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Joe Berlinger tackles an infamous gangster's trial in 'Whitey'

From the Oscar-nominated documentarian Joe Berlinger (“Paradise Lost” trilogy), “Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger” takes a look at the trial of the infamous Boston gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger was so notorious that at one point, he was the number two on America’s Most Wanted list after Osama Bin Laden. During the making of the film, Berlinger is given access to the defense, the prosecution and the victims’ families and at one point, some surprising revelations occur while shooting this documentary. Examiner.com had the opportunity to speak with Berlinger in March when he was presenting the movie at the Miami International Film Festival as he talked about his initial interest in this subject, along with the hardest part of shooting a film like this.

Academy Award nominated director Joe Berlinger (center) interviews Patricia Donahue (right), wife of Bugler victim Michael Donahue, on the set of WHITEY: United States v. James J. Bulger, a Magnolia Pictures release.
Magnolia Pictures/Daniel Wilson

How did you across doing this particular film?

Joe Berlinger: I’ve always been fascinated by the Whitey Bulger story. I can’t think of another criminal figure who have passed into the public consciousness as this kind of celebrated folk hero and we don’t really know much about him. He isn’t really a folk hero, but there’s been all of this mythologizing about him. I never thought I had anything to add to the story because he has been the subject of a dozen books, there have been other television documentaries, there’s been lots of reporting when he was captured and there are two feature films in the works like the Scott Copper movie with Johnny Deep. I just never thought I had anything to say because so much has been said about him and I never though he would be captured because I thought the F.B.I. had given him a free pass, but when was brought back to Boston and it was announced at the end of November 2012 that set a date for the trial. As soon as I heard there was going to be a trial, I said, “Okay…here’s a chance for me to my thing and to add to the canon of literature and media that already exists about this guy. To me, the trial represented an opportunity to separate the man from the myth and to try to get to the bottom of whom this person really is and how he was allowed to operate. That was the animating idea behind the film because the trial was a new opportunity to who he is and what is he about, but that goal became elusive because the trial itself turned out to be very narrowly defined. When the defense was not allowed to present an immunity defense, it just became clear that the trial was not going to be the big reveal. That actually gave me a sense of how to make this film, which was to focus on those questions of corruption that have yet to be satisfactorily answered. To me, that is what is the whole point of the film is.

After you found out the dates for the trail, what was the next step in preparing yourself to shoot the documentary?

Berlinger: We started making contact with the families of the victims to try to see who would talk to us because that was the key to the film was to be able to have access to all sides and to the victims’ families. We started getting to know some of the victims’ families who were willing to let us into their lives. I also reached out to the defense. That was quite a bit of an effort to get the defense to cooperate with us. We were not able to get the prosecution to cooperate because their policies were not to do interviews or cooperate until after the verdict has been reached. Those interviews happed after the verdict. Getting access to the defense was key and so was getting access to the families. We spent several months doing that and once I felt that we had the trust of the defense and a handful of characters from the victims’ families, I knew we could make the film.

Did the defense or the victims’ families have any concern on how they would be portrayed in the movie?

Berlinger: Initially, they were a little concern simply about the face that we weren’t from the area. I have to say that they weren’t concerned about the portrayal one way or the other, but just a general sense of “Can we trust these people?” The making of a documentary like this is all about building relationships and building trust. We spent a lot of time doing that.

Was gaining access to the prosecution the hardest part?

Berlinger: It was. I spent all summer begging the prosecution to let me have the same kind of access that I had with the defense. Clearly, they saw me with the defense all the time throughout the trial and I think that actually made them nervous, but eventually, I won them over and I felt like their point-of-view needed to be in the film. Unfortunately, I think they did themselves a disservice because not only did they not want me to film them while the trial was unfolding, which I understand. Once the trial was over, I asked for a significant amount of time with each one of them individually. They came back and made the decision and said, “No. You are going to get all three of us together for two hours and we are going to do it in our media room.” I think they unwittingly made themselves look a little unsympathetic, which was not my directorial intent at all, but by seeing these three guys together and only giving us two hours, it doesn’t give you enough time.

When you say two hours isn’t enough for you, how many hours in do you usually like to spend on someone you are interviewing?

Berlinger: I try to spend enough time with people as they allow. I am glutton for time (laughs). Sit-down interviews could be an hour or two hours. I like filming real events as they are unfolding instead of doing interviews. That’s why we drive in the car as people are going to court. We spent enough time that we were actually there at some key moments like when we found out that Steve Rakes was killed. One my favorite moments in the film is when Whitey passes on the highway while Mrs. Donohue is driving to court.

“Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger” is now playing exclusively at the O Cinema in Wynwood.