Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger's newest documentary Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru (2016) focuses on world-renowned life coach and best-selling author Tony Robbins' annual seminar “Date with Destiny.” At the six-day marathon event, Robbins guides attendees to look inward and re-frame their understanding of their pasts, often provoking a transformational experience.
ScreenPrism spoke with Berlinger about the first time he went to Tony Robbins' seminar, overcoming skepticism and why he took a break from investigating social ills to make this movie.
ScreenPrism: You said last night at the SXSW premiere that you’re known for making “feel bad” movies, and this is a “feel good” movie. What do you mean by that?
Joe Berlinger: Normally I don’t like to frame my films before people see them because I want them to see whatever they want to see in them. But I am a guy who has made some really tough, social issue films about prosecutorial misconduct in the West Memphis Three case; wrongful convictions; I have done a whole TV series on abuse in the criminal and justice system; pollution in the Amazon in crude; corporate malfeasance. I mean I have done some tough, tough issues.
Because this is a very experiential film, because I liken it to a concert film — like a concert of human emotion — I didn’t want people to be wondering where the shoe was going to drop while the film was unfolding because that would get in the way. I didn’t want people to think I had any kind of an agenda or that there was going to be some big shift. I just want people to experience the film, and if it’s not for you, great. If it is for you, then — obviously I hope more people would get something out of it than not get something out of it — but I didn’t want people to come into the film with the hard edge of my reputation. So I felt it was important to contextualize it, although obviously you can’t contextualize the film for everybody when it goes out into the world.
SP: What about Tony made you want to make this film a departure from your previous work?
JB: Well, even though I made a big deal about the fact that it’s a departure, in some ways I think thematically it’s not so far afield from some of my work, like the Metallica film [Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)], which is very similar in spirit to this film. Tony and I met socially few years ago. He was a fan of the Metallica film. I think he sensed when we were having a conversation that I was having some issues in my life, so he invited me to Date with Destiny. I am not a seminar guy; I didn’t know what his seminars were like. When we got to know each other, I knew he did CDs and things like that, but I was not very aware of the seminars. So I thought to myself, "I do have some issues in my life. Who takes an hour out of their day to really try to think about them and make yourself a better person, let alone 6 days?” But I’m also a very cynical and very skeptical person. I think to be a documentarian of social ills, which I guess you can say I am, you have to be skeptical. So with extreme skepticism I flew myself out to California. The year I went , it was in Palm Springs, California. It was quite a big thing for me, a busy guy, to take 6 days out of his life to go to Palm Springs, California.
And on day one all of my red flags were going off: the hugs, the introducing of yourself to a stranger, the sharing of intimate feelings — just wasn’t for me. I remember on the first break I ran out and called my wife who was back in New York with our kids, and I said, "Oh no, this is not for me. I don’t know what I have gotten myself into, and it was really nice of Tony to invite me, but how do I get the hell out of here? What’s my exit strategy without insulting the guy?" My wife encouraged me, "Give it another day. See how you feel tomorrow because you did go all the way out."
So I stuck it out for the second day, and midway through Day Two is this particular experience that you see in the film (in the film, it happens a little later in 2014 than it happened in 2012). He did that guided memory exercise where he challenges you to go back to your earliest memory of childhood, and a lot of the issues I was dealing with were childhood-related. I challenged myself to go deep into my memory, and I listened to his guided memory exercise — this is in a room of 2500 people. He said close your eyes for about 40 minutes; obviously, in the film it’s only a couple minutes long. After this 40 minute period, I opened my eyes and I was bawling, and I’m not a crying kind of guy. I’m not a touchy, feely person (hard to believe now having made this film). Or — I was not in touch with that side of myself.
He takes you back to your earliest memory and then challenges you to remember something about that memory that you have forgotten, to liberate yourself from that memory. And that indeed is what happened, and I felt this wave of relief and tears and release that I had not experienced in a long time, if ever. And I thought to myself, "Okay, there’s something here. If I could be made to feel this way and feel more connected to myself, I think I’m going to stick it out." So, I stuck it out for the 6 days, and it was an incredibly transformational experience.
Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru (2016)
Not every aspect of that program is for everyone, and different people will like different things about it. There were things that I could take or leave. But the totality of the program I found to be very powerful. I also found it to be very cinematic. The year I went, there were equally compelling transformations of people—interventions. There was an Iraq war vet who had returned with terrible PTSD and tremors. He had to wear glasses because of his light sensitivity, and by the end of the week he was like a new man. It was amazing to see.
