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DVDTalk Interview My Brother's Keeper - Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
by Phillip Duncan

My Brother's Keeper

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are two filmmakers that when working together, they have become known for their narrative documentary style. They first drew attention at Sundance in 1992 with "Brother's Keeper," which went on to win the Audience Award. Their later films together, "Paradise Lost" and "Revelations: Paradise Lost 2" earned them equal praise while thrusting them further into the spotlight. On the 10th Anniversary of their first collaboration together, Docurama has released a DVD of "Brother's Keeper" and DVDTalk writer Phillip Duncan had a chance to ask them about the Ward Brothers, their feelings toward authority and upcoming film with Metallica.

How did you first hear about the Ward Brothers and their case?

Joe BerlingerBruce: Joe, why don’t you start.
Joe: Well, there was just a little article in the New York Times talking about this man who had just been arrested for the murder of his brother and the town thought he was interesting and at the time, Bruce and I had just completed a short film and were looking to make a non-fiction feature film in the tradition of Penny Baker and the Maysles Brothers, a non-fiction feature film where you follow the story in the present tense and fuse it with all the drama of a feature film. We had been looking for a story for about a year because we knew since we had no credentials we would have to pay for the film ourselves, so we were waiting for the right story and this leapt out at us. We both saw it in the New York Times and when we saw each other at the office that day we said “hey, this is the film we’re going to make” and we just…
Bruce: …went for broke!
Joe: Credit cards and the whole nine yards. A rags to rags…rags to respectability story. I wouldn’t say rags to riches.
Bruce: Rags to cheesecloth. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-214K)

Do you feel it’s difficult to pull performances out of unwilling participants, or is just the opposite true, and they sometimes want to perform too much?

Bruce SinofskyBruce: It really depends on the person. What Joe and I do, and certainly did with the Ward brothers, is spend a lot of time with before we take the cameras out. I think Joe and I spent four or 5 weekends up there just doing chores with them, hanging out, laying on the lawn, swatting flies most of the time and I think Joe and realized there was a certain time they were ready to be filmed, because they got used to us. There was a trust. We trusted them. They trusted us, and these guys were innocents, not a question of innocence or guilt. They were innocents that didn’t understand the predicament they were in and just went about their daily life. So when we started filming I don’t think they ever performed. I never felt there was a sense of performance from any of the Ward Brothers, which was critical to us. Yeah, sometime there are people that want to perform. I have to say to Joe, you remember there were six or seven people who were constantly coming up to us wanting to be filmed for the film and those were the people, the exact people, that we didn’t want to film because it was a fact that we didn’t want to deal with them.
Joe: When we say we want to infuse a non-fiction film or documentary with drama, it doesn’t mean treating the subjects as actors. We still have to be observers of real life and can’t change real life or tell people what to do or to put words into their mouths. Infusing a documentary with drama means first of all having the faith to pick a story that does not have an end yet. Most documentaries are retrospective looks back at some thing that happened already. It’s a lot harder to film about something in the present tense, to make a cinema verite film that follows events as they are unfolding and have faith that it will turn into a film. So, picking the right subject is one way of infusing drama or dramatic structure into a film. Another way is our editing style. Again, we don’t tell people what to say or what to do, but once we’re in the editing room we do things that feel feature-film-like, like infusing the film with an original music score. That’s not something a traditional documentary would do, or to have a certain shooting style, a certain visual style or a certain editorial style. So we want the film to unfold like a piece of fiction, but to be even more interesting because it’s real. I guess a literary comparison would be the non-fiction novel. Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” was a real story, but he applied a certain writing style so it was very novelistic, but also very journalistic. Our films are the equivalent of that. They’re very novelistic, but obviously we have certain rules of journalism that we need to stick to. We don’t manipulate chronology, we don’t tell people what to say and we don’t make events up. But there’s a way of framing that material so that it has a more literary quality to it. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-547K)

Delbert with the cows

Do you find yourselves wanting to choose sides in projects such as this and “Paradise Lost?”

Bruce: That’s a good question, because it is difficult. For example, on “Paradise Lost” which we’ll just briefly mention that, there were six families, three whose children were killed and three whose children were accused. One day you would literally be at a barbecue for one of the accused young men and in the morning you would have found yourself in church with one of the other families. It became very difficult and it was probably a little hard for the families to see us talking cordially to both sides and I think Joe and did in calming the down and making them safe with us and that a trust was there is that we never shared information that they said to us about their child and vice-versa. We weren’t gossips and I think they really respected that. In “Brother’s Keeper,” personally Delbert probably did kill his brother, but not for the reasons that one might think. I think that if it was a mercy killing, it was a very valiant thing to do. I just wanted Delbert to go home. I just wanted him to be on his farm, hang out with his cows and his brothers and continue with his life. There was no likelihood that he was going to kill anybody else. So, I never thought of it as murder. I rooted for him to be innocent, of course.

It’s clear that they (law enforcement) took advantage of his situation and education, or lack thereof.

