- Friday, Sep. 7, 2012
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- LOS ANGELES
It's been an eventful awards season for director Joe Berlinger capped by three Emmy Award nominations for two of his documentaries: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (which he and Bruce Sinofsky directed) in the categories of Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking, and Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming; and Paul Simon's Graceland Journey: Under African Skies for Outstanding Nonfiction Special (with Berlinger as the sole director).
Earlier this year, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory earned an Oscar nomination for Best Feature Documentary and a DGA Award nom for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary.
While the flurry of industry recognition is gratifying, it pales by comparison to the far deeper fulfillment this work gave Berlinger on two major fronts. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the third documentary in a trilogy addressing the case of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. who were arrested in 1993 for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, and found guilty, with Baldwin and Misskelley sentenced to life in prison and Echols landing on death row. Berlinger and Sinofsky embarked on the first documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills nearly two decades ago, originally intending to chronicle the story of three teenagers gone bad with the committing of a heinous crime. Instead the film--which won an Emmy in '97 for Outstanding Achievement in Informational Programming--cast doubt on the verdict and was instrumental in marshalling support for the teens as wrongfully convicted. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, an Emmy nominee in 2000, was a vehicle for further advocacy on behalf of the convicted trio, with Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory uncovering additional inconsistencies in the prosecution's case and then including a final modification after Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly--having served 18 years in prison--were set free last year via a legal maneuver known as an Alford plea.
"One of the greatest experiences of my life was walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards this year--even though we didn't win the Oscar," related Berlinger. "I was walking with Jason Baldwin who seven months earlier was serving a life sentence without parole. Bruce [Sinofsky] and I felt we had to continue making these films in order to continue to shine a light on this story and help these men who had been wrongfully convicted. It's been a two-decade journey. I started out as a young guy and now I'm over 50. My first child was born during the making of the first film [in the trilogy]. Now that kid is in college. My second child was born during the making of the second film. It's been a long road given the drawn out appeals process. And to end up on the red carpet with Jason after all that meant everything."
The alluded to second front for heartfelt gratification on the part of Berlinger had everything to do with where he was in 2010, in the midst of a nasty legal fight with Chevron for his documentary, Crude (for details on that litigation, see SHOOT, 3/25/11). "It was emotionally, psychologically and financially draining to the point where I wondered if I could go on making films with a social conscience," recalled Berlinger. "But with what's been accomplished by the Paradise Lost films, the experience on Under African Skies, the award nominations validate and remind me that it's important to make these kinds of films. It has been an important lesson for me personally. I'm glad I made all these films, from Paradise Lost 3 to Under African Skies to Crude."
Under African Skies was a 180-degree departure from the Paradise Lost films. The latter entailed doggedly sticking to a story for some 20 years as the wheels of justice and the appeals process turned ever so slowly. By contrast, Under African Skies came together quickly--singer/songwriter/musician Paul Simon agreed to make the film in April, there was a 10-day shoot in July, and by January 2012 it was being showcased at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary chronicles the return of Paul Simon in 2011 to South Africa and to the roots of his seminal album Graceland, released in 1986. Simon prepares for a 25th anniversary concert as he reunites with the South African musicians whose work spawned Graceland. But Simon's exploration of the journey that led to the Graceland album is more than a celebration of breaking musical boundaries and bringing together diverse cultures. Simon also deals with the controversy attached to Graceland, namely the political backlash he received back then for allegedly breaking the UN cultural boycott of South Africa, which was designed to end the apartheid regime.
Berlinger said of Under African Skies, "The subject matter was a great counterpoint to the dark areas I've explored with other projects. It was a celebration of incredible musicians, a masterful album. The film was an utter delight to make. But at the same time it wasn't different [from my other work] in the sense that it told an important social/political story as we dealt with the accusations of Paul breaking the boycott against apartheid some 25 years ago. I had to make sure that the film would strike a balance between celebrating the music and telling an honest story about the political controversy."
Both Under African Skies and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory were produced by @radical.media for HBO and A&E, respectively. Under African Skies was made by A&E IndieFilms in association with Sony Music Entertainment's Legacy Recordings and @radical.media. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was made by @radical.media in association with HBO Documentary Films.
Berlinger described @radical as being "my home, we have a true partnership...Twelve years ago, I brought my little production company to @radical and formed an overhead deal there. Whenever I have a film I want to make, I run it through @radical. I helped them diversify from commercials into long form and they helped me extend my creative reach into commercials and branded content. We've been working together on all kinds of projects. My Third Eye Motion Picture Company has hung its hat at @radical, which maintains first look at all my entertainment projects. With @radical, I don't have to worry about backroom operations, human resources issues. This frees me to focus on producing and directing."
In addition to long-form documentaries, Berlinger's body of work at @radical over the years spans the Sundance Channel series Iconoclasts, Masterclass for The Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), the Power of Dreams documentary series for Honda, other varied forms of branded content, and commercials, the latest being an ambitious Cadillac campaign out of agency Fallon, Minneapolis. Berlinger co-directed the spots--including a :60 and eight :30s that broke during the Summer Olympic telecasts--with @radical's Jeff Zwart whose focus was on the automotive performance sequences while Berlinger handled the people/dialogue aspects, chronicling adventures around the world which teamed race car driver Derek Hill and adventurer Ross Thomas with the Cadillac ATS, putting the vehicle through its paces against the most difficult roads and adverse conditions possible worldwide--from China to Morocco, Monaco and Chile. In China, the dramatic challenge was the ATS winding its way through the Guoliang Tunnel, bordered by jagged rock, in the Taihang Mountains.
Separately, further adventures and insights into people, places and different cultures are captured in 20 web films for the Cadillac campaign ranging in length from two to five minutes, all directed solo by Berlinger. Adventures and behind-the-scenes footage span Hill and Thomas encountering such locales as the Sahara Desert and the Grey Glacier. The latter is in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field where Hill and Thomas explored a magnificent lighthouse which resides in the midst of winds that clock in at more than 100 miles per hour. Tamer adventures included Hill and Thomas getting an education in China's culinary arts at the Hutong Kitchen in Beijing. "For the commercials and the web films, we were capturing unscripted reality," said Berlinger. "For the agency and a major corporate client like GM [General Motors] to support sending a crew around the world on real adventures represents a huge leap of faith. It was a dream project."
This year's three Emmy nominations bring Berlinger's career total to seven. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was nominated for Outstanding Informational Special (HBO) in '97, the same year it won for Outstanding Achievement in Informational Programming. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (HBO) was nominated in 2000 for Outstanding Nonfiction Special. And winning the Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Series in 2006 was Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America (History Channel), for which Berlinger served as co-executive producer while directing one of the 10 documentaries (Murder at the Fair: The Assassination of President McKinley--Sept. 6, 1901) in the series.
All three Paradise Lost films are slated to come out for home video release in November, packaged as a special collectors trilogy edition with two hours of bonus material.
Editor's note: This is the ninth installment in an 11-part series that explores the field of Emmy nominees and winners spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, editing, animation and VFX. The series will run right through the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony and the following week's primetime Emmy Awards live telecast.