EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger’s latest documentary picks up the thread of the infamous “Amazon Chernobyl” case, a 13-year-old battle between communities nearly destroyed by oil drilling and development and one of the biggest companies on earth. In a sophisticated take on the classic David and Goliath story, Berlinger took three years to craft a cinema verite portrait centering on the charismatic lawyers in the U.S. and Ecuador who have doggedly pursued the case against all of the forces a corporation can bring into courts of law.
Director: Joe Berlinger
Producers: Joe Berlinger, Michael Bonfiglio, J.R. DeLeon, Richard Stratton
Editor: Alyse Ardell Spiegel
U.S.A., 2009, 100 min., color
Please introduce yourself...
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I am Joe Berlinger… once a young filmmaker, but now firmly rooted in middle age. I have been a working filmmaker for 20 years. In addition to making feature length films every few years (“Brother’s Keeper”, “Paradise Lost”, “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”), I have a fulfilling career as a nonfiction television director and producer, and TV commerical director. I also occasionally executive produce films for first-time filmmakers whose stories I believe in.
How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?
I began my career in 1983 in advertising, working in the Frankfurt (Germany) office of Ogilvy & Mather (because I spoke German), a big New York based multinational ad agency. After getting transferred back to New York City in 1985, I hired the Maysles Brothers (“Gimme Shelter”, “Grey Gardens”) to shoot an American Express commercial that I was producing. David Maysles (who died in 1987) and I hit it off, and he invited me to work at their company to develop their TV commercial business, which I did for 5 years, using my time there as a working film school. At Maysles, I met Bruce Sinofsky, who was an editor there for commercials. Together, we went off and made “Brother’s Keeper” using 10 credit cards and second mortgages on our homes. Ultimately, it had a happy ending — the film won the Audience Award at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
I met the plaintiffs’ consulting attorney Steven Donziger (who is one of the central characters in “Crude”) in the Fall of 2005, through Richard Stratton. Richard is a screenwriter I’d known for a while through our mutual friend, the late Eddie Bunker. Steven told me about the case and it sounded interesting, so I went down to Ecuador to check it out. When I saw the devastation in the Amazon and heard stories from the local people, I was shocked, disturbed and profoundly moved. Plus, it seemed like a huge story that at the time no one was really paying any attention to.
Although I’m always on the lookout for stories as potential film subjects, I didn’t immediately see this as a feature documentary. Despite being deeply affected by what I saw in Ecuador, it didn’t strike me that it would translate into something other than a news story or some kind of one-sided environmental expose, neither of which interested me. But I did feel like I wanted to help these people in some way. I was haunted by images of the people I saw in the Amazon, suffering from disease, eating canned tuna because the fish are gone from the once-pristine river in a place that used to be a paradise. This location, after all, was once of the few places on earth that survived the last ice age, yet it is struggling to survive industrial development.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
“Crude” was a conscious attempt to return to my roots making “Brother’s Keeper” almost 20 years ago (made with my frequent collaborator Bruce Sinofsky). As we did back then, I just dove into a subject that I wanted to film without worrying about how we were going to pay for it or who was going to show it. (“Crude” didn’t get funded until we’d been shooting for nearly a year). The last few years of my career have been marked by bigger budget projects like “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” and several high-profile TV series, including Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel. I felt I was drifting from that internal fire that excites me to make a film for the love of the process and the desire to tell a certain story for a big-screen audience. It was also a return to a kind of handmade, DIY filmmaking for me, largely because of the massive scope of this story and the kinds of locations we were shooting in made it something of a guerilla effort.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
I’ve shot in a number of different countries for many different film and television projects, including four seasons of Iconoclasts on the Sundance Channel, which has taken me to a number of far-flung locations, but this was the first time I made an entire feature with so much time spent shooting in a foreign country. I made an hour-long doc a few years ago called “Gray Matter”, which we shot in Austria, but there’s no real comparison between the two experiences. “Crude” was a pretty complicated production, and working in the Amazon was exhilarating but also extremely challenging. Aside from the language, the jungle heat was fairly intense, and the conditions overall were far from cushy. There’s a big difference between touring Europe with Metallica, filming on Richard Branson’s private island, or surfing in Maui with Eddie Vedder for Iconoclasts and this project, where we stayed in sparse accommodations in some fairly dangerous towns with a skeleton crew.
Lago Agrio for example, is right near Ecuador’s border with Columbia, and it’s known as a popular R&R destination for members of the FARC guerrilla group. Shushufindi, where [plaintiffs’ attorney] Pablo Fajardo lives, has staggering rates of murder and other violent crime.
In the jungle itself, we all ended up with multiple cases of chiggers – nasty little insects that get into your skin and itch like hell – and other a variety of other ailments (Michael Bonfiglio, my producer and 2nd Unit director, contracted Hepatitis A). I did have a budget on “Crude”, but we stretched it to the breaking point as the story evolved and we had to keep shooting well beyond what was initially allotted in order to capture what was happening. With the massive scale on which this story played out, we wound up shooting six hundred hours of material, on three different continents and in more than a dozen different cities.
What are some of your favorite films?
I am a huge fan of earlier cinema-verite classics like “Salesman”, “Grey Gardens”, “Gimme Shelter”, “Titicut Follies”.
My other creative influence is the photography galleries at MOMA and ICP.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
At different times in my career, I have defined success in different ways. For “Crude”, just getting it completed and exposed to people at Sundance is more than I could have hoped for.
At this point in my career, I define success as being able to make a living exploring worlds that interest me and/or bringing sorely needed attention to a just cause.
What are your future projects?
Two music documentaries, one on B.B. King and one about the Grateful Dead, are being discussed; a possible IMAX film about Russia is also in the works. I am also developing two feature narrative projects, “Education of a Felon” about cult crime writer Edward Bunker and “Facing the Wind”, a true story about a guy who kills his entire family and then start life all over again. It based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Julie Salamon. I hope we will be embarking on Season 5 of Iconoclasts for the Sundance Channel as well.