Over the years, there’s been a lot of talk about whether a documentary can truly make a difference. We’ve seen plenty of examples of pivotal docs like Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth successfully raising awareness about global warning and the other side of the coin, something like Marina Zenovich’s Romance Polanski: Wanted and Desired reopening an old case and getting its subject back into trouble.
Much of that concept of documentary filmmaking being able to make a difference can be traced back to the “Paradise Lost” movies made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofksy during the ’90s, which followed the case of three Arkansas youths: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were tried and convicted of murdering three boys in a horrific crime. Coming from a background of poverty, none of the three could fairly defend themselves, but Echols was put on Death Row with the other two given life without parole. The “Paradise Lost” movies airing on HBO got this case a lot of attention including a number of celebrities who came to the aid of the “West Memphis 3.”
Two of the people who saw the movies and wanted to make a difference were filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh coming off the hugely successful “Lord of the Rings” movies, who came forward to help hire defense attorneys and finance a new investigation that could help free the West Memphis 3. A few years into the new investigation, they hired director Amy Berg, who had been nominated for an Oscar for Deliver Us From Evil, to work with them on a movie documenting the new evidence they had uncovered.
Unlike the previous docs, Berg was able to get former jurors, witnesses and even the judge and prosecutor on record about the problems surrounding the original case, many of them now debunking their own testimonials. The film also had the direct involvement of Echols himself, who co-produces the movie along with his wife Lorri Davis.
The results are West of Memphis, one of the most comprehensive films about the last few years in the struggle by the West Memphis 3 and their defense team, leading up to their release from prison on an Alford Plea in August 2011. The plea was an unsatisfying compromise made by the defendants to get released from jail, but taking away their rights to sue the county or the state for wrongful imprisonment. In other words, they’re physically free but they haven’t been exonerated from the crimes and still have to abide by terms set by the court.
We previously spoke with West of Memphis director Amy Berg at Sundance where we also had a chance to meet Echols and his wife Lorri.
When Peter Jackson came to New York City for the week-long junket for The Hobbit a couple of weeks back, he also took some time to talk about this ongoing project. ComingSoon.net took that opportunity to sit down with Jackson and Echols to talk more about the movie, the case and how Jackson’s involvement helped turn things around. Jackson was very outspoken about the American justice system and its faults and how it could lead to a situation like the West Memphis 3. Echols didn’t talk nearly as much, but he did confirm that he isn’t involved in Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot based on Mara Leveritt 2002 novel.
ComingSoon.net: So Peter, let’s start with you, talking before Sundance. In 2005, you were in the middle of finishing “King Kong.” Is that when you saw “Paradise Lost” and found out about this and kind of jumped in? Peter Jackson: Yeah, Fran Walsh and I watched it in New Zealand and the case was about eight or nine years old at that stage, so we assumed that there’d been an ending. We looked up the case on the internet and we were pretty horrified to find out that Damien and Jason and Jessie were still in that prison, and that it was sort of stagnating. Nothing really positive was happening. There’d been some appeals. They had lost the appeals. So we contacted Lorri Davis, Damien’s wife, and offered a donation, which many thousands of people had done, but then Lorri and Fran became friends. It was a sort of an amazing friendship blossomed, which Fran got involved very, very personally in helping with the investigative side of the case. We funded a lot of scientific investigations, DNA testing, hired expertise that the guys had never had access to before because it’s expensive to bring in some of the country’s best pathologists and forensic experts. Then it stopped being, to us, a case about the principles of justice, to some degree, and it very quickly became personal because of the friendship that we got very emotionally involved in it.
CS: Now, did you know this was all going on? I know you were involved with the “Paradise Lost” movies but a long time had passed and this was before they started the third movie and while they were still trying to find DNA evidence. Damien Echols: Oh, absolutely. I mean, because whenever you’re in a situation like that, we had nothing and no one. We didn’t have any sort of ability to fight back. The individual trying to fight against the state is like an insect trying to box with a steamroller, so whenever Peter and Fran did come on the case, we felt for the very first time like we actually had a fighting chance. Even if we weren’t on equal ground, we were on a lot more equal ground than we had been on to begin with, so I would call home every day and Lorri would tell me about it, tell me what was going on, what was being looked at, who was doing what. Jackson: It is stacked against you if you’re a defendant. I mean, especially these guys who literally had no money, no way of hiring any of these people. Also, back in the original trial, the situation was the same. The state have unlimited resources to prove their scenario. They have a scenario, they have a piece of theater that they want to present to the jury, and they can spend whatever money they need to in order to sell that scenario.
