Joe Berlinger has made a documentary about motivational speaker, author, and life coach Tony Robbins, and if you expect it to be in an exposé, well, it's not—though the director understands why you might assume that it would be. "I guess you could say I normally make feel-bad movies, but this is my first feel-good movie," says Berlinger, who is known for investigative documentaries like Brother's Keeper and the Paradise Lost trilogy.
His first feel-good movie, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, premieres on Netflix today and chronicles one of Robbins's famous "Date With Destiny" seminars, allowing outsiders to see for the first time what goes on at one of these six-day events attended by 2,500 people who have paid nearly $5,000 each in hopes of breaking through the barriers that are holding them back from their purpose in life.
The most compelling interactions take place in a hotel ballroom where Robbins stands on a stage before his devotees, pumping them up with inspirational talk and music before stepping offstage into the crowd to hold intense, one-on-one interventions. Some people need help with more run-of-the-mill family and relationship issues. Others—a man who confesses to having been suicidal and a woman who endured sexual abuse while growing up in a cult—are in more dire need of help.
The film shows Robbins in his element, and whether or not you are a fan, there is something to be learned from how he commands a room and connects with people. You might be surprised to hear how often Robbins drops the F-bomb.
Beyond talking to the self-help icon throughout the seminar to learn about the thinking behind his methods, Berlinger also goes behind the scenes to reveal the daily work that goes into pulling off a massive event full of individuals with high expectations. Each and every person wants to get something life-changing out of Date With Destiny, to leave transformed, and it's impressive to see just how much personal attention the attendees get from Robbins's staff, a well-organized army that keeps close tabs on everyone.
Berlinger went into shooting Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru knowing what to expect because he had attended a Date With Destiny seminar in Palm Springs, California, after he met Tony Robbins at a party in 2012 and got a personal invite. "I'm not a self-help guy, or so I thought at the time," Berlinger says.
Still, he decided to take Robbins up on his offer because he was hitting 50 and feeling dissatisfied with his career, which is surprising to hear given that Berlinger is regarded as a successful filmmaker. Along with his frequent collaborator Bruce Sinofsky, who died in 2015, Berlinger has made notable documentaries, including the aforementioned Brother's Keeper and the Paradise Lost films as well as Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. He has also been nominated for an Academy Award and won a lot of other awards, including a Directors Guild of America honor, two Emmys, and a Peabody.
"I had quite a bit of success in my chosen field," he acknowledges, thinking back to that time in his life. "Yet nothing was enough. I was not satisfied. I felt empty."
Berlinger adds, "I just want to make it clear my family life was good—great wife, great kids—but professionally nothing seemed to be enough."
So he went to Robbins's Date With Destiny as a participant in 2012, admittedly a little skeptical but seeking answers and inspiration, and all the music, dancing and hugging that he was exposed to the first day nearly drove him to leave. Berlinger called his wife hoping she would help him find a way to quit without offending Robbins, but she urged him to give it another day.
He did, and on day two, Berlinger says he took part in a guided memory exercise that took him back to his earliest childhood memory, and he had a breakthrough. "I really had a very profound and transformational experience," says the director who left the seminar with a sense of gratitude for his life and a desire to make a documentary about Date With Destiny.
Robbins, who Berlinger describes as "extremely reluctant" to let a film crew shoot a Date With Destiny seminar, had two concerns: He was afraid their presence would interfere with the experience of those attending the event, and he worried that a documentary would never be able to capture the true experience of attending the six-day seminar without trivializing it, according to Berlinger.
Tackling the latter concern, Berlinger won over Robbins, who had already seen and was a fan of his Metallica documentary, by telling him to watch his other films to see how he condensed yet still accurately represented events like the six-week trial seen in the first Paradise Lost film. "No documentary presents the literal truth. What I mean by literal truth is a six-week murder trial or 72 hours of a seminar. That's not a film," Berlinger says, stressing, "A bad filmmaker misrepresents an event, and a good filmmaker accurately portrays the emotional truthfulness of what goes on in the situation."
Addressing Robbins's first concern required Berlinger to put more on the line. "I finally told him, 'Look, I will come with my crew. I will take the risk. If you at any time feel like I'm getting in the way, you can pull the plug. That doesn't mean you can selectively decide where I can shoot. It's either pull the plug, this is not working, or let me do my thing.' "
This negotiation wasn't a quick one, by the way. Berlinger spent two years trying to convince Robbins to let him do the documentary before he got a yes. The director points out that he was never deterred by Robbins's resistance and kept pitching him the idea every few months. "That's what I consider my stock in trade—convincing people to let me make a film. I think about their initial reluctance, and then it's my job to win them over," he says.
As for the audience for Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, Berlinger is confident that Robbins's fans are going to enjoy the film. He is also certain that Robbins's detractors are going to hate it. Some reviewers have written the film off as an infomercial for Robbins.
Berlinger likens it more to a concert film. "It has become almost a cliché that a documentary has to be some investigative, takedown piece of the latest social ill," he says. "I'm not critical of that. I've made many of those films myself, and I think with the gutting of print journalism and the corporate control of the mainstream television media, newsrooms aren't what they used to be. Investigative reporting isn't what it used to be. There are a lot of stories that networks won’t even touch for fear of offending advertisers. That's how blurry the line between entertainment and news has become. And so into the void has stepped—in the last 10 years, especially—the independent documentary."
"I wanted to do something different," he continues, "which was to put something out there that has a positive message, that's inspiring, that captures the spirit of a room that I thought was amazing."
Getting back to the polarization that he expected the film to generate, the director hopes Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru will reach an audience of people "in the middle" who don't have strong feelings about Robbins. "My goal in making the film is not to have people go sign up for Tony Robbins seminars—I mean, if they do, that's great because I think they'll get something out of it—but that's not the goal of the film," he says. "The goal of the film is just to share a very positive experience that I had. If the film is a vehicle that allows people to spend two hours thinking about the direction of their own lives, that to me is a worthy goal for a documentary."