When director Joe Berlinger first came onto the scene with filmmaking partner Bruce Sinofsky 25 years ago, their movie Brother’s Keeper was still ahead of the curve as far as theatrically-released documentaries. A few years later, they would start making Paradise Lost: the Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, a movie that would represent 18 years of their lives as they followed the story of the West Memphis Three, three young men accused and jailed for murdering three younger children without proper evidence or proof. (They were released from jail in 2011 at the same time as the end to the duo’s trilogy, Paradise Lost: Purgatory.)
The duo branched briefly into narratives with the sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, before returning with the unique rock doc Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, in which they were given unprecedented access to the band. Sifosky passed away in 2015, following the Oscar nomination for Paradise Lost: Purgatory, but Berlinger has continued on with a number of varied docs, as well as working with Oprah Winfrey on an interview show and directing 22 episodes of the Sundance Channel show Iconoclasts.
Berlinger’s latest film Intent to Destroy: Death, Denial and Depiction changes gears again, as he takes his cameras on the road with the production of Terry George’s The Promise, starring Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac, a drama set during the events that led to the Armenian genocide. In 1916, 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the country, and over a hundred years later, the Turkish and American governments refuse to ackowlege the murders as genocide.
It’s somewhat troubling considering that Terry George helped many Americans become aware of the Rwandan genocide in the early ‘90s with his earlier film Hotel Rwanda, but The Promise wasn’t received nearly as well so that its important message was very much the baby lost in the bathwater of the film’s lack of success.
It’s a fascinating film with Berlinger talking to many of those involved with the production but also important Armenians like Atom Egoyan, Eric Bogosian and Serj Tankian from System of a Down, who provided Intent to Destroy’s soundtrack.
What might be of more interest is that Berlinger is finally returning to narrative features with a Ted Bundy movie called Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron, who is none of those things. It will be the director’s first narrative feature since Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 way back in 2000.
The Tracking Board spoke to Berlinger about that and some of his upcoming documentary work when we got on the phone with him last week.
I know a little bit about how you got involved with this. Had you already spoken with the producer, Eric Esrailian, about doing something even before the centennial in 2015?
When I heard that they were doing The Promise, I reached out to Eric and pitched him on the idea, of going behind the scenes as a way of doing a documentary about the genocide. For me, even though I’ve always been fascinated by the genocide and the knowledge of all of that, I never thought to make a film about it, because I’m not a historical filmmaker. Most of my stuff is present tense cinema verité, following a story as it’s unfolding.
It’s subject matter that I know about, because as a younger person, I was obsessed with the Holocaust, and when you’re obsessed with the Holocaust, you know about some of the connections with the Armenian genocide. But I never really thought it was a subject matter for me to make a film about until I heard The Promise was being made. Even though negotiating access to the set was challenging, I thought that that would be an interesting way to make a film about the genocide, because it allowed me to do a couple of things. One was, as a cinema verité filmmaker, I’m always looking for a present-tense hook to hang things on, so filming the making of the movie as it unfolds and wondering and seeing if they encounter any problems or issues, which helped me to reel that in. But my initial thought was, “Would there be protests? Would the film get interfered with?” That type of thing. I thought that was an interesting way in, and a way to make the history digestible to audience by juxtaposing what Terry was doing with the actual history.
The other reason I thought it would be a great way to make a documentary about the subject, or or rather, a way that would make it interesting to me, is that it allowed me to not just tell the story of the genocide itself, but also to tell the story of denial, and in particular, the denial history in Hollywood. I think that’s really shocking and unknown to people, that there’s actually subjects that are kind of taboo in Hollywood, because anytime anyone has ever tried to make a film on the subject, the Turkish government complains to the State department, and the State department twists the studio’s arm into dropping the project.
