Staring at the Underbelly: An Interview with Documentary Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
by Rich Rosell
Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky teamed up to release 1991's haunting Brother's Keeper, and over the years have gone on to tackle such diverse subjects as satanic murders and rock and roll with the same unflinching honesty.
dOc had the opportunity to speak with Berlinger and Sinofsky on the eve of the 10th anniversay DVD release of the award-winning Brother's Keeper, and get some insight into the documentary filmmaking process.
dOc: How did the two of you decide to become documentarians?
BS: We were both working for the Maysles Brothers (Gimme Shelter), who were very well respected documentary filmmakers. I came there in 1977 from NYU and Joe came in...
JB:...'86, after working in the advertising business for a year. I came over to Maysles as a producer, to help build their TV commercial business mainly.
BS: We both loved documentaries, but we sort of fell into it at different times in our lives. We were lucky enough to be there at the same time, and hook up together, and went on to do Brother's Keeper, which is something that's near and dear to our heart.
dOc: As it should be. When you guys work together, is there an alpha male on your projects, or do both of you split the duties fairly evenly?
BS: There's an alpha female, I think. I think in those days, on Brother's Keeper, I had a little more technical knowledge of filmmaking, and Joe was a mastermind in the business aspect, and so we both utilized those skills. But on the job itself, when we were actually filming up there, it was 50/50. It happened very naturally, it was not like "you do this and I'll do that." It was unspoken from the beginning, and we both went with each other's strengths. We were both there to make a good film, and do whatever was best for the project.
JB: We're a producing/directing team where we both produce and direct together.
dOc: When Brother's Keeper came out theatrically in 1992, you two didn't necessarily earn the adoration and admiration of your fellow documentarians. I believe on the disc's commentary track one of you refer to the fact the they "pissed all over it." Why do you think they had such a problem with that film, or was it with you guys?
JB: I'm not sure. We always scratched our heads because the film community really embraced this film.
dOc: It was very well received, in terms of awards.
JB: Except the documentary community. They did not like the film. I guess in order to market the film, and go from having zero reputation, and being unknowns, to sort of overnight turning Sundance into a platform for us, maybe we were a little arrogant.
JB:Maybe we patted ourselves on the back too much back then, and it alienated a few people. However, we're still mystified. At the time this film came out, we were pioneers in self-distribution, and it did $1.5 million with Joe and Bruce schlepping the print from city to city. That's pretty damn good. Creatively, we feel we sort of pushed the definition of what is a non-fiction feature film. We talked a lot about how we wanted to create a non-fiction feature film that would have all the qualities of fiction, in the sense of a beautiful score, beautiful cinematography, a certain editing style, and one that unfolded in the present tense. We wanted to have all of these things, and I guess the documentary community took that as an insult, as if we were saying the traditional way of making documentaries is bad. And maybe back then we did say that just to pat ourselves on the back, but in hindsight, 10 or 12 years and dozens of film projects later, looking back, we were just two young guys who wanted to make a lot of noise and were proud of our work. On the other side, I'm sure there was a little jealousy over what we achieved, because we went from being nobodies to very commercially viable documentary filmmakers.
dOc: In making Brother's Keeper you had to majorly dip into your own personal finances.
BS: I think we were over $100,000 in the hole, with mortgages on our homes and apartments.
dOc: How does incurring such a debt impact your personal lives as your struggling to not only get the funds together, but to keep the project going?
BS: It puts a lot of stress on it.
dOc: I would imagine.
BS: Both of us got married when filming was completed, Joe got married in June of that year and I got married in April of that year, and the trial (in the film) ended in March. It had tremendous impact on us. I was a single father, and most of my paycheck was going to credit cards and things like that, it was just putting a lot of pressure on me personally. I had to make sure I was taking care of my mortgage, and Joe had credit card debt, too. He put some sort of second mortgage on his apartment in Brooklyn. It was stressful.
JB: The window of opportunity opens precious few times in life, and when you feel like you have to go for it, you have to go for it. We jumped through the window and hoped there was a mattress on the other side. And part of jumping through the window is not just the financial stress, but having the faith. The kind of film we made isn't made all that often as a way of making documentaries. Yes, there are many cinema verite films, but it is much easier to make a film about a known event, than it is about an event you don't the outcome of. We were investing all of our hopes, and all of our resources, financially and otherwise, into a story whose outcome we didn't know. What if it didn't go to trial? What if there was a plea bargain?
BS: A few times we actually went to people, trying to raise money, and they said "What's the ending?" We had to tell them we didn't know.
