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‘Janis: Little Girl Blue’ Director Amy Berg on the Runaway Train of Janis Joplin’s Career

'Janis: Little Girl Blue' Director Amy Berg on the Runaway Train of Janis Joplin's Career

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, prolific filmmaker Amy Berg has had a busy year.  She 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), as well as debuting her first feature, psychological thriller “Every Secret Thing” (April 20, Starz), written by Nicole Holofcener and starring Diane Lane, which was buried in the scrum of indie features these days. 
It’s easier in many ways to get attention for docs like her latest, the official Janis Joplin documentary “Janis: Little Girl Blue” (FilmRise, November 27) which Berg produced with Alex Gibney. I sat down in Toronto with Berg to discuss her remarkable portrait of the musician, who died of a heroin overdose in 1970, at the age of 27. I grew up with Joplin, and know well her music and public persona; “Cheap Thrills” was one of the first records I ever bought. With access to deep archives, family cooperation and new interviews, Berg gives us a portrait of a lonely, needy young woman with a huge talent searching for love. And she found it. That’s the most heartbreaking reveal about this doc. Most of all, Berg wants Joplin to be remembered for her musicianship, not just her untimely death. 

READ MORE: Amy Berg Got a Kick Out of Jumping from Docs to Fiction

Anne Thompson: Tell me how your first showing at Venice was. You must’ve been nervous.

Amy Berg: Terribly. It was incredible. This is my first time ever to Venice. With the film, it was so elaborate, with subtitles. It was a great experience, though. I had strong women coming up to me after the screening, tears running down their faces. It was quite incredible. There was this Italian rock star named Gianna Nanini, who is a big Janis fan, and she’s a real spokesperson for women in Italy. She had a child when she was 58 years old; she’s gay. She’s 62; she looks like she’s 40, or maybe even younger than that. She showed up. It was this kind of Italian event. The film went over really well, which surprised me — a six-minute standing ovation. It was the kind of crazy first reception. So, thank God.

Why was the production halted?

Money, and complications.

I would think this is a sought-after project.

It wasn’t my doing. I was brought in by another team of people that were planning on financing and producing it; I was going to just direct it. I did a lot of work, and I developed a really nice relationship with the family. Then these two parties parted ways, and I was left wondering what was going to happen. I put years of my time into this; it was pretty devastating. I couldn’t listen to Janis for a while, thinking it’s not going to happen.

Then it all came around. When I was working on “West of Memphis,” Janis’ estate manager called me, so that was very exciting. We started grabbing interviews here and there and collecting archives. It’s just been an ongoing thing for me, knowing it was, ultimately, going to happen at a certain point. But it was a complicated estate negotiation. There’s a lot of songwriting issues that needed to be pre-negotiated. There’s a lot that went into this, because the archiving of music us not cheap. That’s vintage, prime-time, high-priced.

“Monterey Pop” especially, I would think. Did you have some exclusive material that hadn’t been shown in the movie? 

The Woodstock footage has not been seen. There’s a scene on the Festival Express where they’re playing “Bobby McGee.” [With the Grateful Dead.] Yeah. They were working the song out. There was a lot of black-and-white footage that’s never been seen before. John Byrnecook gave us 70 minutes of footage, and that’s all the silent-film footage that’s in the movie. I don’t know the number, but there’s a lot of never-before-seen archive in there.

When an estate approaches a filmmaker, what does it mean? Is it because there’s obviously value in enhancing a brand?

Yes. The outset of doing work to collect, restore, and organize your archive has to be done before you can possibly work with somebody, so the timing of Laura and Michael [Joplin] going through everything, organizing it… Laura did a book [“Love Janis”], so she catalogued a lot of material. They just had to energetically be ready for that, and it is good for the music sales. It’s good for the whole financial picture. I do think it happens the other way around as well. I’ve been approaching a different estate for a few years now that I’m trying to do a film about, and it’s a lot of discussions. I don’t want to mention yet, because I’m thinking she might, because of “Janis,” maybe say yes, but sometimes it works the other way around, you know?

A documentarian like Morgan Neville is identified with music. You haven’t been identified so much with music.

No. Probably because this was the one I’d been planning on doing since my first film. Here I am, six films later —

And maybe a better filmmaker.

Yes, for sure. This is still something I’ve never done before: doing a film that’s archive-based. There’s a high learning curve in that, because you’re beholden to what exists rather than what you actually shot.