Now, of course, this was not done by a Hollywood studio, it was being financed by Armenian interests, but it involved a lot of Hollywood people, so I found that by covering the making of the film, it allowed me to tell the story of how Irving Thalberg, when he was trying to make a movie in 1935, it was interfered with. How Atom Egoyen was interfered with, how the PBS documentary-maker that’s profiled in the show was interfered with. I pitched Eric on this idea and he liked the idea, but I had to win Terry over and I had to win the producers and the actors. It took a while to get people to let me do it, but I thought this could be an interesting way to make the film.
Did you just find out about what happened with the Armenians on your own or was it something you learned about in school?
Yeah, well, I read lots of books on the subject of genocide, so if you’re studying the Holocaust, you need to expand your knowledge of the Holocaust, and you read stuff on the subject genocide, and how the word “genocide” came to be and why it came to be, the Armenian experience is brought up. Hitler, on the eve of invading Poland in 1939, famously said, “Who today speaks of the Armenians?” And that was his way of exhorting his generals to show no mercy as they invade Poland, and his comment, “Who today remembers the Armenians?” Was saying to the generals, “Look, an entire people was wiped out and the world doesn’t care.” So that’s the lesson he was drawing from the Armenian genocide, that you can get away with this if you’re on the right side of history.
I think Atom Egoyan’s movie was the first time I actually heard about it, do did you already know Atom or some of these other people in the movie, like Eric Bogosian or Serj, people who are of Armenian descent in the world of culture?
Well, I was always a fan of Serj, because I love System of a Down, and I used a couple of System of a Down songs in Blair Witch 2 way back when, but I hadn’t met him personally, and that was one of the thrills of working on the film, was getting to know Serj, because he’s an amazing guy. Asking him to compose the film was fun for me on multiple levels, and he did such an amazing job. Atom I’ve known because, in addition to being a huge fan of his films — The Sweet Hereafter is one of the top 10 films on my top 10 list — he also tackled the same subject that I did; he did it in a narrative film, I did it in a documentary, the West Memphis story, my Paradise Lost trilogy was about the West Memphis case, and he did Devil’s Knot. He had some questions for me about the case, and we interacted when he was researching and preparing for Devil’s Knot, so I got to know him personally, and then I knew about his experience and I knew he was Armenian, so of course I wanted to include him in the film.
How long were you on set with The Promise to get the footage for Intent to Destroy? Was it at all similar to the Metallica movie when you and Bruce were in the studio with them?
Well, with Metallica, obviously we were the only camera there, because they weren’t shooting anything else, and with Metallica, I would say we were camped out for a long period of time. We were really spending lots of time with them and shot a tremendous amount of footage for that film. I think Metallica, we shot over 1,600 hours of footage. With this film, we were there quite a bit, but I felt the key to getting the kind of access that we got, which was basically we were allowed to put our camera anywhere, meant that I didn’t want to wear out our welcome.
I reviewed with Terry before the film starting shooting. I reviewed with Terry and the producers the scenes that I thought, from the script would be good for us be there. Meaning, I only wanted to be on set for the scenes that had some historical resonance: the death march, the massacre in the forest, things that had some historical reality to it. So I think The Promise shot for … I think they had 76 shoot days over a three month period in Spain, Portugal, and Malta, and we were probably on set for about 30 of those days. And we did six five-day trips, approximately. So, we shot for about 30 days. Came and left. We were still there for half the movie, but we weren’t there every day, camped out. I think that would’ve been wearying for everyone.
Do you feel like this is a big departure from your previous docs? There’s a lot bigger historical and social implications, so is it daunting to take on a subject that affects thousands, if not tens of thousands of people counting on the story getting out there?
Yeah, normally, I focus on an individual and I look for stories of individuals that have some kind of universal theme or resonance. This was taking on a topic, and I don’t usually do that kind of a film, and I do feel a sense of responsibility of getting the history right and hoping the film has some kind of impact. So it was a bit daunting. It was the hardest editing situation I’ve ever been involved in. My editor Cy Christansen did an amazing job, but we really struggled with this film for a while. What is the right balance of behind-the-scenes to history? Because too much behind-the-scenes, it starts to feel like a promotional film, which is the last thing I wanted. Too much history, it feels like just an overwhelming history lesson where you don’t want people’s eyes to glaze over. So the challenge was getting all the elements of the storytelling right so that the film still feels like a film, has forward momentum, but is dealing with history, which can be dry, but I think we really captured that balance.
