Interview: Amy Berg Transitions Into Dramatic Fare with Every Secret Thing

ON talks with director Amy Berg (West of Memphis) about her foray into dramatic films with Every Secret Thing.

Director Amy Berg had already established herself as a high-caliber documentary filmmaker with the Oscar-nominated Deliver Us from Evil and its follow-up West of Memphis, when she decided a few years back to tackle a narrative film. Executive produced by Frances McDormand, Every Secret Thing seems like something that could be based on a true story, which may have partially been why Berg was interested in directing it, but in fact, it’s been adapted from a fiction novel by Laura Lippman,

The story involves a missing toddler, a case that points to teenagers Ronnie and Alice (Dakota Fanning, Danielle Macdonald), who years earlier were convicted and put into juvenile detention for the similar crime of kidnapping a baby. As the lead detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks) and her partner (Nate Parker) try to find the missing girl, signs seem to point to Alice’s treatment as a child by her neglectful mother (Diane Lane) to her behavior. got on the phone with Ms. Berg last week to talk about her latest film and find out what’s going on with some of her most recent docs that have played the festival circuit since Every Secret Thing premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Last time we spoke was for “West of Memphis,” which I know you spent a bunch of years on, but you’ve been fairly prolific since then between this movie and the two docs. Did you just end up with more free time after finishing that?

Amy Berg: Doing multiple projects is not the ideal but things have started piling up I guess, so now I’m stepping back and trying to schedule myself better but you can never really plan when the finances come in (chuckles).

CS: Was “Every Secret Thing” something that Frances McDormand and the other producer had been developing for a while before you came on board?

Berg: Not that long. To be honest, when I signed on and Diane (Lane) had expressed interest earlier, and we met and she decided to go ahead with it. It went pretty quickly from there. I think from the time I signed on to when we were shooting was less than a year. 

CS: Had you been looking for something to do in the more dramatic narrative world? You’d done these two acclaimed docs and a lot of documentary filmmakers do make the transition to narratives or bounce back and forth. Had you wanted to do something like that for a while?

Berg: Yeah, there were many discussions. I didn’t really find anything that I loved until this script, so I waited for the right thing and it was really interesting to me, because it has so many themes that I’ve explored in my documentaries. I feel like it all came together.

CS: When I first saw it, I didn’t know much about it, and I really though it was based on a true story and just assumed that, because it seems like something that could have really happened. Did that add to your interest in it?

Berg: Absolutely. It felt very influenced by truth, and I think that was definitely interested me about it.

CS: Once you came on board—and you mentioned Diane Lane was already interested in her role—but had anyone else been cast at that point? How did you go about casting the movie, especially Danielle McCarthy, who is quite an amazing find?

Berg: The casting process was interesting. I met with a lot of people and the cast that we have, those were the people that we wanted. They did a great job. They were all so passionate about the script and it was a very low budget and a very limited schedule but we were able to make it happen.

amy bergCS: How did you go about finding Danielle? Was that an open casting call or was she recommended by someone?

Berg: Yeah, our casting director knew her and my friend Ellen Page actually mentioned her because they worked together in “The East” and so I heard about her twice and then I met with her and it’s random that we got together.

CS: Once you had the cast, did you get to do a lot of rehearsals or table reads to build their chemistry?

Berg: It was less about table reads and more about really in-depth discussions about the characters and through the scenes, what we knew about these characters, so that they all showed up on set and just did their thing. They really all knew these characters so well.

CS: The movie’s interesting because there’s a pretty significant portion of this that takes place in the past with different actors and then it goes to the present, and while I would think it would focus solely on the two girls, we do spend a lot of time with Elizabeth Banks’ and Diane Lane’s character as well. I was curious about balancing the character and viewpoints while deciding how to film.

Berg: That made it a huge challenge for me and the script was definitely written to really emphasize Elizabeth Banks’ personal life and her struggles to try to figure out if she wanted to be a parent and that couldn’t play in tandem with the story that we had or with the tone we had. I found that the dynamic between Danielle’s character and her mother and Ronnie was the most provocative and interesting thing to dig into so that ended up taking (up the focus of the movie).

CS: I’m always surprised when I see Elizabeth doing dramatic work because she’s always very good even though she’s also very funny. What made you think of her for that role of the detective?

