Filmmaker Joe Berlinger isn’t necessarily one to be swayed by influence and psychological tricks, so when some question the methods of motivational speaker and life performance coach Tony Robbins, the Paradise Lost director says he understands the initial skepticism.
After grappling with personal issues in 2012, Berlinger was invited by the self-help guru to attend that year’s “Date with Destiny” seminar, an immersive six-day event attended by more than 2,500 people that promises to unlock the “ultimate vision of your life, career, finances, health and relationships.”
“I went in thinking ‘I’ve got to get out of here, this is not for me,’ but by the end of the event I thought something fascinating had transpired,” the Paradise Lost director recalls of the experience. “There’s an exercise done that you see in the film where you think of your earliest memory and how to reposition it, and I felt a very positive change happen in me at a time when I was going through a difficult period.”
The transformation would see Berlinger return to his cinéma vérité roots on his 12th feature-length documentary, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. The film, which has its world premiere tonight (March 14) at the SXSW Film Festival in the Headliners category, is the end-result of a nearly two-year campaign to secure unprecedented access into Robbins’ empire and explore the inner workings of his flagship pop-psychology event.
The film – which was produced by SVOD platform Netflix, Radical Media and Third Eye Motion Picture Company – chronicles Robbins as he counsels such attendees as a young woman struggling to connect with her drug dependent father, a man contemplating suicide and a Brazilian sexual abuse survivor. The doc also depicts the life strategist as he mentally and physically prepares for each 12-hour session backstage and at his Florida home.
Berlinger’s film – produced and completed in just 16 months – offers limited commentary on Robbins’ methods, instead providing a window for audiences to decipher the authenticity of the experience for themselves.
“I’m not here to preach or proselytize with this film,” the filmmaker explains. “I had a really interesting experience, and filmically speaking, I wanted to share that experience with people, but the movie does not tell you what to think.”
Realscreen caught up with Berlinger ahead of the world premiere to discuss the challenges of creating a film without a natural arc, his relationship with Netflix, and what he ultimately hopes Guru – which streams to Netflix subscribers worldwide on July 15 – may accomplish.
What narratives were you looking to explore with this film?
I’m dropping people into this immersive experience and I hope they get a positive message from it, but I’m not trying to persuade or change opinions. Who I’m really going for are the people who aren’t really sure what to think, don’t really have any direct experience or pre-judgements about it, and hope they’ll be more open to this kind of human exploration. We rarely take time to think about the direction of our lives to work on being better people, and it’s great that this event forces you to spend six full days thinking about these issues, so I wanted to achieve the same, cinematically, for people.
Is there any concern audiences might respond differently to Guru, as it’s a departure from some of your recent social justice films?
In some ways it’s very different from my past work, especially in recent years. Obviously, I’ve made some very hardcore, aggressive films pointing out social ills like prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful conviction in the Paradise Lost series, alleged FBI and Department of Justice corruption in my film Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger about the Whitey Bulger case, corporate malfeasance and pollution in Crude.
I worry a little bit about how people will perceive this film coming from a filmmaker like myself, but this is just a completely different [film] closer to my roots on Brothers Keeper, which is just an immersive cinéma vérité where you can make up your own mind as to what you think. I’m sure some people will walk out of this film thinking ‘That was bulls**t,’ but I’m more interested in the people in the middle – people like me – who really didn’t have a lot of knowledge about Tony Robbins and came out the other end with an appreciation for what he does.
What were some of the production challenges you encountered throughout the project and how did you rectify them?
The biggest challenge was figuring out how to tell a narratively satisfying film and identifying the traditional story arcs. In Paradise Lost, we followed an unfolding murder trial and case for years. Whitey and Crude were unfolding trials. These are external devices that have a natural narrative arc, so [Guru] really depends upon the charisma and personality of Tony. Too much and it’s stifling, too little and the film does not have a strong narrative thread. To build some kind of narrative arc with a very straightforward event that does not have its own natural arc is very challenging. In the film, each day is kind of an act, so you have a six-act film where new characters are really being introduced within each act. You don’t have the normal structural glue to hang a narrative arc on, and I was very conscious of that during production and editing.
Can you tell me about how Netflix came on board as the film’s primary financier and distributor?
Radical has a great relationship with Netflix, having done the Nina Simone and Keith Richards films. I kept mentioning to them that as soon as I had some footage to show them, I’d like [for Netflix to view it] because I thought Netflix was the perfect platform for this film. I don’t necessarily see this film going the traditional documentary route, per se. I felt this was the type of film that was perfect for the Netflix platform, with immediate access and being able to roll it back or play something again. I feel like there are a lot of life lessons in this film that on the first viewing you might be a little skeptical, but by the time you get to the end of the film I hope that people will feel touched by it and want to watch it again.
What are you hoping SXSW audiences walk away with after watching this film?
What I hope audiences in general take out of this is that there are a lot of problems in the world and issues that need to be addressed. We live in an increasingly divisive and polarized world. My epiphany was that if people were happier about themselves, if people felt better about the direction of their lives, [were] more in control of their lives and had the tools to access that, perhaps there’d be less social ills – but maybe that’s Pollyanna-ish. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
- Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru premieres at SXSW tonight (March 14) at 6 p.m. CT at Austin’s Paramount Theatre, and again on March 15, 17 and 19. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.