NBCUniversal’s streaming platform, Peacock, is diving head first into the true-crime genre with a docuseris on one of the most high-profile serial killer cases. True-crime enthusiasts and (perhaps even more so) Chicago natives are already familiar with the infamous name John Wayne Gacy. Gacy, also known as the Killer Clown, was a convicted sex offender and serial killer who is known to have killed at least 33 boys and young men in Chicago in the late 1970s. The six-part John Wayne Gacy: Devil In Disguise dives into the trenches of Gacy’s backstory and crimes, while also posing serious questions about how he was able to avoid being apprehended for so long, his role in local politics, and whether he worked alone to commit these heinous murders.
Gacy’s case has been well-covered in the media for 40 years, ever since his arrest in 1978 and subsequent execution by lethal injection in 1994. However, Devil In Disguise is a more intimate portrayal of Gacy’s psyche, as viewers hear from him directly through footage of his previously unseen 1992 interview with retired FBI profiler Robert Ressler. The docuseries also includes interviews with Gacy’s sister, Karen Kuzma, some families of his victims, police officers from the force before and during his capture, among others.
NBC News Studios’ Alexa Danner came aboard the project when it was brought to NBC by director-writer Tracy Ullman and journalist Alison True, who have been trying to uncover the loose ends of the case since 2011. The A.V. Club spoke to Danner—who is an executive producer alongside Ullman, Rod Blackhurst, and Elizabeth Fischer—about the process of helming this labyrinth of a docuseries and why such an old case is relevant even today.
The A.V. Club: How much were you aware about the case when you joined, and did you know what angles the docuseries would cover?
Alexa Danner: I wasn’t initially highly familiar with the case, but once I began digging into it, I learned it’s a very rich and complex story. It spans over five decades, and at each stage along the way, there are lots of questions and mysteries from Gacy’s upbringing to his time in Iowa as a young man trying to make it as a businessman to his conviction of assaulting a boy in 1968 to his time in Chicago. Till today, there are questions that linger.
AVC: What was the process like of getting the victims’ families and Gacy’s sister interviewed?
AD: Our EP Tracy Ullman had a relationship with his sister, which she had established over the years, and she was able to facilitate it. For the others, it was a collaborative team effort. We reached out to as many people as we can who we know have important information to share and a number of them were willing to participate.
AVC: Clearly this has been a long undertaking with lots of research and interviews. How did the team construct a cohesive timeline and decide what stays in?
AD: It was a challenge to present such a big, unwieldy story, and I’m proud of the way it has come together. We decided early on that episode one would establish Gacy’s known narrative, so even those not familiar with it can learn the ins and outs of it, and I hope those who are familiar learn some new things. Episodes two to six is a detailed journey of new areas of exploration. We decided audiences need to know as much of Gacy’s personal, professional, and criminal history in order to understand his next steps when he began killing and how he was able to [go] unchecked for so long.
AVC: That’s one of the most interesting angles here. It’s a deep dive into Gacy, but it also looks at Chicago’s local police, legal, and political system and how it might have enabled Gacy to continue for longer than he should have.
AD: Gacy was a political animal and successful businessman. He was married twice and had kids. By all appearances in Chicago, he wasn’t just a guy next door but a successful, thriving member of society. His role in the community seems to have potentially helped him skate away unscathed for many years.
AVC: Were you worried about any kind of impact it would have, this pulling back of the curtains on the investigation, especially for those who might’ve worked on the case in the past?
AD: Hindsight is always 20/20. We wanted to explore the possibility that the police may not have spotted him as soon as they should have. On the other hand, as we see in his interviews, Gacy is incredibly manipulative and normal-seeming. It’s not a stretch to believe that he may have also been able to twist the narrative in some of these incidents. There were a couple of times when families flagged him as having interactions with their son when that son went missing, but he was able to deflect police interest and control the conversation. It’s hard without being there to know whether it was 100% that the police failed or that Gacy was always successful at conning people.
AVC: How was it for you to watch the Gacy footage for the first time?
AD: That interview gives such an intimate portrait of someone seemingly normal but someone who seamlessly interchanges between lies and truth. He is always trying to shape the dialogue to suit his purposes, even with a retired FBI profiler in the room. The first time I watched his entire three-and-a-half-hour interview, I really did not know what to think. I was really confused as to what is fact and fiction, because some of it is verifiably true and some of it is him planting seeds and we don’t know why. When we began to thread the interview throughout the series, it just organically began to fit. He speaks to so many of the topics we explore, whether it’s something incredibly matter-of-factly like when he describes the rope trick he used to kill people—it’s deadpan. But then he’ll spin yarns about his upbringing to draw sympathy.
AVC: As a filmmaker, how do you reconcile with the fact that much of what we know about him comes from him knowing he’s a liar?
AD: It’s important to note we are part of NBC News, so everything we report on is vetted and fact-checked. Everything he says should never be taken without a grain of salt. That said, it’s a conversation starter. Is there a clue here that can lead us to someone or is there something else? We are trying to look into that and trying to substantiate his claims through research, documents, our other interviewees who knew him. When we can’t get a definitive answer on whether he’s telling the truth, we pose the question and let viewers explore it for themselves.
AVC: Devil In Disguise joins the wave of the many recent true crime docuseries about killers. Where do you think it fits in in that genre?
AD: I like to think this one checks different boxes. It’s a respectful take on the story, as we are respectful of the victims and their families. We have unique footage from his interviews that we’ve woven throughout. We have exclusive video and audio footage and new interviewees who haven’t spoken before. I think you’re getting a deep, rich, and nuanced story, one that hasn’t been told before on this subject.
AVC: This docuseries, and especially Gacy’s footage, it’s all pretty intense and dark. Were you nervous of the impact it might have on you and the team?
AD: That’s a good question. It’s always difficult to spend time with dark subject matter. I think the way we are telling it certainly helped, knowing we were giving detailed accounts. It helps to give a counterbalance to the salaciousness of a basic serial killer story. Anyone who works in true crime knows it can be emotionally draining at times but nowhere near as much as for the people who were on the ground digging bodies out of his house, the attorneys who were talking to family members, and above all the family members and surviving victims who went through terrible things.
AVC: What’s the takeaway from a docuseries like this one, which digs into the psyche of a serial killer? Why do you think it’s now a good time to release it?
AD: The Gacy case is still alive in that there are still six unidentified victims. The story has lingered on, and there is an ongoing fascination with a case like this with its rich history. There’s always going to be an interest in someone like Gacy and his behavior. He was able to operate on the surface as one kind of man and was a whole different animal underneath it. For many people involved with the case, even all these years later, I don’t know if it’s cathartic, but it is important because they think lessons can be gleamed from it still. One of the attorneys I spoke to said the reason he participated is to want people to know that evil can be living right next door. This case has impacted people’s lives and they want others to be aware of the possibilities.