[Trigger warning: this article contains descriptions of domestic violence, as well as sexual and physical abuse.]
Sometimes the film you set out to make is not the one you end up with. That’s the case with director Amy Berg’s intense two-part HBO documentary Phoenix Rising. The veteran filmmaker originally set out to document actress Evan Rachel Wood’s successful drive to lengthen the statute of limitations for domestic violence felonies in California from three to five years.
As Wood was fighting for the Phoenix Act — which was signed into law in 2019 — Berg realized that any potential film would have to delve into Wood’s allegations against her former fiancé/boyfriend, shock rocker Marilyn Manson (born Brian Warner). That story makes up much of the first part (“Don’t Fall”) of the nearly three-hour saga, with Wood describing the sexual, physical and emotional abuse she claims she suffered at the rock singer’s hands during an on-and-off relationship that began when she was 18. (An interview with Berg — an Oscar nominee best known for her Catholic church sex abuse film Deliver Us From Evil and the sex abuse in Hollywood doc An Open Secret — follows.)
“I was just a baby,” Wood says in Rising about the beginning of her relationship with Manson. As a teenager, Wood says she witnessed domestic violence in the home, and because she was homeschooled, she had no proper sex education. In the first part of Phoenix Rising, Wood says she was so freaked out and confused by her own genitals that she only realized she was “normal” after finding a pornography magazine on the side of the road and comparing her body to the graphic images on paper.
Rising first takes us through Wood’s stardom as a young teenager starring in the Euphoria-like teens-gone-bad film Thirteen (2003), where, as a 13-year-old, she made out on set with men in their twenties. “I just remember feeling completely lost and looking for a direction to go… so I was the perfect candidate for someone to pop up and say ‘come with me,’” she says of her vulnerable feelings after coming out to her parents as bi and feeling unsure of her place in Hollywood and the wider world.
It was around that time, in 2006, that she says she met Manson at an L.A. party, with the singer proclaiming to be a big fan of Thirteen and then pitching her on his fantasy film project, Phantasmagoria, based the life of Alice in Wonderland writer Lewis Carroll. Though she had a boyfriend her age at the time — now ex-husband actor Jamie Bell — Wood says the then 37-year-old Manson kissed her one night and began “lovebombing” her with notes and texts, calling her his “soulmate” and describing himself as her “vampire.”
One of the most difficult portions to watch is Wood describing the video shoot for Manson’s 2007 single “Heart-Shaped Glasses,” which he said was inspired by her, but which she says included scenes she had not consented to. In what was supposed to be a simulated sex scene on a set she describes as “complete chaos,” Wood says Manson penetrated her without asking in a “really traumatizing” experience the then-19-year-old actress did not know how to handle. “[As an actor] I was conditioned to soldier through… it felt disgusting and like I did something shameful,” she says in the film, dubbing the “commercial sex act under false pretenses” the “first crime committed against me.”
In 2016, Wood testified in front of a congressional committee about sexual assault, and though she didn’t name Manson then, she says she began to hear from a number of other women with similar stories, describing it as “like finding out that you dated a serial killer.” The film then pivots to Wood working to change the statute of limitations on domestic violence felony crimes in California. It shows her detailing the abuse she alleges she suffered at Manson’s hands amid interviews with her parents and brother, who describe their concern over her relationship with a singer who staked his professional reputation on provocative acts, from tearing up Bibles and embracing fascist/Nazi symbolism, to cutting himself on stage and claiming that he once smoked human bones.
At one point, Wood, who is Jewish, says the film is “not about revenge,” but about a “monster” who appeared to embrace Hitler imagery and collect WWII treasures in what she thought was an ironic stance, but who also allegedly made fun of her for being Jewish, got “multiple” swastika tattoos while they were together and wrote “kill all the Jews” on the side of the bed they shared.
The second half of the film (“Stand Up”) is focused on Wood meeting the some of the singer’s other accusers, as well as her difficult breakup with Manson. At one point, Wood says Manson called her 158 times and threatened to kill himself if she didn’t come back. That is followed by a disturbing story about Manson allegedly tying her up and torturing her in a ritualistic manner. In a difficult-to-watch segment, Wood describes allegedly being lashed to a “kneeler” bench and being hit “over and over” with a Nazi whip from the Holocaust and then shocked on her welts and her private areas until she broke the bench in half, before Manson allegedly cut her and drank her blood and made her drink his blood.
The final part chronicles Wood “escaping” from the relationship, reconciling with her family and moving away to raise her young son from a brief marriage to Bell. She says she hasn’t spoken to Manson since. On Feb. 1, 2021, Wood named Manson as her alleged abuser.
