If all filmmaking is struggle, none struggle harder than the documentary director who: searches for truth and injustice; raises the money to expose it; fights to escape the common result of barely leaving a festival footprint before vanishing; and then starting all over. Joe Berlinger has fared better than most. An argument could be made he and ex-partner Bruce Sinofsky helped reassemble the band Metallica, and it’s indisputable they kept one member of the so-called West Memphis 3 from being executed and the other two from dying in jail for the murder of three Arkansas children prosecution said was part of a satanic ritual, though it offered no physical evidence.
Berlinger’s gone solo as Magnolia this weekend released Whitey: United States Of America V. James J. Bulger. Hollywood loves the story of the ruthless Boston mob boss who used his station as protected FBI informant to build a criminal empire and get rid of rivals. Johnny Depp plays Bulger in an upcoming Warner Bros film, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are percolating another, and Jack Nicholson played a composite in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winner The Departed. Berlinger takes an unexpected path into a familiar story. What if, as Bulger and his lawyers claim, he was not a rat, but a pawn to obscure widespread law enforcement corruption? Berlinger chases that thread while following survivors of Bulger murder victims who sought truth when Bulger was finally captured and put on trial. Here, Berlinger talks about the documentary life, how luck plays a part in great docus, and about processing the shocking death of Oscar-winning Searching For Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul.
DEADLINE: The Paradise Lost trilogy you and Bruce Sinofsky made kept Damien Echols from being executed, and Jessie Misskelley Jr and Jason Baldwin from dying in prison. What compelled you to make a film that explores the alibi of a notorious criminal like Bulger?
JOE BERLINGER: The film in no way is a Bulger apology. Bulger was a vicious, brutal killer who did terrible things, but he was enabled by the government, he was allowed to kill. You know the accepted story about Bulger that people have written books and made movies about; he was an FBI informant. It’s bad enough as an FBI informant, FBI agents look the other way and in some cases aided and abetted some murders by giving him information. This is the first time Bulger has ever been heard from. Despite the glut of media, the dozen books, the Affleck-Damon movie, the fictionalized version in The Departed, as the film unfolds you see there is very strong evidence he may have not been an informant at all.
That it was a scam, a cover-up for much deeper corruption on a couple of levels. One, that Bulger was paying off many more people than one rogue agent, John Connolly, who’s sitting in prison right now. Connolly did some bad things, but to say all this institutional corruption falls on one guy’s shoulders is hard for a lot of people to believe. Longtime observers of the case hoped Bulger’s trial would shed some light on that. If he was not an informant, the corruption goes higher. When you’re an FBI informant, it doesn’t give you the license to kill, you’re not supposed to engage in criminal activity. Maybe minor criminal activity to keep up the ruse of being an informant, but knowingly allow people to be killed? It leaves the FBI picking and choosing who’s going to live and die on this war on organized crime because they were all crazed about getting the mafia, which was J Edgar Hoover’s mission.
DEADLINE: Even so, where’s the higher purpose in restoring the street cred of a killer who’ll die in prison?
BULGER: To go back to the question of why I made this film; if Bulger was not an informant, then what are they trying to cover up by saying he was. I’m not saying this is true, but there’s a very strong argument the defense makes and should have been aired at the trial and was not allowed. If he was not an informant, they were covering up a much bigger conspiracy. Bulger was paying off many people in the FBI and getting information from them so that he could have the competitive edge. I’d been fascinated with the Bulger myth for a long time; the guy who ran Boston’s underworld for three decades and didn’t get so much as a traffic ticket? A new crowd of prosecutors came in and decided enough was enough and indicted him. He gets tipped by the FBI, fled for 16 years and I believe the FBI in those early years never really looked for him. It was a joke until a new set of law enforcement people came in and were pushed because the Massachusetts state police wanted him caught. It wasn’t until 16 years later they found him hiding in plain sight in Santa Monica.
DEADLINE: Is that when you got involved?
BULGER: I did not think I had anything to add until in early November of 2012 when they announced that he was actually going to be brought to Massachusetts for a trial. I’ve covered criminal trials. There had been so much rumor and speculation about the corruption surrounding this guy, in the Department of Justice and in the FBI, that has never really been explored to its fullest. Everyone who watched this case thought this trial was going to finally provide an opportunity to separate the man from the myth.
DEADLINE: It seems that as a documentary maker, you start without knowing what your third act will be. When did you realize that the West Memphis 3 saga, Paradise Lost, was going to span a trilogy of films?
