“I’m not someone who’s really into self-help,” says acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger. And yet his latest work is the documentary “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru,” about the towering “life strategist,” as he likes to be called. (Robbins hates the term “self-help.”) Rather than a profile, it’s a verite-style hang at one of his six-day seminars, the cameras zooming in on public one-on-one sessions where the ringleader browbeats patrons into a better life.
It’s quite a change of pace for Berlinger who, along with the late Bruce Sinofsky, made the “Paradise Lost” docs — which helped exonerate the West Memphis Three — and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.” Those are, as he calls them, “tough” films. “Tony Robbins” is more open; in fact, it could almost play like an infomercial. But it neither condones nor condemns what he does, even though it began life when Berlinger, much against his will, attended one of his seminars in 2012. He emerged feeling better, and that the scene was so electric that it could also be cinematic.
I have to admit, when I heard “Joe Berlinger does a Tony Robbins film,” I expected it to be a take-down or at least a revealing profile. What motivated you to present him in this direction?
I just wanted to do something a little different. Around the same time that I was having the epiphany that I wanted to make this film, I was a juror at [The International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam], which is the largest doc festival. I was a juror that year, and I had seen three really disturbing documentaries — the kind that often I make, where you want to slit your wrists by the end. I was on a break in the food court in the center of the multiplex and I felt like I was in this New Yorker cartoon, because I looked up and there’s this huge line in front of the campus rape documentary, a huge line in front of the latest corporate polluter documentary, a huge line in front of the latest political scandal documentary, a huge line next to the latest global warming documentary. It’s just all this doom and gloom. I thought “OK, I’d like to do something different.” Because in peoples’ minds it’s not a documentary unless you’re taking down something, unless you’re exposing something.
True, though those films are still important.
I’m not knocking social issue reporting. With the decimation of print journalism because of the Internet and the corporatization of media ownership, where certain stories aren’t covered by news networks because of fear of offending advertisers, a lot of the very important social issue reporting of the day is being done by documentarians. I’ve made some really tough films about some hard subjects. I guess you could say I make “feel-bad movies.” But I was not setting out to make a feel-good movie, which is what I consider this film.
What else made you think it would work as a movie?
I felt it was inherently cinematic and I just wanted to bring it to the screen, and to do something different with the documentary form. The experience in that room is something I’ve never quite seen before, where a room of 2,500 people from all walks of life, from many countries, many socioeconomic strata, with many different reasons for being there. Some of them have suffered real pain, and some peoples’ lives are generally fine. I’ve never seen the boundaries between people so quickly fall.