Amy Berg is best known for Deliver Us From Evil, which tackles the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, and West of Memphis, which chronicles the story of the West Memphis Three. Now she has another true crime tale with overtones of religious devotion and sexual abuse. Prophet’s Prey delves into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a Mormon sect that splintered away from the main LDS Church after it renounced polygamy at the beginning of the 20th century, and its leader Warren Jeffs, who is imprisoned for life for rape and incest. It’s based on the book of the same name by Sam Brower, a private detective who spent seven years investigating the FLDS and Jeffs’s tyrannical hold on it. At the Sundance Film Festival, I spoke with Berg about sex abuse as a subject and the myriad ways one obtains the material needed for a documentary.
Nonfics: Multiple books have been written about Warren Jeffs and the FLDS church. What was it about Prophet’s Prey that made it attractive as the basis for this film?
Amy Berg: Well, it was actually the other way around. I was approached by Sam Brower and Jon Krakauer to make the film. I found their investigation and the hunt to take Jeffs down extremely interesting. I also was really fascinated by the materials that they had through their investigation into Jeffs — his words, his prophecies, the music. It seemed like the right story, an important story to tell.
Did they seek you out because of the documentaries you’ve made about sexual abuse and religion?
Yes. I think Deliver Us From Evil was on their radar. That was their impetus to call me.
Is this a subject that strikes you particularly?
When you look at the statistics for people who are high risk offenders in prison, there’s a huge percentage of criminals who have been perpetrators or victims of sexual abuse. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to stop. It crosses lots of different stories, and the religious aspect is definitely in many of my films. With this one, I was interested in the power of this madman and his cult, and the blind state. After you start digging deeper, you find all the sexual abuse that’s going on with the underage girls and boys.
The film has very dark color tones. Even when it’s shot outside, on sunny days with clear skies, the brightness is muted.
Most of that was done in post. It was our intention from the beginning. It seemed like the right look for this film. And it’s very close to how it really looked, how the Southwest sun gets so bright that it washes out a lot of color.
You pull in a wide array of voices in this film, including former FLDS members. Is there anyone you tried to interview but couldn’t?
Oh yeah. There’s Warren Jeffs himself. I tried to get him in the film for over a year. I went to his prison once a week for a year, and he never responded. I really wanted to speak to at least one of his wives who were still in the church. I thought it would be neat to talk to somebody that’s still in, but that turned out to be impossible. I did speak to one of his wives who left the FLDS, Wife #62. She’s one of just two of Jeff’s wives to have ever left the church.
You’re talking to these people about really sensitive, personal material. How do you make them comfortable with you?
Well, I don’t usually just turn the camera on. I try to build a pretty decent rapport with my subjects before I start filming them. I understand how sensitive the material is and what they have to say. I just try to be as connected to them as possible.
How long does it take to build that rapport?
It depends. Sometimes it takes a number of phone conversations. Or I’ll fly out and meet somebody and then come back a second time to interview them. Or I’ll just spend an hour talking to them before we start rolling. It’s dependent on the person and what their comfort level is. It’s important to make sure that they’re comfortable with what their participation is, as well.
You do have recent footage of Jeffs in the film, a deposition in which he repeats “Fifth Amendment” over and over. How did you obtain it?
That deposition happened about a year ago, in Palestine, Texas, where he’s in jail. It was initially not going to be videotaped. We couldn’t be present, but we hired a videographer and then payed for that footage. It was really a gamechanger for the narrative, for sure.
The questions the attorney asks him go so well with each story beat that you use. I assume you rearranged the questions in order to match the narrative?
Yeah, we had to. I mean, the attorneys weren’t asking him questions in any particular order, and we wanted the audience to understand the scenes in a resonant way.
It’s always interesting to hear how a doc creatively rearranges things in a way that viewers might not even think about. How much material did you have to work with?
I didn’t have as much footage as I’ve had with films in the past. I would say it was probably about 70 hours. Which sounds like a lot, but it’s not that much for a documentary. We had all the process pieces, all the audio, the B-roll. It was difficult to get the B-roll shots of the FLDS community in Colorado City. Those people do not want to be filmed.
There’s also audio of Jeffs preaching and prophesying. Where did that come from?
The FLDS kept all of those records. The authorities obtained a lot of them after the raid on the YFZ Ranch in 2008. The recordings were just one of the things found in all those boxes that they collected. There are other resources we used as well — much of what we found was on the public records. We were able to get tapes of Jeffs in jail from the Schleicher County Sheriff. How difficult it is to get something depends on what kind of item that you’re talking about.
This interview was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 31, 2015.