So there were incredible stories then as well. I just felt, this is so cinematic, and this is a positive experience that I would like to share with other audiences. I’m not really interested in the fans of Tony Robbins, in terms of who I’m speaking to as a filmmaker, because I can put up a black screen, run his voice, and the fans will love it. And I’m really not interested in the people who are so shut down and cynical, who are going to hate it no matter what you know. "The haters are going to hate" — I keep quoting Taylor Swift, but the haters are going to hate, and the lovers are going to love. It’s the broad swath of people in the middle who aren’t really sure what they think who, I think, could get something out of — not going to a Tony Robbins seminar, but spending two hours with this film, which I spent a long time crafting. If it allows them to think about their lives for the two-hour period, and it moves them in some way, then I think it’s a positive goal for a documentary because—and I’m not making fun of this, because I’m part of it — but documentaries over the last ten years or so have become these aggressive tools for pointing out social ills. And that’s good. I’m part of that movement, and a lot of the social justice reporting or investigative reporting that used to be the domain of print journalism and newspaper, because of the Internet, there has been a gutting of the investigative journalism. So documentarians have stepped into the void and do a lot of that reporting, so I’m not making fun of it.
But in some ways it’s become kind of a cliché that a documentary is a finger-wagging lecture about the latest corporate abuser, polluter, corrupt government official, campus rape. All of these things are important to talk about, but I needed to take a break from that, and I just wanted to give people, as I say, a “concert film” — a concert of human emotion, just to think about the direction of their own lives. Because — and this is where it does connect to the tradition of documentary that I’m talking about—as silly as this sounds, there was such a spirit in that room of 2500 strangers from 70 countries really caring and supporting each other in a way that I thought was incredibly unique, that I have never seen before.
I think if more of us spent more time connecting to our core and remembering who we are and achieving the best out of life and caring for one another and being interconnected with one another, instead of screaming at each other — because we are such a divisive country. Just look at Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders: they’re both popular because people are angry. Both sides are just yelling at each other, and there’s no compromise. I’m not saying that Tony Robbins or this method or my film is here to save the world, by any stretch of the imagination, but if people felt more at ease with who they were, more of in control of who they were, more fulfilled in what they do in life, more connected to their fellow human being, maybe there would be less social ills in the world for documentarians to point their cameras at. So as lofty and as pollyannaish as that sounds, that was my goal with this film.
SP: After the time you've spent filming Tony, what’s your take on him as a person? What special power does he have to reach people?
JB: There are different people with different talents, and I think he is an amazing communicator. Obviously he has his own ideas about life, but he also is quite adept at taking complex ideas from different philosophies, pulling out their essence, and communicating that to people in a way that’s very powerful. He’s a gifted speaker, obviously. He’s very charismatic, and I think that with the experiences of his youth, with the kind of mother he had and whatever circumstances led him to be who he is, he has an incredible ability to get to the heart of the matter. And I have seen it time and time again.
SP: His wife says in the film that the person you see on stage is how Tony is all the time. Was there ever a moment when he had to take a break or wasn't "on"?
JB: Like anyone he needs to go to sleep and whatever, so he does take a break. But that comment that he’s the same on-stage and off-stage and has as much energy for people signing an autograph or meeting in the hallway, I have seen it so many times now that I'm really impressed with what an authentic person he is. And the biggest example of that, the thing that really won me over, is that after the Dawn intervention, he went backstage, and he was in tears.
I had access to going backstage with my crew, but that was a particular moment where his security — who I had a great relationship with — said, "No, Tony needs a private moment," and they would not let me through. So I kind of snuck around another way because I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I wanted to go back there. And the man — this is 5 minutes after the intervention was over — the man was flooded in tears and just had to take a break. So for that experience to move him privately in the way it did, I know it was authentic. He was not doing it for my camera — I wasn't supposed to be back there. That convinced me of his authenticity.
Tony Robbins speaking at SXSW, photo by ScreenPrism
SP: He talks about how people can have many moments of change or breakthrough, but the harder thing is making the change last. Did you have any insights into it's possible to sustain those changes?
JB: As he says in the film, if you have a breakthrough at the seminar, you can’t just expect it to be permanent. You have to work on yourself. That’s one of those meanings of the title, “I Am Not Your Guru,” to me is that Tony can give you the tools, but at the end of the day it has to come from you. The desire to breakthrough and change your life has to come from you. The motivation to sustain it and the motivation to keep practicing it, like any achievement in life, requires discipline. You can’t just go to a seminar and have a breakthrough and expect it to last. You can have an insight about your life, and an insight is momentary, but in order to make that insight last, you need to keep working on yourself. That’s why Tony is not the answer. He can provide you with the tools, and the answer has to come from you.
SP: When he’s saying, “I’m not your guru,” he also says "I can’t fix you because you're not broken” and that we shouldn’t think the goal is to have no problems — we should see our problems as opportunity. Did you adopt that mindset as well?
