With just two feature-length documentaries under her belt, 2006’s “Deliver Us from Evil,” an exploration of a Catholic priest sex abuse cover up and 2012’s “West Of Memphis,” an examination of failed justice in the case against the West Memphis Three, director Amy Berg has quickly risen to the top of the names working in the field. And if you add two not-yet-released, but equally superb documentaries — “An Open Secret” and “Prophet’s Prey,” both coming out later this year — a portrait emerges: one of the best documentary filmmakers working today, period.
And she’s branching out, too. Berg’s first narrative effort, “Every Secret Thing,” is a reworking of Laura Lippman’s crime novel of the same name. Adapted to the screen by celebrated filmmaker Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said,” “Please Give“), the thriller is a complex and dense police procedural about how crime impacts a community and offers myriad points of view. The movie is ostensibly about a detective (Elizabeth Banks) looking to unravel a mystery surrounding a missing child and the prime suspects: two young women (Dakota Fanning and Danielle Macdonald) who, seven years ago, were sent to a juvenile detention center for an infant’s death.
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But the movie is also about a mother (Diane Lane), her daughter (Macdonald), their secrets, and the lengths one will go to protect their offspring, even if their relationship is questionable at best. Berg’s film takes time to examine the case from all angles: the resolute detective trying to make amends, the distraught parents of the missing girl, the two young suspects trying to move past their crimes, and much more. We spoke to Berg by phone recently about her move into narrative features with “Every Secret Thing,” her documentary work, including the upcoming Hollywood sex ring doc “An Open Secret,” women working in Hollywood and more.
What drew you to this project in the first place? It seems right in your wheelhouse.
Exactly. There were so many themes in the script that I had covered in different documentaries and it just felt like it was a nice combination of really important material and strong female parts, which we seem to be lacking in Hollywood. I found the combination of all the elements very enticing.
I was really drawn to the idea that you as a parent could potentially have a child that is so different from you, like an alien almost. How do you deal with that? How do you reconcile your feelings towards your child if you don’t understand her? I think that Diane Lane’s character is so unique and just so interesting because of how she has to deal with this kid that is so foreign to her. And then there are [Lane’s characters’s] choices which are deplorable and how they actually impact her daughter.
Right, but it’s kind of universal because many parents will try and do anything they can to help their child.
Right. But it’s too controlling. She tried to make her child into a version of herself and it’s so strange to her daughter. She just wants to be popular and normal. Her mom wants her to be this kind of eccentric artist. It’s such an interesting clash and combination of personalities.
The movie has an interesting theme about community too; how these crimes ripple out and affect everyone. And that also leads to a “Rashomon” effect and multiple perspectives.
Yeah, its so interesting how one decision that Diane Lane’s character makes affects everybody. Just the idea that she forces her daughter to go to a party and… it’s such a crucial moment in her daughter’s life. The daughter’s just started a new school, she just got invited into the group she wants to be a part of and this other girl comes to the party and completely destroys everything in her mind. Then obviously it trickles out and you see how interconnected we all are by this one act.
There’s a lot of empathy for all the various characters, even the ones that commit horrible deeds. I see that through line in your work.
Thanks for saying that. These two girls are 11 years old. They make a horrible mistake and then the way that they want to deal with it is just so different, each one from the other. You kind of have to empathize with that situation because knowing [their different socio-economic backgrounds] there’s no way they were going to reach an agreement. [Danielle Macdonald] is so much stronger than [Dakota Johnson’s character] because she’s from the right side of the tracks. Her voice is louder basically. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
How do you feel documentary work informs narrative, and vice versa, if at all?
Film for me is just about truth. As long as you’re being honest with your story, I don’t think it really has that much of a major difference. I mean, obviously, the stakes are much higher in a documentary when you’re dealing with someone’s life. I think in terms as a filmmaker, it’s all about finding truth in the story and sticking to it.
Whether it’s a narrative or documentaries pretty much all your films center on injustice, abuse of power and exposing secrets. What draws you to those kinds of stories?
Just the unrest inside of me. I get so frustrated when I read about the system of abuse. I feel like its so difficult to read the news and know you might not be getting the whole story, to see how far we’ve come in the wrong direction in a lot of ways and in the right direction in others. I just kind of find myself interested in those gray areas in between the headlines. I get angry a lot when I read about topics covered in my films.
Do you have an ultimate outcome desire to affect change with your films?
I don’t know that I knew that was possible on my first film. When I saw the power of what happened with the release of “Deliver Us From Evil” and how it affected the Catholic Church and the victims, it was really kind of an amazing feeling to feel like it’s not just for me, obviously, it’s affecting a lot of people. It’s nice to impact change and to influence one’s perspective on something based on another person’s experience. To maybe open someone’s eyes to something that they didn’t believe before, that’s really powerful for me.
