’ve had these two successes, and you need to go harder in the paint than you’ve ever gone before, but I also knew that like I couldn’t be that selfish. I don’t know if that’s had an impact one way or the other on my career, but it was the right thing to do to just focus on being a dad and supporting my wife on her journey. That didn’t stop me from wanting to tell the stories that I’m telling. I did that with every available moment, but I needed to occupy the majority of the space in our relationship and in our partnership. That’s a hard thing for any artist who is so focused on creating to do, but I felt like it was the right thing to do it. So now, you know, I’m trying to get very strongly back into being a filmmaker, because I need to, but I’m going to be more deliberate with my time and the things I pursue and the people I work with. At the end of the day, I want to be the best dad that ever existed, and I don’t need anybody to know that other than my daughter. If I can do that and support my family and be a good partner, then that’s the life that I want to live.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
All episodes of John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise are streaming now on Peacock.