You came up with the idea of having Joplin’s letters read by an actor.

The letters were, for me, the motivating factor in making the movie. I read this exchange between her and David [Niehaus]. I can show you the trailer I made for this film, like, seven years ago. I read these letters, and I was so saddened by the idea that, maybe, if she got that telegram, things might have been different.

That’s the big gut punch in the movie. Did you hear the audience? It was like a collective intake of breath. It broke my heart.

They were so sweet, her and David. He was maybe strong enough for her. So when I read those letters, I was like, “That is the movie I want to do.” Then I realized there is so much more to Janis than that story, so I needed to do the whole story. I tried by starting with that and coming back to it, but that wasn’t the right way to do it, because you have to understand Janis.

You build up to it, and then you get us at the end.

That was why I wanted to use the letters, and then I found all these other amazing letters. A horrible, sad, chapter in her life with Peter [de Blanc], that really was the “blues” moment in her young womanhood. So, yeah, there was all of that.

You captured the lovely relationship with Dick Cavett and the way he talked about her. Oh, it was so sweet.

Everyone did, though. She left such a strong impression on her band, all of her lovers — everyone except for Country Joe. But he did have insight.

What was with him? He probably wishes he was as big a star.

He was so cranky. Yeah, I’m sure that it was envy. But he wrote a song about her after she passed away.

So he wasn’t willing to admit that they’d been lovers?

He just acted like it was nothing: “She lived too far away from me; I was on the East side; it was not worth driving on the freeway to see her.” Things like that. And there was another friend of hers, Peggy, who didn’t go on camera, whose voice we use in the Woodstock part. She told me that he just broke her heart, and she came into a restaurant one night when he had dumped her and was really upset about it.

They ultimately came back around to some kind of casual friendship. I’m sure they played shows together and had mutual friends, but he was just so cranky. He actually told us he had the flu and cancelled the shoot when we came up there with my whole crew. He knew we were flying up and let us in, and then he finally told my assistant camera person that he didn’t really have the flu; he just wanted to mess with us. He’s just a cranky guy.

I grew up with Janis and still love her. How did you find the voice for her letters?

It’s timeless. Her music is just as relevant today. You were asking about Cat Power. I scoured every agency; I was looking for the right person. I waited a long time, which was risky, because if I didn’t find the right person, we wouldn’t be here right now. But I heard an interview and heard her speaking voice in an interview that she did. She doesn’t do much in terms of press interviews, and I immediately knew that she was the person.

What’s great is that it’s understated. It’s not too broad.

She’s vulnerable. That’s what I wanted: I wanted that shy, vulnerable Janis to come through in the letters, and she didn’t have to act — she just did it. She understood. She was from the south, has had a lot of personal struggles in her life and career path. As Janis, she was perfect; she was so sweet. She has a four-month-old baby that she’s touring with, and she left him with a friend for a few hours to come and present the film. She’s just a sweetheart; I really love her.

You have great empathy for Janis, you must have had a strong feeling about her in the first place. How did it change as you explored the movie?

I love her more now. Women are often judged for exposing too much of themselves, if they’re in a position of power. Let me start by saying this: I look at the members of the 27 club, and you look at their legacy. The women’s legacy is that of a needle in the arm in a hotel room. It’s all about the ending instead of the life, and you don’t think about that with Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain. You think about these massively powerful musicians that they were.

For one thing, I wanted to make sure that her life was celebrated in the proper way, because Janis is so much more than that one night. It’s crazy to think that that’s what her legacy is: that lonely woman in a hotel room who overdosed. So there’s that, and then I do feel that because she was so raw and vulnerable onstage, she was screaming for love and attention, and I wanted to understand that and connect it to her music and her life. That was the filmmaker’s vision for me. You’re asking me about personally. I relate to that. By listening to her music, you hear her pain; you hear things coming out of her gut. So there’s that rock side of it, so it’s just the perfect combination for me. I’ve listened to her through break-ups and exciting moments; she’s just been part of my life.

You chose the clips on the basis of what was the most emotional for you.

Yeah. You are married to what actually exists, and those were those strongest performances, and those did mirror the moments I wanted to explore in the film. So it was just about flushing it out. It was very dense four months ago. Since I started showing it to my producers, it had this structure, and I just kept pulling things back because I knew what was in there and what needed to be — what thematic points needed to be in the film. But it just felt dense, and I wanted Janis to speak for herself. So, the more I pulled it back, the more she could speak for herself.

