“It’s About Listening:” Amy Berg Enters Narrative Filmmaking with Every Secret Thing

Academy Award-nominated director Amy Berg’s new feature, Every Secret Thing centers around two young girls who kidnap and kill the infant granddaughter of the first African-American judge of the town.

Fast-forward seven years, and the girls, Ronnie Fuller and Alice Manning (played by Dakota Fanning and Danielle Macdonald, respectively), are released from juvenile hall—only to be suspected of kidnapping a missing bi-racial child. Both girls sustain a deceptive and troubling plea of innocence, accusing the other of foul play.

Based on Laura Lippman’s crime novel of the same name, adapted for the screen by acclaimed writer-director Nicole Holofcener, and produced by the actress Frances McDormand, Every Secret Thing marks an important departure for Berg. The moviemaker’s filmography (including Deliver Us From Evil, West of Memphis, the upcoming Prophet’s Prey and controversial Hollywood sex abuse investigation An Open Secret) established her reputation as a documentary director, before she entered into the narrative form with this film.

A talent with the courage and ability to tackle big subjects—religious indoctrination, sexual assault, the limits of the American justice system—and juggle multiple films at once, Berg continues to expand her gaze into new territory without losing emotional nuance. As she explains to us, because fiction may not have the same high stakes as documentary filmmaking, the challenge of making it feel “real” can be even greater. She attempts this in Every Secret Thing with the help of a starry cast, which, besides Fanning and Macdonald, includes Elizabeth Banks, Diane Lane, Nate Parker and Common.

Diane Lane and Danielle Macdonald in Every Secret Thing

Diane Lane and Danielle Macdonald as Helen and Alice Manning in Every Secret Thing

Janet Le, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What made you decide to direct a narrative feature now?

Amy Berg (AB): I got into documentary because of my love for independent narrative features, and I was just really looking for the right one. I read the script for Every Secret Thing and fell in love with it, the project, and all the people—the producers that were involved—and it just seemed like the right time. I don’t feel like there was a transition; I feel like I’m doing both. I want to continue to make docs and features.

MM: Every Secret Thing surrounds its characters with darkness, and they become vehicles for a social commentary that touches on issues of race, gender, class, and body image. How did you choose to highlight these themes?

AB: This script had all of those themes already from the book. These characters are so interesting on the page in Laura Lippman’s book, so I really liked the idea that I could deal with all of those things in one story. When you already have all those layers, it’s just a matter of where you go first. The connection between documentaries and the narrative feature script is that these people felt real to me, and I think that comes from Laura Lippman having a journalistic background.

MM: Besides the script, how did you develop the “realness” of these characters in your directing?

AB: I have to give a lot of credit to the actors. I spent a lot of time talking to most of the actors before we started, so they really could just get a good beat on who their characters were, where they came from, and how to translate that through these scenes.

Elizabeth Banks and Nate Parker as the detectives who suspect Fuller and Manning of homicide

Elizabeth Banks and Nate Parker as the detectives who suspect Fuller and Manning of homicide

MM: Did you have a particularly favorite scene to shoot?

AB: A scene that stands out to me is when Nate Parker and Elizabeth Banks (playing detectives) come into the house of the mother and father of the missing child, played by Sarah Sokolovic and Common. The tension between these two men felt very real. Nate, Common, and I talked about what that’s like when there’s a black man in the house, and a black officer comes in—it’s always very territorial. So that scene got really intense, and it was just one great scene in the film.

MM: What were the challenges of adapting a novel into a thriller?

AB: The whole movie versus book thing: in the film you want to show not tell, and in the book you can tell everything. There’s a balance when you’re doing a thriller; you have to share certain details to keep the audience on track with you. It was definitely challenging to do that in a way that didn’t feel expositional while also keeping the film interesting and moving. The very short schedule—we were shooting seven scenes a day—and low budget made it difficult too; we just had to make it work.

MM: The film is a great showcase of female talent. Can you tell me a little about working with your collaborators?

AB: Yeah, we had a lot of strong women. We had the producer Frances McDormand, who was so intuitive and had a strong viewpoint. Diane Lane and Elizabeth Banks were great in their scenes. The ratio of women to men was definitely in our favor, and it was so great, because these women are playing against type. I think all these actresses really just enjoyed that opportunity. If you look at the makeup, wardrobe and hair, we went very simple and restrained. We’re not trying to make these women look beautiful; we’re trying to make them look real.

MM: You yourself are a strong female voice in the industry. What are you most proud of achieving throughout your career?

AB: Something that I am most proud of in my career is West of Memphis, because it was a real-life experience. [The film explores the police investigation and trials of three teenagers—Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley—who were wrongfully convicted of murdering three young boys in 1993.] The investigation that Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Lorri Davis and I worked on changed the course of these guys’ futures. I was there to watch Damien, Jason, and Jessie walk out of prison. That was just one of those things I don’t think I can ever replace with any other experience in life.

You don’t think about being a “female filmmaker” until you’re speaking with a journalist—though it’s a big term and it’s really important. But I don’t feel like a female filmmaker the rest of the time—I just feel like I’m doing what I want to do. I’m creative. I’m working on things that can impose change in the world, and I’m helping people tell their stories. This sounds arrogant but I don’t mean it to be—I’m just enjoying the process. It doesn’t have to do with gender, but I do think that females are more sensitive and nurturing by nature in general, and that’s something that really does come across in our films. We have a bit of a softer style, a softer touch—so I think you really do notice the difference in the storytelling. Even on a big budget film, when it’s a female directing, I think you just get a different viewpoint, and that’s great. Audiences deserve that. So the more we can promote this message, the better it is for females in film.

Fanning as Ronnie Fuller

Dakota Fanning as the troubled Ronnie Fuller in Every Secret Thing

MM: What do you look for the most in the narrative of a work of fiction in order to make the film adaptation?

AB: It has to really hold you, especially when you’re dealing with true crime. There has to be enough there to get you through the pages so that you can translate that onto screen. With a documentary, the story is on the subject, and you follow the story through this subject.

MM: Talk about the link between true crime and documentary.

AB: The standard for true crime is rising. You really have to be right, just like a documentary. With true crime, it’s always a psychological thriller focused on who did it and why they did it, so you really have to know these characters.

MM: Finally, what’s your “secret thing” when it comes to making any film?

AB: It’s listening. I really like observing and absorbing rather than imposing directly. That’s what I like about documentaries—to catch things when you’re in a room and it’s not expected. It’s really all about listening. MM

Every Secret Thing opens in theaters May 15, 2015, courtesy of Starz Digital. All images courtesy of Starz Digital.

 

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