BERLINGER: We started out thinking, how could these teenagers do something so horrible to these little 8-year-old boys? We went down to Arkansas thinking we were making a real-life River’s Edge about disaffected youth. The first three or four months, that’s what I thought we were making a film about.
DEADLINE: When did you realize these guys were in the middle of a sham trial, fueled by emotion and the desire to convict someone of an unimaginable crime?
BERLINGER: We arrived nine months before the trial and embedded ourselves in that community, spent the first three or four months mainly with the families of the victims. Four or five months after, we finally got to meet the West Memphis 3. We’d spent months almost exclusively with the prosecutors and families of the victims thinking we were making a film about bad teens gone array, and had no reason to think otherwise. Once we started to infiltrate the defense and become trusted and after much negotiation filmed the West Memphis 3…
DEADLINE: You changed your mind right away?
BERLINGER: I walked out of the interview with all of them. Jason Baldwin in particular came across as a forthright, shy, scared 16-year-old kid. I looked down at his tiny little wrists. Allegedly he’s the guy wielding the knife, making the knife marks, if you believe the prosecution. I did not walk out of that first interview saying “Oh my God, they’re innocent,” but I did feel something isn’t right here, and I had the same feeling for Damien.
DEADLINE: Damien Eccols was the supposed leader, put on death row and scheduled for execution…
BERLINGER: Damien was a little more difficult to read. At the time he was extremely narcissistic, he liked the attention, he liked to play with people. I didn’t necessarily run out saying “Oh my God” with him, but the whole thing wasn’t adding up. That’s when the filmmaking experience became fascinating; when you make these films you jump out a window and hope there’s a mattress on the other side.
DEADLINE: How surprised were you when the first film created such a reaction?
BERLINGER: Damien would have been dead because without the support he would have run out of his appeals. The film got a lot of the credit, but it was also this strange confluence. The films triggered this massive public support, not just with celebrities but tens of thousands of people who turned up in such a unique way. I do believe the films helped but the first came out at exactly the right time, when the Internet was just becoming a way for people to find each other. They started this website and it just blew up into something.
DEADLINE: How did you end up in the unlikely position of watching Metallica implode, reform through group therapy, and then feel trapped when their therapist felt part of the band and didn’t want to leave?
BERLINGER: Truthfully, that’s where you say, I’m the luckiest motherfucker on the planet, for finding myself in these situations that end up being the opposite of what they seemed.
DEADLINE: What was the Metallica film when you started?
BERLINGER: Lars [Ulrich] and I were friendly, they were going into the studio, in 2000, when Napster was cropping up and the digital world was in the rear view mirror coming fast, but companies like Elektra thought they could sell CDs. So the whole Metallica film started off as Elektra wanting a little behind-the-scenes footage they could slap a 20-minute little featurette on the back of the record.
DEADLINE: Wasn’t that beneath you, the guy who helped keep the West Memphis 3 alive?
BERLINGER: I had come off directing Blair Witch 2, a disaster and a horrible experience where the studio took the movie out of my hands, re-cut it and created something awful. It was an extremely painful experience. It was my 39th birthday and I sat by my fax machine — there was still fax machines in those days. It was released on 3000 screens in six countries, and in one language after another, that machine spit out some of the worst reviews, many attacking me. Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost were well received and I was used to getting good reviews. So I sat in a ball and took the whole thing very hard and thought my career was over. Literally for three months I didn’t make a phone call. Even though this sounds like bullshit, we wrote an excellent script, we made a satirical movie that made fun of the idea of making a sequel, and then had a terrifying twist at the end. That’s the movie I shot, and everyone approved. At the 12th hour I’m sitting with Carter Burwell scoring the movie and this nimrod in the marketing department decided it was too intellectual. They turned a satirical film into a straight slasher movie, re-shooting scenes to be gory even though in the original, the violence was off screen. It left me with horrible reviews I agreed with, but they attacked me for a film that was no longer mine. I had young kids at home and I had to start working. My wife finally said, “Here, watch Paradise Lost and remind yourself you’re a good filmmaker.” I hadn’t seen the movie since it had come out.
DEADLINE: You were saved by being reminded you were a good filmmaker?
