Joe Berlinger has been a leading and authoritative voice in the documentary film world for over two decades. Nominated for an Academy award for “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” Berlinger has won the Peabody award and has been nominated for the Emmy Award seven times. Six of his films have had their world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, most recently, “Whitey: United States of America V. James J Bulger” (which just had its European premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest). Recently, he’s been directing “The System with Joe Berlinger,” a nonfiction series on Al Jazeera America.
But his greatest accomplishment of all?
“My biggest achievement is that I’ve been able to make a living at it for 25 years. It’s not the easiest thing in the world to be a documentary filmmaker. It’s not an easy business. The fact that I’ve gotten a paycheck for two and a half decades…Survival is key,” said Berlinger yesterday at a Master Class at the Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Ironically, becoming a documentary filmmaker was never Berlinger’s plan. “The funny thing about being considered a master and having survived this long is that I never actually intended to be a filmmaker,” he told the group of mostly filmmakers gathered to hear his wisdom and advice.
Berlinger studied German in college and parlayed his language skills into a job at Ogilvy & Mather’s Frankfurt office.
“I stumbled my way into the advertising world. It wasn’t until I was in Germany where I was on a TV commercial set for the first time where I looked around and saw the cameras and I thought ‘oh I want to be a filmmaker,'” he told the crowd.
Berlinger returned to New York with Ogilvy & Mather where he worked as a producer on television commercials, until a chance encounter that ended up changing his career trajectory. “By coincidence, one day we ended up hiring The Maysles brothers and I hit it off with David Maysles and I said ‘Hey, I’d like to get in the film business,’ and they said ‘hey, we’d like to be doing more advertising work.’ So I joined the Maysles brothers at the age of 25 to sell them to advertising agencies,” Berlinger recalled.
The truth is that he wasn’t even particularly interested in documentary filmmaking. “I was just looking to get into filmmaking. If I had hit it off with Ridley Scott on a commercial, maybe I would have had a very different path,” said Berlinger, who added that “that chance encounter with documentary has been a principle to me to be open to the story and where things take you.”
For example, when Berlinger, along with filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky, set out for West Memphis, Arkansas to make what would become “Paradise Lost,” he thought he was going to make a film about teenagers who murdered three eight-year-old boys as part of a Satanic ritual. But a few months into the process, he and Sinofsky realized that the accused teens were innocent.
“The thing I like to do is that cinema verite film where you’re following a story as it’s unfolding and you don’t know where it goes,” said Berlinger. “You have to remain open to the situation that you’re filming otherwise you might miss the story…Every film is a great journey and the whole act of discovery is part of the process. Every film turns out to be different than expected it to be.”
That’s certainly been the case with most of Berlinger’s films, including “Brother’s Keeper,” “Crude,” “Some Kind of Monster” and even his one fiction feature, “Blair Witch 2,” the sequel to “The Blair Witch Project,” which was a critical and commercial failure.
“I made one narrative film 14 years ago that has been one of the most reviled films in cinematic history, certainly the most reviled sequel,” said Berlinger. “I got a Razzie Award for it. So when I say I’ve gotten every award in the industry, I’m not kidding!”
Noting how the industry has changed so much since he started out, Berlinger said while it’s a great time to be a first-time documentary filmmaker since the barriers to entry are so low with cheaper technology, it’s getting harder to make a sustainable career at it — especially with the glut of filmmakers willing to work for next-to-nothing.
“The lesson is it’s hard to make a good living as a documentary maker just with documentaries. Even with the relative success I’ve had, I couldn’t have supported myself without advertising. Every year, I do one or three or four TV commercial projects,” said Berlinger. “That keeps it going for me. It’s too bad. Why are we so underpaid in this field? It’s terrible. Anyway, commercials have been good for me.”
Of course, the rewards of documentary filmmaking exceed any financial gain. “We shouldn’t only talk about money. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done and the fact that the ‘Paradise Lost’ films got three people out of prison who were wrongly convicted.”