The 2023 Tribeca Film Festival will include some Kalamazoo College ties thanks to He Went That Way, a thriller co-produced by alumnus Hugh Broder ’77 and based off a chapter in a book by the late Professor Emeritus Conrad Hilberry.
Hundreds of K alumni remember Hilberry for his literature and writing classes, especially his poetry courses, along with his 11 volumes of self-written poems. As a result, it might surprise some, as it did Broder, that Hilberry interviewed the imprisoned Kalamazoo-area serial killers Larry and Danny Ranes in 1976, influencing a 1987 book he wrote titled Luke Karamazov.
“Years after attending K, I was hanging out in a used bookstore and killing time when I went to a section called Michigan Authors,” Broder said. “I happened to notice the name Hilberry on the spine of a book. I knew there were Hillberrys he was related to in Detroit and some of them were writers. But I pulled the book off the shelf when I suddenly realized it was Conrad and it wasn’t poetry. It was his attempt to write about and understand these two brothers who were both serial murderers, but did not participate in each other’s crimes.”
In 1964, Larry Lee Ranes confessed to killing five men over a period of three months and was sentenced to prison for life. Eight years later, his older brother, Danny Ranes, in a separate case, was sentenced to prison for life for the murder of four young women. Hilberry changed the killers’ names to Ralph Searl (Larry) and Tommy Searl (Danny) in an agreement with the brothers and wrote Luke Karamazov. The events described in the book reflect real events, spotlighting the two killers, their friends, the woman who married both of them, and prison officials, while addressing the men’s lives, thoughts, reactions, brutal childhoods, and lives in prison more than their crimes.
Inspired by the storyline, Broder decided to pursue his bucket list dream of one day making an independent film. In 2005, he partnered with a friend who had just finished making his own indie film. Despite the book never being a bestseller, the two agreed they should try making a film around it and arranged to meet with Hilberry.
“At this point it had been about 25 years since I’d seen Conrad,” Broder said. “He drove us around Comstock and Kalamazoo, showing us where these guys had been born and where some of the things in the book took place. He was using their pseudonyms, but we knew who they were, thanks to the internet, and he gave us all of his research.”
After digitizing the interview tapes, Broder heard one of the brothers say, “You guys all ask me about the five guys I killed. Why don’t you want to hear about the one I didn’t kill?”—inspiring the story Broder decided to tell. He Went That Way reflects the real-life account of celebrity animal trainer Dave Pitts, the sole survivor of Larry’s killing spree. Jacob Elordi plays Bobby Falls, a character based on Larry. Zachary Quinto plays Jim Goodwin, a character based on Pitts. The two have a fateful 1964 meeting along Route 66 that pairs the 19-year-old serial killer with the celebrity trainer and his American TV darling, Spanky the chimpanzee, for three days on the road. The men and their personalities continually conflict as their shared journey becomes treacherous.
The film is premiering in the Spotlight Narrative category, which Tribeca Film Festival calls on its website, “a launching pad for the most buzzworthy of new films.” Tribeca is scheduled for June 7-18 in New York City. He Went That Way screenings include Friday, June 9; Saturday, June 10; and Thursday, June 15.
Broder isn’t sure what the future will hold for the film after Tribeca, but he thinks Hilberry would’ve been pleased with the final product.
“Oddly enough, Con was writing this book and interviewing these guys back when I was still at K, but I had no idea he was doing it,” Broder said. “I think about the fact that had I not gone to K, I might have made some other movie. I was so taken by this story and the way it was written, that I knew this was the one the minute I read the dust jacket notes.”