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Even before Evan Rachel Wood publicly named shock rocker Marilyn Manson as her alleged abuser for the first time in early 2021, she began working on a documentary that would incorporate her claims of surviving domestic violence at his hands, says director Amy Berg.
Berg (An Open Secret, Deliver Us From Evil), who knew Wood through friends, says the Westworld actor initially approached her in 2019 about potentially helming a film. At first, while Wood intended to name her former fiance Manson (née Brian Warner) in the project, the idea was to primarily spotlight how domestic violence can unfold and the fight to pass The Phoenix Act, a bill that extended the statute of limitations in California for domestic violence felonies and was signed into law in 2019. But, as time passed and Berg officially joined the project as a director, Wood’s journey came to provide the film its “central narrative,” Berg says: “There was an investigation that was opened into Brian Warner and the story kind of got bigger and bigger, so we just followed that story.” (Manson has called Wood’s claims “horrible distortions of reality” and previously denied “claims of sexual assault or abuse of anyone.”)
On Sunday, the first part of that documentary, Phoenix Rising, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (the two-part film will debut in full on HBO later this year). Part one follows Wood’s rise in the industry, beginning as a child actor and gaining acclaim as an adolescent for roles as a precocious and troubled teen (Thirteen, Down in the Valley, Running With Scissors), and indicates how details from her past may have contributed to her eventual years-long relationship with Manson.
The day after the initial Sundance screening of part one, Berg spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how the film came together, the limits she faced as a filmmaker given an investigation into Manson, why she thinks Wood is “like Erin Brockovich” and what viewers can expect from the second half of the documentary.
First, how and why did you first come on board this documentary?
Evan Rachel Wood approached me in the spring of 2019 and she told me about The Phoenix Act and what she was working on in terms of trying to extend the statute of limitations in California [for domestic abuse survivors to press charges] and trying to further the investigation into her abuser and try to help to elevate the voices of other survivors of her perpetrator. And so we just kind of followed her around for the first year, to loosely watch things as they were unfolding. And then I became compelled to direct the film around the summer of 2020 and we’ve been going since then. We’re almost finished, we’re trying to finish up right now.
So you were initially not committed to directing Phoenix Rising — how did you decide to assume that role?
When she first approached me, I had just finished The Case Against Adnan Syed, which was a four-year production that was like, oh my God, talk about the pain of the end of that production, so I was just not in a great space to take something big on at the time. But after just following her progress, I mean, she’s like Erin Brockovich, she was changing laws in California and she was helping to elevate the voices of survivors, it was just very positive and there was a lot of story there and I was compelled to tell it as a director after about a year of that.
Given that this began in 2019, did Evan know that she wanted to name her alleged abuser in the film from the beginning, or was that a conclusion she came to over the course of production?
There was no question that she was going to name her abuser in the film. We spoke openly about him from the very beginning. But how and when she would do it publicly was definitely her choice, as it would be for any survivor to choose when they want to tell their story in that way.
In the beginning, Evan was very committed to making sure that people understood the stages of grooming and what abuse looks like in the domestic violence narrative. So we were very focused on The Phoenix Act and domestic violence as a story and only found this central narrative of just following her and her journey as the plot thickened, I should say. There was an investigation that was opened into Brian Warner and the story got bigger and bigger, so we just followed that story, which is mostly in the second half of this film. It’s much more active than the first half, if you could say it that way — I mean, the first half is mostly backstory and catching the audience up on where she was when we connected.
After Evan did name Manson in 2021, more claims and reports emerged. Did that new information present any particular challenges or opportunities for you in making this film?
Well, we were kind of behind the scenes throughout, so we knew a lot about the information that started to reveal itself to the public after that. Obviously when you are making a film about domestic abuse, any type of abuse, it’s up to the survivor to decide when they want to share their stories, so everything was very confidential with us as we were making the documentary. But Evan’s willingness to speak out elevated the voices of many other survivors that maybe wouldn’t have gotten that type of reception had she not spoke up. So she did it for them as much as for her.
Given that there is a Los Angeles County Sheriff investigation apparently underway of Manson, were sources for Phoenix Rising at all limited in what they could say or what materials they could provide to you?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, the case with the Sheriff’s Department is much more important than the film, obviously, so we told what we were able to tell and we hope that that investigation continues.
At one point in the film, artist and activist Illma Gore mentions safety concerns about keeping hard drives in her house. Did your production take any particular safety measures over the course of filming?