Obviously this is a female-centric story and a lot of the female characters in the movie are flawed, and there’s no apology for that. I feel like complicated female characters like that are rare.
I am really happy that you’re bringing this up. I feel responsible to look for really interesting parts for women as a director, and this film it’s great in that discussion because women don’t redeem themselves in this film. We have this expectation: we go to a movie that perhaps we see the Hollywood happy ending as it pertains to the females, which is so cliché.
If we can address flawed women then it’s a really great talking point, and some of the actors are looking for parts like this. It helps everyone because the film can get made if you have a powerful actress that’s willing to put her name and get behind something that’s not the cliché. We’re very fortunate to have actors like Dakota, Diane, Elizabeth and Danielle. These women just really embraced the story because of its flaws as much as the message.
I was very surprised by Elizabeth Banks’ performance. I know she’s good, but she rarely gets to show that strong dramatic side to herself and she really shines.
Yes, but she also brings some levity to it, just in her demeanor. It helps to lighten up the story at a certain point because it got pretty heavy. She’s so good at drama and really good at being believable, but she’s just not really known for it. She’s incredibly professional and we needed people who were going to work hard in a very short schedule and that’s a challenge when you’re talking about the level of talent that we cast in this film. Everyone was such a trooper.
How do you see the state of women in film these days? I don’t know if you saw that recent Female Filmmakers Initiative backed by the Sundance Institute and Women in Film. It was pretty eye opening stuff.
I feel very fortunate I’m part of the doc community. I feel like we have more female directors and producers than the other branches of at least in the Academy. I also feel like the percentages seem to be rising. I think that we’re in the middle of some kind of a shift. I am really happy about that. There’s a lot more work to be done. All these female actors keep saying, “Write us a part and we will do it. We’re looking for something that’s outside of the box.” I think a change is coming and I’m just really excited to see what’s going to happen over the next ten years.
I wonder if a greater conversation about flawed female characters is going to hit the mainstream in a big way, what with Amy Schumer’s upcoming “Trainwreck.” It feels like it shares similar ideas of what you’re talking about, only from a comedic lens.
I know there’s definitely a really good movement happening. This is the discussion that needs to be happening right now. We embrace flawed men. We have since the beginning of time so now it’s the time to look at this and talk about it. The issue with female characters is more of an American thing to be honest. Europeans think that we need to take some cues from the French.
I’ve got to ask you about your upcoming documentary “An Open Secret” because it’s chilling. It’s such a damning exposé; I wonder how much of a problem it has been for Hollywood on the whole.
I don’t know. I documented a ring that happened ten years ago and the impact of that. I think that everyone knows the instances are still going on. Whenever you have children, money and power in the same dynamic, you’re going to have these kinds of problems. It’s really important that we not ignore this topic in our industry. We’re constantly looking at this issue in other industries; why not address what’s right under our nose.
When “An Open Secret” first screened at Doc NYC, there was talk most distributors were going to be too afraid to touch it, and others were going to try and purposefully bury it.
I feel they were. I assume that [certain people in this film] spoke to a number of acquisitions, representatives that were very interested in it and it didn’t ever get past the corporate level. I don’t know if they were trying to bury it or if they’re just not ready to take the issue on. Hopefully there’s always a time and a place for everything. Maybe people will be a little bit more open to it now since its not the sensational headlines story any more.
Michael Egan’s lawsuit made a lot of noise as this film was finishing production. [he alleged that “X-Men” director Bryan Singer and several other filmmakers documented in an “An Open Secret” had abused him as a child]. Then his case fell apart and he dropped it. Were you worried how this might affect or hurt your film?
I was not worried about it because my film was really not about Mike Egan. He was a tangential character; more in the film as a friend of [sex abuse victim] Mark Ryan. I really just want the film to get out and hopefully to see some justice for the other victims who haven’t been able to move on.
I interviewed him, but not as a victim. We knew that he had been abused by [various individuals] because the lawsuit was settled back in 2002 and that’s how I addressed him. His perpetrator left the country. So he never got justice there. The big issue was finding people willing to talk about this stuff. What happens to someone’s life after something horrible like this happens? What’s their life path? Michael Egan is a great person to look at. He’s been taught to lie and keep quiet. He’s had poor luck. He tries to do something right and it consistently backfires for him. What do we do to victims of sexual abuse in the media? Once someone’s abused, the abuse doesn’t go away. You look at Michael Egan. Look at his life path. He’s never gotten to reconcile his issues.
What’s next? I also saw “Prophet’s Prey” at Sundance and that’s equally terrific. too.
Thank you. [“Prophet’s Prey”] will be coming out in the fall. I’ve been working on a Janis Joplin documentary for seven years now. We’re finally on the last month of editing there. I’m writing the script for my next narrative film which is based on a female survivor of Jonestown. With the Janis doc, I think we were going to be ready for the Toronto Film Fest. Though that’s up to the producers.