INTERVIEW: Battling the Blair Witch, Joe Berlinger Takes on Sequels and Studio with "Book of Shadows"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 10.24.00) — “One of my biggest concerns,” says Joe Berlinger, “is how the studio is going to market this film. I keep saying, if you market it as a jump out of your seat horror film, like ‘Scream 3,’ we’re going to disappoint.” Berlinger, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker of “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost,” tried to put his own stamp on his first narrative feature, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” favoring to call it a “psychological thriller,” rather than invoke the surreal screaming picture that distributor Artisan has plastered all over the United States.
But what can you do when you’re facing a project that has been criticized as simply a pure marketing ploy from day one? And you only have 11 months to write, shoot, and edit the film, before it goes out to some 4,000 screens around the country? If you’re Joe Berlinger, you’re going to try to make an intelligent film that explores the very themes brought up by the first movie’s success: movie sequels, mass hysteria, and the media saturated world we live in. Did he succeed? This Friday, when the film opens across the nation, a lot of moviegoers will likely have their answer. Regardless of the outcome, Berlinger remains proud of his work, speaking to indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about his “insane schedule,” the dangers of shaky-cam realism, creative differences with Artisan, and not wanting to pander to commercialism. (A warning, several spoilers appear in this interview.)
indieWIRE: How did you get involved in the first place?
Joe Berlinger: I was developing a movie with Christine Vachon and Killer Films, about this bizarre murder case in the ’30s about this guy who lived in his lover’s attic for 17 years, unbeknownst to the husband. The husband discovered the guy and the affair and the “little fellow in the attic” as he’s called, kills the husband, and there was this sensational murder trial. So I was at Artisan in November pitching that idea. And Sybelle Greenman who was the key, creative executive embraced the idea and introduced me to some other executives. And I kept pitching to people and I kept thinking, this is going well. But in reality, I guess what they were doing was screening me. When I came in to pitch this movie, they were thinking about directors, so when I got back to New York around Thanksgiving, I was asked if I was interested.
And so they sent me several scripts that they had developed. I read the scripts and I got very concerned that this was not the right way to go with the sequel. And so I called them up and didn’t quite decline, but said I’m not sure if this is the right way to go. Because I thought the three scripts all shared one thing — which was, in my opinion, the wrong way to go with this sequel. I didn’t want to be the guy who killed the franchise. So then I was asked, what would you do? And so I quickly banged out an idea over the weekend, thinking there’s no way that if they have this etched in stone February 15 [shooting] start date and this is going to open in 11 months on 4000 screens. . . . But I’ll give them the benefit of my thoughts and help develop my relationship with them for my other movie. So I sent the treatment in, and they liked it. They continued to develop the other drafts and it wasn’t clear that they would go with my idea or that I would necessarily direct. And by the first week of December, they said who do you want to write the script with? And I chose this guy who I had worked with before, Dick Beebe, who wrote “The House on Haunted Hill;” and somehow in four or five weeks, we cranked out the first draft of the script and stuck to our schedule.
iW: How was production? Did you feel pressured?
Berlinger: We jumped into production; it was a very tight production schedule. The budget was 10 million dollars. People said, “Oh my god, you had 300 times more than the first movie, you had all this money!” But the reality is that it was a very tight budget. Because I made a fundamental decision that emulating the first movie’s production methodology would be a mistake. That it would be derivative and those guys did it so well, so I thought it had to look different. So I shot a regular movie and $10 million doesn’t go that far these days, especially when you’re saying “Blair Witch 2,” no one’s cutting you deals, because everyone’s got dollar signs in their eyes. So I shot the movie on a very tight budget on a very tight timetable.
iW: You mentioned before about the three drafts that Artisan was developing didn’t take the sequel in the best way? What was the problem?
Berlinger: The mistake of the three scripts that I passed on was — I thought there’s no way lightening was going to strike twice. American would not have its wool pulled over its eyes again. I thought a much cooler way into the sequel was to acknowledge the first movie’s success. It’s also a link to my work. I’ve made films about the media’s impact on events. I was more fascinated by the end result of the film than by the film itself. According to the marketing department, some huge percentage — like 40% of America — walked out of that movie still thinking it was real. And that has something to do with the fact that we’ve developed this cultural shorthand that if you shoot on video and shake the camera around, then it’s real. And I think that’s dangerous. And one of the things that I want this movie to comment on is the veracity of videotape. The filmmakers don’t disappear; the content of the videotape disappears. The quest in the movie is the search to discover what’s on the videotapes. So I just thought that was a cool way into the sequel, sort of a postmodern sequel about the impact of the first movie, as opposed to directly continuing the story.