You also talked with John Marshall Evans, former US Ambassador to Armenia, on the record. Was that interview hard to get or was there a lot more red tape to cut through to talk to him?
No, I mean, he was fired, he was no longer in the State Department. He had written a book about his experiences, he wasn’t particularly difficult. Convincing the denial people to participate in the film, that was much more challenging, ’cause they were suspicious of my motives and I was very honest about my position and what my intention was. But I said I wanted their point of view in the film, and my films allow people to come to their own conclusions, which I believe, and I think it was important to hear from those who feel it’s not a genocide. A, to make the film balanced, whatever that means, and B, to understand how denial works, I think you have to understand what the arguments are.
Have you seen the other doc Architects of Denial, which came out a couple weeks back?
I have not seen it. I keep meaning to. It is very ironic that two films about the Armenian genocide, which is such a narrow subject, are coming out at the same time, but the more people know about this, the better.
I remember at Tribeca, one of the questions asked was how the movie was going to get out to schools as an educational tool, so is that plan in the cards?
Yeah, we’re gonna do a theatrical release through Abramorama, and also this thing called GATHR, which is theatrical on-demand where people can request screenings. It’s kind of a cool new platform. And then, for those Gathr screenings, we created an educational toolkit. And then we’re gonna have a big educational campaign, but it’s also gonna have a digital release on iTunes and Netflix, and at some point next year, we’ll be on TV as well. But the educational part is gonna be an important part of this.
You’ve also been working on your next doc about Robert Naish?
Yeah, that’s about the surfer Robbie Nash, that I’ve been working on actually for several years, but that’s a long-term project. It’s about the quest for the longest wave. This guy’s kind of a surfing legend, going around the world looking for the longest wave to do on the stand-up paddleboard. He’s been injured, so that project is temporarily on hold while he recovers from an injury. But the next big thing for me is I’m doing a feature film with Zac Efron, who’s playing Ted Bundy, that I’m shooting in January.
I read reading about that and was surprised by the casting, because for some reason, I pictured Ted Bundy as a big, fat guy, but he was a pretty good-looking guy actually.
Yeah, that’s why Zac’s perfect, beause Bundy’s profile was he was a charming, well-liked guy who was doing well in life, and nobody could believe he was actually capable of these things. And yet, obviously, he did them, and so Zac has got that. I think he’s a great actor, and he’s got that persona that I think would allow him to play Bundy really well, and then also in November, I just want to mention, November 18 and 19, I have a two-part special on Sundance TV airing called “Coldblooded: the Clutter Family Murders.” The Clutter family was the family that was murdered in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 that Truman Capote based his book In Cold Blood on and reported on that killing, but nobody’s ever done a deep dive into the actual underlying crimes in documentary form, and the impact of the crimes on the family, and the impact of the book on literature. Also, it’s the first time the descendants of the family killed has ever participated in a media project, so that’s coming out November 18, 19.
I think you might have mentioned that when we spoke in the past, but you’ve also mentioned directing another narrative film. I forgot that you directed Blair Witch 2, so what made you decide to go back to directing a non-doc, just the right script at the right time?
I’ve been sent a lot of scripts over the years, and they don’t really speak to me. This particular script is really interesting because it tells the Bundy story through the girlfriend’s perspective. The girlfriend for years didn’t realize that Bundy was this horrible killer, and to me it’s a metaphor for the ultimate unknowability of everyone around us, and I just think that’s a really interesting theme.
