Yesterday, I had a great chat with director Joe Berlinger in conjunction with the DVD release of The Paradise Lost Trilogy, a collection of the three documentaries that he and collaborator Bruce Sinofsky made about the case of the West Memphis Three. The entirety of our discussion about how Berlinger and Sinofsky first forged their filmmaking collaboration and their subsequent path through the lives of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley can be found in “The Light of the TV Shows,” my weekly column for the Bullz-Eye blog. We did, however, talk about a few non-WM3-related things before I got off the line, and I figured I’d offer that part of the discussion to you, the few, proud readers of News, Reviews and Interviews. Hopefully you’ll get a kick out of it.
News Reviews Interviews: You know, I feel like I have to ask you to at least briefly reflect on Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2.
Joe Berlinger: Oh, must you? [Laughs.] Must you?
NRI: Look, I’ll leave it in your hands. I’m not even going to ask a specific question beyond just what you think when you look back on the experience.
JB: Well, in a career that I’m very proud of, having reached people in the right way, I have one major misfire. [Laughs.] Y’know, it’s a part of who I am. But if you dig into the story of that film, the film that was written and shot and initially approved by the studio is not the film that was released, so one of the reasons that I have not made a feature film since then is that the loss of control that I experienced on that film, the loss of authorship, is something that I will never go through again. That is why I have gravitated towards projects where I am in complete control of the content. That doesn’t mean that I won’t make another feature film, but I will not make another feature film where I don’t have complete and total control, because at the twelfth hour, that movie was kind of taken from me, re-cut, and barely resembles the movie that I envisioned, co-wrote, shot, and delivered.
That doesn’t mean that people would’ve liked the director’s cut. I can’t say that people would’ve liked the director’s cut any more than they liked what was released, because there was such venom, and people wanted to hate anything called Blair Witch 2, which I underestimated. However, I know I loathe Blair Witch 2 as it currently exists and really loved my director’s cut. So I can’t say what other people would’ve thought, but I certainly would’ve been a lot happier if the film that I wanted to release, which was designed to be a satire, was released. A pre-Scream, self-referential satire making fun of the idea of even doing a sequel that then takes a horrifying twist at the end of the movie. That was the intention. But the studio lost its will and, against my screams of agony, they put in all these gory recreation scenes… [Hesitates.] Do you know the movie?
NRI: Oh, yeah. I’ve got a VHS copy somewhere.
JB: [Laughs.] Well, the studio betrayed the legacy of the first movie, which was that all of the horrors happened off-screen, and that was what my original cut was. Y’know, I don’t know if you want to get into all this detail or not, but, basically, if you look at my director’s cut, there was a final eight-minute kind of tableau in which you realize that the kids have been arrested for this horrific crime, and that was an uncut eight-minute reveal at the very end of the movie that Artisan decided had to be intercut throughout the film, and that the murders that occurred that were supposed to be off-screen had to be recreated in all their bloody gory, in betrayal of the legacy of the first movie. Those reshot sequences were sprinkled throughout the film, and the satirical elements don’t play. Like, the sheriff was intended to be satirical, but when you’re grounded in horror right from the get-go, and slasher horror at that, those performances which were supposed to be nuanced and satirical and take kind of a twist toward the end of the film no longer play. So I look at that film and I cringe, and…I really liked my director’s cut! [Laughs.]
NRI: Do you think there’s any chance the director’s cut will ever see the light of day?
JB: I have actually approached Lionsgate about that several times, and they don’t want to do it. But if there’s enough hue and cry from the general public, maybe something could happen.
NRI: I’ll put it out there!
JB: You know, the one myth about that film is that, even despite its adulterated form, it was a complete failure financially. The reality is that the expectation was so high that…I think people’s expectations were unrealistic, but it was a $10 million film that grossed about $65 million worldwide and did $25 million on video. So it’s still a film that performed. It’s just that, creatively, it’s a bit of an embarrassment to me. But it’s good to have an embarrassment at least once in your career. [Laughs.] It makes you tough.
