Amy Berg garnered plenty of attention for her eye-opening documentaries like Deliver Us From Evil, which exposed the Catholic Church’s cover up of the sex crimes committed by Father Oliver O’Grady against dozens of children. Now she’s branching out into the world of fiction with the 2014 festival film, Every Secret Thing, a psychological thriller starring Elizabeth Banks that opens in theaters and VOD on May 15.
Based on the novel by Laura Lippman, the story follows two girls suspected of kidnapping another young girl after spending time in juvenile detention for a similar crime. The film is produced by Frances McDormand, written by Nicole Holofcener, and also stars Diane Lane, Dakota Fanning, Danielle Macdonald, Nate Parker, and Common.
The director spoke with EW about her lineup of complicated women, the need for more female-directed films and why this movie isn’t about race.
EW: Was this something you always wanted to do or did you see yourself staying in the documentary field?
AMY BERG: I don’t feel that I have to make a choice, one or the other. I’m planning on doing more narratives and more documentaries but I was definitely looking for a good project.
You’ve spoken before about how most of these female characters are unredeemable. How important was it for you to have the audience see something other than what we’re used to?
There’s a huge discussion that is going on right now about female filmmakers and female parts and I think it’s very important that you have to look at the type of characters that are being portrayed in film. To show that women have flaws and that we are multilayered characters is really important to me.
You’ve also mentioned how motherhood relates to every single character. Were you ever worried about the idea of women and motherhood as a cliché trope?
I think that there are so many different types of mothers. For example, Diane Lane’s character to me is so interesting because she was stuck with a child that she didn’t understand—that she came to not like and that she had to protect in her limited scope. And I think it’s very important to look at motherhood as a question because anyone can have a child but we have a responsibility to raise our children in a certain way so that they are safe in the community.
Let’s talk about that poolparty scene. [Ronnie and Alice are kicked out of a pool party after Ronnie gives the birthday girl a black Barbie and curses her out for not liking it.]
It was just such a pivotal scene in the movie. It just shows everything that was wrong with that community. It just shows bullying. It shows poverty. It shows what Diane Lane’s character forced upon her daughter by bringing Ronnie to the party and just the shame and embarrassment. It is the reason why the first crime happened.
Did you have to make changes from book to film?
Yeah, there were some changes. The book was a little bit dated and she [Ronnie] uses the “N” word, and that was just not something that seemed relevant. It wasn’t really about race to me. It was about socioeconomic status and education and bullying, so we switched that around a little bit.
With both kidnapping victims being biracial, there were some racial undertones in the movie. Did you have that in your mind when you were filming?
To me, it was more “this is what every community looks like today.” But maybe 20 years ago, there might have been more of a stigmatism on mixed-race couples and children. I think it was more about creating what looked like a working-class town and showing the struggles that come from the family unit so I feel like the prejudice we read about in the book came more from just hearing things from your parents; hearing the father use that word rather than the fact that Ronnie was prejudiced at 11-years-old. It’s just the only thing she knew. If you take on something as important as the discussion about race, we couldn’t have done that in this film.
What do you hope for people to take away from this film?
I think it’s important to think about how we raise our children and how we speak to our children and try to listen. I think the education as a parent comes from listening to your children and valuing them for who they are rather than trying to make them into what you think they should be. Because a parent can mold a child into anything they want them to be molded into but that doesn’t mean that that’s the right thing for that kid.
As a female director in Hollywood, you’re a minority. Do you feel impacted by that in any way? Are you tired of the term “female director?”
No! I think we need to hear that term because I think we need more jobs. I think we need more projects. I think we have to keep talking about it until it shifts. I think that the female voice is relevant, [that] it will change the audience’s experiences in movie theaters because it’s a very important voice that needs to be heard. So I’m not tired of it.
For other female directors who look at this disparity and say, “There might not be a chance for me,” what would you tell them?
I would say that the actors are looking for these types of characters. I feel like it’s important to develop things that are relevant of today. And the traditional methods for film distribution and film financing are switching right now so I think that there will be a real shift in what gets made. I don’t think there’s any reason to not pursue these kinds of projects; it’s important.
You have a project called America Race in the works [tackling America’s race issues]. Can you tell me more about it?
I’m executive producing that and I’m working with Nate Parker, who was the male detective in this film. He has a really important voice that needs to be heard on that issue so I’m trying to help him get this series off the ground.
With everything that’s happening in Baltimore right now, do you think that will have any influence?
[The series] just starts with Ferguson. It’s meant to cover a lot of different cases and issues, and Baltimore is definitely on the list. It’s very important.
Do you plan on going out there?
Yes, is the short answer. It’s interesting, [Every Secret Thing] was written out of Baltimore so we’re screening the film down there soon.
And what else is next for you?
I am working on a narrative about a female survivor of Jonestown. It’s an adaptation of a book [Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the People’s Temple] by Deborah Layton, and I’m writing it.