CS: Is this something that has happened in New Zealand at all with similar cases? Jackson: Yeah, there certainly have been cases in New Zealand of murder convictions being overturned after several years, yeah, there have been. I mean, I think it probably happens anywhere, but the thing for us that as New Zealanders that we kind of find rather horrific, I have to say, honestly, is the way that the American justice system is based on elected officials, the way that the district attorney, the prosecutors, the judge, the police chiefs. They’re people that can talk about justice and try to do their jobs properly and do what they’re being paid to do, sure, and I’m sure a lot of them do. I’m sure there’s a lot of very decent people who have those jobs, but in the back of their minds, I would assume they’re wanting to make sure they don’t lose votes. They have an income. They’re putting their kids through school. They’re paying off a mortgage. They don’t want to lose their jobs. They want to be elected. They have a real personal interest in being popular and doing what people want. I think sometimes when it involves admitting mistakes and saying, “You know what? We got it wrong,” it’s gonna make you unpopular. It’s going to make you look like you’re stuffed up, and they can’t afford to do that. I just see that as being something pretty scary in a system that operates on that principle.
CS: I don’t know if you’re aware of the movie “The Central Park Five” which just came out Jackson: Yeah, I haven’t seen that, but I’ve heard about it.
CS: It’s a different situation because no one died or was on Death Row, but it was similar in that a bunch of kids got arrested and the police badgered them until they confessed to a crime they didn’t commit and it has interesting parallels. Jackson: So you wonder, these are the two cases that have got the movies made about them, but how many others out there who were not lucky enough to have filmmakers? I mean, I was just saying that Damien’s case, there is a lot of bad luck in that case, a lot of bad luck of getting bad cops, bad prosecutors. It was just the satanic panic that was sweeping the world in the early ’90s. I don’t think this particular case would actually happen today, because I don’t think anyone would buy into the whole satanic stuff anymore. But in that particular period of time, it was pretty potent, and obviously in a place like Arkansas, which is in the very religious, fundamentalist sort of place, the public and the jury are of that mindset to think that the devil was somehow responsible for this or the devil is personified by a teenager that wears black and listens to heavy metal and reads Stephen King, you know? That’s something very, very evil about that, very evil indeed and very scary.
CS: The crazy thing is that this all only just happened in the ’90s. Jackson: Yeah, it feels like it was hundreds of years ago, doesn’t it? It’s the sort of thing that would happen in 1693, not 1993.
CS: How did you get Amy Berg involved? Jackson: Well, Fran and I were involved in the case for three or four years without any intention of making a film. We were just simply part of Damien’s defense team, funding a lot of the investigative work. It was important in some degrees that we weren’t making a documentary, because we had to have the trust of the lawyers and we didn’t want to be there exploiting the situation in any way at all. Then, after three or four years, we presented all of the evidence we’d uncovered, which we felt was very compelling, not only evidence of the innocence of the three guys in jail, but also the evidence pointing towards the guilt of another person, and we had done a huge amount of work. Everything based on science, based on expertise, based on sworn affidavits from witnesses, and none of it based on religious mumbo jumbo. We presented this to Judge David Burnett, who was the original trial judge which is another thing about the system that horrifies us as New Zealanders, the fact that you can go through 10 or 12 years and you’re presenting evidence to the original judge who has a vested interest in not wanting to admit a mistake the first time around. I mean, it just doesn’t make sense. Why isn’t it an independent person with no connection to it?
But anyway, we presented it to him, hoping that he had the moral strength to reevaluate and to see that there has been new evidence that he didn’t hear about in 1993. We were hoping he’d be able to look at it with new eyes, but the guy hasn’t got the moral strength to admit a mistake, and he just said, “No, no, no, not interested.” At that point, it was bad for Damien. I mean, he was losing his appeals. Time was running out. We turned to Amy Berg, and we actually spoke to the lawyers before we even did. We just said, “Listen, we’ve gotta make a documentary about this because that’s the only way that this evidence is going to get out there.” The evidence itself is complicated. You’ve gotta spend a couple of hours going through it. You’ve gotta understand that it’s not the sort of thing you can do in an easy soundbyte on a radio interview or even an interview with a newspaper. I mean, a two and a half hour documentary is really the time we needed to allow the detail to be presented.
