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True Crime and the Psychology of a Serial Killer: The Career of Pioneering Documentator Joe Berlinger

While politicians debate the rise in crime, there’s no disputing the explosion of true crime docuseries on cable TV and streaming. Serial killer interviews, gory murder reenactments, belligerent courtroom footage and orchestrated final-minute revelations have all but become clichés — even as audiences desperately want more.

But that’s not always the case. Thirty years ago, the documentary Joe Berlinger , 005 and his longtime collaborator and co-director, have The late Bruce Sinofsky broke the news based on their characterization, Brother’s Keeper

. The film, centered on the arrest and trial of Delbert Ward, a rural upstate New York man accused of killing his brother William, becomes all the drama of Berlinger’s take on American tragedy and fictional narrative Blueprints for unfiltered inspection.

Joe Berlinger Paul Morigi/PEACOCK via Getty Images

Brother’s Keeper won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival is Berlinger for many years The first of dozens of accolades — including one Oscar nomination, eight Emmy nominations and two wins. He and Sinofsky are most famous for applying their storytelling methods to document the arrest, trial, incarceration and eventual release of the “West Memphis Trio” – Damien Echols, Jesse M. Skelly and Jason Baldwin, three teens wrongly convicted of murdering three boys West Memphis, Arkansas, located in 1296 A supposed satanic ritual of their Paradise Lost

trilogy drew attention to the case and ultimately played a role in the young man’s release.

Speaking with THR, Berlinger reviews and details in his own words why true crime stories have more value of social activities.

Sex and Outrageous Stories at HBO Damien Echols’ 1993 mug shot as seen in Paradise Lost.

After graduating from Colgate University, Berlinger worked in advertising playing at Ogilvy & Mather where he met David and Albert Maysles of Gray Gardens etc. The doctors were pioneers behind the film, and were “students of their spirit,” he said. Later, as HBO experimented with reality TV, Berlinger joined his future partners.

I met [then President of HBO Documentaries] Sheila Nevins through HBO’s early Maysles projects, including on Sports IllustratedJoe Berlinger Swimsuit Issue in

“Make” Documentation. Not superlative fare. When series Real Sex

started at 1993, Sheila offered me a job working with [director] Patti Kaplan, doing “man on the street” spot interviews with strangers about their sexual habits. This prompted me to make my short film Outrageous Taxi Stories

. I interviewed taxi drivers in New York about the craziest things that happened in their cabs. It’s a holiday favorite because of its humor. My editor was Bruce Sinofsky, whom I knew from his editing of the Maysles commercials. That was the beginning of our work as collaborators.

Unexpected brother-


Berlinger and Sinofsky decided to fight the documentary trend together.

morning1000s, the documentary becomes a spoonful of castor oil: good for you, but not good to go down. The model has become an examination of history through talking heads and archival lenses. Ken Burns was — and still is — a master of the format, but it’s still geared toward a minority audience. Bruce and I were like, “We should make a real movie in the Maysos tradition.” That was the seed of Brother’s Keeper

. To this day, I can’t believe where we were allowed to put our cameras.



Co-accused In West Memphis Three, Berlinger found a Theme of, made three films — and introduced Metallica .

by Damian Eccles 730 mug shot as seen in Paradise Lost. HBO/Photofest

Within a week of [the West Memphis trio] being arrested, we shot. We started in June 1989 Shooting until March after the end. We filmed more than 125 days, it took us two years to edit. The movie doesn’t come out until 1996. All three Paradise Lost movies are credited with liberating these people, but that’s what the movies helped to do among thousands of ordinary people Ways to support it – International Liberation West Memphis Online Three Movements – I think it’s a phenomenon.

Metallica’s lyrics were introduced into the trial as evidence, which is objectionable. They have nothing to do with Satanism or devil worship. When Bruce and I were editing Paradise Lost, we used their track as [temporary] music. We plan to hire a composer, since Metallica has never sold the rights to their music. We did a rough mid-term 1992 clip. I said, “Let’s contact Metallica and see what happens.” I sent a fax to Metallica’s manager, Cliff Burnstein, who obviously liked Brother’s Keeper. They said, “We believe in careers, your movies are great, you can have our music.” They didn’t charge us for it.

Metallica Healing CourseDamien Echols’ 1993 mug shot as seen in Paradise Lost.

Berlinger’s first foray into theatrical filmmaking, a 2000 Sequel to The Blair Witch Project , so-so, but

Metallica: Some Kind His behind-the-scenes account Monster returned to the origin of the doctor, and the relationship with Sinofsky was once in crisis.

DP Bob Richman shot Metallica’s James Hetfield some kind of monster for Berlinger and Sinofsky. IFC Films/Courtesy Everett collect

Cliff, Bruce, and I talked about a Metallica movie, but it never came to fruition. Bruce and I parted ways. I went on to direct one of the greatest disasters in film history: the sequel to The Blair Witch Project . I thought my career was over.

My wife gave me Paradise Lost

. “Remind yourself that you’re a good filmmaker,” she says. The opening sequence features an aerial shot of the murder scene from Metallica’s “Welcome Home (Sanitarium).” So I called [drummer] Lars Ulrich. “Do you guys want to do that documentary?” I flew to San Francisco; when I landed, Lars said, “[Bass player] Jason Newsted just quit the band, it was a bad show, not sure if there’s a record now. Sorry, Dude.”

But after that, I forced my way into their first session, which was a therapy session, and convinced them to let us film them. Like the band, Bruce and I were in a creative crisis, and feelings were hurt. I told him, “We can heal our relationship,” and we did. Sadly, shortly after the film ended, Bruce’s diabetes began to take over his life, and he died at 2015.

Netflix’s killer conversationJoe Berlinger

Berlinger at found a new way out Netflix with his Conversations With a Killer series explores Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy.

Journalist Stephen Michaud interviewed Ted Bundy on death row for the book Ted Bundy ): Conversation with killer in 1296. He contacted me at 1996 and said, “I have all these interviews Tape. Do you think there’s something here?” Even as an unreliable narrator, Bundy offers a deep window into the psyche of a serial killer. I pitched this idea to Netflix – we’re years past the current serial killer craze – and I can’t imagine it becoming the platform in #1 unscripted series .

Whenever I take on a serial killer themed project , I always ask myself, “What is a social justice lens?” For Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, they made marginalized communities — gay men victims and people of color. When I was with Bundy, I asked my college-age daughters, “Have you guys heard of him?” And no. That’s what prompted me to retell his story for The Netflix Generation.

Bringing conspiracy theories out of the shadows

for him The current Peacock collection,

Shadowland, was inspired by reports from the

Atlantic that Berlinger traveled throughout Across the country, learn what fuels the conspiracy theories that divide America.

Conspiracy theories have two perspectives, and understanding them is the only way to solve the problem at hand. It’s almost a cliché, but democracy is very dangerous. It is a system where people with different perspectives come together and agree on what is best for the collective good. We cannot do this if we see each other as our true enemy. Unless we learn to see each other as three-dimensional human beings again, we will see democracy die in this country.


From left: Bollinger’s current production and directing work Netflix includes document features Ghislaine Maxwell: Filthy Rich ; documentary series Crime Scene: Texas Killing Fields; and Madoff: Monsters of Wall Street,

Early Bow’s series2022.

Courtesy of Netflix(2); Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

This story first appeared in November Issue of The Hollywood Reporter Magazine. Click here to subscribe.



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