NRI: So what are you working on at the moment?
JB: I am about to start Season 7 of our TV series, Iconoclasts, if you’re familiar with that show on the Sundance Channel. I’m amazed that we continue to move forward with that show. It’s been…it’s a show that I sometimes giggle to myself that I’m actually getting paid to have these adventures of, y’know, going to Alaska with Sean Penn and Jon Krakauer or going to the Congo with Charlize Theron and Jane Goodall or filming Richard Branson and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the British Virgin Islands…it’s just been a great, great experience, and I’m so proud that the show is about to enter its seventh season.
So I’m doing that, and we’re working on a pilot for Fox which…the show is called Paradise Falls, which has been confused by people as being the WM3 story. What it is, though, is actually my experiences, looking at a fictional murder case, a fictional wrongful-conviction case that has different DNA than the West Memphis Three story, but looking at it through the lens of what a documentary maker goes through to cover these kinds of stories. So the connective tissue to the WM3 story is that it’s my experiences. What’s it like when somebody gives you a potential piece of evidence like, say, the bloody knife that we got? What’s it like to try and convince people who have just suffered a horrific crime to allow filmmakers into their life? What are the moral and ethical dilemmas that you face? What’s it like, as we did in Paradise Lost, to convince the court to allow us to set up cameras? Because they were not initially going to allow that trial to be filmed. And most importantly, what’s it like when you have that “a-ha!” moment when you think you’re making a film about guilty people and you realize they look innocent? So we will have a fictional murder story, a very different kind of murder circumstances than the WM3 story. It takes place in Pennsylvania. But the hero… [Starts to laugh.] The main character is a documentary maker who goes to uncover corruption and injustice. It’s being written by Margaret Nagle, who is a very fine writer who I really admire, and I’m looking forward to kind of exercising that muscle in my brain.
And, of course, I’m working on a couple of long-form documentaries whose subjects…well, for my own good, these are subjects that I’m going to keep to myself. [Laughs.] Until they’re done, anyway.
NRI: What’s the status of the Clive Barker documentary you’ve been working on (Raising Hell: The Visions of Clive Barker)?
JB: It’s kind of stuck in a lack of financing. I should actually take that off of my IMDb page. [Laughs.] Because I’ve shot a great deal of it, but I just have not been able to get it financed, so…it’s something that I will eventually complete, but it’s kind of in limbo right now, to be completely honest.
JB: Um…I have. I have, but, y’know, I don’t think you can raise enough on Kickstarter to really… [Hesitates.] But you never know, I guess.
NRI: Hey, it’s not like Clive Barker doesn’t have a rabid fanbase.
JB: Yeah, y’know, you’re right. Maybe I should do that. Actually, I haven’t used Kickstarter very much. The only thing I’ve used Kickstarter for, and it was an amazing success, was…I don’t know if you know that part of my history, too, is that big lawsuit with Chevron over my movie Crude. The legal fees were killing me, and that was one of the ways that we raised money, although it was a drop in the bucket relative to the total amount. But that was when Kickstarter was first happening, so we did a First Amendment Fund supporting me in my First Amendment battle, and…people were really not getting anything out of it other than helping me fight this horribly costly and emotionally draining situation, but we raised quite a bit of money on Kickstarter. I think at the time we were the highest Kickstarter campaign to date. I mean, we have since been eclipsed, but…
Yeah, you’re right. You know what? That’s a good idea. I just haven’t thought about Kickstarter because…I know people are doing it, but I just feel weird about taking money in that way when there’s no real…I don’t know, I just can’t wrap my head around it. I felt funny about it for my First Amendment thing, but at that point I was really desperately looking to finance that lawsuit. I don’t know, it just feels strange to me that people would fund something that they don’t really get anything out of. But now that you’ve mentioned it…? That’s a very interesting idea…