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Behind the scenes of “I Am Not Your Guru”
Filmmaker Joe Berlinger talks about fate, honesty and his own transformation
Hundreds of thousands of people have attended Tony Robbins programs, but there’s an event that only takes place once a year in the States, where 2,500 people from all over the world come to Florida to experience one of his most intimate and intensive seminars – Date with Destiny.
It’s six days of total immersion, and the people who take that journey discover who they are, what drives them and their ultimate purpose. In short, this is the place where they deal with the hard stuff. And with thousands of people in a room, digging into their pasts, envisioning their future, you name it – you can imagine how emotionally charged the room gets, and how personal of an experience Date with Destiny is.
So it’s not hard to understand why Tony never allowed cameras in to document the event. But that all changed when he met acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Joe Berlinger, who would go on to make the Tony Robbins Netflix movie that became a sensation.
Who is Joe Berlinger?
Joe Berlinger is a documentary filmmaker known for investigative films like the Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three, exposing cracks in the criminal justice system, and “Crude,” which is about pollution in the Amazon from giant oil companies. Joe Berlinger documentaries, for the most part, have been geared toward taking us into the issues of the world that are often obscured by media or politics, and uncovering disturbing truths.
But Joe didn’t start out as a filmmaker. He was a language major in college, and his only goal after graduation was to live in Europe and get paid to speak German. His work in client services at an international advertising agency brought him to a TV commercial shoot – and “That’s when the lights, camera, action caught my attention.”
For those of you familiar with Joe’s body of work, you may be surprised that he would have pursued a subject like Date with Destiny in the first place. And you may be especially curious as to why he felt so strongly that he pressed Tony for years to agree to it.
A fortunate meeting
Tony and Joe were first introduced to each other by two other heavy-hitters in the entertainment industry – Brian Koppelman and David Levien – who themselves had attended Date with Destiny and ultimately went on to executive produce the documentary. They met at a party, and Joe says, “I was captivated by his charisma, his warmth, his immediate interest in who I was.”
Tony invited Joe to a seminar, but Joe wasn’t so sure. He was actually thinking about leaving, but on day two, the guided memory exercise changed his life. “I released a lot of the chains from my childhood that bound me, that held me back. I was flooded in tears,” Joe says. “And I felt a weight lift. A moment of lightness. Something profound happened in that moment.” Joe reconnected with himself. And he told Tony he’d love to make a film about it.
Tony wasn’t sold on the idea of the documentary. He thought the crew would interfere with the Date with Destiny experience. He thought that condensing an intensely emotional, intensely personal, 72-hour event into just a couple of hours was not only impossible, but would trivialize its meaning. Joe had to convince him he could address those concerns.
Joe sent Tony all his films. He told him that all documentaries are what he calls “hyper-reality.” He says, “You’re trusting the filmmaker to capture the emotional truthfulness,” over the literal truthfulness. It took him two years to get Tony to agree.
The film is called “Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru” and it premiered at South by Southwest in March 2016, followed by a string of showings at film festivals. It’s currently on Netflix and recently celebrated its fifth anniversary – and many lives changed.
Getting out of his comfort zone
This film is a bit of a departure in subject for Joe Berlinger documentaries. The motivation, the storytelling, and the deep dive into parts unknown – that’s all there. So what did he like about this subject in particular? What was it that inspired him so much, he spent two years convincing Tony to make the film?
Joe’s ultimate reason for making “I Am Not Your Guru” may not be what you think. In the podcast, he’ll reveal what he hoped to accomplish, plus talk about how fate played a hand in the making of this documentary, his unique approach to filming Date with Destiny and how the entire experience has transformed his life.
Joe says, “I look back and think everything happens for a reason. I was destined to do this and it’s been an amazing life adventure to go drop into people’s worlds.”
[2:20] Joe’s path to becoming a filmmaker
[7:45] How Joe and Tony met and connected
[12:00] Joe’s decision to attend Date with Destiny
[13:05] His initial reaction to the event
[16:30] Why he fled and why he stayed
[17:00] A life-changing experience
[19:00] The next 5 days and the tools he absorbed
[20:00] Joe’s transformation
[20:30] Why Joe wanted to make a film about DWD
[22:30] Tony’s resistance to the documentary
[24:00] How Joe convinced Tony to say yes
[26:45] The range of experiences at DWD
[28:30] Joe’s intentions through documentary
[31:00] Giving people a concert of human emotion
[32:30] Joe’s ultimate goal in making this film
[33:30] His expected audience reaction
[36:20] Changing the rules of a documentary
[39:40] The powerful experience the film creates
[41:45] What’s next for Joe