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While politicians debate the rise of crime, there’s no debate that there’s been an explosion of true-crime documentary series on cable TV and the streamers. Interviews with serial killers, re-creations of bloody murders, combative-courtroom footage and carefully orchestrated eleventh-hour revelations have almost become cliché — even as viewers eagerly tune in for more.
But that was not always the case. Thirty years ago, documentarian Joe Berlinger, 61, and his longtime collaborator and co-director, the late Bruce Sinofsky, broke new ground with their feature, Brother’s Keeper. That film centered on the arrest and trial of a rural upstate New York man named Delbert Ward, who was accused of killing his brother William, and it became a blueprint for Berlinger’s unfiltered examinations of American tragedies with all the drama of fictional narratives.
Brother’s Keeper won the audience award at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, the first of dozens of prizes — including an Oscar nomination and eight Emmy noms and two wins — that Berlinger has amassed over the years. He and Sinofsky most famously applied their storytelling approach to documenting the arrests, trials, imprisonment and ultimate release of the “West Memphis Three” — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin, three teens wrongly convicted of murdering a trio of boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993 as part of a supposed satanic ritual. Their Paradise Lost trilogy drew attention to the case and ultimately played a role in the young men’s release.
Speaking with THR, Berlinger looks back in his own words and details why true-crime stories have more social-activist value than ever.
Sex and Outrageous Stories at HBO
After graduating from Colgate University, Berlinger takes an advertising gig with Ogilvy & Mather, where he meets David and Albert Maysles, the doc pioneers behind films like Grey Gardens, and was “a student of their ethos,” he says. Later, as HBO experiments with reality programming, Berlinger joins up with his future partner.
I got to know [then-president of HBO Documentary Films] Sheila Nevins through early Maysles projects at HBO, including a “making of” doc on the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 1989. Not the most highbrow fare. When the series Real Sex started in 1990, Sheila offered me a job working with [director] Patti Kaplan, doing “man on the street” interstitial interviews with strangers about their sexual habits. This led me to make my short film Outrageous Taxi Stories. I interviewed New York cabbies about the craziest things to happen in their cabs. It became a festival darling because it was humorous. My editor was Bruce Sinofsky, whom I knew from his editing of Maysles commercials. That was the beginning of our work as collaborators.
An Unexpected Brother-hood
Together, Berlinger and Sinofsky decide to buck the prevailing trend in documentaries.
By the early 1990s, documentary had become a spoonful of castor oil: good for you but not tasty going down. The model had become looking at history through talking heads and archival footage. Ken Burns was — and is — the master of that format, but it was still for a rarefied audience. Bruce and I felt, “We should make a vérité film in the Maysles’ tradition.” That was the seed of Brother’s Keeper. To this day, I can’t believe where we were allowed to put our cameras.
With the case of the West Memphis Three, Berlinger finds a subject that would consume him for more than 18 years, resulting in three films — and an introduction to Metallica.
Within a week of the arrests [of the West Memphis Three], we were shooting. We filmed from June 1993 until March 1994, after the second trial ended. We shot for more than 80 days, and it took us two years to edit. The film didn’t come out until 1996. All three Paradise Lost films are given credit for liberating the guys, but it’s the way the films catalyzed support among thousands of regular people — the international Free the West Memphis Three movement online — that I think made it a phenomenon.
Metallica’s lyrics had been introduced into the trial as evidence, which was offensive. They had nothing to do with satanism or devil worship. When Bruce and I were editing Paradise Lost, we laid in their tracks as [temporary] music. We’d planned to hire a composer because Metallica had never sold rights to their music. We had a rough cut by mid-1995. I said, “Let’s reach out to Metallica and see what happens.” I sent a fax to Cliff Burnstein, Metallica’s manager, who apparently loved Brother’s Keeper. They said, “We believe in the cause, your movie is great, you can have our music.” And they didn’t charge us for it.
Therapy Sessions With Metallica
Berlinger’s first foray into dramatic filmmaking, a 2000 sequel to The Blair Witch Project, fell flat, but Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, his behind-the-scenes account, returned to his doc roots and healed his relationship with Sinofsky, which had hit a crisis point.
Cliff, Bruce and I had talked about a Metallica film, but it never materialized. Bruce and I were going our separate ways. I went off to direct one of the biggest disasters of cinema history: the sequel to The Blair Witch Project. I thought my career was over.
My wife handed me Paradise Lost. She said, “Remind yourself that you’re a good filmmaker.” The opening sequence is aerial shots over the murder site with Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” So I called [drummer] Lars Ulrich. “Do you guys want to do that documentary?” I flew to San Francisco; when I landed, Lars says, “[Bassist] Jason Newsted just quit the band, it’s a shitshow, not sure there’s a record now. Sorry, man.”
But I pushed my way into their first meeting after that, which was a therapy session, and convinced them to let us film them. Just like the band, Bruce and I were in a creative crisis and had wounded feelings. I told him, “We can heal our relationship,” which we did. Sadly, shortly after the film was finished, Bruce’s diabetes started controlling his life and he passed away in 2015.
Killer Conversations for Netflix
Berlinger finds a new outlet at Netflix with his Conversations With a Killer series that explored the psyches of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy.
Journalist Stephen Michaud had interviewed Ted Bundy on death row and published the book Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer in 1989. He reached out to me in 2016 and said, “I have all these interview tapes. Do you think there’s something here?” Even as an unreliable narrator, Bundy provided a deep window into the serial killer psyche. I pitched the idea to Netflix — we were years from the current serial killer craze — and I couldn’t imagine it’d become the platform’s No. 1 unscripted series in 2019.
Any time I’ve taken on a serial killer-themed project, I ask myself, “What’s the social justice lens?” For Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, it was that they victimized marginalized communities — gay men and men of color. With Bundy, it was when I asked my college-aged daughters, “Have you heard of him?” and neither had. That’s what drove me to retell his story for the Netflix generation.
Bringing Conspiracy Theories Out of the Shadows
For his current Peacock series, Shadowland, inspired by reporting in The Atlantic, Berlinger travels across the country to understand what fuels the conspiracy thinking dividing America.
There are two perspectives to conspiracy theories, and only through understanding them can we address the issue at hand. It’s almost a cliché, but democracy is very endangered. It’s a system based on people with different points of view coming together and agreeing on what’s best for the collective good. And we can’t do that if we see the other side as literal enemies. Unless we learn to see each other as three-dimensional human beings again, we will see democracy die in this country.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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