JB: Very much so. That’s the whole ball game: seeing your life as a series of experiences that have made you who you are today. I had a certain kind of childhood that has made me want to dedicate my life to discovering the truth. Had I not had the childhood I had, I would not be the filmmaker I am today. I’m pretty proud of what I have been able to achieve and very happy with what I do for a living. And that directly came from negative experiences, and so, it’s all how you interpret things. That’s what Tony’s great gift has been to me is allowing me to reframe the experiences of my life so I see them as a positive instead of a negative.
SP: Was Tony involved at all in the editing?
JB: No. The deal I had with Tony was that I had to have final cut, and he really couldn’t be involved. As a courtesy, I showed him a cut just to make sure I was presenting things accurately, but that was the deal.
I spent two years chasing him to do the film because after the 2012 experience I said, "Hey, I think there’s a great film here. This was an amazing experience." He was concerned that the making of the film would interfere with the experience of the attendees. He was also concerned with, how do you take 72 hours and present them as two and capture the essence? How do you take one- to two-hour interventions and cut them down to six minutes and still honor the arc that he takes people through? So he had a lot of reasons to not do the film. And I kept telling him I think I can do it.
So finally, it was about a month to Date with Destiny 2014, and it was about my seventh time reaching out to him. In 2013 he kept saying, "No," but in 2014 somehow he said “Yes.” I think it’s because I said, "Look, I’ll take the risk that, at any point during the week, if you feel like I’m intruding or it's going badly, you have the right to just pull the plug and send me away. I’ll give you the footage; you can use it for training purposes. But I’ll take the risk." And I think that simple offer of giving him the control — not over the film, but the control of whether there would be a film — was persuasive for him, and so he agreed to let me do it.
My deal was, you can tell me to go away at any time, but once we get to the finish line, if we still want to make the film, you have to let me make the film. He was cool with that. By now, we had spoken so many times about it, and we had gotten know each other. He knew my intentions were pure. I was not out to make a hit piece or anything like that because it’s not the experience I had. So he let me make the film I wanted to make, and then of course once Netflix got involved, Netflix had ultimate control over me, but they were also extremely collaborative.
SP: For each day, you choose one or two people to follow, and you also update us on their lives after the event. Was it hard to select which people to include? How did you choose that cast of characters?
JB: That was the hardest part of making the film because there are three or four interventions a day. There are lots of exercises that I didn’t highlight that are not interventions. The challenging part of the film is it does not have a traditional dramatic structure. Each day is slightly different content, and you’re meeting new people, so how do you sustain that dramatically? Normally, a film is following the same people over a period of time, and they grow and change, and that’s the definition of drama.
So, for this, it was a slightly different way of doing an arc. I felt like each day had to be a character. The most important thing was I wanted the characters to represent the universal themes that we all could relate to. Some of the interventions were very specific, and not as universal to me as others. So one thing that was very important was the universality.
The other important thing to me was the balance. If you’re just going to have a Dawn, who’s just devastating emotionally, then we've got to come back and have some humor. That’s why Lance and Tammy — which played beautifully last night; people thought it was very funny and enjoyable and meaningful — but I think it’s doubly meaningful and humorous because at that point in the film we’ve just been through the emotional ringer with Dawn, so we’re ready for something a little more light-hearted in the relationship realm. I was just looking for a balance of how to take people on an emotional journey of some universal themes that I felt connected together.
SP: You and Tony referred to bonus features on Netflix - will you include some extra interventions?
JB: Because the film was really too long and we were struggling with [length], there was one intervention that was really powerful, but it’s like a 15-minute intervention, and it felt somewhat duplicative to Jane and Sienna. So I pitched Netflix on the idea of doing a bonus feature, so when the film actually comes out on Netflix, there’ll be a second piece with another intervention. Think of it as the old fashioned DVD extras but on Netflix.
SP: I thought it was a brave editing choice to keep the structure of the story grounded in the event itself. I was waiting for that moment when you would cut away to a sentimental flashback of his back story, but I was glad you didn't.
JB: In earlier versions of the film, there was more biographical detail. There was my own journey — I decided I’m not part of the story. It was a process of whittling away and realizing it’s just those 6 days; it's what’s happening in that room. Because I wanted to make people feel like they’re actually in that room, which is not an easy thing to do because film is two-dimensional and a seminar is three-dimensional. I wanted people to feel like they're in that room and have the emotional journey that the characters took.
What was really gratifying is that [at the SXSW premiere screening] some people weren’t sure what the film was about until the Jane and Sienna intervention, when Tony is talking about blaming people effectively — if you're gonna people for all the bad in your life, you've got to blame them for the good. I just felt the audience kind of kicking in, and it was great. The audience at Date with Destiny’s reactions were mirroring the audience in the movie theatre. People were laughing, crying. I think it worked.
SP: Do you think your experience with Tony will impact the way you make films in the future?
JB: Every film is a great learning experience, and I think my methods haven’t really changed, but I’m going to carry into the next making of a film the realization that focusing on positive things is as valid as focusing on negative things.