Oscar-nominated for her Catholic sex abuse doc “Deliver Us From Evil” (2006) and acclaimed for “West of Memphis” (2012), her deep-dive into Arkansas’ imprisonment of the teenage West Memphis Three, Berg debuted at Sundance 2015 her Mormon expose “Prophet’s Prey” (September 18, Showtime) and at DOC NYC the controversial Hollywood sex abuse doc “An Open Secret,” (June 5, Rocky Mountain Pictures).
Authoritative and whip-smart, Berg had no trouble setting up her first feature “Every Secret Thing,” which is in theaters now. Actress Frances McDormand wanted her to direct the Nicole Holofcener script about two hardscrabble teenage girls who wind up on the wrong side of the law when they kidnap a baby. When they return from prison to their parents and try to reestablish their lives, the young adults become suspects in another child disappearance.
Berg thoroughly enjoyed shooting the psychological thriller, between her other doc projects. She called me while she was working in the edit bay on her latest, the official Janis Joplin documentary.
For a movie that is so well-written, directed and acted –by Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane, Nate Parker, and Dakota Fanning–“Every Secret Thing” has endured a checkered history, debuting to muted response at the Tribeca Film Festival 2014, picked up by Starz, which is finally putting it into 22 markets, and earning mixed reviews. The thoughtful character-based genre film seems to confound expectations on some level. Would the response have been different if Berg had been an unknown quantity? She thinks so.
Anne Thompson: Is working on a fictional film more or less challenging than a documentary?
Amy Berg: The docs are so tough, you’re dealing with people’s lives, so much is at stake. I’ve had a run of heavy films. I’m loving the music aspect of this “Janis” doc right now. It’s a little lighter.
I’ve been reading scripts for a while. I always wanted to make an indie narrative. I think I evolved into making docs because of my love of great storytelling and indie foreign films, films that feel very real, like Dogma films, which were the most influential on me as a filmmaker.
What about this script appealed to you?
When I read this, it felt perfect. So many of the themes I had covered in my docs. It’s amazing what Holofcener wrote. It felt like the right one. It’s difficult to get a project off the ground, but this one seemed to have a lot energy behind it, Diane Lane had interest, after it had been in turnaround—for years—from Warner Bros.
I met with Diane after she signed on, everything started going from there. I cast the whole film, it moved quickly. I didn’t have that much time to think.
You use a very naturalistic shooting style.
It looked like a doc, which is why Fran wanted me to direct it. The novel’s characters feel very true to life. They feel like it could have happened. I spent time with the actors understanding where the characters came from and where they were going. They were in character on set, playing with things. There were some challenges. We don’t shoot in order, but we move from past to present. We shot based on locations, which was mentally challenging. The shoot lasted 21 days, you’re completely in that tunnel, you play with what you have in the editorial bay, which was helpful for me as a doc filmmaker. There was a non-linear aspect when it was edited. I’m used to playing with story.
You are dealing with audience expectations of the pretty girl and the fat girl.
You have a character in Alice Manning (Danielle Macdonald) who plays with all our perceptions and stereotypes of another person. Alice knows that, she can manipulate the audience. I felt I hadn’t seen that before, the issue of being overweight, the victim in so many ways. She plays it up and you buy it. I enjoyed the idea that this film was full of stereotypes, like the Common character, as the cop (Nate Parker) forces judgement on him when he walks in. We assume that Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) is bad because of her lousy environment. She’s the most tragic person in film, she has no parents, no one to help her through. She wants Alice’s mother (Diane Lane) to be her parent.
It seems like Helen Manning also wants the thin girl as her daughter.
You see in Diane’s Lane’s expression her unrequited desperate love; she wishes she were her daughter.
Why not show this at Sundance?
It wasn’t ready for Sundance. So the producers wanted to take it to Tribeca. We shot it in New York. It sold after Tribeca but we waited until spring to release it. We finished shooting it two years ago, and premiered it a year ago at Tribeca.
This is an unusual movie in terms of how it deals with realistic women. There are no romantic fantasies here.
We are not prepared for female characters who don’t redeem themselves. There is a bias it seems with critics when a documentary filmmaker makes a feature. The standard is set at a different level. The reviewers’ response might have been different had I not made documentaries before. There are bad reviews and good reviews coming out. It’s a different movie from my others. I don’t think it’s had its chance. The performances are really strong. The film turned out well, per my vision.
This has that psychological thriller ride to it. It’s a good film that isn’t too long, I think it’s heaviness is outweighed by the ride, the conversation after the movie is even more interesting. It’s always a goal for me in all of my films to have something to talk about based on what you just saw. We’ve had a few good Q & As.
Are you sticking with docs or pursuing features as well?
I’m doing another narrative, an adaptation of Archer Graham’s “Destructive Position,” the true story of a female survivor of Jonestown. I’m writing it and am going to direct. I almost have a working script to take around with the producers. I’m very excited.
It’s really down to characters, whether documentary or fiction. I place an important emphasis on strong conflicted females in my filmmaking. I was on a panel at Sundance on ethics this year, talking about the issue, and the females I’ve documented, who’ve all been victims, except for “Every Secret Thing” and “Janis.” I’ve focused my camera on conflicted females. There’s such an expectation that women be pretty and square up at the end. We have such a different take on conflicted men and females in cinema. I look at the opportunities for all top actresses. The studios will have to come around eventually. I’ve never gone to a studio, just the indies. As I look at the future and the way things are going, the percentages will continue to grow. It’s important to continue this conversation.