Winter 2014

Stepping Back

As the director of the documentary West of Memphis and now her first feature, Every Secret Thing, Amy Berg has learned to observe and let the story unfold.


DEDICATED: After directing the award-winning feature documentary, Deliver Us From Evil, Berg’s career hasn’t followed any kind of “supposed to.”

Amy Berg was producing 30- and 60-minute long-form pieces for CBS News and CNN in Los Angeles in 2003 when she caught one of those lucky breaks that only happen after hard work paves the way for luck. Trained as a journalist, she was digging into stories about allegations of child sexual abuse involving the Catholic Church in California when she connected with Oliver O’Grady, an Irish-born priest who was by then living back in Ireland. O’Grady was ready to talk about how he was shuffled from parish to parish by church higher-ups who were aware of his crimes but committed to covering them up and protecting him. But CNN, she said, wasn’t initially interested in the story. So Berg, then 32 years old, did what an enterprising filmmaker does: “I decided it was my moment to exit. I went to Ireland, charged it on my credit card, and started shooting.”

CNN execs changed their minds when they learned of the footage Berg was getting, but by then it was too late: An independent filmmaker was born, one who learned on the fly what it takes to make a feature-length documentary. “It was me in my apartment for the first year of the movie,” she says. “I brought in an editor and assistant editor and we finished the film. I was kind of just learning on the job.” Part of the learning curve was finding what she calls “beautiful things in the room” that bring a viewer into the moment. It helped that her Danish cinematographers, Jens Schlosser and Jacob Kusk, were steeped in the observational aesthetics of the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement, a sensibility of great appeal to her. Berg proved to be a quick study: Deliver Us From Evil, which opened in 2006, received DGA and Academy Award nominations for best documentary, among a slew of other honors and awards.

Fast-forward to a bright, crisp autumnal New York morning in 2013. Berg is in town from Los Angeles for the week, finishing edits on her feature directorial debut, Every Secret Thing. Adapted from a spiky psychological thriller by journalist-turned-suspense writer Laura Lippman, the screenplay is by director-writer Nicole Holofcener. The story, about disappearing children and the prime suspects—two young women who previously served a prison sentence for a baby’s death—is complicated, dark, and moves quickly with six lead characters and many entwined story lines. The production schedule has been tight and a deadline is looming for submission to the Sundance Film Festival.

If she’s feeling any pressure, the well-organized Berg appears to be handling her shift from documentaries to features with aplomb. “In the end, you have to craft your scene before you shoot it,” she explains, whether working with fact or fiction. “In documentary shooting, a lot of that is done in the edit bay. But I still feel like I’ve always tried to create a script for the docs I’ve done—a blueprint for how I want to tell the story.”

After that, she knows, the plan may undergo alteration depending on what she learns from her subjects. “That’s kind of the same with a feature. You can be as specific and precise as you want, and then once you get into a room with the actors, things can change.” As she collaborated with her cast—Elizabeth Banks, Dakota Fanning and Diane Lane—she saw them bringing out character qualities she may not have planned on the page. “The actors I worked with seemed very interested in a documentary director who crossed over. I’m very warm on the set. It’s important for me not to feel a lot of distance between myself and the actors.”

REAL LIFE: Berg brought her attentive and sympathetic style to West of Memphis, an investigation into the miscarriage of justice in the murder conviction of three boys in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas.

Another adjustment from the documentary world of micro crews was the increase in staff size. Previously, her biggest crew had numbered seven and “now there are 30 or 40 people at times. It was very overwhelming at first. But I made a conscious decision to keep the set very small so it would feel like a doc crew.” She also conferred at length in preproduction with cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Molly Hughes to convey the look and feeling she was after—a moody blend she describes as a combination of The Virgin Suicides and Zodiac. “It’s a fast-paced psychological thriller, and I wanted it to feel sort of innocent and warm, and yet stark and cool looking.”

After the first day, Berg says she lost any apprehension she might have had about feature directing. “I didn’t have time to think about being overwhelmed,” she recalls. Working from a 115-page script and shooting some six to eight scenes a day, she established a brisk pace for her three-week shooting schedule. “I remember complaining when we had to cut one week of prep and two shooting days; you think you need so much time. But then I realized I had 21 days, and there were so many people counting on me to get this thing done.”

Between Deliver Us From Evil and Every Secret Thing, Berg’s career didn’t follow any kind of “supposed to.” She made a short documentary about the effects of global warming on a remote Alaskan village for Al Gore’s environmental initiative, Live Earth Pledge. She produced a doc about the assassinated Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. And she worked for four years, with the generous financial backing of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, on West of Memphis (2012), an investigation into the miscarriage of justice in the case of the so-called West Memphis Three, in which three teenagers were falsely convicted in the 1993 murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Berg’s attentive, observant, and in this case, sympathetic style earned the trust of the defendant Damien Echols, who became one of the film’s producers along with his wife. As a result, the director had extraordinary access to Echols’ defense-team strategy.

Still, for all the satisfactions of West of Memphis, Berg knew she was itching to find new ways to tell a story, unbound by fact but rooted in real social issues. Of the scripts Berg considered, Every Secret Thing leaped out as “not a true story but it rings true in different ways. It touches on aspects of parenthood, women, racism and socioeconomic divides—things I’m always looking at in my documentaries.”

In finding her own style, she drew from feature and documentary directors she admired. She looked to the work of Alejandro González Iñárritu, David O. Russell, and Paul Thomas Anderson, where “you don’t feel like you’re watching actors acting a story out, you feel like you’re watching real life.” From documentarians Errol Morris, Fred Wiseman and Bennett Miller she learned restraint. “In their films, you don’t even sense there’s a filmmaker present, it seems like you’re watching a perfect story unfold; the director is so far back.”

Berg sees herself continuing on both tracks. She’s been working on and off for many years on a Janis Joplin documentary. “I’ve shot quite a bit of footage. And I brought Alex Gibney on as a producer about a year ago and he ended up bringing in most of the money.” Berg says there are “plenty of great producers in our tight-knit community” that champion documentaries. However, that’s not always the case. She recently had a film hijacked after years of work because of conflicting agendas with a financier/producer. “I try to get as clear as possible on the end result before signing contracts, as well as obtaining as much creative control as possible.”

For her next feature, she envisions having “maybe one or two characters—something like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or Capote where you’re focusing on one one person and their environment."

And in the future? "I have this journalistic itch in me and I don't think that will ever go away. But after this experience I also feel really compelled to do more features," says Berg—excited by the art of staying back while moving a perfect story forward.

Independent Voice

Profiles of independent directors sharing their visions and methods of making movies.

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