While politicians debate the rise in crime, there’s no question that there’s been an explosion of true-crime documentary series on cable TV and streamers. Interviews with serial killers, re-creations of bloody murders, battle-courtroom footage and carefully orchestrated eleventh-hour revelations have become almost a cliché – 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 Delbert Ward, a rustic upstate New York man accused of murdering his brother William, and became a blueprint for Berlinger’s unrefined examinations of American tragedies with all the drama of fictional narratives.
Brother’s keeper It won the Audience Award at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, the first of dozens of awards – including an Oscar nomination and eight Emmy noms and two wins – that Berlinger would collect over the years. He and Sinofsky most famously applied their storytelling approach to documenting the arrests, trials, incarceration, and eventual release of the “West Memphis Three” — Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelly Jr., and Jason Baldwin, three teenagers convicted of murdering three boys. As part of a satanic celebration in West Memphis, Arkansas, 1993. their Paradise Lost The trilogy drew attention to the case and ultimately played a role in the youth’s release.
Talking with THRBerlinger looks back in his own words and explains in detail why true-crime stories have more social-activist value than ever.
Sex And Outrageous Stories on HBO
After graduating from Colgate University, Berlinger takes an advertising gig with Ogilvy & Mather, where he meets David and Albert Maysles, the doc pioneers. Gray Gardens, and “a student of his policy,” he says. Then, as HBO experiments with reality programming, Berlinger joins his future partners.
I got to know [then-president of HBO Documentary Films] Sheila Nevins on HBO including a “making of” doc through the early Maysles projects Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue in 1989. Not the most expensive fare. When series Real sex Starting in 1990, Sheila allowed me to work [director] Patty Kaplan, doing “Man on the Street” interstitial interviews with strangers about their sexual practices. This led me to make a short film Outrageous taxi stories. I interviewed New York cabbies about the craziest things that happen in their cabs. It became a festival favorite because it was humorous. I knew my editor, Bruce Sinofsky, from editing Maysles ads. 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, the documentary had become a spoonful of castor oil: good for you but not tasty going down. The model looked at history through talking heads and archival footage. Ken Burns was a master of that format – but it was still for a rarefied audience. Bruce and I thought, “We should make a vérité film in the Maysles tradition.” It was the seed Brother’s keeper. To this day I still can’t believe where we were allowed to place our cameras.
In the case of the West Memphis Three, Berlinger discovers a subject that will consume him for more than eight years, resulting in three films — and an introduction to Metallica.
Within a week of arrest [of the West Memphis Three], we were shooting. We shot from June 1993 to March 1994 after the second trial was over. 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 Movies are credited with freeing the boys, but movies are a way to build support among thousands of ordinary people – the international Free the West Memphis Three movement online – I think it’s a phenomenon.
Metallica’s lyrics were introduced into the trial as evidence, and were offensive. They had nothing to do with Satanism or devil worship. While Bruce and I were editing Paradise LostWe put in their tracks [temporary] Music. We planned to hire a composer because Metallica never sold the rights to their music. We had a rough cut in mid-1995. I said, “Let’s reach out to Metallica and see what happens.” I sent a fax to Metallica’s manager, Cliff Bernstein, who was clearly in love Brother’s keeper. He 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, the 2000 sequel The Blair Witch Projectfell flat, however Metallica: Some kind of monsterHis behind-the-scenes account returns to his doc roots and heals his relationship with Sinofsky, which had hit a crisis point.
Cliff, Bruce and I talked about a Metallica movie, but it never materialized. Bruce and I were going our separate ways. I was about to direct one of the biggest disasters in cinema history: its sequel The Blair Witch Project. I thought my career was over.
My wife held my hand Paradise Lost. He said, “Remind yourself that you are a good filmmaker.” The opening sequence is aerial shots of a murder scene accompanied by Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”. So I called [drummer] Lars Ulrich. “Would you like to make that documentary?” I flew to San Francisco; When I landed, Lars says, “[Bassist] Jason Newsted just left the band, it’s a shitshow, not sure there’s a record now. Sorry, man. “
But I pushed my way into their first meeting, which was a therapy session, and convinced them to let me film them. Like the band, Bruce and I were in a creative crisis and had hurt feelings. I told him, “We can fix our relationship,” and we did. Sadly, shortly after the film was finished, Bruce’s diabetes began to control his life and he passed away in 2015.
the murderer Conversations For Netflix
Berlinger finds a new outlet in Netflix with him Conversations with the killer A series exploring the psyches of Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy.
Journalist Stephen Michaud published a book interviewing Ted Bundy on death row 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 is something here? ” Even as an unreliable narrator, Bundy provided a deep window into the mind of a serial killer. I pitched the idea to Netflix — we’re years from the current serial killer craze — and it’s the platform’s No. 1 in 2019. I couldn’t have imagined that 1 would become an unscripted series.
Anytime I take on a serial killer-themed project, I ask, “What’s the social justice lens?” I ask myself. For Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, they victimized marginalized communities — gay men and men of color. With Bundy, when I ask my college-aged daughters, “Have you heard of him?” And had neither. That inspired me to retell his story for the Netflix generation.
Bringing conspiracy theories out of the shadows
For his current Peacock series, ShadowlandInspired by reporting in AtlanticBerlinger travels the country to understand what fuels the conspiracy thinking that divides America.
Conspiracy theories have two perspectives, and only by understanding them can we solve the problem. It is almost a cliché, but democracy is very much at stake. It is a system based on people with different views coming together and agreeing on what is 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.