What’s so emotional is the way these men feel about her.

It’s intimidating. For her to say, “Nobody wants me,” I think it’s intimidating for a man to hear a woman talk about being broken-hearted or being let down or not getting what they want in a relationship — and especially in the Sixties. It had to have been quite intimidating. Then David came along, and he didn’t care. He just loved her for who she was.

In movies that feature women on the road, we see how lonely they are, because they’re surrounded by men.

That is where the current-day pop stars I interviewed really guided me to the best themes, even though I decided not to include them in the actual movie.

That’s a whole question of how many talking heads a movie can sustain.

Right. And it takes you out when it’s somebody that wasn’t there.

Grace Slick would’ve been a good get. You didn’t want to do her as a voiceover?

No. I guess I could’ve, but she didn’t really offer it. She just kept saying, “Nobody wants to hear me” and “nobody wants to see me.” There’s a certain point where… Janis spoke for herself very well, and it would’ve been nice to have Grace, but we didn’t have her, so maybe another day she’ll talk about her career. They are affiliated with an estate-management company now, so maybe they will.

How did [producer] Alex [Gibney] help you?

Besides being this prolific filmmaker, he is such a good businessman. We were just chatting one day; we sat down to have a drink, it was sometime around early 2012, I think. He was starting to do a partnership with [sales company] Contact Media, and they were looking for music films.

So he helped finish up the financing?

We needed money. We needed a lot more money than we had, and he was able to put deals together. It still took a long time, the legal work that needed to be done.

You must be sympathetic to the filmmakers on “Amazing Grace.”

What’s the latest on that? They were doing a private screening here?

They screened it for buyers, who seem both interested and skittish because of the legal issues. As I understood from a producer in Telluride, Aretha believes that movie should belong to her and that she has the rights to the material. It’s not just a question of getting the rights to the material for promotion, which is the obvious assumption. She wants to own the movie; that’s why they’re at an impasse. I don’t know about the legalities of that.

We didn’t have anything like that. There was some language that existed in other contracts that could have got in the way of what we were doing, and I had to go and meet with those producers, but everyone was willing to work with us. It was just a lot of discussions and meetings. It’s just about picking up the phone and talking to the person and not letting lawyers say, “Sorry, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.” You just have to be a human being, and all of that worked out. We got the contracts done.

The brother and sister Michael and Laura Joplin seem like reasonable and pleasant people. Smart people. Is there more about Janis’ relationship with her parents?

It wasn’t a puff piece, obviously, so they were willing to share everything with me. I don’t think there was any more antagonism. They were not prepared to embrace the person she became from a very early age. They gave her the knowledge; they gave her access to everything that would formulate this beautiful, strong woman, and the times were different.

You establish who she was as a young person and what she went through. The high-school reunion where she wanted desperately to be accepted seemed like a very big turning point for her — and not a good one.

It was not a good one, but also was part of her turning her life around. She released it after that. As painful as it was for her, she let go of the desire. That was the whole about Janis: she didn’t even have to deal with anything for too long, because the train just kept taking her away.

Talk about the train.

The train was a metaphor I used to try to show Janis’ rising star, Janis’ fame — just the vehicle that kept her going. There’s the symbol of the level of brightness, and then it dims. I was trying to show that she wasn’t the only driver of her life, basically — that her career was taking off and she didn’t really have control of that.

So it is easier for women documentarians than narrative filmmakers. You seem to be on a more feminist course at the moment.

I feel I have a responsibility, as a woman, to make films about strong women now. I’ve done my share of heavy, systemic-abuse, women that were being held down by men, exploited by men, so I’m trying to focus my lens on people that are more in charge of their destiny. They don’t have to be a perfect protagonist, but I guess there is no such thing as a perfect protagonist. But I want to emphasize stronger women.

Do you have more projects in the works?

I have a narrative that I’ve been working on for a couple of years about a female survivor of Jonestown. I don’t know when that is actually going to happen. Hopefully in the next year. There’s a script I’m really excited about. It’s just kind of ironic that everything landed this year. We just never know.

Are you interested in feature directing again?

Yeah for sure, to me it’s just storytelling, filmmaking, collaborating with talented artists, and trying to do something good for the world. However I can get that combination together, I hope it’ll work out.

Trying to do that and reach the marketplace is a big challenge.

That’s why I’m so excited about “Janis.” 

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