Bruce: One of the funniest things that wasn’t in the film, Harry Thurston, out John Wayne character in the film, he said to us one time when we were at a diner or something and talking “you know, if they had told Delbert to go into this bar everyday and stand there, for five years, he would have done it.” It wasn’t like he was a danger to anybody and that’s what we always couldn’t understand why Don Fario, the prosecutor, was so almost vicious at times about this poor guy. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-363K)

There seems to be a thread of distrust for the media and authority that runs through your work.

Bruce: Yeah, we don’t trust you at all.

Is that purposeful or is it something interests you and brings you into that subject?

Joe: Mistrust of the media, I wouldn’t say that. We like to critique the media and we are part of that critique ourselves. We’re always throwing up signposts to the viewer saying, hey, what you’re watching, what’s the truth, where are the biases, where are the perspectives. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-93K)

Sitting with the filmmakers

Right, not necessarily mistrust, but don’t believe everything you see.

Joe: Mistrust of authority for sure. We’ve seen the worst. Not every investigator is bad and not every prosecutor is out for his own record and a notch on his belt, clearly, but we’ve seen many of those. We’re very vigilant about stories about abuses in the criminal justice system. The media, first of all, since we don’t like to have narration in our films, structurally we like using media to help us tell the story. But we also like to demonstrate how black and white the media, by its very nature, has to be in presenting the story when in fact situations are much more gray in real life and they’re not always the way they’re presented. When you’re feeding that machine each night for the daily news or the evening’s broadcast, a journalist just by nature of the job they’re doing can’t go into the shades of gray. For example, Delbert was presented by the media as an innocent guy being railroaded. The truth was a lot deeper than that. He was an innocent. He was an innocent kind of person who lived a brutal, survivalistic lifestyle. It’s hard for us to judge him and should he have been brought into the court system? That’s the question of the film. He probably did kill his brother, but that’s not the story the media was selling and likewise in “Paradise Lost” it was much easier and more profitable to just treat Damien and the other two as satanic killers, because that was a sexier story. The truth was much more complex and deeper and those local journalists did not do their jobs. There are great journalists, so it’s not like a universal statement that the media sucks and prosecutors are bad, but it is something we’re always looking to critique. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-387K)

You mention being able to follow a story from beginning to end and that seems like a process that would make it more difficult to put together in the end. Specifically I’m referring to a scene in “The Wards Take Manhattan” where you have a bookcase of footage.

Bruce: The thing is, Joe and I love editing. We love being in the editing room and we love hammering out our story. You know when we’re film, when we’re out there on the road in Munnsville, shooting “Brother’s Keeper” we talk about what we got that day. We’d go back to John Peeple’s cabin where we stay and we’d say, “what did we get today. What storyline did we get material for that continues that story? What’s something they said that we might want to go back to it in a couple of day because they address something or Harry talked about something and he wasn’t really ready to talk about it then, when can we go get that. We get all this material. We go back to the editing room and since we lived it, it’s almost like we’re sponges and we squeeze all the water out of the sponge in the editing room. We’re able to take that experience, because it’s our experience. We don’t tell people that what we do is the absolute truth. It’s what Joe and I saw, a reflection of what Joe and I saw for that year that we were up in Munnsville. Then we get all the stuff and cut it. For something like “The Ward Brothers Take Manhattan,” you know Rosco had invited us to come back when the leaves were green and visit and they came and visited us and we thought this might be a great ending for the film. In fact, we were going to shoot them for two days, but after the first day we realized that the end that we had already thought about, them on tractors, going back to their home was far better. In some ways, people might say we were making fun of them, which we certainly weren’t. We screened it once together and said that one day when we do a longer version, in those days you weren’t thinking about DVDs in 1990. As it turned out we always had it in our hip pocket.
Joe: We actually thought we’d make a short film and have it be broadcast. We’ve just been too busy for the past decade, but it was always talked about. Whenever it would get slow we would say let’s make the Wards in Manhattan.
Bruce: You’ve got to remember that “Brother’s Keeper” was still in theatrical release in June of 1993 when we discovered the story for “Paradise Lost.” They literally dovetailed into each other and you go on to another project and put a different hat on. There was obviously a big difference between “Brother’s Keeper” and “Paradise Lost” in that we never got back to it until we had a chance to do the DVD version of “Brother’s Keeper” which we’re thrilled about. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-457K)

The surviving Ward brothers - 1992

You guys obviously work well together; do you jointly have anything coming up?

Joe: Well our big project for the past two and one-half years is a big film about Metallica.

That’s mentioned in the commentary on the “Brother’s Keeper” DVD.

Joe: It’s been two and one-half years in the making and I can say that I think it’s going to be one of the greatest Rock N’ Roll films ever made. I know that sounds really egotistical, because it’s not a concert film, it’s not a backstage, dime-a-dozen, let’s go on tour with a rock group, it’s two and one-half years of really intimate hanging out with the band through their near disintegration. They allowed us to film their group therapy sessions. They hired a therapist to help the deal with interpersonal issues and how to deal with being a rock star.
Bruce: After 20-years they said they didn’t know each other, which is amazing.
Joe: They just gave us total access and the band, on film, nearly disintegrated. One of the guys went into rehab, another guy quit the band and there was period where we thought this was a film about the disintegration of a band but they got their shit together and made an album we filmed the making of and right now destroying the world with this incredible, sold out tour.
Bruce: They’re resurrected. They’re huge and back flexing their muscles.
Joe: You get the backstage stuff. You get the music stuff. Blah, blah blah. That’s not the purpose, the heart and soul of the film. The heart and soul of the film are creative artists trying to work out their issues and trying to make it happen and figure out what went wrong in the past. It’s a very personal, very interesting film we couldn’t be more excited about.
Bruce: I feel as strongly about this film as I have anything we’ve done. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-370K)

Did this relationship with them stem from using their music in your other films (Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost: revisited)?

