Filmmaker Amy Berg Finds Fiction Stranger to Make Than Fact

Susan King
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

As her film choices indicate, Amy Berg has never shied from difficult subject matter.

After directing “Deliver Us From Evil,” her Oscar-nominated 2006 documentary chronicling sex-abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Church, Amy Berg set her sights on directing a narrative feature.

“Since ‘Deliver Us From Evil,’ I have been getting a lot of scripts and a lot of meetings with people,” the 44-year-old Berg said at the quaint Venice, Calif., home she shares with her dogs.

“I am totally creatively satisfied making documentaries, but I do enjoy the idea — this is going to sound really strange — of taking on something that is not so real and the stakes aren’t so high.”

But the stakes are high for the characters in her dark first narrative feature, “Every Secret Thing.”

Based on the novel by Laura Lippman, the psychological thriller stars Elizabeth Banks as Nancy, a police detective racked with guilt for not saving the life of a baby who had been kidnapped by two young girls. Now eight years later, Ronnie (Dakota Fanning) and Alice (Danielle Macdonald) are back home from juvenile detention and are the prime suspects when another young child goes missing.

Diane Lane also stars as Helen, Alice’s mother, who seems to care more for Ronnie than her overweight, unmotivated daughter.

Berg was at the Sundance Film Festival premiering “West of Memphis,” her critically acclaimed 2012 documentary about the failure of the justice system in the prosecution of three teenagers for the death of three young boys, when she received a text from actress Frances McDormand requesting that the two should meet.

McDormand, executive producer of “Every Secret Thing,” had optioned Lippman’s book several years earlier. Berg flew to New York to meet with her and producer Anthony Bregman about the project. She got a quick education in the art of putting together a feature film.

“It kind of lined up right away,” Berg recalled. “There was some interest in Diane Lane, so I met her pretty quickly. I think that’s how it works with a feature. You get a couple of things attached and suddenly the trains are on the track.”

Berg wasn’t the first director attached to the project. The film’s screenwriter, Nicole Holofcener, who has written and directed such perceptively funny female-centric indie comedies as 2006’s “Friends With Money” and 2013’s “Enough Said,” was originally slated to direct the film.

“I read (the book) and thought it was a fun challenge to do this,” said Holofcener by phone. “It’s so different than anything I had ever done. I had never adapted a book. I did many rewrites based on notes from Anthony and Fran and my writer friends. I met with Diane. I was ready to get involved and I guess you could say, I chickened out. I really couldn’t deal with the baby stuff.”

Holofcener, who is the mother of two children, hadn’t any problems adapting the book. “I was drawn to the material because I really liked dark stories and dark movies,” she said. Directing was another story. “But I didn’t have to cast the baby. Once I thought about having to live with the screaming baby voice in the editing room for days and days, I couldn’t do it.”

The original focus of the story, Berg said, was more on Banks’ character’s home life and her desire to have a child.

“It just seemed more interesting to keep her personal life out of the movie,” Berg said. “I think it needed to stay focused on the girls. That is the most interesting thing — the relationship between the two girls and Diane Lane’s character and her daughter.”

Berg had seen that kind of relationship when she was an ice skater as a youngster. “I remember the ice skating parents — my parents weren’t like this — who were so intensely all over the kids to make it to the Olympics or whatever. I thought that was such an unbelievable amount of pressure to grow up with — a parent who wants you to be what you couldn’t be. That’s really what Diane’s character is.”

Berg discovered doing a narrative feature was a “backward way of working compared to a documentary, where you kind of find a story in the edit bay. Obviously with a feature, it is 100 percent on the page.”

Time also wasn’t on Berg’s side. She worked 31/2 years on “West of Memphis”; her shooting schedule on “Every Secret Thing” was 21 days.

“We shot around Queens,” she said. “I had six weeks of prep, and when I got to New York that went down to four weeks. It was super challenging. We were shooting seven scenes a day, and the editing schedule was really tight — 12 weeks. We ended up getting another four weeks. I’m used to doing six months in the edit bay with hundreds of hours of footage. I learned a lot.”

“Every Secret Thing,” which she made in 2013, premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival (early reviews were mixed). And since then she’s been juggling several projects.

“An Open Secret,” her documentary on child sexual abuse in Hollywood, is screening at Cannes and will open theatrically in June. “Prophet’s Prey,” her documentary on Warren Jeffs, the former leader of the polygamist sect Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and convicted felon, premiered at Sundance in January and will open theatrically this fall before it airs on Showtime.

Meanwhile, Berg is editing her documentary on singer Janis Joplin. “It’s about her complicated life that was created by her fame and how she struggled as an artist,” said Berg, who has worked on the film for more than seven years. “I find her so powerful. She broke ground for women today. She was a really ahead of her time.”

Berg hopes to shoot her second narrative feature next year. This time, she’s writing her own screenplay based on the book “Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple,” written by Deborah Layton, who at one point had been a trusted aide of cult leader Jim jones.

As her film choices indicate, Berg has never shied from difficult subject matter.

“I think I have always been concerned about the underdog,” she said. “The voices that we don’t hear about. I think this is my way of doing something about it. I feel that this is the kind of perfect job for me. I am able to use a poetic device to tell these things. I don’t think I could do anything else.”

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