Berg: Well, I think she brings levity to it even though she’s not being funny, and I think for me that was really important that character offered something to lighten up the mood of the film. I saw her in Paul Haggis’ “The Next Three Days,” and I thought she was amazing in that film and when I saw that, I really wanted to meet her and she liked the part, so it all just went from there.

CS: What was the most challenging thing about transitioning to narrative films besides working with actors? Any that you weren’t expecting?

Berg: Yeah, there are a lot of challenges. Doing a documentary, you follow the story until you think you have it and then you go in and create the story in the edit bay, and in a narrative you have to follow the script. You’re shooting things out of order and the expectations are different. It was equally challenging and I learned a lot for sure but we made it work the best we could with the really short schedule.

CS: With documentaries, it’s usually obvious what a filmmaker wants the viewer to get out of them but with “Every Secret Thing” it’s different because it’s fiction and people can get different things out of it. So what would you hope people get out of seeing it?

Berg: I would hope that people look at parenting differently, because I think that often Diane Lane’s character is such a great example of what not to do, but you can’t dictate what kind of child you’re going to have and what their needs might be, and I think it’s really important to listen to our children and try to let them lead us where they need to go instead of trying to make them into who we think they should be.

CS: Do you have any thoughts on what might happen to Alice after this movie’s over? Did you work at all with Laura Lippman who wrote the book?
Yeah, a little bit and she came on set one time, and she gave me the space to make the film, as did everyone. What happens afterwards? Good question. I mean, Alice is out there. She’s marching around doing her thing and we know who she is now so it’s kind of a scary thought to think of Alice walking around in the community.

CS: Did you enjoy the experience enough to go back and forth and do more narratives when you can?

Berg: Yeah, I’m working on a narrative now. I’m writing it myself, and I definitely want to do both. I feel like they compliment each other nicely and creatively I love both.

CS: As a director, it’s different trying to develop your own material rather than coming onto someone else’s project. Is that a direction in which you see yourself going, developing your own films rather than being a director for hire?

Berg: The one I’m working on now, is I’m adapting a book that somebody else optioned, but I’m working with three female producers and it’s about a female protagonist so I’m really excited about that. It’s about a female survivor of Jonestown, and I think that for me writing the script is a good idea for this next one.

amybergeverysecretthing3CS: I’m bummed I missed “An Open Secret” at DOC-NYC, because I got the impression that no distributor wants to touch it due to the subject matter. 

Berg: It’s coming out. They’re distributing it independently starting in late June, so you’ll be hearing about it again. I think the producers are distributing it with an independent company. 

CS: Obviously, the movie has to get it out there and people need to know about it, but did the producers get a lot of friction from distributors?

Berg: No, that didn’t happen, but it will have a life.

CS: What about “Prophet’s Prey,” the doc that premiered at Sundance?

Berg: That will be coming out. I have four films coming out this year. It’s hilarious. It’s not like I’ve been working on all of these for the past year. I’ve been working on them at different times over the past four years, but for some reason, they’re all coming out. It’s funny. So “Prophet’s Prey” comes out in September in theaters and then it goes on Showtime in October, and I have a Janis Joplin film that I’m finishing that should be going to festivals later this year. 

CS: How did that come about? Was she someone you were interested in and pursued the rights?

Berg: Seven years ago, I met with her family and we’ve been trying to get it off the ground ever since. We’ve been working on it on and off for the last seven years, but we’re at the final stage of editing right now.

 CS: I’m glad to hear that Janis Joplin is starting to get more interest because I know people have been trying to make movies about her for years with no luck.

Berg: Yeah, it’s so great. I’m so happy because she’s such an important female to women all over.

CS: It’s been a while since “West of Memphis” so are you working on all these films over this time and they’re done when they’re done and they just end up coming out around the same time?

Berg: And also when I did “West of Memphis,” that was the only thing I did for three and a half years and it was amazing and an experience I would never trade. Since then, I’ve been attached to different things and when they go, they go, and so they’ve sort of gone in order. Some things take a front seat at a certain point and then I need a break. It’s part of being a documentary filmmaker is being able to pick things up and put them down.

Every Secret Thing opens in select cities on Friday, May 15 as well as on iTunes, Amazon and other On Demand outlets.

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