'Every Secret Thing': Amy Berg on "How Much to Reveal and When" and That Haunting Ending
The Oscar-nominated director explains how her first fictional movie featured many of the same themes she was exploring in her documentaries and how she'll continue to "represent the truth" on film.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Every Secret Thing.]
Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg's fictional directorial debut Every Secret Thing takes place in two different time periods, with two girls, Ronnie and Alice, (played as adults by Dakota Fanning and Danielle Macdonald, respectively) suspected of kidnapping two mixed-race kids in separate incidents a decade apart. But as the investigation into the latest disappearance unfolds in the present, viewers learn more about the past incident and who was responsible for kidnapping and killing that earlier child, a crime that resulted in both girls being sent to juvenile detention for 10 years. Told through flashbacks, the attitudes and actions of the younger girls change depending on who's telling the story, with the full truth of what happened in that past crime only becoming clear near the end of the movie.
The story unfolds in a way viewers might not expect from their initial impressions of the characters and Berg tells The Hollywood Reporter a lot of the work done to create those twists was done in the editing of the film.
"It was such a tricky edit because the story was told from two different time periods and the balance of how much to reveal and when was something that we played with extensively," she says. "I think something horrendous happens in the past for at least [Alice's mother, played by Diane Lane]. Her daughter is coming out of prison after eight years and she has hopes that things will be different but obviously as the story goes on you see that things have not changed in a positive way for Alice."
As the film comes to a close viewers get one more twist with a final image of a young Alice standing over the baby carriage that Ronnie had been shown standing over in all of the previous flashbacks, making it seem as though Ronnie initiated the kidnapping of that first child.
The shot of Alice standing over the carriage, Berg says, shows "that Alice isn't telling us everything as she proclaims to be telling the truth…It's about people's recollections of events and who to believe and who not to believe. What happens to the truth over the passage of time."
Although Berg is known for her documentaries like Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis and the Hollywood child sex abuse film An Open Secret, which recently secured U.S. distribution, going forward she sees herself continuing to try to "represent the truth" in both documentaries and narrative features.
"I feel like I love making documentaries and I'm never going to stop doing that. I also really enjoy finding interesting fictional stories or narratives that are based on true stories," Berg says. "I'm working a film about a female survivor of Jonestown now. I've been working on that script for a couple of years, and I plan to do that next. So I feel like I'll continue to go back and forth, continue to just make films that represent the truth."
In the case of Every Secret Thing, Berg says she was drawn to the fact that the story touched on many of the same themes she was exploring in her documentaries.
"I had just finished West of Memphis so the idea that these girls were just coming out of prison and how people re-integrate into a community was very interesting," Berg explains. "The parenthood issues were the primary focus for me, though. I thought the dynamics between parents and how they parented their children, this was just an example of how everything can go wrong…The whole idea of bullying and how that affects children in their lives. I think the birthday party scene kind of exemplifies another reason why I wanted to make this film. Seeing how mean kids can be to each other and how socioeconomic status can affect one, I think, is something that we can't talk about enough."
Indeed, Berg argues that the effects of Alice being forced to bring Ronnie to that party linger long after that, and not just because that's the day when the baby's kidnapped.
"It all comes down to that decision that Alice's mom makes when she sends Ronnie to this birthday party with [Alice]," the director says. "Alice has just moved into this new community; she's so excited about her new friends. She really was trying to break in with the popular girls, and her mom kind of imposes Ronnie on her to take her to the party, and it just goes so wrong. And Alice never forgives her mom or Ronnie for that day. And that is the day that all hell breaks loose, and everything as a result of that decision happens for a reason. What a great impact that has on the entire community. I mean it just touches everybody."
And the bullying continues into adulthood with Alice berating Ronnie near the end of the film. This dynamic, Berg says, partly explains Ronnie's tragic ending.
"She really did not have anyone to parent her or give her any kind of guidance. And she knew what happened last time she was involved with Alice, and she just had no resources to deal with what she was struggling with inside," Berg says. "She didn't have a voice and Alice was so domineering that she gave up."
Every Secret Thing co-stars Elizabeth Banks, Nate Parker and Common. The film was written by Nicole Holofcener, based on the New York Times best-seller by Laura Lippman. Anthony Bregman and Frances McDormand served as producers.
The movie is currently playing in select theaters and available on demand and on iTunes.