Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Amy Berg Interview

I did this interview with Academy Award Nominated documentary filmmaker Amy Berg, about her latest film, West of Memphis, late last year for a magazine. Unfortunately the magazine never published it, which I thought was a shame, but I'm sure they had their reasons. Still, I thought it would be a waste to just let it sit on my hard drive gathering pixie dust! So, here it is:

Amy Berg
West of Memphis
Interview by Frank Kelly

Director Amy Berg
I first met Amy Berg at the Dublin International Film Festival in 2007 for the Irish premiere of her Oscar-nominated debut feature documentary ‘Deliver Us From Evil’. It was a significant screening, as the film focused on Irish priest Father Oliver O’Grady, who had admitted to raping 25 children in California between 1970 and 1990, a subject that cut close to the bone in Ireland.

Around the same time, filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh became involved with a campaign to free three men; Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, known as the West Memphis 3.  Jackson and Walsh believed, like many others, that these men had been wrongly imprisoned for the rape and murder of three 8 year-old boys.  Echols, the so-called leader, was sentenced to death. The campaign to free them became a global phenomenon that involved thousands of people.

Jackson and Walsh began bank rolling an investigation in an effort to bring new evidence and testimony to light, and tackle what Jackson himself called “Institutional Bullying.”  It was when new DNA evidence discovered at the scene of the crime was refused as a reason to reopen the case, that Jackson and Walsh decided to make a film and bring this injustice to greater public awareness.

Being no stranger to controversy, and with a background as an investigative journalist, Berg was first choice for Jackson and Walsh to direct the film.  Stepping into the center of this infamous case, which had attracted the attention of Henry Rollins, Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and many more, Berg did not quite know the scale of the project she was taking on.  But it was her distain for bullying and injustice that fueled an insatiable desire to find the truth.

Berg spoke to me on the phone from a New York hotel room just before she was about to record the commentary for the West of Memphis DVD release.  She explained that the journey of this film had been a long one.

Frank Kelly: You’ve had a busy year.

Amy Berg: Yes, it was full on to get the film ready for Sundance and it’s been full on since Sundance, so it’s been a pretty intense year.  Plus we opened on Christmas Day. So there’s been a lot of travel too.

FK: Last time I spoke to you was in Dublin five years ago at the Irish Premiere of Deliver Us From Evil.  Were you on the road much with that film?

AB: Deliver Us From Evil happened quicker. It went to the LA Film Festival and then to Toronto and then it was released, where as with West of Memphis there was a lot of waiting in between things.

FK: Were you on this project the entire time? Were there gaps while you were waiting for the case to progress?
AB: Not as much as it may seem. We were always following certain leads and if they led down the wrong path we would just go back to the start.  We had several leads going at the same time.  It was a really intense three years of investigation with so many moving parts and we had to make sure we crossed all the t’s and dotted all the i’s

FK: Were you prepared to follow the case until the end?

AB: I don’t know that you know what you’re getting into. I knew that I was taking on something massive. I also knew that I didn’t know everything that was going on under the surface. But I was very curious and just wanted to keep figuring it out.

FK:  I suppose your challenge then was to translate the shock and awe you were experiencing while making the film to the audience as they watch it?

AB: Yes, the film is a good measure of all the shock and awe we experienced.  Every time you see something you can’t imagine it getting worse and then it does because it’s all about lies.  People are not coming clean about what they know or mistakes they’ve made and those things just mounting up. And you want to believe that the justice system will work in a fair and balanced way so that something like this couldn’t happen but the more truth that came out, the less willing the officials were to admit culpability.

FK: It felt like the officials didn’t want to be embarrassed by admitting they made the wrong decision.

AB: I don’t think they were embarrassed. I just don’t think they cared. They regarded these three guys as just poor white trash and didn’t care about going back. I don’t think it crossed their minds.

FK: You would think the accused would be angry after going through what they did, but when you see Damien Echols in the film he appears to be very relaxed, calm and at peace with himself.  Was that something that surprised you when you met him?

AB: He surprised me on every level.  He has done so much work on himself and on protecting himself against the things that would generally take a person down.  So I was surprised that he was able to exist in such a positive mind-space knowing everything he’d been through.  It says a lot about him.

FK: You approach your films from a very personal standpoint – it has to mean something to you for you to take it on.  I know you didn’t know much about the case before Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh approached you, so how then did you attach yourself to the project? What was the moment that made you want to make the film?

