Amy Berg has come to be a master of telling true stories of crime, passion and guilt. Her first documentary Deliver Us from Evil was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, followed by films like West of Memphis and Prophet’s Prey, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to acclaim. Now, Berg is venturing into narrative territory with Every Secret Thing.
Produced by Frances McDormand, the film is set just outside New York City and focuses on a child’s disappearance, one reminiscent of a similar occurrence years ago, in which two young girls, Ronnie Fuller (Dakota Fanning, pictured above) and Alice Manning (Danielle Macdonald), kidnapped and then killed a baby. Now, Detective Nancy Porter (Elizabeth Banks) and her partner, played by Nate Parker, have the two teenage girls as suspects once again. At the root of the girls’ strange past and current behavior is Alice’s mother Helen (Diane Lane), who we soon learn may be more responsible for the crime than we’d imagined.
Paste had a chance to talk with Berg about her fears diving into narrative filmmaking, why she’s drawn to crime stories, her own experience with motherhood and what she thinks about guilt.
Paste: What fascinates you about crime stories? You went straight from West of Memphis to working on this film.
Amy Berg: I think we all love true crime, especially with what’s been on TV these past few months. I loved this story because it had the backdrop of a psychological thriller but it was also about real people and real mistakes that people made and how it impacted so many others. I look for the themes, not just [for] the crime. In West of Memphis it was more about an innocent man needing to be released. I do really enjoy crime and the psychological aspects of crime, what makes people do what they do.
Paste: Given this was your first narrative film, what were your fears entering the project and how did you overcome them?
Berg: My fears were revolving around the fact that it was such a tight schedule and such a low budget. I had talented actors and such a great story. I definitely learned a lot. Having six principle leads in a film and having only 21 days to shoot is kind of a crazy idea. It’s one thing if you have one lead, getting the nuance of who they are. This is jumping back and forth to all these different families and how they’re dealing with what they’re faced with. That was really challenging and I think we overcame it by the end of the edit. A film comes alive in the editing.
Paste: This was also Frances McDormand’s first time producing a feature. Were you all sort of learning together? How involved was she in the creative process?
Berg: Fran and I had numerous discussions, debates, and we went through the script for a couple of months before we went into prep. It was a really long script and there was no way we were going to have that many pages on a 21-day shoot. We would talk about parenting and decision-making and who these people were. It was really fun working with her. Once we started shooting, she stepped back and let me do my thing. She only came on set, I think, two times. She was very supportive all the way through.
Paste: How was working with six lead characters as opposed to your documentary subjects?
Berg: We spent a lot of time, each actor and I, really understanding who these characters were and where they were coming from. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time on set. That is more of a doc approach I guess. I chose actors that were willing to go there. They all had a personal understanding of [their] character[s]. On set, they were great; they delivered. There was one scene where we did a lot of takes—thirteen—but it was the last day. That scene didn’t even make the movie!
Paste: The subject matter is extremely dark. When you and Frances were combing through the script, did you feel the pressure to keep some lighter moments throughout?
Berg: The script was much lighter and that was just not going to work. The script was more focused around Elizabeth Banks’s character, she wanted to get pregnant … [there were] these comedic scenes in her apartment with her husband. That just didn’t seem right. A lot of that kind of drama with her husband, we absorbed that into her relationship with Nate Parker’s character. It seemed more appropriate that it was happening at the work place. The levity did come from the casting. That’s why I cast Liz. I thought she would bring the levity without having to do anything funny!
Paste: The tension of this film comes from a slightly different place than other crime films. You sort of have a feeling that a certain person committed the crime early on but then it’s more about why. How do you build that suspense as a director? Was it in the editing room or within every scene on set?
Berg: I really wanted you to be confused about who did it. I didn’t want anyone to think it was [redacted: spoiler alert] right away. There is something about the way we judge people based on the way they look. The interesting twist is that [again: redacted] is not affected by that, instead [he or she] plays it up.
Paste: This film is very much about examining our cultural expectations of motherhood and, yes, the way we judge it too. Did this script change the way you look at being a mother?
Berg: For sure! I remember times when my son wanted to do something that I didn’t want him to do or I thought he should be doing something different. I had to stop myself and let him go through his path. Every kid has to take their own journey. When you try to live vicariously through your kid, you’re not doing them any service by forcing them to conform into something they’re not.
That is one of the most interesting themes in the film. Probably the thing that spoke to me the most is this forced relationship that Diane Lane’s character imposes on her daughter and it’s clear that is the reason why everything went wrong. When I was a kid, I was an ice skater and I remember the parents that were just so awful to their kids! We were five, six, seven years old! It was: You have to be the best; you have to work harder—that kind of stuff. I was affected by it in my life.
Paste: I was a dancer growing up! I feel you!
Berg: So you know! The schedule at such a young age is very intense on its own and then to have parents … where you have to be first, be the best!
Paste: In this film, and with your other work, people have red hands and someone is guilty. But at the same time, watching your films, I consistently feel compassion for people who commit acts of crime. To you, what is guilt? Are people ever really guilty?
Berg: That’s such a great question and no one has ever said that to me! I really have to think about that. Yes, I felt that the guilty party in this story was Diane Lane. It comes through in that last scene that she has with Elizabeth Banks. When you find out she gave Ronnie the jack in the box. That scene was much earlier in the film but I moved it in the edit because I wanted that to be your last memory of Diane Lane’s character. In my mind, the guilt is on the parent to instill the right values in their children. They need to be accountable ’til their child is of age. But I guess you can’t pin it down to one person. I think everyone’s guilty in this story.
Paste: The book is actually set in Baltimore, not outside New York City. Do you find parallels between the current social climate in Baltimore now and what’s happening in this film? The story does talk about diversity.
Berg: Yeah, but the thing is this film would have gone much further with that issue if we actually shot it in Baltimore. We were not able to. Race and socioeconomic divides are obviously big parts of the script and the film. But I emphasized more the socioeconomics than race. This is really about Ronnie being from the other side of the tracks and how Diane Lane’s character deals with her environment and her rebellion against everything that’s around her.
Paste: Do you have any more narratives in the works?
Berg: Yes, I’m working on something right now about a female survivor of Jonestown. It’s a book adaptation as well, and I’m writing it myself. Then also I’m going to continue making documentaries! I’m very fortunate that I can do both!
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.