And it’s interesting … Most serial killer movies portray the serial killer as this two-dimensional monster, which means you could easily recognize that monster if you had the opportunity, but Bundy was a very different story. And for me, that’s really how to represent evil. You know, evil is not some two-dimensional monster that’s easy to spot. Evil is people that are hard to recognize: the priest who commits pedophilia or people in authority who abuse their authority. That, to me, is much more interesting than trying to do the typical serial killer movie where it’s a police procedural tracking down this two-dimensional monster that they find at the end of the film. Evil is a lot more complicated than that, and that’s what I think this script taps into. And when I read it, I felt I had to do it.
Shows about murderers and serial killers are starting to gain interest again, and mainly docs that appear on television and streaming networks like Netflix. Do you think the idea of a theatrical doc is done at this point?
I do think people are changing their viewing habits. I think the theatrical doc is a threatened animal, and I don’t wanna say it’s extinct. There’s always the exception to the rule, there will always be a doc that pops through and does well and is meant to be seen in the theaters. Or, does well. I think all docs should be seen in the theaters, but I do … If you look at the numbers of what documentaries are doing in the theater, it is pretty abysmal. On the flip side, there has never been more opportunity, more places to make … We are in a golden age of creating documentary content, and I think Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook is now getting into documentary production, YouTube, I mean … If you’re a content creator with any kind of reputation, there’s never been more places to bring your stuff and to …
So I think people are changing their viewing habits, but as somebody who started making films 25 years ago, specifically for the theater… There are certain films, certain themes, that you wanna see things in a group of people and experience it in a communal setting. I think it has much more of an emotional impact when you’re with your fellow human beings looking at films about the human condition, but I think that is kind of a dying thing, sadly. On the other hand, when I started making films 25 years ago, and had this crazy idea that, “Hey, let’s get our documentary into the theater,” ’cause it wasn’t that common, believe me. The only place you could really take your film to sell it was PBS or HBO. If PBS or HBO didn’t want your documentary, you were basically out of luck. Today, there’s a zillion places. There’s also a zillion filmmakers, so there’s a lot more competition. So, in many ways, it’s a great time to be doing this. There’s never been more places who want this kind of content.
But that specific theatrical thing that I started in the business for really is, I think, kind of a threatened animal. But, you know, everything has a good side and a bad side. I made a film about Tony Robbins last year for Netflix. It was a Netflix original, meaning they funded it and really promoted it, as opposed to a film that ultimately just ends up on Netflix, which is a different category. Because of the promotion of the film and the release of the film on July 15, It got released on Netflix kn 190 countries around the world simultaneously, and the weekend it opened, I looked at my phone and if I looked at the hashtag #IAmNotYour Guru. Literally every second there was a positive comment from Vietnam, Cambodia, Venezuela, Charlottesville, New York City. People were consuming this film around the world and giving instantaneous feedback. For me, that was thrilling.
The downside is I missed this communal experience of the theater, butut the upside is, if you get it right, your film will be seen by so many more people than I ever could’ve imagined. Brother’s Keeper was made in ’92, it went to Sundance, it won the audience award, people loved it, it got great reviews. But all the distributors said, “Who wants to go to a theater to watch this film about these smelly old farm brothers?” Couldn’t get arrested with that film at Sundance from a business standpoint, so my partner Bruce and I set up our own little distribution company, and distributed the film ourselves. And it ended up doing about two million bucks at a time when movie tickets were five bucks, and that was thrilling. But back then, if we were schlepping our 35 millimeter prints of Brother’s Keeper from theater to theater, and if three or four hundred people saw our movie in an entire weekend, we would be high-fiving each other, saying, “Oh my God, this is amazing.”
Today, like on the Tony Robbins film, literally millions of people saw it around the world in the first couple of weeks. And that’s thrilling too, so, I miss the days of where theatrical really is king for a documentary, but there’s other benefits that are happening, as well.
Intent to Destroy is now playing in New York and L.A. and likely will be available via download or streaming sometime soon.
Edward Douglas / East Coast Editor