Don't blame me, I'm only the director

Blair Witch 2 has been panned by the critics. What made Joe Berlinger gave up a reputable career in documentaries to make it? He tells Fiona Morrow it wasn't just the money
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The Independent Online

Joe Berlinger comes across as something of an obsessive. This compact, 38-year-old New Yorker dressed in layers of different shades of grey, has decided to treat our meeting as, if not a lecture, then at least a tutorial. My questions are apparently not part of the plan.

Joe Berlinger comes across as something of an obsessive. This compact, 38-year-old New Yorker dressed in layers of different shades of grey, has decided to treat our meeting as, if not a lecture, then at least a tutorial. My questions are apparently not part of the plan.

For the first 10 minutes I give him free reign; I figure he's jet-lagged, possibly nervous and, anyway, he might take things down an unexpected and more interesting direction. It soon becomes clear, however, that this is a pre-rehearsed speech, memorised - punctuation included - and delivered in an attention-losing, soporific, nasal monotone. I decide to rouse myself before I become completely stupefied.

But breaking into Berlinger's syntax is a daunting task, not least because for practically the entire hour I am with him, he stares fixedly at the floor between his feet; he notes my interruptions with ill-concealed frustration, furrows his brow, recalls his lines and ploughs on with Blair Witch 2: The Defence.

And, it has to be said, you don't really blame him; he's begun his feature film career with something of a poisoned chalice. The sequel to the super-hyped, super-phenomenon, fake-documentary horror flick, The Blair Witch Project, was always going to be a test and, I'm afraid, Berlinger has flunked out.

It all sounded so promising: Joe Berlinger, the much-fêted documentary film-maker had an impressive CV. Most notably, his Paradise Lost films had followed the trials of three teenagers accused of the torture and mutilation of three small boys, uncovering in the process a society obsessed with appearance and conformity. The teens dressed in black, listened to Metallica and were interested in the paraphernalia of the occult - all the evidence their neighbours needed to believe them killers.

There's no doubt that Berlinger was an interesting choice for Blair Witch 2, the irony of a documentarian (accused by many of getting too close to his subjects) following up a fake documentary, intriguing enough in itself. But while Book of Shadows grapples with a myriad themes, it is entirely in vain, and having written the script as well as directing it, Berlinger must take the blame.

He tells me that the film chose him, rather than the other way around, that he had for a long time been frustrated at the apparent ease with which his fellow documentary-makers had made the transition into fiction, always imagining his own first feature as a small affair, opening on a handful of screens and working its way up.

"So," he tells me in one of his few light asides, "I sort of jumped out the window and hoped there was a mattress the other side to catch me." He pauses, then adds: "As I still hope."

He was anxious not to simply remake the original: "I decided that in order to do this movie I would make it my own, and connect it to my documentary roots, but not in the obvious way.

"The obvious way would have been to run around the woods, shake the camera and make a fake documentary, and I felt that would have been creatively uninteresting both for the audience and for me, and so I chose to deal in the kind of social analysis that I had tried to achieve in my documentaries, all the while delivering the commercial horror thriller which the audience expects. Whether people are ready for such a complex approach, I don't know."

Berlinger insists this two-pronged attack was key, and he refers to it endlessly - mantra-like - citing it as his great achievement, but there is something desperate in the repetition. And I can't tell if it's me or himself he's trying to convince.

It isn't the premise of the movie that's at fault. Berlinger strove to engender a debate about the nature of truth and reality, and, in so doing, question people's faith in the veracity of videotape footage: "I could understand people being hoodwinked about Blair Witch being real going into the theatre," he explains. "But coming out, many people in America still thought it was real, or, at the very least, they thought the legend must somehow be true. And tens of thousands of people turned up in Burkettsville, overrunning the town, attempting to make a connection.

"Not only was it not real but there wasn't even a legend of Blair Witch in Burkettsville - it was totally invented by the film-makers, and the more the townspeople protested, the more they tried to tell the truth, the more people felt the town was hiding something sinister. The blurring of the line between entertainment and reality has become so enmeshed it is dangerous."

If he would pause for breath long enough, I'd suggest that perhaps he should have made an interesting documentary about it, fact following fiction for a change. Instead I wait for him to take a mouthful of mineral water, which he intermittently chugs straight from the bottle, and ask why he was so keen to leave the documentary world behind.

His brow scrunches up once again and he clears his throat: "To me, moving into features is not considering documentary as a stepping-stone, it's just part of the grander palette that I want to work in. I don't think I'll ever abandon making documentaries, but frankly in America there's such a lack of appreciation for non-fiction work, that it's also a practical matter. I have two young children who need to go to college, and it's just more financially rewarding."

As he returns to his half-finished sentence pre-refreshment break, I'm determined to throw him off-message. Is it a problem, I ask belligerently, to be making slasher flicks when you have small children?

It works. He looks up, unquestionably startled: "My wife and I take our parenting responsibilities very seriously," he answers tentatively. "My children aren't just glued to the television set - we spend a lot of time with them. We try to teach them the right values, and when my daughter is around 15 or 16, she could probably start watching my movies and have no problem, because of how I've raised her. She comes from a loving home, where my wife and I don't argue in front of the children - there's a lot we do which is very positive and counters the negative stuff our children receive from society.

"Do I think there should be censorship? Absolutely not. Do I think producers ought to be more responsible? Of course, but in a self-regulating way. Do I think eliminating violence in the media is going to end disaffected youth having a Columbine-type of situation? Absolutely not."

I marvel at the change in his delivery: he is impassioned and enthused and venting his spleen.

"We live in a country where you can walk into any Wal-Mart and the gun department, in certain parts of the country, is the biggest department in the store. When I was making Paradise Lost in Arkansas, I was shocked to discover their huge gun section. I said to the clerk, 'I can buy a gun without a permit?' 'Yes sir.' 'I can buy bullets too?' 'Yes sir. But we just have one rule: if you buy the gun and the bullets at the same time, we walk you to the front of the store.'

"Kids are disaffected. We have broken homes, working couples, latch-key kids - the list goes on. So to say movies cause violence is just a Band-aid attempt by politicians to fix a bigger problem."

Such talk might sound more paternalistic than liberal, but Berlinger says he has good reason to be protective. "I've spent a lot of time in the woods searching for real boogie men and looking at autopsy photographs of mutilated children and the most horrific crimes you could ever imagine. And I have talked eye-to-eye with the real killer, whom I believe is on screen in Paradise Lost. To me the real evil is what human beings are capable of doing to one another - the paedophile priest, the truck-driving serial killer - that to me is evil. And that's what scares me about my daughter's future."

I catch Paradise Lost on cable a few nights later and am overwhelmed by the bleak ferocity at its core, scarcely able to recognise this work as from the same director as the anodyne, formulaic Blair Witch 2. For a real examination of the darkness at the heart of American society, don't go to the movies tonight, watch Paradise Lost.

 

'Blair Witch 2' is released 27 October.

'Paradise Lost' screens on FilmFour 28 October at 1.50am

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