‘Phoenix Rising’ Director Amy Berg On The ‘Culture’ That Judged Evan Rachel Wood During Her Relationship With Marilyn Manson

Phoenix Rising, a new documentary on HBO that debuted at Sundance, actually became a two-part documentary on the fly. The pivotal moment occurred in January 2021 when Evan Rachel Wood came forward (on Instagram) to name Marilyn Manson (real name Brian Warner) as her alleged abuser, whom she had spoken about for several years. This discussion had already generated speculation about Manson, given the timeline (for grooming, domestic abuse, and terrorizing) regarding her testimony in front of Connecticut lawmakers for Jennifer’s Law and for California’s Phoenix Act. These laws (respectively) make more resources available for survivors and extend the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases.

As one can imagine, Evan’s articulation of Manson’s name expanded the scope of the Amy Berg-directed project, which already included Manson and Wood’s relationship in addition to exploring her earlier formative years. The project dives deep into details of Wood’s accusations, including allegations that she was “essentially raped on camera” by Manson during the filming of 2007’s “Heart-Shaped Glasses” video. She maintains that she had agreed only to simulate sex, and Wood further describes how the violence of this relationship only grew more harrowing. She accuses Manson of isolating her and dismantling her identity (after preying upon a young woman who was 19 years his junior). As the documentary also aims to prove, Wood is not alone, and several other women in this project put forth similar accusations against the singer.

Amy Berg was gracious enough to speak with us about the film. She’s no stranger to harrowing subject matter (Deliver Us From Evil, West Of Memphis, The Case Against Adnan Syed), and with this project, she hopes to communicate relatability (with Evan’s plight) to survivors of domestic abuse. It’s worth noting that — two weeks before Phoenix Rising was due to debut on HBO — Manson sued Wood while alleging “malicious falsehood” over her abuse claims, which he continues to deny. Yet Berg, Wood, and HBO pushed forward with the release as planned.

Hi Amy, I’m fiddling with Zoom camera mode, which is a great start to talking about this subject.

Yeah, and it adds a whole other layer when you’re dealing with a really heavy film, and you’re not really in the production offices either. That adds more to the isolation trauma, I guess, or something.

You’re used to difficult subject matter, but this might have topped the charts. How do you distance yourself from trigger points while doing the work that you do?

Well, yeah, I mean, I had a really strong team during the edit, and that’s how we kept it on point. Nowadays, we can work with Trello, the app that we use. We can make cards online, it’s like having a cork board [wildly gestures], so we just had to support each other, and we stayed with the story that we were trying to tell in the edit. And that was the way to keep some distance, but it’s tough. I’m not gonna lie to you and say that it doesn’t seep in. It does.

And you gotta take a load off at some point.

More so during the pandemic because you don’t have a production office, you know, for the bulk of this period that we were shooting. We didn’t really have a central office, so it was just like what we’re doing right now.

Have you been watching the Twitter conversation about this film?

Oh, I’ve been doing press for 24 hours, are you talking about today?

Yes, there’s a lot of support for Evan’s advocacy and this project, but there are (of course) trolls from toxic fandom.

I do wonder if people who are so against it actually watched the film. Because all that I saw with some of yesterday was “she has no evidence.” That’s what I kept seeing, over and over again, and I feel like the documentary shows a lot of evidence, so I’m wondering whether they’ve even seen the film, you know?

Yeah, and this film takes us back in time. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I remember, back around 2006 when Evan and Manson started dating, that something seemed very “off,” even then. Did you catch that vibe, too?

Yeah, I definitely did, and I haven’t really thought about this in a long time, actually. Because I’ve been so in this film, but I do remember, and I wasn’t a fan of Manson, and I didn’t know that much about him. I just remember the image of those two, definitely, was all over the place. And headlines everywhere, at Perez Hilton…

I seem to remember a headline (somewhere else, not Perez) that read something like, “Evan Rachel Wood Must Hate Her Parents.” Not fantastic.

And the media has traditionally been very good at making women feel like, you know, the names that they called her in the film. Calling her a “whore” and just chastising her publicly, and just kind of this culture that we have been accustomed to, and it’s so wrong. It puts you in the wrong frame of mind about everything. Because you’re constantly judging on something that you don’t know anything about. I’m really excited that we were able to un-peel this onion and tell this story because it was just really this young girl who was just trying to find her way and got caught up in the wrong thing. And it’s important to tell that story.

Obviously, there was a point when the project expanded. That was the moment when Evan posted on Instagram, but how was the flow going until that point, where you tied in her family history?

The film’s chronology is in real time. We got into her backstory right away, so we could understand everything that had happened historically before [Manson touring technician/personal assistant] Dan Cleary had tweeted [a thread] in August 2020, or it might have been early September. When Manson’s last album came out, Cleary tweeted, and that was a turning point in the documentary at that time because it was the first time that a man in the music industry stood up for Evan. And kind-of, the floodgates were open at that point. It bought so much stuff up, so that’s when we started to follow her through the investigation and talking to other folks and dealing with her family and then publicly naming him. It all happened in real time.

It was sobering to watch how, even with Evan having the public profile that she did, she found it so hard to get out of that relationship. What do you want to communicate to women who have no support network and find it similarly hard to exit dangerous situations?

Well, Evan tried to kill herself multiple times, and she didn’t have any resources at the time, and she feels that something propelled her to look at her life and know that it was worth living, at the time that she was dying, basically. I guess there is a more public conversation about domestic violence, and there are resources, and we’re trying to make sure, through the film’s website that people have access to the right phone numbers. But it’s just important to start communicating this more. We hear the vocabulary words of “grooming” and “gaslighting,” but do we really understand what they mean? Do we understand that, if we’re in a situation that is abusive? That’s what the film is designed to convey, to be more relatable. So she seems to have a certain stature, but she was a victim as well.

Now, you got involved with the project when Evan was working on the Phoenix Act. At that point, were you aware of how many women would eventually come forward with allegations against him?

They had told me that it was over 20 people that they had heard of at that time, so once she testified in Sacramento, even though she didn’t name him, there was a lot of conversation that started happening. So I don’t think we know how many people have been abused by him at this point. It’s a small group that we talked to, but I’m sure that these kinds of stories are not isolated. When somebody has these kind of patterns, I imagine that we’ll be hearing a lot of other stories.

Obviously, you can’t talk about his lawsuit.

Thank you for answering that question! I definitely cannot.

Can you comment on the timing of his filing?

Look, it’s not a surprise. A major film is coming out on HBO with a high profile, so it’s not a surprise that this would be a retaliatory action, but I just cannot comment on the lawsuit.

There’s one line in the film — and Evan’s brother said it, that Manson is a “wolf in wolf’s clothing” — which hit incredibly hard.

Yeah, everything that her brother said was so thoughtful and impactful. He was the one constant in her life, for her whole life. And he called things out in a way that was both sensitive and spot-on. His words were very impactful from the get-go.

Brothers are the best. And I don’t want to say that I enjoyed the subject matter of the film, but I appreciate the way that it was handled.

Thank you! And thank you so much for your time.

‘Phoenix Rising’ is currently streaming on HBO Max.