So we contacted Amy. We needed a filmmaker who would be brave and gutsy and fearless and be able to go to Arkansas for a long period of time. I mean, Amy was absolutely incredible in the way that she took all of the investigative work that we’d done, and she continued it. I mean, she interviewed witnesses that we hadn’t spoken to yet. She found evidence that we hadn’t found. I mean, she literally continued the investigation as part of the filmmaking process. A lot of the things she uncovered were very, very important to the defense. We knew that we didn’t have a timeframe for this movie. I mean, we didn’t have any end date for when we were going to stop shooting. Fran and I were funding the film entirely ourselves, so we had no studio to answer to or anything. I knew Amy was happy to keep shooting, which was great for us. We knew that there would be some moment in time when Damien was going to have an appeal or evidentiary hearing or some legal event in which this release of this documentary would be helpful to him because we didn’t trust the Arkansas courts to actually, to present the evidence to the public. We thought we needed to be able to do that.
As it was, we’re here releasing the film and Damien’s out of prison, thank heavens, but obviously not exonerated. The real killer of these three little boys is still out there. Amy was in New Zealand doing post-production work on the film in August 2011 when we heard the Alford plea had been offered to the three guys, so Amy jumped on a plane and got a film crew together really quickly and race to Arkansas, where she was filming the end of the movie, basically, very unexpected and it took everyone by surprise.
CS: Let’s talk about the timing of this because obviously nothing happened for a long time. In 2008, you start making the movie while Joe and Bruce are making another movie and you were producing this one, so how is all that happening while you’re still in prison? Echols: At the time we started doing this, they weren’t making the other one yet. It had been like, 10 or 11 years. Jackson: Also, in terms of the HBO thing, it’s very important to realize that Fran and I were embedded in Damien’s defense, and they were aware that a lot of the information we were uncovering was extremely sensitive and had to be handled very carefully from a legal point of view in terms of not wanting to damage it because the evidence we were uncovering was to be presented to a judge. So there was no thought or no possibility that HBO were going to be invited into the camp because they were independent. They’re not part of Damien’s defense. They are an independent organization. It was only really because Fran and I were straddling both worlds that we were making the film with Amy, but we were also working very closely with the lawyers and the defense team, that the lawyers even allowed us to do the film.
CS: It’s really interesting, the documentary, because I think “Paradise Lost” started the idea of a documentary about a story being able to change the story, because you guys are influenced by watching the movie to get involved and then end up making your own movie. Jackson: It is, I know, an interesting sort of a circle, isn’t it? It’s like a circular. (laughs)
CS: After they were released in August, was the movie done at that point? Jackson: Well, the movie was essentially done, but we were also aware that “Paradise Lost 3” was coming out at that same time as well, the guys had just finished “Paradise Lost 3.” We didn’t want the case to be overwhelmed by the media starting to write about two competing films so we felt we were going to do the right thing and step back and let the “Paradise Lost” guys have their final film and their moment. So we’ve actually timed this film to come out now once their film is done the rounds, so yeah.
CS: I talked to you in January, and obviously nothing has really changed as far as them finding or going after the real killers. Have they reopened the case or anything or is it just sort of dormant now? Echols: No, they haven’t done anything whatsoever. We’re still asking it. As a matter of fact, we’re asking people to call Scott Ellington and this is the prosecutor’s number. The number is 870-932-1513. Jackson: He’s the guy who’s interviewed at the end of the movie that admits basically that they were only released because it was going to be too expensive to pay the compensation. That’s the prosecutor who’s on camera at the very end of the film. Now, in theory, he says all the right things about how he’s happy to review new evidence and he’s happy to follow up on anything compelling, but he’s an elected official, just like we were talking about. Unless somebody puts pressure on him or he gets the idea in his head that it’s going to be beneficial for him personally, politically, to actually to do the right thing, it’s easier for him to do absolutely nothing, much easier to do nothing.
CS: I would think it’d be easier for him to say, “You know what? I made a mistake.” Jackson: Yeah, because the thing with Ellington is that he was never involved in the original trial, so he’s got none of the dirt smeared on him that the other characters have. He is in a fantastic position to be the hero here. This story needs a white knight in the Arkansas political system, somewhere, it needs the hero to step up and actually do the right thing. I think that person would be applauded. I mean, that person would get votes.
