I've had a very circuitous route to becoming a filmmaker. I feel I fell into documentary filmmaking by accident, but [I'm] thrilled that I did. And as I get older, I feel more in tune spiritually with what people are supposed to be doing, so I clearly feel now I should be doing this, and doing a very specific kind of documentary. At the time, it felt like happenstance, but now, I see that certain doors open at the right time. And when a door opens and you step through . . . I was a language major in college and always imagined myself having some kind of international career. I was always interested in the media and always loved film, but never imagined I could actually make a living in the film industry.
Right out of school, for a year, I worked at McCann Erickson in New York, advertising. I got that job because I was a really good amateur magician and I turned my interview into a magic show. They couldn't believe I had the nerve to do that, so they hired me to be in this account management training program even though I had no M.B.A. and I was way younger than anybody else.
And then within a year I heard about an opportunity to work overseas at Ogilvy [& Mather], and because I now had advertising experience at a major New York agency and had gone through their account management program, and because I was fluent in a number of languages, particularly German, I got hired by Ogilvy to go to Frankfurt. By the time I was hired— this was the mid-eighties and there was this big movement . . . for a particular client like American Express or British American Tobacco or Mattel, they tried to come up with concepts that were generic enough that they could shoot one commercial that all the countries in Europe could use. The globalization of advertising was the big buzzword.
My job in Frankfurt was to coordinate all these pan-European shoots— I had zero production knowledge, had not gone to film school, had gone to Colgate and was a language major, had very little advertising background— I sort of bluffed my way into the middle level. So I found myself, at twenty-three, living and working in Frankfurt at Ogilvy & Mather coordinating these big TV commercial shoots as a producer, and that's when the film bug hit me. I stumbled my way through and figured out how to be a producer and, all of a sudden, realized I loved film, and that's when I started thinking, "This is what I want to do for a living." I spent a couple years in Europe as a producer and found my way back to New York and was producing American Express commercials at Ogilvy & Mather in New York trying to figure out, how can I really get into the film business, when I had this idea to hire the Maysles brothers.
Again, everything seems like happenstance, but when I look back on my life, it seems the route I was supposed to take. So I guess now I'm about twenty-five. American Express wanted to do a documentary-style TV commercial campaign, unscripted, which was unusual for ad agencies. Now, real people is very popular, but at the time, it was the odd project that was an unscripted, real people project. So I hired the Maysles brothers to do this commercial campaign which turned out well, but the client didn't like it and it never aired. But in the process of hiring them, I hit it off with David Maysles. David was much more attuned to and interested in business than Albert is. He and I just started talking, and I wanted to get into the film business and he wanted to develop their advertising business more. Up until my arrival at that company their presence on Madison Avenue was, more or less, if someone thought to call them, they would come in for a meeting, and every now and then, they did a commercial. I was hired to really develop that business.
I went over to the Maysles because I thought this was my opportunity to get into the film business, but even at that point I didn't necessarily want to be a documentary filmmaker. They hired me to become their executive producer for commercials, and I spent five years there developing their TV commercial business, and I used it as my documentary film school and learned all that I could. Made a couple of short films, which did very well, which encouraged me. And that's where I met Bruce Sinofsky— he was an editor for the Maysles. Bruce had helped me cut a couple of my short films, and Bruce and I had become very close and realized we liked working together and shared Bruce Sinofsky (left) and Joe Berlinger. Photo credit: a similar aesthetic. Gannett Suburban Newspapers.
So, in '90, we started making Brother's Keeper sort of on the weekends, and, in '91, when we had all the material, except for the trial material, for Brother's Keeper, we presented that to American Playhouse, and Bruce and I each left the Maysles to dedicate ourselves to finishing Brother's Keeper and starting our own company, and I've been a documentary filmmaker ever since.
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