BERLINGER: No. The opening sequence starts with Metallica’s “Sanitarium” and it just popped in my head. Oh, yeah, Lars said he always wanted me to do something with them. I just wanted to work. I called and said, “Hey Lars, I’m sure you heard my movie was a disaster, you want to do that documentary now?” He said they were going in the studio, to call Elektra, they’d need a little thing. I fly to San Francisco to shoot a little thing for the back of the CD and Lars says, “I forgot to tell you [lead singer] James Hetfield quit the band, things are fucked up, I don’t know if we’re going to have a band, let alone a record.” I said, let’s film this, see what happens. I’m sitting in that first therapy session with [therapist] Phil Towle you see in the movie and I said “I don’t where this is going.” It was just me at this point, Bruce wasn’t involved.
DEADLINE: When did you reunite with Sinofsky?
BERLINGER: I realized this could be a big movie, about two people healing their creative relationship. Bruce and I had a lot of friction and broke up. I realized this was the movie that he and I should make together to repair our relationship, so I invited him to be part of it. That very first session? I’m sitting there with a camera and a sound guy, thinking, I don’t know if this turns into a movie, but I’m so grateful the universe has put me here in this time of pain in my life, as these guys who are at the height of their success are having this creative existential crisis, just like I was. I didn’t know who I was anymore as a filmmaker, and this was good therapy for me.
DEADLINE: So you heal yourself and your rift with your partner, chronicling the healing of the members of a world class rock band?
BERLINGER: I don’t know how I went off on this long tangent… but it’s just these are the things that I love about what I do. The scary and great part is, you don’t know what the outcome is, it’s the antithesis of narrative scripted filmmaking. Not that one’s better or worse, but following a story as it’s unfolding and then turning it into a narrative is a very difficult thing to do.
DEADLINE: It sounds like a hard way to make a living. After Malik Bendjelloul committed suicide a year after winning the Best Documentary Oscar for Searching For Sugar Man, some speculated the great pressure of having to find another subject after a triumph could have been a factor. Did you know him?
BERLINGER: I am not sure I have much to add. I did not know him but greatly admired his film. I experienced the high of an Oscar nomination for the third Paradise Lost, the incredible joy of walking the red carpet with Jason Baldwin of the West Memphis 3 who seven months earlier was in prison serving a life sentence. With anything positive and larger than life that some people are lucky enough to experience, one can feel a little let down when you return to your normal life. During the making of the Metallica film, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett told me how strange he always felt after being on stage in front of 100,000 screaming, adoring fans one day and then being home taking out the garbage the next. But I can’t imagine that such a high experience, followed by the ordinariness of the next day could lead to suicide. There must be more to the story. Since I don’t know him, I won’t speculate. It’s a great tragedy on many levels and the film community lost a great talent. I truly loved that movie.
DEADLINE: What’s it like to pursue the truth and feel it’s life and death, and then have to start all over? You are the rare documaker who got a trilogy on one subject.
BERLINGER: It is indeed hard to let certain stories go. Sometimes they grab you and won’t let you go even if you want them to — such was my experience of being sued by Chevron for access to my dailies on Crude. The lawsuit was a physically, emotionally and financially draining experience that I wish I could have moved on from, but it kept its claws in me far too long. Sometimes you become obsessed with a story and you can’t let it go, as opposed to it grabbing you. That happened with those Paradise Lost films. We did not set out to make a trilogy. The first film was so embraced by audiences around the world but did not move the needle at all in Arkansas in terms of the authorities being influenced to do the right thing. Instead, they lambasted the film. I felt horribly guilty. We were getting pats on the back for making a great film but the West Memphis 3 were still rotting in prison. We decided to make a second film and then a third because we felt a responsibility to keep shining a light on the case until they got out of prison. We had no idea it would take so long.
DEADLINE: There seemed to be some bitter feelings when you made your Oscar-nominated finale, and out comes Amy Berg’s West Of Memphis, a rival docu based on the forensic research financed by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh after they saw your film and could not believe such a miscarriage of justice could happen in America.
BERLINGER: I have nothing but admiration for Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh as it relates to this case. I think the Paradise Lost films, particularly the first, saved Damien’s life and was the catalyst for worldwide support. But it was Peter and Fran’s legal and investigative efforts that ultimately got the West Memphis 3 out of prison. I also understood their desire to make a film in which they were in control of the content — certainly neither HBO nor we, the Paradise Lost filmmakers, would make a film for them in which we would cede control to the producers and subjects of the film. Damien Echols and Lorri were also producers. When the Jacksons started West Of Memphis, Echols was still on death row and Jason and Jessie were serving life without parole sentences, so as far as any of us were concerned, there couldn’t be enough films until the mission was accomplished, get them out of prison. During the two decades we covered this story, we have an unblemished record of helping others tell this story because you can’t own or monopolize someone’s tragedy. We have given footage or information or both to scores of outlets, including multiple CNN special reports, the Discovery Channel, the BBC. It wasn’t a feeling of being territorial that created some problems; it was the behavior of the filmmaker Jackson hired, Amy Berg, who behaved in a way that I would hope no professional colleague would treat another, particularly because we brought this story to the world’s attention. She was simply not forthright in her actions during filming and, more alarmingly, because she is supposed to be in the truth business, she made a lot of extremely inaccurate statements to the press about our respective films.
