Amy Berg, the Fearless Filmmaker Who Took on Hollywood Pedophiles and Marilyn Manson

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Amy Berg, the Fearless Filmmaker Who Took on Hollywood Pedophiles and Marilyn Manson

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Given her background exposing child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (Deliver Us from Evil), Hollywood’s pedophilia epidemic (An Open Secret), and the Satanic Panic (West of Memphis), documentary filmmaker Amy Berg was uniquely qualified to examine actress Evan Rachel Wood’s story of survival.

In Phoenix Rising, a two-part HBO documentary available to stream now, Berg chronicles Wood’s fight to pass the Phoenix Act in California, a bill signed into law in January 2020 that extended the statute of limitations for when domestic-violence survivors can press charges against their abuser(s) to five years from two.

“She was working on the dialogue around domestic violence, generational trauma, patterns of abuse, and grooming behaviors,” Berg says of Wood. “She was really embedded in that world.”

What began as a project focused on Wood’s crusade to get the Phoenix Act enacted eventually became a candid—and harrowing—probe into the Westworld star’s allegations against rocker Marilyn Manson, whom she accuses of grooming her since the age of 18 (he was 36 at the time) and trapping her in a physically and psychologically abusive relationship that included beatings and sexual assault. In Phoenix Rising, Wood claims that Manson “essentially raped” her during the music-video shoot for “Heart-Shaped Glasses”; decorated their home with Nazi paraphernalia, including a message that read “Kill All the Jews” over their bed (Wood is Jewish); and tied her to a kneeler before hitting her with a Nazi whip and shocking her with a Violet Wand when she tried to leave.

Throughout the film, Wood—who’s joined by her friend, the artist and activist Illma Gore—comes off as a paragon of strength and courage in facing down her alleged abuser in Manson, who’s been accused of sexual abuse and battery by more than 16 women. He is facing at least four civil lawsuits over his alleged abuse, and is being investigated by the authorities. Manson has responded by denying all the abuse allegations against him and suing Woods and Gore for defamation and hacking into his email and social media.

We spoke with Berg about the Manson allegations, why she thinks her Hollywood-pedophilia doc An Open Secret was buried, and much more.

How did you get involved with Phoenix Rising? Having done print stories covering sexual misconduct, I know it can sometimes be a lengthy process.

Yeah. It was almost a three-year process. Evan approached me right after she did the Survivors’ Bill of Rights testimony. She was in the process of building the Phoenix Act and working on changing the statute of limitations in California, so that was what we were initially going to be documenting—a woman challenging the system after her own statute of limitations had expired. For the first year, all we were doing was documenting her movements in that realm. What happened next was that [Manson’s former tourmate] Dan Cleary tweeted in support of Evan Rachel Wood, and suddenly the floodgates opened, and other survivors started reaching out. That’s when we decided to open it up, to get into the Brian Warner story, her past, and other survivors.

Evan Rachel Wood was dealing with a menacing presence in Marilyn Manson, and I’m curious if you or the crew dealt with any strange threats or moves from his camp.

I mentioned to somebody that I had some horror movies that appeared in [my Amazon account] one morning. That was bizarre. But Evan was facing threats regularly at the time. This is a world I didn’t know about, and there’s an army behind Brian. They send scary messages to people, and they definitely scared Evan. She didn’t want to stay around while he was being investigated. I know that. We witnessed it firsthand.

Evan Rachel Wood in Phoenix Rising

HBO

I know this isn’t the same case, but one of Manson’s best friends is Johnny Depp, who also has this bizarre online truther army that passionately defends his every move and shouts down anyone who questions their idol. Whenever we’ve published any story concerning the abuse allegations against Depp, they mobilize.