AB: Peter says it in the film, he hates bullying and this is about institutional bullying. The most interesting thing to me is the systemic abuse.  I think there are similar themes in Deliver Us From Evil, where something is fundamentally wrong but kept being allowed to happen.

Producer Peter Jackson and Director Amy Berg
FK: All of Peter Jackson’s movies seem to have a similar theme – the characters go on a similar journey, in that they are trying to escape the darkness and find their way back to the light.  Your films have similar themes – the people you follow are trying to find their way out of very dark situations.  Do you think that’s something you both have in common as filmmakers?

AB: Not until you say it like that, but it makes a lot of sense.  It is a really important thing for me, it’s more about the gray area, so yes, I guess that is trying to find the light in the dark.  It’s about the journey from hiding to coming out.  And it’s not just the three guys, everyone in the story is on a similar journey, the victims’ parents and the people who gave false testimonies and are experiencing this shame for being a part of something that was so dishonest.

FK: You don’t appear in your films, though your presence as director is definitely felt.  Stylistically your films are very similar.  Is that something that comes from your past as a news journalist?

AB: Yes, I don’t want to be in my films, I’m never going to do that.  It’s a challenge, I think it’s more difficult to do in terms of the edit and the storytelling, but that’s the way it works for me.  A friend of mine came out of the film and said to me that she felt like she was in very safe hands, as if I was guiding her through the story without having to be in the film, which was one of the biggest compliments I could have received because you put so much into the interviews, the process, the journey for all the people involved, but I think that it is their story and I’m just helping them to tell it.

FK: Do you spend a lot of time with them before putting them on camera?

AB: Yes, I do that a lot.  First of all, in this day and age with what reality TV has done to documentaries, you want to know that people are telling you the truth.  I also feel that after you build a level of comfort with someone over time the camera becomes invisible.

FK: Are the ever moments when you want to turn the camera off?  I remember one scene in Deliver Us From Evil when the father of one of the victims has a breakdown on camera, and it’s an intense, personal experience we, the audience, are witnessing, you almost feel like you shouldn’t be watching.

AB: For me personally it is difficult when the camera is rolling in that kind of situation.  But you really just have to remember that you’re doing this for the overall thread of the story.  If he had expressed he was uncomfortable with keeping that in the film it would have been difficult for me to put it in.  But there are these moments where these people are breaking out and you can’t stop rolling because that’s part of the process and part of their experience.

FK: I think that moment encapsulates the entire emotion of that film.  It really says in that single moment “This is what has been done to these people.”

AB: And the truth is, that moment happened every time I went to his place.  That was who he was.

FK: There was a similar moment in West of Memphis, when you show the footage of the discovery of the bodies, it’s one of the most unsettled and shocking moments in the film.  Was that a difficult decision to include those images in the film?

AB: Yes, it was.  But there was no question about it.  The reason why is that every single person that was called to testify on the stand saw all the same images.  Every person on the jury were given those photos, and there were much more graphic and disturbing images than were in the film, showing the postmortem effect of the animal activity that took place.  So I felt that it was important that we were seeing what the West Memphis 3 were being judged on.  Because every time you asked someone about something scientific that should counter balance what their decision was, they referred to those photos, “I saw those photos! What those boys did! I can’t get that image out of my mind.”

FK: It is a stark reminder of what it’s all about and how the jury was swayed away from the evidence, such as it was.

AB: Yes.

FK: We are almost out of time, so I wanted to ask about your next project.

AB: I’m actually shooting my first narrative.  We begin pre-production in January. It’s an adaptation of the book Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman with Frances McDormand and Anthony Brigman producing.

FK: Was narrative filmmaking something you always wanted to try?

AB: I wanted to try something new and this is a story that’s very important.  After three long experiences with my documentary films I wanted to work on something with more of a contained schedule, and on a project that I feel passionate about.

FK: I suppose with filmmaking, documentary or fiction, you’re always in search of the truth.

AB: Right.

FK: One of your DPs on West of Memphis was Maryse Alberti, who is know for her documentary work but has also work on The Wrestler and Happiness, which have a very documentary style to them.  Will you bring a documentary style to your fiction work?

AB: Yes.  Totally.  We’re shooting with a very free style, but I think we can still find a cinematic look, but yes, a very documentary style.

FK: I’m very much looking forward to seeing your first narrative work and congratulations on the success of West of Memphis.

AB: Thank you.

Amy Berg
Interview by Frank Kelly

West of Memphis is on limited release at selected theatres in Los Angeles and New York.

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