Yeah, I mean, they actually ended up getting a secure facility for their offices. They kept their own materials, we filmed what we needed to film, so we weren’t carrying the evidence or anything at any given point. So we didn’t have to worry about that so much. We had to deal with other types of security measures but not with their evidence: There’s a lot of like online stalking in that world, the Brian Warner world, so we had to take a look at that.
Anything you can mention specifically that you did regarding the online stalking?
I can say that I started receiving horror films in my Amazon account that I wasn’t ordering, and so I had to up the security with that. One of the things that we heard about while we were making this film was that people would just receive mysterious packages at their houses that they didn’t order, so I still don’t know if that was him or anything, but I had to do double security. I definitely was not ordering like 10 horror films between midnight and 6 a.m.
Given that Evan says in the film that during the making of the “Heart-Shaped Glasses” music video, she was “essentially raped” and was under the influence and couldn’t consent. What was behind the decision to show some clips from that video in the film — what were you hoping to convey?
Well, you need to see her face. She is completely out of it, and you need to see the extent of what the industry allowed to be circulating on the internet today. We had Evan’s blessing and permission to use that, but I think that is a moment that is really important to understand. I mean, that film set had a lot of people on it and that behavior is completely inappropriate and abusive and it’s rape, so we wanted to show it for what it was. She was just a child, she just turned 18. [A representative for Warner says Wood was 19 during the filming of the video, and in a statement regarding Wood’s claim that she was “essentially raped,” Warner’s attorney Howard King says the allegation is false, Wood was “fully coherent and engaged,” involved in pre-production and postproduction and there was no real sex on the set.]
There’s one moment in the documentary where Evan talks about experiencing violence in her family growing up and getting spanked and hit in the face, but it isn’t quite clear whether the violence she’s discussing goes beyond that. Can you clarify what the documentary means to express there?
She talked about violence in the household, [and] I think most of what was going on was the parental fighting. What we discussed was how you learn to love. For me, when she told me the story that included the line, “We fight because we love each other,” I really wanted that to be in the film because I think children are very impressionable and she felt there was a strong connection between how she learned to love and the choices she made with partners and being susceptible. And so it’s not just her parents and the fighting that they experienced, I think it was just the exposure to so much violence as she was growing up [that] maybe formulated an opinion for her, but that’s really more of a question for her. But I did just really connect with that line, it was very important for me to use that in the film.
When it came to distribution, did you shop it to a bunch of places or only a few, and did anyone say no? How did that process go?
Actually, like I said, I was just finishing up the Adnan Syed story, so I was speaking with Lisa [Heller] and Nancy [Abraham] frequently about what we would do together next, and this just seemed like the perfect project for all of us. So I didn’t shop it around or anything, I just brought it right to them.
Why did HBO seem like the right place, and did it have anything to do with its track record with distributing titles like On the Record and Leaving Neverland?
Well, probably all of that, but I wasn’t specifically thinking about that. I had a great experience with them on The Case Against Adnan Syed. And I find Lisa and Nancy and now Tina [Nguyen], who’s joined the team since I finished Adnan Syed, to be just great partners. So it felt like the right place, it was a safe place, as well as Evan has Westworld on HBO, so it seems kind of like an obvious match. But yeah, I love working with them, they’re great.
You spoke a little bit about what’s coming in part two of the documentary. Is there anything else you can share and can we expect any other survivors to appear as well?
Yeah, we interview a number of survivors in the second part. And it is faster-paced; it’s a lot of action. We’re really following the developments of the case and The Phoenix Act, so you should tune in.
Overall, with both parts, what are your hopes for the message viewers will receive?
Well, Evan’s intention was always to educate people and to elevate the voices of survivors. The statute of limitations is so short for any type of domestic violence or sexual abuse, it’s just such a short window, so the more information and education that is put out into the world about this kind of thing can hopefully encourage people to go for help earlier, so that it doesn’t have to take a movement to get something across.
If there are further major developments in this case, is this a story that you would want to revisit?
Not particularly. I feel like this was the film that I wanted to make, it got much bigger than even what I expected in the beginning, so I think that we’ll let the next group follow that story. But I’m very proud of this film and very happy with how it plays out and how it ends.
When did you first show Evan the documentary, and how did she react?
I showed her a couple of cuts throughout the process. She’s been an open book and she’s been very constructive with her notes, and she allowed us to tell the story we want to tell and has been very supportive.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jan. 26, 10:14 a.m. Updated to include response from Warner’s representatives, denying allegations of abuse and claims of what happened on the music video set.
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