JB: That puts a lot of stress... Sometimes you start doubting, you're midway through, you've spent X-number of dollars, you're struggling to make ends meet, and you're like "Oh my God, what if this doesn't turn out?" But most of the time we had a deep abiding faith that this was going to be great, and not out of egotism, but we just felt that we were privileged to be into something special. Sort of like we feel right now, because we're in the cutting room on a film about Metallica that we've been making for the last 2 1/2 years. We've done lots of things in between Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost and Metallica, they've been good projects, but we haven't had that giddy, magical feeling in awhile, which we have about this film. As with Brother's Keeper, you just sort of know that you're being blessed with this incredible confluence of events that you are allowed to witness.
dOc: When is the Metallica documentary due out?
JB: Probably early next year , in February or March.
dOc: I'm assuming it's not strictly a run-of-the-mill look at the band, and that there is some strange, personal edge in there.
JB: First of all, its theatrical. Secondly, concert films are a dime a dozen. There's music in this film, but the whole point is that we spent time with this band during their most critical period, when they were near disintegration, and got their s*** together. Not only did they survive this crisis, but they went on to make a number one album, and they're selling out on this world tour that they're doing. It's so much about personal growth, personal relationships.
BS: The film gods come down every few years and tap us on the shoulder and say "This is another really good opportunity for you guys, don't f*** it up."
dOc: When you work on something like Brother's Keeper, where you are really immersed in the personal lives of individuals, is it kind of hard to turn off those feelings you might have had for those people once the project is done?
BS: I don't think we ever turn off the feelings we had for these people. Once we get in the editing room we have a very difficult job to do, and we don't want to let our personal feelings for these men or this community interfere with the work we have to do. We're very conscious of this, and we're always looking at each other and sort of testing other, to make sure we're not letting our affection for these guys interfere with telling an honest story. It's hard to shut that off, but I think we've been successful in all of our films in being able to separate ourselves as directors and put on the editors cap, and work on the projects like that. I don't think we let our deep emotional commitment sort of sidetrack us in our job of editing this story.
dOc: On the commentary track to the DVD, one of you mentions that there are moments where, as a filmmaker, you're delighted, but as a human you're cringing on the inside. Have you ever had moments where you've cringed enough on the inside that you had to turn off your filmmaker's cap?
BS: No, I've never stopped the camera.
JB: No matter how revolting you may be feeling, because you can always decide to not use it later. I suppose there could be a situation where we'd turn it off, but we haven't yet, because we have a responsibility.
BS: Our job is to capture what's happening. We've been taught to keep the camera running, and wait until you get back to editing room to decide whether to use it.
JB: It's the great contradiction of what we do. God forbid if I ever had a great tragedy in my life, I would never allow somebody like myself into my life to make a film. All we can do is be good stewards of that responsibility, and in the editing room be as emotionally truthful and respectful as possible.
dOc: How did you get Spalding Gray to do the theatrical trailer for Brother's Keeper. It's certainly one of the more unconventional film trailers I've seen. There's no footage from the film, just him talking about his reactions to the film.
JB: We went to Sundance just convinced that we would get this seven-figure distribution deal, and nobody stepped forward. We spent the spring trying to figure out if we should take one of these crummy distribution deals from a small player, with no money up front. We finally decided to just self-distribute. I had a marketing background, so we would just figure out how to do it, rather than take a crummy deal and know that we would never see a penny from the film. All of this was sort of last minute planning. We blew the film up to 35mm, because one of the important things that Bruce and I decided right off the bat was that, no matter what it took, we wanted it to be in 35mm so that it could play in regular theaters, instead of the occasional 16mm art house. While we were blowing up the film, we realized "Oh shit, we need a trailer", but our negative was all tied up for the blow up, and we had no video images from the film, and we wondered how we could make a trailer without footage. But we were able to turn that into a positive, because we realized that showing our footage would remind people that Brother's Keeper was a documentary, and that maybe we could get people into the theater thinking its something else, without being dishonest about it. Then we remembered that Spalding Gray had told us this amazing story. He was the full MC of the Sundance Awards show, and when he presented us with our Audience Award in '92, he told that same story about how he couldn't take a leak during Brother's Keeper. So, in May, when we realized we didn't have a trailer, we said "let's call Spalding."
dOc: When you two did Paradise Lost: The Robin Hood Hills Murders in 1996, how did you select the story of child murders in Arkansas as a subject?
BS: Paradise Lost actually came about from an article we saw in the New York Times, just like the article we saw for Brother's Keeper. Basically, it was article about three teenagers who had sacrificed three young boys to the devil. It was sort like a real life River's Edge, and we were intrigued by it, and we talked to HBO about it, and they said, "why don't you go down and do some research?" We came back convinced there was a film there, and Sheila Nevins from HBO approved it, and within a few days we were down there starting a project.
dOc: That was a pretty intense little documentary. If I recall, the Governor of Arkansas was not terribly pleased with final project, was he?
