Right place, right time

Joe Berlinger takes chances for a living. What makes it to the screen are the ones that worked out.
September 1, 2009

An aerial shot takes us over a highway in West Memphis leading to a patch of woods called Robin Hood Hills. Down amongst the brush, the camera follows yellow police tape from tree to tree then runs along a barren creek between fat roots and dead leaves. In the background faceless voices talk about tragedies while ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ by Metallica plays.

This sequence at the beginning of Paradise Lost, Joe Berlinger’s collaboration with Bruce Sinofsky that follows the prosecution of three boys for the grisly deaths of three others in West Memphis, is significant for a number of reasons. First, it sets the scene for a doc that went on to win an Emmy and a Peabody in 1997. It also introduced countless viewers to a story of three wrongly convicted teens that divided audiences, thrilled reviewers, inspired filmmakers and outraged citizens, culminating in mass campaigns to ‘Save the West Memphis Three.’ And importantly, nearly 10 years later, it brought Joe Berlinger out of the fetal position.

But let’s go back to the beginning. Looking at Berlinger’s career path, it appears he’s either made a series of good decisions or simply comes into a lot of good fortune. He began working with film in advertising, producing spots for global agency Ogilvy & Mather in Germany. After a transfer to New York and a collaboration with Albert and David Maysles, having recommended them for an American Express spot, he went to work at Maysles Films developing their TV commercial business. It was there that he learned the art of filmmaking. ‘I’m of the Maysles’ verité school where you film life as it unfolds and give it some dramatic structure in the editing room,’ says Berlinger. ‘It plays like good fiction, but it’s real.’

While working with the Maysles brothers he met Sinofsky. The two went on to form a partnership that led to the making of Outrageous Taxi Stories (1989); Brother’s Keeper (1992); the formation of their joint production and distribution company Creative Thinking International; Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) and, eventually, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004).

Brother’s Keeper, in particular, taught Berlinger a lot about both the artistic and the business sides of documentary filmmaking. It tells the story of the Ward brothers; a group of elderly men that lived in seclusion and obscurity until the death of one brother led to the trial of another, Delbert Ward, for his murder.

The filmmakers funded Brother’s Keeper out of their own pockets, and when they couldn’t find distribution for the film, even after winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, they formed Creative Thinking. With their new company they learned how to distribute the film themselves, grossed $1.6 million and set a record for the most successful self-distributed documentary. Berlinger attributes an imperative part of his continued success as a documentary maker to his ability to deal with the business side as well as the creative side of making docs.

On the creative side, the film was instrumental in Berlinger’s personal growth as a verité filmmaker, teaching him to be less judgmental and contributing to his desire to break down stereotypes. ‘Not that I was overly judgmental [to begin with], but I think we all are, and that film really opened my eyes to being much more accepting of people in all their shapes and sizes,’ he says. ‘Just as the audience comes to have their stereotypes about these people broken down and you come to accept them as human beings, that was the process that we as filmmakers went through. That was a very important step in my own personal development.’

Many years later Berlinger would deal with a much more unpleasant step in his personal growth; the realization that he was letting critics validate his existence. With Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost, Berlinger received numerous accolades, but when he moved into the realm of fictional features with Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, his experience with critics did a 180. ‘The reviews were so bad and the attacks on me personally were so strong,’ he recalls now. ”Good documentary filmmaker fucks his life up with this horrible piece of shit’ was the tone of a lot of the reviews. I can deal with bad reviews but they were reviewing me as a person as well. It was my dark moment.’

This was the ‘fetal position’ period. The experience left him feeling that his career was over, until his wife made him sit down and watch his own documentary work. Upon seeing the opening scene of Paradise Lost he felt newly inspired.

In part it was the song behind the opening that brought him around. Speaking to Berlinger about what lies behind the filmmaking choices he has made, he says it is his sympathy for outsiders and outcasts that often draws him to a story. ‘A very rocky childhood provided me with a sense of injustice and wanting to shine a light on things I thought were unfair,’ he offers.

Paradise Lost itself was a prime example of documenting the outsider, but hearing Metallica’s music made him think of the band as representing outcasts, and reminded him that he had once talked about making a documentary with the band. The decision to phone Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich that day was yet another instance of being in the right place at the right time. He was present when the band, at the time going through a dysfunctional period, went into therapy, a happenstance that led him back to critical success with Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Being in on the sessions was also therapeutic for him while he was getting over his low period, and it helped rebuild the relationship he had dissolved with partner Sinofsky just before starting work on Blair Witch 2.

‘Sometimes you feel like the universe has put you in a place because you need to be there,’ says Berlinger. ‘The [films] that come together are the ones where, somehow, the universe thinks that I should be there and I actually learn a lot about myself. I feel like I’m there to send a message out.’

The latest message he felt compelled to send comes through his most recent doc, Crude, now playing theatrically in North America. He accompanied lawyer Steve Dozinger to Ecuador to witness the case between the indigenous people of Ecuador’s rainforest and Chevron/Texaco, accused of wantonly polluting the rainforest and endangering the lives of the Cofán. Initially skeptical, after the trip, Berlinger decided to start working on the doc without financial backing, the first time he’d done that since Brother’s Keeper. Berlinger still works in the ad world, most recently creating a series of short docs for Honda, and he does a lot of television work, including executive producing and co-directing Iconoclasts for Sundance Channel, so he was able to afford funding the first year of the project out of his own pocket.

Still, he says it was the hardest film he’s made to date. The experience behind-the-scenes was dangerous; he was shooting at the equator, he got chiggers (bugs that burrow under the skin), his anti-malaria medication gave him what he calls a ‘Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now experience,’ and one day he walked through a murder scene. But despite the dangers Berlinger stuck with it, believing it was heartbreaking to see people who live in the rainforest with no access to clean water. The film has since racked up several awards, including best international documentary at the One World Media Awards.

As much as he feels sympathy for the Cofán, with Crude, Berlinger stays true to his technique of letting the events tell the story without using any narration, and letting the viewer draw his or her own conclusions by presenting both sides of the story. ‘I believe life is much more complex than the media tends to paint situations,’ says Berlinger. ‘The truth has many levels to it and there are complexities to life. I think my films really address that issue.’

Summing up the unpredictability of working in a verité style, he recounts something else he learned from the Maysles brothers. ‘One of the challenges of verité filmmaking is that you jump out a window and you just hope there’s a mattress on the other side to catch you.’

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