So in my concept, I created a whole new set of characters. No one from the first movie shows up in the second movie. I wanted to do everything possible to go against expectations, what I anticipate people are expecting. No matter what, this movie is going to be controversial. If I had done shaky-cam, people would say, why are you ripping off the first movie. Now that I’ve done a beautifully-shot movie that clearly has a fictional landscape, people are going to say, “Oh, you’ve sold out, you’re this cool indie filmmaker and you’ve sold out.” No matter what, people will not be happy. Even though this is a “teen psychological thriller,” as I’m constantly reminded by the studio, I wanted to make a movie that was relevant to my work.
iW: How much research did you do?
Berlinger: Not as much as I normally do on a documentary, but enough to get my juices going to try to figure out a way to the sequel.
iW: Let’s talk more about this issue of what’s real and how it relates to your documentary work?
Berlinger: I always thought the first movie was ingenious in terms of blurring the line between fiction and reality. I wanted to do it my own way. I have a pet peave about society’s acceptance of the clichés of bad documentary-making equaling reality. If you look at a movie like “Paradise Lost” or “Brother’s Keeper,” those are well-shot, beautifully-crafted movies that work as movies, but are also documentaries. The loss of focus, the shaky-cam, the amateur photography are things that a good documentarian would never put in their film unless they absolutely had to, unless it was essential for content and you didn’t have a cutaway. We embrace the reality of video and I wanted to comment on that in this movie. And I also wanted to demonstrate that you could blur the line between fiction and reality by not resorting to production methodology, but by doing it thematically. My favorite play in college was “Six Characters in Search of An Author,” by Luigi Pirandello.
iW: Do you think most of people who see this movie will get what you were trying to do?
Berlinger: One of the things I’m worried about is I’m not sure people are going to get that all the fantasies they are having are horror movie cliché fantasies on purpose. The spinning girl is from “Evil Dead 2,” the eating of the owl is my homage to “Night of the Living Dead,” the dogs are from “The Omen,” they’re so saturated by media and so convinced there must be something to the BW, that they’re having these fantasies, which are in reality this giant group delusion. This is a movie about 5 people who become so obsessed with the first movie that they become delusional because they want to; they become victims to mass hysteria, like that school in Texas where everybody felt they were falling victim to poison gas and then they proved there was no such thing.
iW: So what does your documentary partner Bruce [Sinofsky] think of all of this?
Berlinger: We’re still great friends and hope to make another documentary together. For the last couple years, we’ve been each doing our own thing. We made some fairly successful documentaries and we’re going to continue down that road. If we ever want to make one again together, which I’m sure we will, we know what that world is about. We just wanted to spread our wings, creatively.
iW: So now that you’ve made a big movie, are you going to be moving more into that world. . .?
Berlinger: I’m not necessarily interested in becoming a big, commercial filmmaker even though I did a commercial film. I imagine I’ll get another opportunity to do a 5-8 million dollar movie. I did not have as much creative control on this movie as I’m used to. After I shot, and started handing in cuts, I did not have control.
At Artisan, it wasn’t like a clash. But there was definitely a difference of objectives. They want to make a commercial movie and I know that this is a commercial movie, but I did not want to pander to commercialism. And there are some things in this movie that would not be in there, if this were a smaller independent movie. So I recognize that I made a commercial movie, and there are some things that I wouldn’t have put in the movie, and there are things that have been taken out that I wouldn’t have taken out. On the other hand, I think [Artisan’s] choice of me demonstrated that they didn’t want a run of the mill sequel. It’s definitely a lot less commercial than it could have been. There has definitely been some tension as to what is the objective of this movie.
At times, I feel the marketing of the movie has driven creative decisions in a way that’s typical of Hollywood, but also in a way that’s made me not necessarily want to repeat the experience. I’d rather have made a smaller movie and much more creative control. I totally understand where they’re coming from, of course. This is a movie that’s going to be seen by a lot of people. I understand where that commercial agenda is coming from; I’m just not sure I want to put myself in that place again. I feel like I’ve made a lot of compromises. I understand them from a business point of view, but from a creative standpoint, they’ve been disappointing. On the one hand, I think for a studio sequel, Artisan is taking a big chance and deserves some credit, on the other hand, for me, aesthetically as a filmmaker, the movie that’s being released is 70% of what I would have done had I been left alone. Which might have meant that the movie would have been a huge commercial failure. So they’re not wrong to own up to their responsibility to serving a much wider audience. It’s just I’d rather go to the safer place of smaller movie, smaller expectations, more creative freedom.
iW: Do you feel at all like you’re a cog in their machine? How do you keep yourself real within this context?
Berlinger: I try to make people think about some issues, which they can choose to think about. They can choose to look at it for what it is, or think more deeply about it. I did try to take a huge risk to affect a sequel. Of course, I did it for selfish reasons; I thought it would be a cool opportunity. So I don’t think I’m part of the problem, because no matter what, this movie was going to be made.