Manson has repeatedly denied all the accusations of abuse leveled by more than half a dozen women who’ve sued him over similar allegations, saying in a statement, “Obviously, my art and my life have long been magnets for controversy, but these recent claims about me are horrible distortions of reality. My intimate relationships have always been entirely consensual with like-minded partners.” In March, Manson filed a defamation lawsuit against Wood, claiming that she defamed him with her accusations.
The lawsuit argued that her “malicious falsehood” was part of an “organized attack” that has damaged his career. “This detailed complaint has been filed to stop a campaign of malicious and unjustified attacks on Brian Warner,” Howard King, Manson’s attorney, told Billboard in a statement after the lawsuit was filed. “The evidence of wrongdoing by Wood … is irrefutable – and this legal action will hold [her] to account.”
In the midst of reporting on the film, Billboard was contacted by a representative for Manson who offered the names of three women whom they claimed had either worked with or had relationships with the singer. Billboard spoke with two of the women: One is an artist/fan who said she had a brief, consensual sexual encounter with the performer in Vienna in 2011 when she was 19 after the then-41-year-old musician sought her out on MySpace with a query about potentially modeling for him; the other described herself as a fan-turned-friend who worked as Manson’s personal assistant on-and-off for nearly 20 years. Billboard has not been able to independently verify their connections to Manson. Both said they were not being paid to speak out positively on Manson’s behalf, with the latter — who said she saw the first half of the film during its Sundance screening — saying there were “some grains of truth” to its depiction of Manson’s sometimes shocking behavior on stage and off, but both claiming that they never saw or experienced him abusing or sexually assaulting women.
Read Billboard‘s interview with director Berg below.
When did you meet Evan and what about her story drew you in?
I’ve known Evan probably about a decade, we’ve had some mutual friends and I’ve met her over the years personally and professionally. In the spring of 2019, Evan approached me about some work she was doing [regarding a sexual abuse lawsuit]… and was told because of the statute of limitations she was unable to pursue any justice in this case unless she were to change the law herself. So Evan started working with a group of people on the Phoenix Act and she was telling me that she thought they were going to be heard and she thought there was going to be new legislation in the state [of California]. I was really interested in that story… I saw a lot of changes in the landscape after #MeToo and I was interested in the empowerment of women through sharing their stories and trying to educate others who were maybe suffering in silence.
Were you familiar with Manson’s music or his public persona before you started and what was your impression of him?
Not really. I’ve known people over the years who’ve run into him and a lot of people who’ve told me stories about what happens at his house and I was horrified by some of the stories I heard through people I really trust. I definitely thought there was something tricky because the only thing I knew about him was what I saw in [the 2002 Michael Moore documentary] Bowling For Columbine, that was the end of my Manson understanding, so to hear that this was not just an act was surprising to me.
One thing you dive into is a bit of background on Manson’s own claims of abuse as a child chronicled in his memoir. Given your work on previous films about abuse, did that make him in any way more sympathetic to you?
I haven’t seen a story about a perpetrator that when you dive into when the perpetrator’s backstory you don’t find that they were personally abused. So there wasn’t a huge surprise when we looked at his book and he talked about what his childhood was like. He put the book [The Long Hard Road Out of Hell] out, so there are no secrets there. But it’s not something you heard about publicly when hearing stories about Marilyn Manson, Brian Warner.
Hearing these stories has to be difficult. What is the hardest part for you in making them into a film?
Obviously once you open the door into Brian Warner’s story, there were a lot of disturbing things that I heard about. Not obviously just from Evan Rachel Wood, we [also] talked to people who were in his band, on the road with him and the stories were pretty violent. There was a lot of abuse going on and it was right in plain sight. Some of these stories were really upsetting.
Was there a concrete goal with this movie? What outcome were you hoping for?
I didn’t have a goal for this film because I was following a woman who was changing the laws in California, so it seemed like a very dramatic (story) with a lot of interesting plot points. There were many twists and turns when Evan decided to name her abuser and other survivors started reaching out. Then it seemed like a much bigger story than the legislation. It’s not the goal shifted, but the camera lens shifted, we were just following things as they were unfolding.
Was there a particular shift that felt dramatic for the arc of the film?
In the fall of 2021 when we found out there was an investigation by the L.A. Sheriff’s department and the FBI were investigating Marilyn Manson, obviously we needed to broaden the scope at that point.
Are you surprised that no charges have been filed yet given the number of allegations similar to Evan’s?
Am I surprised? No. I think law enforcement is doing their due diligence. These things don’t take a day, justice takes time. I’m not surprised.
You mentioned it in another interview and Evan chronicles in the movie the online abuse she’s suffered seemingly at the hands of Manson’s fans/supporters. Can you talk about what that looked like for you?
I was surprised. I don’t know for sure who did it, but I woke up one morning while I was making the film and I’d heard recently that he’d heard about the film and I woke up to this email from Amazon that had 8 rentals between midnight and six a.m. of horror films. I thought it was suspicious, so I had to get some internet security to make sure my accounts weren’t being hacked. It definitely wasn’t me because I was sleeping… I hadn’t even heard of some of them — I don’t watch horror movies — I had to ask around.
