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Joe Berlinger on why he made a 'feel-good' doc about Tony Robbins

The co-creator of the dark "Paradise Lost" films says he wanted to try something different. Very different.

“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.

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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.

Was it difficult to convince Robbins to let you make this?
I chased him for about two years. He was initially very hesitant to agree to do it. For one, he was afraid that the intrusion of documentary cameras would interfere with the attendees’ experience. People are there, as you see, for very personal reasons, and he was just concerned that people would not dig the cameras. He has cameras there, but they kind of hang back, because they’re there to record for the Jumbotrons that are all around the room. They’re not as in your face as my cameras would be as a documentary-maker. I told him, “I’m not going to be blocked off on a tripod.”

He was also concerned that it’s a 72-hour, six-day event full of content, and the documentary is two-hours long. His program is supposed to take people on a specific emotional arc in those interventions. Those can take two hours. If you cut it down to seven or eight minutes, is it misrepresenting that emotional arc or journey that people go on? Am I somehow trivializing the emotional process that people go through by editing? That’s a legit concern. But I impressed upon him that a good documentarian, a good filmmaker will condense and still capture the emotional truth of a situation. A bad one won’t, but a good one will. The emotional truth is still capturing the essence of what the event is like in less time. He hadn’t seen my other films, so I sent him “Paradise Lost.” … He watched them and he got it. I said, “Look, I’ll come at my own risk. I don’t want my access limited, but if at any time you want to pull the plug, I’ll take that risk.” And he finally agreed.

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Even though it’s not a hit piece, it’s not a celebration of his methods. It’s ambiguous.
I don’t tell you what to think. I faithfully condense an event, and the haters are gonna still hate. The lovers of Tony Robbins are obviously going to find that point of view in there, but frankly for those people I could put up black and just play his voice and they’ll think it’s the greatest film they’ve ever seen. It’s really the people in the middle that I’m interested in, who aren’t so chained to their point of view about self-help or have no perception or a misperception but are open to the journey of the film. It’s not that I want people to run out and sign up for a Tony Robbins seminar. If they did, I think they’d get something out of it, but that’s not the goal of the film.

The goal of the film is to allow people to spend two hours doing something we don’t do enough of, which is thinking about the direction and quality of our own fulfillment as human beings and our connection to one another. That sounds really Pollyanna-ish, especially coming from me. But this was coming at a raw time, with the loss of my partner [Bruce Sinofsky], whom the film was dedicated to. And if we all felt a little more connected to other people and more content with the direction of our own lives, maybe there would be less things like these Dallas shootings or ISIS or whatever. Do I think my film is going to change that? Of course not. But the point is if you can reach a few people and if people were more content and connected, maybe there would be less social ills for documentarians to point their cameras at. Of course, my next film is about genocide, so I’m back on track.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
 
 
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