CS: Now, have you had any kind of closure? Echols: No, it’s still very much alive. We can’t move on until we do have a sense of closure, and the only way that’s going to happen is us letting the state of Arkansas know we’re not going to go anywhere until we see the right thing done. We have to keep this in the public eye. We have to keep the focus on it. We want to be exonerated. We want the person who belongs in prison to be in prison, and we want the people who did this to us to be held responsible. Only then are we going to be able to move on and have a normal life.
CS: Have there been any problems with Terry Hobbs since the film premiered? He already sued one person for claiming he committed the murders and now you have a whole movie about that. Have you had problems with any of the people in the movie? Echols: If I had to guess, I’d say he probably learned his lesson after that first time and doesn’t want to try it again, but so far, no, we haven’t heard a word from him.
CS: What about some of the other people who kind of came forward – the juror, the witnesses who kind of realized later that they may have been wrong? Jackson: I mean, there is an investigation that’s continuing. I mean, we have a private investigator in Arkansas right now interviewing some people like today. It’s actually ongoing. I can’t talk about what that is at the moment, but what’s very helpful is the fact that the stories are being written about the case and the movie coming out now. It is generating information, which is coming in from the public concerning certain people. It’s very helpful to us, and that’s why these stories are so critical in this case, because it’s the information that comes forward and it’s the pressure on the political system that’s going to finally crack this case.
CS: When I spoke to Bruce and Joe maybe two weeks before I saw this movie at Sundance, they were all ready to do a fourth movie until you were released and they decided that their story was done. There’s obviously more to the story since the case isn’t closed, so are you going to stay involved in terms of documenting it? Jackson: Well, we have considered the “West of Memphis,” and Amy agrees that it is a sort of unfinished project to some degree. I mean, we have actually edited some sequences to it since Sundance. As the case has progressed, so has the film. I mean, we do want to get the film out now because we think it’s very potent and it will be beneficial to obviously towards the exoneration, for people to see it. But, you know, I don’t think any of us are interested in a sequel movie. What we’d like is justice to be done. (Laughs) That doesn’t need a movie to be made, but that it just needs to happen.
CS: Have either of you gotten involved with other people in jail or on Death Row who might need help? Echols: I’m not allowed to get involved with anyone who’s been convicted of any crime. That’s part of the things of me being out.
CS: You’ve been involved as a producer on this and are you also involved in producing Atom Egoyan’s movie? Echols: I have no connection with it whatsoever. I mean, we saw the initial script and it’s not a factual movie and we’re just not interested in that. We’re behind things that are getting the true story out and that are furthering our cause, not fictional accounts.
CS: You were released over a year ago now, so what’s your next step? Are you still writing? Echols: I am still writing. I’m working on another book already. I have an art show opening on January the 5th here in New York at the corner of Broadway and Canal, Sacred Tattoo and Art Gallery. That’ll be opening on January 5th.
CS: Is that stuff you did in jail? Echols: It is. It’s all stuff that I did while I was in prison. That’s what the artwork there will be the first time, yes.
We kind of felt bad that Echols didn’t get too much of a chance to talk since Jackson is fairly loquacious so we went back to our earlier interview from Sundance to grab a couple quotes from Echols about his experience being involved as a producer:
“We were actually kind of excited about it just because we were going to be producers on this film. So this is the first time we’d ever actually got to have input into our own story. Everything else, whether it was the first documentaries or the TV shows or books or whatever it was, it was all someone else’s project, someone else’s vision, and this was the very first time we were allowed to put our own stamp on our own story. After I was out, we would see footage and we had to go through several cuts of the movie beforehand and decide what works, what didn’t, and Amy had I think somewhere between 750 and 800 hours of footage, so it was really hard for her to even get it down to I think the first cut was like 2 hours and 45 minutes and even then, it seems like it’s all vital information so you have to find some way to get it all down to a manageable, watchable size.”
West of Memphis opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 25. You can also read our earlier interview with director Amy Berg here and our previous coverage of the “Paradise Lost” films here and here.
If you’ve been following this case as long as we have and want to make sure the powers that be don’t just forget about finding the real parties responsible for the murders, you can contact Arkansas prosecutor Scott Ellington at 870-932-1513.