The first part focuses on Evan and her accusations and early life, then in part 2 you zoom in a bit on the other accusers and you show us Evan as a mother, and we spend some time with her and her son. Why was it important narratively to show her in that domestic setting in part 2?
She was in fear living in Los Angeles, living in fear as a mother and a woman and she took off when she was getting a lot of threats. So that was part of her life at the time, being a full-time mom and raising her son and she was going through all the stages we filmed. We made the movie that was happening in real time. From the beginning of the process through the end, Evan and I had spoken about how important generational trauma is and the cycles of familial relationships, so we look at her family relationship and we looked at her as a mother. Those are two things that fit into that narrative and how she’s trying to do things differently.
Manson’s people forwarded the names of several women who worked with him/for him and they categorically deny almost everything in the film, from the blood drinking to the story of Evan allegedly being dragged to a hotel room and the glass “bad girls” room he allegedly locked women in inside his apartment and her rape allegation on the “Heart- Shaped” set. How do you reconcile people having such diametrically opposite viewpoints?
If there’s anything you can walk away from our film with it’s that we get into the stages of grooming and you’re talking about a girl he met one night and spent one romantic night with versus people who went through years with him. That’s probably everyone’s story from the first night.
It is hard to watch the film and see Evan’s description of the “Glasses” shoot and then understand how someone else can say it was a totally normal day on set. Given your experience on other films, how is it possible for those two things to both be real in two people’s minds?
Have you seen the outtakes from the “Hearts-Shaped Glasses” video? It’s hard to look at that and not see what Evan said was happening. She’s completely out of it. There are multiple people on set who made comments about it. I don’t know how to respond to a he said-she said at this point because I’ve been on this film for over two years and these are people who had important stories to tell and they brought them to us to tell them. They’re all in their own cases and they’ve brought their stories to different forums and you can read their survivor statements.
Can you describe the mood in the room when Evan finally meets with some of the other survivors of alleged abuse from Manson? It felt so emotional to watch them watch Evan tell her story. But again, the voices provided by Manson’s team suggested to me that they were coached or somehow were coordinating their stories for some nefarious purpose.
Remember that’s an edited scene. It’s not like Evan sat down and told her story. We were invited to be there with our cameras, but those ongoing discussions had been happening before we got there and people just sat down and they just talked and things unraveled and there was this echo of voices saying similar things and there was this camaraderie… a moment when people felt validated and believed. I was in the room, there was no script, there was no coercion. There was a group meet-up we were fortunate enough to film and I listened to people speaking outside and after the meet-up and I happen to know those weren’t things that could be made up in that room. I was there and I saw lights going off in people’s minds and there are people who were in the room also speaking about their experiences who didn’t want to publicly speak out. There were like 15 people there.
Speaking of two years of work, one of the most dramatic moments is when Evan goes to testify and does successfully get the statute of limitations changed. How exciting was it for you to be there for that?
Of course. I remember she sent me a video from the plane because she was so emotional. It was incredible, I mean what a great moment. It happened before we actually started filming. I had been sending a camera around with her for that year and we didn’t really sit down until the summer of 2020. I wasn’t 100% sure to be honest from the beginning if I was going to direct it or just produce it until somebody else stepped in, but the timing fortunately worked out.
What do you hope people take away from this project?
One of my close friends watched the first half of the film at Sundance and he called me afterwards… he’s had quite a career with women, he’s been with a lot of women. He was a playboy at one point and is totally settled down now, but he called me and said he felt so much empathy for the women in the film and he finally understood shame from a different perspective. We really wanted to get into the stages of grooming and what domestic violence is and how things unfold in those kinds of relationships, so I really hope people can relate to the warning signs a little earlier. That’s the most important thing about a film like this.
We’ve gotten that statement from Manson’s camp several times, have you heard from them at all about your film?
Just what’s in the film… the denial.
Would you be interested as a filmmaker in speaking to Manson for a third part, or a follow-up?
It is as a filmmaker, but I’m a little bit exhausted on this subject at this moment. Maybe in a while. We put a lot into this, two years, and it’s very well-researched.
Part One, Phoenix Rising: Don’t Fall, debuts at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday (March 15) and Part Two, Phoenix Rising: Stand Up, will debut on HBO on Wednesday night (March 16) at 9 p.m. ET; both episodes will be available to stream on HBO Max beginning Tuesday.
Stories about sexual assault allegations can be traumatizing for survivors of sexual assault. If you or anyone you know needs support, you can reach out to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). The organization provides free, confidential support to sexual assault victims. Call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or visit the anti-sexual violence organization’s website for more information.