DEADLINE: Can you be specific?
BERLINGER: She told the press repeatedly that she began her project before Paradise Lost 3 had begun, as if we were the interlopers, which is wrong by a long shot and I have the emails and contracts to prove it. We began our film way before she began hers; another example, she was even quoted in one article saying that we denied her permission to use footage from our films, which was just patently false. Ironically, not only did she use footage from our films, including courtroom footage, without asking us and while trying to denigrate us, but then she told the press that we denied her permission, which is just not true. Perhaps the biggest sore point that created unnecessary tension between the two films occurred during production, when she paid certain subjects fees to sign agreements that included a ban on participating in our third installment of Paradise Lost. Think about that. We introduced to the world a group of people we had filmed in the first two Paradise Lost films. In the middle of shooting Paradise Lost 3, along comes another documentary filmmaker, making her own film about the case and uses money to block our access to certain people that we introduced her to by virtue of having made the previous films. But, at the end of the day, I think you get in life what you put out there, and unfortunately for Peter and Fran, West Of Memphis did not succeed at the box office and was ignored by the documentary community during awards season. I think this is directly related to how Amy Berg conducted herself. Karma is real. I think you get what you put out there — Damien Echols says it himself very eloquently is the original Paradise Lost that whatever you put out there comes back to you. And it’s a shame — I would have loved to see West Of Memphis have a greater impact because, as I said before, there can’t be enough films made about this subject as far as I am concerned. I still feel that way, because the West Memphis 3 had to agree to this outrageous Alford Plea. Pleading guilty in exchange for being re-sentenced to time already served and thus getting out of prison, while publicly maintaining their innocence. There is still a need to focus attention on this case until the West Memphis 3 are fully exonerated and the real killer or killers of the three 8 year olds, Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers, are caught and prosecuted.
DEADLINE: Your new film builds toward a Whitey Bulger trial that is anticlimactic, as his defense team was unable to put on the show they’d promised. Were you at all concerned that exposing lies in that trial might have led to other bad guys to go free?
BERLINGER: I don’t think at this point it would actually free bad guys because so much time has passed, but it could have provided answers to victim’s families and accountability, if they are due compensation or just the satisfaction of knowing what happened to their loved ones. We need accountability so we don’t lose control of our institutions that govern us. According to the defense team, the Department of Justice was most concerned about bringing down the mafia, and to get wire taps you had to apply to a judge first for a warrant for probable cause, in order to justify the probable cause for all the wire taps that were used in the late ’70s and the early ’80s to bring down the mob. They used Bulger’s name as a commodity. The defense claims a lot of affidavits and search warrants or applications in support of search warrants and wire taps were falsified using Bulger’s name, and that informant information was also falsified. They put it on these files and got convictions of major mafia people and if that would have ever have come out, it would undo all these convictions the Boston FBI and department of justice made major careers off of. First thing a mob lawyer would do for a guy who was convicted based on a fraudulently obtained wiretap would be to challenge that conviction. That’s one level of the cover up.
DEADLINE: What’s the other?
BERLINGER: The second level of the cover up is the civil liability. If the knowledge of Bulger’s fraudulent informant status and the knowledge that he was allowed to kill was signed off high up the chain, and not just by John Connolly, all the families of the victims deserve serious compensation for wrongful death. That’s a door they don’t want to open. There have been all these civil suits; the government does not want to give these families satisfaction. So there’s a much deeper web of potential conspiracy that has gone on here. For me, here’s a guy of such mythic status that in some corners of his own community of South Boston, people treated him like a folk hero or a Robin Hood who kept drugs away. Clearly that was not true. We’ve seen wild portrayals of him, but he’s never spoken for himself nor has there been an opportunity to separate fact from fiction and that’s what I thought this trial was going to do to. The trial fell willfully short of the objective and I’m very proud of how deeply I got embedded with various characters to at least present all sides of the case, including Bulger’s side.
DEADLINE: So whether the subject is laudable or not, your obligation is just the truth?
BERLINGER: And the truth hurts, sometimes.