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01/30/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2014

On Sundance Official Selection Whitey: United States Of America v. James J. Bulger with Director Joe Berlinger

These questions originally appeared on Quora.
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Answers by Joe Berlinger, Director, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, Nonfiction film/television director/producer whose films include Paradise Lost, Brother's Keeper, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Crude and Under African Skies

Q: What inspired the making of Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger?

A: For years I had been fascinated by the Bulger legend. Because of the glut of media that already exists, I never thought I had anything to add. There were many books about it and two feature films in the works. The Departed was also loosely based on Whitey. I never thought that I had anything to add until he was actually apprehended. When he was apprehended, that was a surprise to me because I thought the FBI had given him a free pass and he would never be apprehended.

Specifically because each media account of him takes kind of a different perspective, because, it's so hard to separate the man from the myth. He was cast into this mythical status. The fact that he was actually being brought to trial, as it was announced at the end of November, became finally a reason to try and attempt to do something myself. I thought the trial was a unique opportunity to separate the man from the myth and to explore some of the questions of corruption that have swirled around this case, but had never been brought to a conclusion.

Q: Why did Whitey: United States Of America v. James J. Bulger use cinema verite narration?

A: Well, all of my films are made in that way. Especially with this film, I thought it was important for me not to have one particular point of view because I can't tell you what the truth of the situation is. I want to treat the audience like a jury member to present many viewpoints. The audience leads the way. 

I'm very proud that Whitey Bulger is in the film because it is the first interview that he was ever allowed to have. Nobody has heard from Whitey, except on old wiretaps and the trial, where he was recorded without his knowledge when he was speaking to his relatives. There is audio of him when nobody knew he was being in surveillance, just his willing delivery of his point of view. This is the first time that's happened. But that doesn't necessarily mean what he is saying is truthful, because he equally may be playing us -- the filmmakers. But it's important to hear his point of view. I want the audience to weigh everything they've heard, and make their own mind. For them to ask the tough questions that haven't been asked... (More)

Q: Does Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger make an argument in favor of "Whitey" Bulger?

A: I want to make it very clear that we are not making any apologies for Whitey Bulger. He was a vicious brutal killer and deserves to be incarcerated. However, the trial was too narrowly defined by the government. Certain areas of inquiry were denied. On one hand, the government claims that these areas of inquiry have nothing to do with whether or not Bulger was guilty of the crimes he was accused of in the indictment. On the other hand, this was the biggest trial in Massachusetts history, probably since the 1920's... (More)

Q: Did the filmmakers behind Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger ever experience any government pressure or danger from mob ties?

A: I've put myself in a lot of situations that you would think were dangerous. When we were filming the movie Crude, we were in a dangerous part of the world near the border of Columbia and that contested border area. I should have been concerned about my safety but I guess I wasn't. I don't know.  Somehow I feel like for whatever reason the universe allows me to kind of put this protective cloth over my body and I just seem to get what I need to get. I never felt any pressure... (More)

Q: How can having a film selected by the Sundance Film Festival affect your filmmaking career?

A: Well, this year (2014) I think twelve thousand films were submitted for 138 slots.  Of that, in pure documentary terms, 1,718 documentaries were submitted for 38 spots. It changes the trajectory of your career because it gives the film some visibility. It's kind of like the Good Housekeeping "Seal of Approval." I've had all different kinds of experiences. Brother's Keeper came before the market really had matured. Despite the great reviews and prizes won here, no distributor thought the movie would actually make it into theaters... (More)

Q: What is it like to have your film featured at the Sundance Film Festival?

A: Well, it's amazing always to have your film premiere at Sundance - this is my sixth time coming here.  I get less uptight and nervous about it as the years have unfolded, but it's always special because this film festival celebrates the documentary and elevates its artistic acceptance almost like no other festival. I came for the first time in 1992 with a film called Brother's Keeper. Back then, I traveled with a 16 mm print of the movie under my arm on the airplane... (More)

Q: What are some things filmmakers can do to help their film make it into the Sundance Film Festival?

A: I don't think there's any magic secret "finagling." Just make a great film. Let the work speak for itself. It's now ridiculously competitive. Also if you don't get in, don't let that deter you in your belief that you believe your film is great. It'll find another place. Don't let any lack of acceptance make you feel like your film is less-than-worthy.

On the other hand, the secret to getting big is making a great film and hoping that the right set of circumstances align. The audience or one of the programmers could be having a bad day while watching your film and cause them to not appreciate your movie. In this case, make a great film that withstands that. If you make a great film, and Sundance doesn't take it, another excellent festival will.

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