The transition from directing documentary to directing narrative is one of the trickier moves in the movie business, one that has tripped up plenty of fine filmmakers, from Errol Morris (The Dark Wind) to Michael Moore (Canadian Bacon) to Joe Berlinger (Blair Witch 2) to Steve James (Prefontaine). And while Amy Berg is one of our most consistently interesting nonfiction directors — her credits include the Oscar-nominated Deliver Us from Evil, the history-making West of Memphis, and the forthcoming (and controversial) An Open Secret and Prophet’s Prey — she makes the switch to fiction storytelling seamlessly in Every Secret Thing (out this Friday). It’s a very good film, perhaps because it’s so well written (by Nicole Holofcener, adapting Laura Lippman’s novel), perhaps because it’s so sensitively acted (the ace cast includes Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane, and Dakota Fanning). But Berg is also an adroit storyteller, and if the form is new, she’s still exploring the primary preoccupation of her films thus far: the nature of evil.
“I worked in broadcast journalism and print for a bit, in my early days,” she told me, in a recent phone interview. “I just watched how the machine would take something that felt very thorough, exploring the nuances of a story, and then just chop it down to two minutes, 30 minutes before it airs. And then all the work that I did would end up on the floor.” In documentaries like Deliver Us From Evil or Prophet’s Prey, she could explore those nuances, and puzzle out what they said about the figures at their centers. “I don’t know, evil is such a tough word. I don’t know if I believe in evil. I think that people make really bad decisions and it alters the course of their life, and I’m very interested in that and how important it is to make a good decision.”
Such decisions inform Every Secret Thing, which tells the story of a pair of eight-year-old girls involved in the kidnapping of a child — and suspected of a similar abduction shortly following their release, a decade later. It also shares with Berg’s earlier work a sense of horrible crimes seen from the inside out, and of worlds where even those who don’t commit the crime bear great responsibility, so it’s not surprising that she was drawn to the story when she decided to expand into narrative filmmaking. “I’d been reading scripts for a while,” she told me. “I read this script and it really was a culmination of all the themes I had been covering in my documentaries.”
Early on, she says, the main difference between making a fiction film and a nonfiction one was the speed at which it came together: “I think if you can get some momentum on something, then it either just goes or it doesn’t, and this film just kind of had this life of its own.” That speed continued in the production; she had 21 shooting days to get the movie in the can, rather than the constant and time-intensive toggling between editing and shooting typical of documentary work. But her approach wasn’t as different as you might think. “What was really exciting for me and I believe all the cast was that we did look at it like a documentary,” she says. “I wasn’t looking at them like actors. I was looking at them like the characters that were in the room, just like I do with a documentary. I like to have a sense of where my scene is coming from and where it’s going — not scripted, but kind of life, visually scripted. So we used that same philosophy.”
Berg wasn’t the only one working out of her comfort zone — screenwriter Holofcener is best known for lighter romantic comedy/dramas like Enough Said and Lovely and Amazing. “She did write it to direct it, but I think she realized it was too dark for her,” Berg told me. “She wrote it five years before I had even gotten myself attached to it, but she she felt that it was too dark, and then it kind of went into turnaround, and it ended up on my desk.” That darkness may have been why it took so long to make it to theaters (I saw it at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival), and why it’s finally seeing its release tied rather brazenly to star Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect 2. Which is a bit of a shame, but typical of the mainstream fear of movies for grown-ups — not that Berg minds. “I don’t know that I’m a studio-type director,” she laughs.
She’s kept busy in that year anyway. In January, her documentary Prophet’s Prey premiered at Sundance; a powerful and upsetting look at Warren Jeffs and the horrors of his FLDS church, it will run in theaters and on Showtime this fall. “I’m hoping it will help some of the women escape,” she says, “because we’ve already been getting calls regularly from down in Colorado City since the screenings at Sundance… The film is already starting to reach the right people, so I think that’s the point of a film like that, you know?”
And last fall, she debuted her controversial exposé of sex abuse in Hollywood, An Open Secret, at the DOC NYC festival — a debut that very nearly didn’t happen, for a film that she wasn’t sure would ever find a distributor because of the powerful Hollywood figures it indicts. “There were so many really powerful distributors in Hollywood who wanted to put this film out, and they couldn’t get it past their corporate side,” Berg says. “So it’s not that there wasn’t an appetite for it; there were some really great conversations I had with some of the heads of the best companies around. But there are still a lot of people that are mentioned in my film that are making a lot of money for the studios.” It was eventually picked up by independent distributors Vesuvio Entertainment and Rocky Mountain Pictures; they’ll screen the film at Cannes before its limited release begins next month (a release that begins, contrary to the norm but significantly with regard to its subject matter, in cities other than Los Angeles).
Berg is already looking ahead — to new subjects for documentaries and narrative films. “I want to continue to make both,” she says. “I am adapting a book about a female survivor of Jonestown, I’ve been working on that for a couple of years now, getting to a place where I have a script. So we’re gonna be taking that out and hopefully we’ll shoot that next year. And I have a couple other documentaries — I’m finishing a Janis Joplin doc right now, and getting a couple other offers. I haven’t decided yet what else I’m gonna do next on the doc front.” Whatever she decides, and whatever she makes, it’ll certainly be worth seeing; Berg is quickly become one of the most reliable and prolific nonfiction filmmakers around, and with Every Secret Thing, no slouch with a narrative either.
Every Secret Thing is out in limited release and on demand this Friday.