Both: Yeah.
Joe: We had no relationship with them and we just sent over a fax just trying to get permission to use their music in “Paradise Lost” in ’95. I guess we sent the fax over and they immediately responded because strangely enough they had been fans of “Brother’s Keeper.” We had a meeting and they couldn’t have been more gracious about giving us the music and from that point on we had a friendship. You know, about once a year we’d talk about doing a film and either they weren’t ready when we wanted to do it or vice-versa.
Bruce: As it turns out, if we had done it back in ’97 or ’98, it would have been shit.
Joe: Yeah. So finally it seemed like the right time to do it from a schedule standpoint and then it just became this unbelievable because…
Bruce: Everything was at the crossroads. Jason left the band. James goes into rehab. Dealing with Napster and just a huge array of issues. We were literally there from day one. We’ve shot about 130 days, probably about 1200 hours of material. So it’s been an exhausting project. Imagine going from 1200 hours to, right now, we’ve got four. So that means 1196 hours of good stuff wasn’t good enough to be in the film. Ultimately I think it will make a very tight, two and one-half hour movie that will just blow people away. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-284K)

It will also make a very large DVD.

Bruce: I certainly hope so. The very nice thing about it--we’re going to have a theatrical release with it first, probably about next March—there is a legion of Metallica fans who will come out and see this film and then we believe honestly people who like good stories, because it’s about these men and their lives, will go and see a film we made because they might have been fans of “Paradise Lost” or “Brother’s Keeper” or just fans who like good stories. So we think it will go beyond the casual Metallica listener, which is essential, because we didn’t make this film for metal-heads, we made it for anybody.
Joe: That’s what’s exciting too. I don’t think we’ve ever had this opportunity to reach such a wide audience. We just came back from their European tour and every city we went to, there were 80,000 screaming people who would cut off their arm for this band. We know there are millions of people around the world who would watch this film, even if it were just a blank piece of celluloid that said Metallica on it. What’s cool to us is we’re going to get those kinds of people, but because of our reputation and because of…
Bruce: Good Storytelling.
Joe: Because of the publicity this film is going to get and because of those Metallica fans, regular film people are going to give it a shot and I think they’re going to be very surprised. It fits right into our, many of our films can be boiled down to the idea of exploding stereotypes. “Brother’s Keeper,” the first 20-minutes of that film, most people are probably laughing at these guys, thinking how ridiculous it is to have to change their clothes, but by the end of the film you love them. You come to know them and accept them for who they are, which is the experience that Bruce and I had. “Paradise Lost” is totally about stereotypes. These kids were rounded up because they wore black T-shirts and listened to Metallica. We tell people we’ve been spending two and one-half years making a film about Metallica, the images it conjures up in people’s minds, I’m sure, is drinking, partying, these guys can’t be bright, they don’t work very hard and blah, blah. The exact opposite is what people are going to learn. They’re incredibly interesting people, sensitive people, nice, talented, hard working and plagued by the same things that every one is plagued with. Confidence, bad childhood, childhood issues… I think people are going to be blown away by this portrait. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-445K)

Any more DVD releases coming? Specifically speaking about “Paradise Lost.”

Joe: Well, we’re trying. I’ve been locked into a battle. Battle, that’s not a fair word.
Bruce: Conversation.
Joe: I’ve been locked into a two and one-half year conversation with Artisan about trying to get them to release it and I don’t quite know why they’re not. The film came out on Cabin Fever label as a VHS. Cabin Fever was bought by Hallmark and Hallmark has a deal with Artisan, so Artisan inherited this film and for some reason…
Bruce: Joe, don’t you think that when the USA project and the theatrical film come out that they’re going to want to release it.

I would assume.

Joe:That’s what I’m trying to get them to do.
Bruce: We’d love it. It’s not because we’re going to make any more money. We love the idea of people rediscovering…
Joe: We won’t make ay more money because we don’t own..
Bruce: That’s right, we won’t make any more money, so we don’t’ have any vested interest in seeing released that besides liking to have it so you can mail it to your friends. So, the bottom line is the more people that see “Brother’s Keeper,” which is great, because it’s a great story, but for also Damien, Jason and Jesse, who I believe are in jail incorrectly. Our hope is that anytime somebody watches that film that they become involved and that maybe someday, true justice will be found. To us, it’s great. I’d love it if they’d put it out again. I hope these movies get made and I hope that someday Damien’s not sitting in an 8’ x 8’ cell. Hear the Audio Hear the Response... (mp3-273K)

     

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