'Crazy, Not Insane' Director Alex Gibney on True Crime and Ted Bundy

Crazy, Not Insane is the latest documentary from filmmaker Alex Gibney, the mind behind movies like Scientology exposé Going Clear and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. His latest movie is Crazy, Not Insane, which explores the life of psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis and her work around disassociative identity disorder (DID).

Though thought a myth by some psychiatrists, Lewis has recorded thousands of hours of footage of serial killers seen in the film in which they seem to inhabit alternative identities she calls "alters." Most notably, she has expressed a belief that serial killer Ted Bundy may have had DID resulting from some childhood trauma.

In the lead up to Crazy, Not Insane coming to HBO, Newsweek spoke to director Alex Gibney about why so many people are obsessed with true crime, how he came to believe in DID and why he changed the direction of the documentary to focus less on Bundy.

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'Crazy, Not Insane' director Alex Gibney. Getty

Newsweek: How did you come to meet Dorothy and what led to you wanting to you wanting to make a film about her?

I was talking to Dorothy for another project, a scripted project, when one day she said, "I have these tapes. these videotapes of some of my cases.' We were like, 'Videotapes?' Then things started getting really interesting.

Did you find yourself as convinced by the moments in these videotapes when the subjects slipped into their alters as Dorothy is? Because one of the things they say about psychopaths is they tell people what they want to hear...

I think it is complicated. I am not a psychiatrist, I am just telling you as a filmmaker who has spent some time watching these tapes, watching Dorothy, and doing a good bit of reading.

My conclusion is that for some of these characters, there is a bit of acting going on. An embellishment, but I think it is partially conscious and partially unconscious.

For the more disturbed patients, somebody like David Wilson. It is really unconscious and it is hard for them to track when they are moving between alters, but with somebody like Max, I think he both enjoys the performance but is also drawn to it.

By the way, this goes for documentary film-making too. You speak to somebody and you hear what they have told you, but your job is not to simply accept it, you need to see whether or not there is other evidence that undergirds that testimony. These are forensic things that you have to look at, and that is one of the things that [Dorothy] told her defense attorneys too.

I have good friends who I respect enormously who think [DID] is bunk and hokum. I became convinced that it is a real diagnosis, particularly for people who have suffered terrible abuse.

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Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis (the subject of 'Crazy, Not Insane' and Dr. Jonathan Pincus examining Nollie Martin HBO

What was your opinion about DID before making Crazy, Not Insane, and how did it change?

To be honest, I did not know anything about it. I only knew the stereotypes. We would all look at these tapes and run them back over and over again and wonder out loud, "Is this a moment where the person is just having it on for Dorothy? Are they faking it?" We would ask those questions all the time but I think we all became convinced by the end that it was a legitimate diagnosis.

Dorothy herself is a fascinating character, with this incredibly dark sense of humor about it that itself seems quite disassociative. How was she as an interview subject?

We have a device in the film, that is designed to embrace Dorothy's version of an alter, and how she writes differently than she speaks. That's why we had Laura Dern, be the voice of her literary alter.

She does have a wicked sense of humor. It is probably an occupational thing, like when she jokes that "incest is a game the whole family can play."

It was one of the things that drew me to Dorothy, that great dark sense of humor. By the way, she would laugh about some of this stuff with some of the people she was examining, particularly her relationship with Max. To have a good laugh from time to time over something that was said, that is part of her radical empathy.

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Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis on the stand during the Arthur Shawcross trial, as detailed in 'Crazy, Not Insane'. HBO

What is your view of true crime documentaries in general, because in some ways your documentary criticizes true crime fans for their obsession with the gory details of crimes?

I did not set out to answer or to push back against other true crime documentaries. We grappled a lot as we were making the film with the whole sensationalist aspect of this. It did occur to us that there was a grisly fascination with murder, which I think is part of the appeal of the death penalty for some people. As Dorothy says, it is kind of tickling the limbic system. It is a rather unappealing quality that we all have, but we are drawn to this material, partially, for those reasons and I wanted to examine that.

That's there in the title too. It is as if we are psychiatrically examining the justice system and finding it crazy, if not insane. We have to examine our own weird fascination with strange and dark material.

They appeal to us because we see a little bit of us in them, where we would like to go, but we know that they are completely different than we are. They are bad people and we are good people. What interested me about where we got to in this film was the idea that if you study the extreme behavior of murderers and why it happened, it takes you back to a place that we all inhabit, which is childhood. The things that can happen to you in childhood put you on a very different trajectory than if your parents shower you with love and affection all the time. Weirdly, the extreme behavior took us to a universal place.

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Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis' drawing classes provided the inspiration for the animated sequences in 'Crazy, Not Insane'. HBO

Ted Bundy is one of those figures who true crime fans seem obsessed by. Did you worry about including him in the documentary for the reasons you just discussed?

Yes. To be honest with you, the original title of the film was "Dorothy and Ted." It was originally going to be much more about Bundy and her attempts to come up with a new theory on Bundy, but we became more interested in the investigator than the people she was investigating.

Why did you decide to include hand-drawn animation as one of the elements in the film?

It was something that evolved all the time. It started early because we had an extraordinary story about Marie Moore but we had no images for it. Then we went and observed Dorothy's drawing class with charcoal. There seemed to be harmony there between the black lines on white paper, very stark. Hand-drawn animation seemed to be the right style.

I should say that part of this process is one that was worked out with the animating team by my son, Nick. He was the one who suggested this style, which we refined over time. But there was something very powerful about it.

Also, it fitted the territory of DID. You are reckoning with a territory that is a mix of science and art when you get into the realm of human imagination. Therefore that line, drawing stuff that would speak to and get to a notion of transformation, possibility, and a texture to it. It was purposely not too pretty and not too precise.

Crazy, Not Insane airs Wednesday, November 18 at 9 p.m. on HBO