Chris Gerolmo, the writer-director of HBO's "Citizen X," nearly didn't make the film about the relentless search for Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo.
"It was way too grisly," says Gerolmo, who penned "Mississippi Burning," the 1988 Oscar-nominated film about two FBI agents investigating the disappearance of three civil rights leaders in the South in 1964.
"The guy was a monster," he says of Chikatilo. "Too many people died. It was a sad story."
Stephen Rea, Donald Sutherland, Max Von Sydow and Jeffrey DeMunn star in "Citizen X," premiering Saturday, which chronicles the exhaustive pursuit of Chikatilo, who, between 1982 and 1990, murdered 52 people, including 35 boys and girls and 17 women. During that period, the Soviet Union believed serial killers were a phenomenon of the decadent West and refused to believe that just one person was committing the murders. The government never publicized the murders. Even when Chikatilo (played by DeMunn) was arrested in 1984, he was let go because of what is now described as an inept forensics system.
Gerolmo agreed to do the film because he was intrigued with the relationship between Russian detective Viktor Burakov (Rea) and his supervisor Colonel Fetisov (Sutherland), who doggedly pursued "Citizen X" for eight years. Six months after the Soviet Union broke apart, Chikatilo was captured.
"I kept thinking about these two guys who pursued him and I realized there was a great story, a solid genre story," Gerolmo explains. "It would also kick into a story about two guys and their different feelings about the relationships with the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union and also the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's also a movie about values and heroism."
The fascinating relationship between Burakov and Fetisov drew Sutherland to the project. "When I read the script it was so clear and so elegantly drawn," the actor says. "(Gerolmo) had such a clear image of those two guys. The film represents those two individuals coming together and learning from each other."
Fetisov, Sutherland says, does not follow the Communist line. "He's not a party guy at all, but recognizes the reality of the party. It's like a chess player. You have a board and you don't throw the pieces all over. You move them one piece at a time. There are limitations and he recognizes that very clearly. He's able to manipulate it within those confines. He's able to develop his wit and his creative imagination and his dreams."
"Citizen X," Sutherland says, also "mirrored Chris and his experiences in the movie industry and his difficulties working with directors, producers and studios, and the commitment he felt as an artist, as an individual to pursue the truth, much as Stephen Rea's Burakov character. My character negotiated the deal."
"I feel a little like the Stephen Rea character," acknowledges Gerolmo, who makes his directorial debut with this film. "I don't want to diminish his accomplishment by comparing (me to him). But I sympathize. That is why I admire the character so much. I have been trying to find ways of dealing with people in Hollywood who are in positions of power in the same way for years."
Gerolmo based his screenplay on the book "The Killer Department" by Robert Cullen, a former Newsweek bureau chief who lived in the former Soviet Union for more than 10 years.
Chikatilo, Cullen says, was almost "wolf-like" in selecting his victims. "One of the most frequent places he used were the trains because there was a kind of underground homeless problem in Russia at the time. A lot of people with no homes or barely homes hid out in train stations. Because of his job (as a factory worker) he spent a lot of time riding on trains. He became very clever in picking out a victim."
In Russia, Cullen says, children were taught, " 'We are all part of the same Communist family.' A child would walk up to an adult they didn't know and trust them to do whatever the child needed to be done, leaving the children completely unprotected. If they had the tabloid publicity that inevitably would occur in this country, at least it would have put people on their guard that this kind of thing was happening."
Cullen also spent a lot of time with Burakov. 'He's a lot like the guy in the film--very dedicated, a very stubborn guy."
It was Burakov who took Cullen, Gerolmo and executive producer Laura Bickford to see Chikatilo while he was on Death Row. (He was executed last year.)
Gerolmo describes the meeting as "one of the worst" hours he ever spent. "He was a monster. He had just learned all this Western-style bull about why he did it, that it had to do with his impotence and his shrewish mother. He just had learned all of these ways of exonerating himself. The last thing he said is that he killed all of these people because of the scourge of worldwide communism and now that communism was over, all he needed was a little house and a garden and he wouldn't hurt anybody again. I was furious!"
"Citizen X" premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.