I think your comparison between the fanbases, for sure, is accurate. I’m not speaking for Johnny or Manson or anybody, but I do know that when we asked around, I think the friendship is more in photos than in reality. I don’t think they’re that good of friends from speaking to people in this world. The way Evan described it is that Brian is very good at getting that photo with famous people whenever he’s at an event, which gives him this public credibility that may or may not be accurate. If you were to Google him with other celebrities and check in with their reps, I’m sure you’d find out that he’s not close with a lot of those people. In our research, I spoke to many people who had seen things at his house but didn’t like that they were recorded there, so didn’t speak up. There are a lot of stories out there.

There’s a disturbing sequence in Phoenix Rising where you air a clip from the IFC show Dinner for Five, where Manson is at a table with Jon Favreau, Darryl Hannah, and Andy Dick, and Manson and Dick are discussing an experimental short film that was made called Groupie, which was shot at Manson’s house and in which Manson violently tortures a Manson groupie. They say he’d go to jail if it ever saw the light of day and it’s treated for laughs by people at the table.

I know! It’s hard to imagine that that was acceptable in any way. It’s really shocking. And there are a lot more things like that.

Throughout your years working on this project, what were some of the most harrowing discoveries you made about this story and what Evan went through?

That’s all in the movie, to be honest. There wasn’t a lot of censorship from anyone. We told the real story. She wanted to speak up and tell her truth, and the details are very disturbing. She tried to commit suicide. It was a very desperate situation.

One of the more disturbing reveals in the film is when Evan alleges that Manson “essentially raped” her during the making of the music video for his song “Heart-Shaped Glasses” and it was caught on camera. I’m curious if you spoke to other eyewitnesses on the set of the video who corroborated that allegation.

There was an investigation that was done by Evan and Illma, and there were a number of names of people who didn’t want to go public who discussed how disturbing the project was to work on, and I believe Manson himself kind of hints to this in 2007. Evan was talking about how he winked about how it was “simulated” sex. So, yeah, we did some research on that—and obviously with our lawyers. [Manson has denied assaulting Wood—including on the set of “Heart-Shaped Glasses.”]

Can you comment on the defamation lawsuit that Manson has filed against Wood over some of the allegations in the film?

No. Obviously I can’t comment on the lawsuit. Sorry, Marlow. We have nothing to do with that and that’s to be continued right now.

There’s his claim of a forged FBI letter contained in the film that’s a bone of contention in the lawsuit.

I can’t comment on that.

What I’ve seen from some people online is this bizarre defense of Manson in which people say that Evan and the other women should have known what they were getting into with him because of his public image. I personally think that argument is very misogynistic and retrograde.

The patterns of his coercion are very similar in all the stories we’ve heard about, and if you were to put yourself in the shoes of an 18-year-old girl who was being presented with a script and a cool new friend who happens to be a rock star—who’s married—and it seems like this innocent thing, and as time goes on, she’s being seduced into the grooming stages. But I also don’t think that’s true. My impression of him prior to getting involved in the project was as this “misunderstood hero for the underdog,” with Columbine and other things. And he played that role really well. If you look at the media coverage of him over the past two decades, you’ll see that Rolling Stone did an article not too long ago called “the most shocking moments” of Marilyn Manson, and they’re listing Nazi flags and these other things that are not “shocking moments,” but they were being presented in that way. He was obviously practicing what he preached. I was surprised when Evan told me about the Nazi whip and all the Nazi propaganda he has in the house.

Really, when you think about it, who collects Hitler’s artifacts? What kind of people collect that? We have to think more deeply, I guess, because it’s a bizarre thing. And he chose many Jewish girls. As far as the girls we spoke with a good percentage of them were Jewish, so that seems to further twist their understanding of themselves.

Evan alleges that Marilyn covered his home with Nazi paraphernalia, tortured her with a Nazi whip when she tried to leave, and had the words “Kill All the Jews” over their bed. And Evan mentions that since she is Jewish, this made it have this added layer of psychological torment.

Right. Really, when you think about it, who collects Hitler’s artifacts? What kind of people collect that? We have to think more deeply, I guess, because it’s a bizarre thing. And he chose many Jewish girls. As far as the girls we spoke with a good percentage of them were Jewish, so that seems to further twist their understanding of themselves.

