Joe Berlinger's introduction to self-help guru Tony Robbins came four years ago in Palm Springs.
And it wasn't pretty.
Berlinger, an Academy Award nominated, two-time Emmy and Peabody winning director, was introduced to Robbins through mutual friends and invited to the 2012 “Date with Destiny” event held in Palm Springs that year.
“I’m a busy person and I never take the time to better myself, so I paid for my hotel and airfare and was Tony’s guest,” Berlinger recals. “The first day, I hated the experience. You’re paired with strangers to share deep feelings…and all my red flags and alarm bells were going off. My wife encouraged me to stick it out another day.”
Berlinger says he participated in a revealing guided memory exercise and witnessed positive interventions that he characterizes as “profound transformations,” including a Wounded Warrior with severe PTSD who “completely turned around.”
“I went from trying to escape to having a truly fulfilling and inspirational experience that I wanted to share,” Berlinger says. “I wasn’t going there to make a film, but it hit me that I wanted to share with the world Tony’s true passion to give back and end people’s suffering. I just found him to be totally committed to idea of helping people reshape their lives and how they can change their lives in a moment if given the right tools. He’s authentically a caring person.”
Director Joe Berlinger (right) earned the trust of Tony Robbins (left) to film behind-the-scenes of “Date with Destiny.”
The result is a documentary that will bring both Berlinger and Robbins back to Palm Springs where Tony Robbins: I am Not Your Guru will open the American Documentary Film Festival on March 31 at Camelot Theatres. Berlinger’s film takes the audience on an intimate tour of Robbins “Date with Destiny” program, a six day immersive, potentially life changing, self-discovery seminar series.
After his experience at “Date with Destiny,” Berlinger says he reached out to Robbins, who wasn’t sure he wanted to make a film. Eventually, he built the trust necessary to gain back stage access to film the inner workings and energy that goes into pulling off “Date with Destiny,” which can host as many as 2,500 people.
Television movie streaming giant Netflix came in as producers midway through production, and will be launching the film globally on their service starting July 15.
Much of Berlinger's subject matter is known to shine a light on social injustices including his environmental eye-opener, Crude, and the Emmy –winning HBO series Paradise Lost about wrongful convictions.
The documentary on Robbins is Berlinger’s 12th documentary feature and a bit of a departure from some of his more hard core, hard hitting commentaries. However, Berlinger found the movie touches upon similar themes highlighting the connections between human dissatisfaction and social injustice.
“This is a different kind of film about growing and changing in a good way,” he says. “This film is stylistically and thematically different (from past works), but what better way to grow and change then to do a film about growth and change. I think there would be less need to point out social ills if people, in general, were more satisfied with the direction of their own lives and people felt more deeply human connections.”
He does say have one concern about the film. “If people know my work… people know that I take on social injustice. This is not about the dark side of Tony Robbins,” he says. “This six-day event (Date with Destiny), eventually, led to a satisfying feature film with dramatic structure. It’s very compelling, very dramatic. I want people go in with a open mind. I think audiences, if they have an open mind, will be deeply moved and this can translate to people thinking about their own lives more deeply.”
American Documentary Film Festival, March 30 to April 4, Camelot Theatres, 2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs, www.americandocumentaryfilmfestival.com