BS: I don't think anyone in law enforcement or political office was pleased, in a very superficial way. I think they have a feeling that everyone makes fun of the South, and that we were there to put an unfavorable light on the communities there as if they were all a bunch of rednecks. In fact, we only paid attention to and focused on six families, along with law enforcement and the judicial system, and I don't think we made any attempt to make anyone look different than they were. If they see themselves, and see themselves being portrayed as uneducated rednecks, that's the way they see themselves. There was no intent. I think law enforcement may have come off looking bad, because they seem to have done some things that were rather distasteful. The families themselves all lived in trailer parks, and none of them were particularly wealthy or educated people. But that was the subject matter that was chosen. I think it made the judicial system look like maybe they made a mistake, and that never bodes well for a politician.
dOc: Why isn't Paradise Lost: The Robin Hood Hills Murders on DVD?
BS: It will be. When it initially came out on VHS, there really wasn't a huge DVD market. Now, Artisan owns it, because they bought out Fox Lorber, and over the last two or three days Joe has called me to tell me that they have finally agreed to put it out on DVD. There are actually three productions of feature films about the West Memphis Three case in production right now, one with Universal, one with USA Television, and one independent.
dOc: Are you involved any way with these other productions?
BS: We're talking with these people, because we obviously want to make sure they don't damage the story by fictionalizing the truth and making it a mockery of what the case was really about.
dOc: Gee, that never happens.
BS: It happens everyday. We're very protective of the story, and we've been offered opportunities by players like Miramax to make a fictional version, but we've never felt comfortable with it. It would be wrong for Joe and I to do it.
dOc: It was pretty rare to put out a sequel to Paradise Lost: The Robin Hood Hills Murders, which was Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Documentary sequels are pretty uncommon.
BS: There was a huge amount of interest and letters and phone calls to HBO, with people wanting to know what happened to these guys. When the organization, the West Memphis Three, started getting on the web, people were signing up left and right wanting to know what would happen to these guys. We went back to HBO, and said "why don't we see if there is another film we can make?" We went down there, and not as many families wanted to talk to us. We did the film, and it was very successful for HBO, it did well, and it put this case on the map for a lot of people. There's tens of thousands of people that go on the West Memphis Three web site, a lot of musicians and filmmakers have contributed time and money to their defense fund. It's become bigger because of the films. [Damian Wayne Echols] would probably be dead right now if we hadn't made the first film, so it's nice to think we had some control or say in a very, very public issue. Maybe we saved this guy's life, and maybe he'll ultimately be found innocent and be able to go home and have a life outside of prison or death row.
dOc: Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost: The Robin Hood Hills Murders both centered on the American justice system intersecting with elements of lower social class. Do you ever see yourselves as the silent voice of the wronged?
BS: Not intentionally. We're both very interested in the justice system, and in subcultures. We're interested in being on the inside of something that is not normally seen by the public. I did a film on Sun Records, I shot a film for the Steppenwolf Theater, I did a film on Rolling Stone magazine's 30th anniversary, and we're doing a film on Metallica. It has to have something very unique and special about it for us to dedicate the two or three years that you have to it takes to make a film. Do we look for stories similar to Paradise Lost and Brother's Keeper? Yes, we do. Everyday in the newspaper. It's harder to find those stories, because there are so many more media outlets now. I don't want to say they're like vultures, but believe me, it's very rare that you get the inside track on a story that nobody else is all over as well. It's very hard to find one where you're the lone wolf in the pack.
dOc: Even though you may have earned the ire of your fellow documentarians over the years, what are the documentaries that you enjoy?
BS: Certainly the Maysles brothers, whom we worked for, who made Salesman, Grey Gardens, and Gimme Shelter, are heroes and mentors of ours. Of the younger, newer people, I like the films of Michael Moore. I think Errol Morris has done some great films, but he tends to be a little mean-spirited. That's just a personal observation. I often judge for the Director's Guild, and I have become fans of directors whose films I had never seen before. People often say there was one way to make a documentary, and back in 1992, there were a lot of political films that had a point of view, stock footage, and a lot of talking head interviews that were very pointed, in terms of opinion. Sometimes the mission of the documentarian was to take the viewer kicking and screaming to their point of view, but that was never something we embraced.
dOc: Documentaries, as much as I love them, never have the appeal of a big commercial feature film.
BS: They're the bastard child of Hollywood.
dOc: Is it hard to pour yourself into a project that you know at the outset has a limited audience, at best?
BS: First of all, we make these films for ourselves. We find the subject matter fascinating, and we try to make the kind of film we would want to watch and see. We've been very fortunate, because our films have been seen, relatively speaking, by a lot of people, compared to most documentaries. I often think that the work we do is often more difficult than what a Hollywood director goes through, because they have a script to work from. We go in there with twenty blank pages.
dOc:And you don't know how it's going to end.
BS: Nor do we want to. If we, as filmmakers, are intrigued from beginning to end, we know the viewer will be, too. That's when you know you have a good film, because you never stop being interested in the story.