It seems, at least to me, that for all Hollywood’s allyship talk they haven’t been so great when it comes to backing projects that expose high-profile abusers. For example, we still haven’t really seen a big Harvey Weinstein documentary or docuseries.

I don’t know what the position in Hollywood is. I know that I had trouble getting one particular film distribution in Hollywood at the time [An Open Secret], and I think if that was made today it would be a different story. I know that there were people who did want to distribute it, and when it got higher up the ladder it fell apart. I know HBO had the Allen v. Farrow documentary, and Surviving R. Kelly wasn’t on HBO but that came out, too. I think things are changing. #MeToo helped change the narrative, which is that we should be able to call ourselves out if there are problems within the system. That’s why it was important to me to cover Evan’s early childhood roles, because I think there’s been a lack of sensitivity to the actors’ plight when it comes to young actors. They’re treated as commodities, and it’s damaging.

Marilyn Manson performs onstage

Rich Fury/Getty

And On the Record, featuring Russell Simmons’ accusers, which was also released by HBO. Speaking of An Open Secret, I thought it was a powerful documentary exposing some terrible Hollywood pedophiles and it’s a shame that it didn’t a proper release. Who do you think killed it? It seems like some Hollywood folks from up on high did not want this film coming out.

I literally don’t know. I made a film that I thought was very important. There was a person that was a perpetrator that we interviewed on camera, and he was working with the Screen Actors Guild and, instead of taking action, [SAG] came after us for how we requested the interview and threatened to sue us. There have been some changes as far as how children are protected on movie sets but it hasn’t been enough, and I hope this film also creates a larger discussion on that. Those children that I documented [in An Open Secret] weren’t as famous as Evan, but they had bad experiences on movie sets and they deserve some protection. Hollywood needs to be held accountable—and the music business needs to be held accountable for Marilyn Manson. The behavior that was happening to Evan was happening in front of managers and people on tour who were turning their heads the other way. We have to speak up when we see something wrong.

We haven’t really seen #MeToo hit the music industry with much force at all.

No, we haven’t. Remember that Las Vegas ad, “What happens here stays here?” There’s been this philosophy of, “What happens on the road stays on the road.” So, this was happening in front of everybody’s eyes. The music industry needs to speak up at this point. I think this will help create a bigger conversation.

To go back to An Open Secret, one example of Hollywood pedophilia that I always thought was completely nuts involved the director Victor Salva. We did a big story on him but he was a guy who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old child actor during the making of a film called Clownhouse in the 1980s, and possessing child pornography, and went to jail for it. He was a protégé of Francis Ford Coppola, and still was able to direct a number of Hollywood films after, including Powder, Peaceful Warrior, and the Jeepers Creepers franchise without much media or industry criticism.

It’s shocking. This is jogging my memory a little bit, and I think there was some sort of period in the 2000s where they put something in effect where they had to put a background check in for people who were working with children.

Our piece came out in 2017 and was pegged to Jeepers Creepers 3, which was being released that year.

You really do get rewarded for bad behavior in Hollywood. That sucks. You want movie sets to be a safe place for children. You want the world to be a safe place for children.

You mentioned earlier that An Open Secret would get a proper release today, and I’m not as confident as you that that would happen. As pervasive as child abuse is in Hollywood, we haven’t seen many projects exploring Hollywood’s exploitation and abuse of child actors as its central focus, and I think there’s a reason why they don’t want these types of projects out there.

No, you’re right. I don’t know. You’re right. It might not be able to get distribution today.

Lastly, what impact do you hope Phoenix Rising will have?

I’m seeing a lot of people online responding to it in a way where they feel empowered, and that’s what this is about. It’s about empowerment. I really hope people will feel empowered to take control of their own situation and that there is a resource for everybody if they go out and ask the right questions. And that they’re not alone.

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