With a background in network television news, "Deliver Us From Evil" director Amy Berg is an Emmy Award winner for her work, tackling such topics as sexual assault, women in prison, clergy abuse, battered women, unsafe public playgrounds, poverty, illegal drug dispersion, illicit medical doctors and toxic pollutants. Last year, she launched Disarming Films to produce theatrical documentaries.
"Deliver Us From Evil" debuted this summer at the Los Angeles Film Festival where she won the Target Documentary Award and a $50,000 cash prize; the film was subsequently acquired by Lionsgate for this week's theatrical release.
"This was a difficult doc to make," Berg said, accepting her prize at the LA Film Festival. "It was even more difficult not to make it."
Berg recently participated in indieWIRE's email interview series and her answers to our questions are published below.
Would you please tell us a bit more about yourself?
I was born in Los Angeles, grew up in the San Fernando Valley and currently live in Santa Monica. I studied journalism at Cal State Northridge and spent years producing hard-hitting documentary segments for CNN Investigations and CBS' "30 Minutes of Special Assignment."
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? Or how did you learn about filmmaking? And any other insights you think might be interesting...
I owe a lot to my training as a journalist where I not only learned a great deal about the technical process of filmmaking but I also had the chance to really hone my ability to tell a good news story. Eventually I grew to find working within the confines of television extremely limiting as almost everything is subjected to network standards and restrictions. Around the same time, the news networks were starting to grow weary of sex abuse stories after the 2002 Boston Diocese scandal - in their minds Clergy sex abuse was "old news." I decided to prove them wrong by finding a new and different medium that would put my story out there. Plus I'm a total cinephile so the idea of making a film has always been something that appealed to me.
So, can you elaborate further on how the initial idea for your film evolved?
Investigating clergy sex abuse cases for CNN and CBS, I had become all too familiar with the more than 550 priests who had abused children under the jurisdiction of Roger Mahony. In 2004, I contacted Oliver O'Grady, the pedophile priest whose confession my film centers around. During his twenty years in the Church, O'Grady had molested dozens of children across Northern California as his superiors knowingly moved him from parish to parish. In 2001, he had been deported to Ireland, his birthplace, following the completion of a 7-year prison sentence. After five months of weekly hour-long phone conversations, he agreed to meet with me in person. I immediately flew to Ireland and as soon as we met I instantly recognized the potential for a compelling film. I really saw this as a story that needed to be told.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the movie?
As a first time filmmaker, taking on a 90-minute project was daunting since my biggest story as a journalist had been a 30 minute special. Once I started shooting, however, I quickly realized that the bigger problem was going to be deciding what to cut. Another challenge I didn't really see coming was the amount of time I had to invest in order to get the sex abuse survivors who appear in the film to open up. At first they were leery of me - I had after all spent a significant amount of time with the man who had violated them. Ultimately, I came to understand that the physical and spiritual abuse they suffered was deeper and more destructive than I ever realized. I hope the film helped to serve as a forum for them to express themselves and move on and to give the more than 80% of victims who have yet to come forward the courage to do the same.
What are your biggest creative influences?
I'm a huge fan of muckraking documentarians like Michael Moore. The Dogma 95 neo-neorealism films also had a profound effect on me. I tend to love narrative cineastes that employ a documentary style -- Alejandro Innaritu and Gus Van Sant to name two. I found the work I did as a journalist artistically unsatisfying so I definitely took an aesthetically-conscious approach to "Deliver Us from Evil." Before I even started shooting, I had a very specific idea of how I wanted the film to look. I choose my two cinematographers, Jacob Kusk and Jens Schlosser, because they had a similar style to Rodrigo Prieto ("21 Grams") and Harris Savides ("Elephant").
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
"Eyes Wide Shut" and all Stanley Kubrick, "The Thin Blue Line," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Bowling for Columbine," "My Own Private Idaho," "The Sweet Hereafter" and the list goes on and on and on....
How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
Well, I've given up my day job - does that mean I've made it? Last year, I launched Disarming Films to produce long-form documentaries for theatrical release. Now I'm also exploring other genres and have several projects in development. One of the projects is about the decline of the Alaskan culture and the hybrid culture that now exists in the small villages of Alaska. I think I'll always aim to make humanistic films that take a hard look at social injustices and institutional failings. I also subscribe to the theory that we're all in this together and everything we do or don't do - whether we choose to speak up or stay silent - has an effect. I believe it was William Saroyan who said "no man's guilt is not yours, nor is any man's innocence a thing apart."
[For more information on the "Deliver Us From Evil," visit the film's website.