Oscar-nominated documentarian Amy Berg talks ‘An Open Secret,’ which targets underage abuse and names more names: “When you meet the victims … it’s difficult to ignore”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The spotlight again will be trained on the alleged sexual abuse of minors by powerful Hollywood players when Amy Berg‘s disturbing new documentary, An Open Secret, debuts at the DOC NYC film festival in New York on Nov. 14.
The subject was forced out of the shadows earlier this year whenMichael Egan III filed lawsuits against X-Men director Bryan Singer, veteran TV executive Garth Ancier, former Disney execDavid Neuman and producer Gary Goddard; all four denied the allegations, and by August, Egan had dropped the suits after prior inconsistent statements emerged (he also was scolded by a judge for lying in court). But now Egan is reemerging in a prominent role in Berg’s film, which focuses in part on the late 1990s Internet company Digital Entertainment Network headed byMarc Collins-Rector and Chad Shackley, who held alcohol- and drug-fueled parties attended by teen boys. “They would pull away the better-looking younger kids and keep them for their own afterparty,” where skinny-dipping was mandatory, says Egan in the film, alleging that Singer was in attendance.
The documentary, which paints a broad picture of sexual exploitation in the entertainment industry, does not revisit the specific allegations in Egan’s lawsuits, nor does it characterize the men Egan sued as predators. But in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Berg defends her choice to include them, saying, “The question is, if you are an adult at one of these parties where so much is going on out in the open, what is your responsibility?” She admits, “I don’t know the ins and outs of the various suits,” but she is convinced of Egan’s general credibility.
“He’s a straight man in his 30s,” she continues. “For him to say he was sexually abused by men as a young teen all the way up to his late teens, that’s kind of an unlikely thing to lie about. He was at those parties. His story was not unique. So many other kids had the exact same stories with the same details.” Plus, she adds, Egan’s account is “only one aspect of the story. It’s a much greater issue. When you meet the victims and see how prevalent this problem is, it’s difficult to ignore.”
Singer’s attorney Marty Singer (no relation) has not seen the film yet, but he questions why Egan’s allegations were included. “It’s disappointing and pathetic that Amy Berg would rely on the word of Michael Egan, a proven liar, who recently was admonished by a federal judge for lying in court,” Singer tells THR. “Egan has no credibility at all and can hardly be considered a reliable source for her so-called documentary.”
An Open Secret also examines several other cases: Talent manager Marty Weiss — who pleaded no contest in 2012 to two counts of committing lewd acts on a child after he was charged with eight felony counts of molesting a young performer he represented — is seen in the film attending family gatherings with one of his victims, then is heard, on tape, admitting to the molestation. Bob Villard, a talent manager who at one time represented a young Leonardo DiCaprio and who pleaded no contest to a similar felony charge in 2005, is alleged to have sold pictures of boys (often pictured shirtless, in subservient poses) on eBay.
The film also claims that Michael Harrah, a talent manager who sat on SAG-AFTRA’s Young Performers Committee, had young boys stay with him in his home and tried to take at least one of them to bed. “[Berg] quoted someone she had apparently talked to, and that information didn’t seem to be correct,” Harrah tells THR. “It’s hard to respond to anything that is so nebulous.” Adds a SAG-AFTRA rep, “We have not received complaints nor suggestions of any wrongdoing regarding the former committee member who resigned earlier this year.”
An Open Secret originated in 2011, when Berg, 44, who received an Oscar nomination for her 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil, which explored sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, was approached by Matthew Valentinas, a Boston entertainment attorney. He and hedge fund manager Alan Hoffman were looking to do something about victims of sexual exploitation, and, after listening to interviews in which actor Corey Feldman talked of encountering abuse, they decided to produce a documentary. “We chose Amy because we didn’t want it to be exploitative or tabloid,” says Valentinas. “We wanted it to be empowering for the victims.”
At first, Berg says, she had no interest in re-entering the dark world of abuse that she had visited in her earlier film. “It’s definitely not something I wanted to go back into,” she says. “But even many years after the DEN story, what I found really disturbing was the number of convicted pedophiles who are still being hired on set, on kids’ shows. These are people who technically should be nowhere near children. That was really upsetting.”
As she approached the filmmaking challenges involved, Berg discovered a wealth of visual material — 26 boxes worth — belonging to a collector on the East Coast who had bought up all of DEN’s video archives. More importantly, she found victims of abuse, now young men, who were willing to go on camera and relate their experiences — and, in some cases, their parents also agreed to take part. The young men described the process of “grooming,” by which the predators insinuated themselves into their lives, and they told of the often-difficult aftermath in which a number of them confronted depression, drugs and alcohol.
“They were all struggling with the same thing: trying to move on 10 years after the fact. I think this was healing for many of them,” Berg says. “They also felt that there was a threat to other children, and that was another reason they wanted to speak.” Valentinas adds, “The narrative really comes from the voices of the victims. The film relies on the courage of the victims coming forward. And for every person who did talk in the film, we talked to two or three who wanted to but couldn’t make that jump yet.”
Valentinas and Berg insist they didn’t hit roadblocks from attorneys representing men named in the film. But when the DOC NYC festival canceled a critics’ screening set for Nov. 4 at the producers’ request, it raised the question of whether the filmmakers were at odds over the final cut. “There was no disagreement,” says Valentinas. “There were a lot of legal complexities involved. We had to be sure we had all the documentation signed. That’s what we did, and we’re happy it’s going to be screening.”
While he had his fingers crossed, Thom Powers, artistic director of DOC NYC, says, “Certainly some moments were dicey, but I always believed in my heart that it was going to screen, because the whole film team was doing everything they could to make it happen.” He adds, “I think it’s an important film about an important topic, a topic that has, of course, been in the news this past year. But as many news reports as I’ve read about this story, the film gave me something that I hadn’t had before, which is a depth of emotional understanding of what people involved in this have gone through. Anyone who has seen Amy’s film Deliver Us From Evil understands the sensitivity she has around this subject and the depth of commitment she brings to it.”
Will a distributor now step forward, or will the film, which cost about $1 million to make, prove too hot for Hollywood, forcing the filmmakers to take the self-distribution route? Several distributors have looked at it, and Valentinas says there is one, which he would not name, that has expressed definite interest. Says another distributor who passed, explaining there wasn’t room for it on his release slate: “It’s extremely compelling. How explosive it is remains to be seen. But I would not have any issue working on this film and think it would be a very interesting release.” Valentinas adds, “I think it’s going to come down to how courageous the executives are who look at this film. I think Hollywood is obviously nervous about the film, but I think once it is out there and everyone sees it, I’m sure we’ll have a lot of suitors for the film. I’m glad it’s premiering in New York, and I’m grateful for Thom Powers for giving us this venue to get the film out there.”
In conjunction with the film, Valentinas is in the process of setting up The Courage to Act Foundation. “The profits from the film are going to the foundation,” he says. “We are really hoping that more victims will feel they will have a place where they can come out and share their experience. It will also be a way for people to be more educated about how these pedophiles operate in Hollywood, because it’s very specific. The people who are going to Hollywood every year to get into films might be a little more susceptible, and the people who are preying on them have more influence and more power to dangle over them. I hope this film will help the industry to police itself better.”
Berg has already plunged into a number of new projects. Her first narrative film, Every Secret Thing, a drama about two young women, played by Dakota Fanning and Danielle Macdonald, convicted of killing a baby, debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. and she is completing a documentary aboutJanis Joplin. But she’s looking for more than just applause when An Open Secret finally screens. Say the director, “The goal is having public exposure that helps clean up the industry.”