It has now been nearly 20 years since three teens from West Memphis, Arkansas–Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley–were sent to prison for the murder of three local young boys in a sadistic fashion. Their case was first documented in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, which followed the local justice system that put Echols on death row and gave the other two life in prison without a fair trial and with questionable police evidence.
Two-and-a-half years ago, the West Memphis Three were released, but even with two sequels to Paradise Lost and a third documentary, West of Memphis by Amy Berg which offered new evidence, there’s still many questions about what really happened to those murdered boys and who was responsible.
Along comes the new film from prolific Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Devil’s Knot, based on the book by Mara Leveritt, which looks at some of the other theories and possibilities of what happened back in 1994 that may have been previously overlooked. It stars Reese Witherspoon as Pam Dobbs, the mother of one of the murdered boys, and Colin Firth as Ron Lax, a private investigator who comes down to Arkansas to look for other evidence that might help exonerate Echols and his friends. Egoyan’s cast also includes Dane DeHaan, Kevin Durand, Allesandro Nivola, Elias Koteas, Amy Ryan, Stephen Moyer and Mireille Enos as various locals who get caught up in the case.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Egoyan last week to discuss the difficult nature of making a true crime drama based on a story that’s been so well documented and debated in the twenty years since it took place.
ComingSoon.net: This is an interesting choice of films for you because you’ve done crime dramas before, but never one on such a case that has been so well documented as this one has. What kind of shape was this project in when you came on board? Was Reese Witherspoon or anyone else already attached? Atom Egoyan: There was no one attached. I was really drawn by the script because of the material it covers. It felt like there were so many facets to explore, and I went back to the book and we began to shape this story that was based on the point of view of these two peripheral characters, Pam Cobb and Ron Lax. What I saw in these two characters were two people from very different paths of life who began to question this most improbable thing that happened in the courtroom about twenty years ago, who began to see that something was definitely amiss and that Pam pushes through every emotion believing that the killers who murdered her son have been found and begins to see that there’s something very troubling about what’s happening in the courtroom that she can’t believe it even though she definitely wants to find a conclusion, find closure. And then you have the private investigator who is brought on by the public defense team pro bono who is very successful in private practice and who doesn’t believe in the death penalty and begins to see that these lives are about to be destroyed because of the will of the prosecution team to create demons out of them and can’t do anything about it. These two characters kind of become the backbone of the telling of the story, which is totally interesting to me and what I pursued with the writers and shaped the story into a study of doubt. How people live with doubt, how people live with the questions especially in the face something as extreme and unresolved as this.
CS: It was interesting to see Scott Derickson as one of the writers since he’s written script based on true events but generally ones that delved more into the supernatural and horror. Egoyan: I think Scott is wildly talented as is Paul (Harris Boardman), who is his partner. It’s an interesting choice because they’re using a lot of court transcript material and yet tonally it’s very different from their previous work and it’s generally different from my previous work as well. We’re all wading into different territory. Hopefully, we’re mixing different genres. I think this is a murder mystery or a thriller with a little melodrama. It’s all sort of a kaleidoscope of different genres as we’re trying to harness all these different elements and all these different theories that were floating around the community at that time.
CS: A lot has happened since the original court hearings as well including the three accused men being released after 18 years in jail, so how does that affect the making of your movie? Egoyan: Yeah, it all had to be absorbed, right? This all happened twenty years after the fact, so we’ve gone through different phases and yet the fact is that twenty years later we’re no closer to the truth. That is the singular and quite strange point we’re at, so for all the theories that the documentaries have presented, we’ve never gone back to trial. The state has never reopened the case, so clearly, the killer is still out there and yet, we’re living this really strange state where nothing is moving forward. People are still living with these deep questions in their life. Pam Hobbs still wakes up every morning wondering what happened to her son, and that’s very troubling.
CS: I assume you must have gone down to the region and spent time with the people of the area, so are they generally still open to talk about that stuff? Egoyan: Yeah, listen let’s not make any mistakes about it. There are people who still think that they did it, but it’s certainly convenient if you’re living in that town to think that it’s resolved, that there’s no reason to bring it up. Damien was an outsider, he was a very strange young man and had a history of mental health issues, so if you want to paint the portrait of someone who is outside and was as flawed just as anyone else and was weird, you couldn’t find a better subject. There are people who believe in that. You go to the West Memphis police and you talk to Keith, who was an officer at the time, he believes that it was all conducted fairly. I spent time with him and it’s still all there. It hasn’t changed dramatically even if it doesn’t look the same. What’s strange to me ultimately is that it’s a case which has been so documented and in the media, the subject of these documentaries and these books. If you go online, there are always sites that are devoted to it–I’m not sure if you’re aware of that–but you can go to any of these sites and suddenly be (bombarded) with all this material, all the court transcripts are available online, all the police interrogations, all the surveillance video footage, it’s all there. It’s basically like Pandora’s box, you open it, plunge in and there’s no end. You can spend days and days in this world and you will not come any closer to any sort of conclusion. It’s quite addictive in that sort of the way and I think its one of the reasons why the case is in the consciousness because people become obsessed by it. There’s just so many different angles.
CS: While Jason and Jesse Baldwin came on board as executive producers on the film, Damien Echols has remained somewhat stand-offish about his movie. Egoyan: Damien from the very beginning felt he had his own story to tell and I totally respected that. He had written a book and he feels that the story is what happened afterwards when he was in jail and what led to him being released. That’s the story he wanted to tell and I think we all understood to a certain point. There were issues he had with the first draft, and we addressed those and we tried to respect what he wanted, but I think ultimately what he wanted was to tell his own version of the story.
CS: What about Jason and Jesse’s involvement? Egoyan: Have you ever had a chance to talk to Jason?
CS: I’ve actually spent more time talking to Damien than the other two, but I was at the press conference for Paradise Lost III after the three guys were released from prison. Egoyan: Jason is an extraordinary man. For someone who has gone what he’s been through and be as optimistic and generous and compassionate as he is. This is a 16 year old who went into maximum security in Arkansas for sexually mutilating children. One can only imagine the hell he went through and it was unimaginable and yet he’s emerged through it all with a tremendous light and he’s a wonderful man. I’m in awe of Jason and having him on set and having that presence around, it was really good for everyone. I will never forget this moment where we’re filming the young man playing Jason and he says “I’m innocent” and after saying it, turning around and looking at the camera and seeing the real Jason there watching it and imagining what must have been going through his mind as we reconstruct it and being there and being the focus of so much attention from the actors who just wanted to learn and know what it felt like.
CS: Where did you shoot the movie? Were you able to shoot in that area or did you shoot somewhere else? Egoyan: The problem with shooting in West Memphis is that a lot of the sites have just changed. I mean, the pipe is still there but there’s no forest on the other end of it because they cleared it. When you go to the actual buildings where it took place, there’s nothing particularly distinctive about them except that they’re buildings and in a way, this is a drama so everything needed to be heightened and I wanted to have a classic Southern courtroom with the light streaming in from both sides through the open windows to heighten it and tell the story in a way that would be dramatically suggestive. I didn’t want to be trapped by the actual locations, especially since they didn’t look like anything like they did at that time.
CS: Since this premiered at Toronto last year, I assume you’ve already been working on another movie? Egoyan: Yeah, I’ve got my new movie premiering in Cannes in two weeks. It’s called “The Captive” with Ryan Reynolds and Rosario Dawson, you can see the trailer online.
Devil’s Knot opens in select cities on Friday including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia and more.