Whenever the question arises whether a documentary can make a difference, the “Paradise Lost” series by directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky will inevitably be brought up, and with the airing of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory on HBO on Thursday, January 12, it ends a journey for the filmmakers that began nearly nineteen years ago.
In 1996, HBO aired “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” a film that covered the trial of three teenagers–Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley–who were accused and convicted of the ritual murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. Echols received a death sentence while the other two received life in prison, even though some felt there wasn’t enough proof they committed the crime. That was followed a few years later with “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” that offered more proof of the trio’s innocence, and movements began forming around the trio dubbed the “West Memphis Three,” including many big name celebrities like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Metallica, who allowed the filmmakers to use their music in the films, unprecedented at the time. A few years later, Berlinger and Sinofsky would make a film about a difficult period in the band’s career called Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.
With the case still unsolved and the West Memphis Three still in jail, Berlinger and Sinofsky started making a third film to encapsulate some of the evidence that had arisen since “Paradise Lost 2.” They were close to finishing the film in August 2011, ready to ship it off to various film festivals, when a call came in that something big was happening. It would have a huge impact on their film and change their planned ending while bringing the story of the West Memphis Three to an only partially satisfying conclusion.
It’s been a long road for the filmmakers and ComingSoon.net sat down with them in the HBO Offices last week to talk about the long process of bringing this story to an end over nineteen years.
ComingSoon.net: I spoke to you for the Metallica movie and I’m not sure at the time you’d already been talking about doing another movie about the West Memphis Three. At what point did you decide that you had so much material you had to do a third movie? Joe Berlinger: Actually, we had no material but felt horribly distressed that two movies had done nothing to move the needle other than create this big movement, so shortly after the Metallica movie came out, we met with HBO and we said let’s start another film so “Paradise Lost 3” started in 2004, but the case was moving at such a glacially slow pace, plus filing of appeals and things is incredibly uncinematic, so we would shoot interviews and fundraisers and try to stay in touch with the case. There wasn’t a lot going on but there’s footage in the film from 2005. The real breakthrough in the case and when things started to crank to a slightly higher level was that 2007 new evidence press conference that’s in the film. That’s when things we thought were going to break this whole case has been like “Oh, great news!” And then glacially slow, so when that new evidence broke we started upping our involvement in trying to get a film together, but then Judge Burnett sat on that stuff for over a year and then ruled it was not compelling and then they had to go to the Arkansas Supreme Court and that takes two years. Bruce Sinofsky: From the end of the first film, saying goodbye to these guys as they were brought to jail, we said we were going to follow this until they got out, and HBO was in agreement with that, so that’s why we did the second film and the third film. From the beginning, we were committed to seeing justice done.
CS: What was it like doing this third film? Would you get a call out of the blue that something was happening and you had to run down to Arkansas? Sinofsky: Yeah, especially the ending. That was the same week. We got a call on Tuesday. Berlinger:Part of the advocacy of the third film was the decision to broadcast the film in November. The original airdate for this was November, two weeks before the evidentiary hearing that had been scheduled for December of 2011 that you see in the film. We thought that would be the best way to help these guys, and that’s one of the reasons this film took so long. The first two films couldn’t have better releases and yet the needle wasn’t moving, so we decided the third film would be released when we thought it was going to really help. For years, we kept filming and it wasn’t happening, and as soon as that Supreme Court decision of September of ’10 said there would be an evidentiary hearing but it wasn’t scheduled for thirteen months, back then we said we have a year to get this film together. Let’s get it out on television a week or two before the evidentiary hearing because that’s telling the juge, “Hey, we are watching, the world is watching. Here is some of the evidence in our film that’s going to be discussed at that hearing and you better do the right thing.” Sinofsky: And it would put pressure. Berlinger:That was our desire and that was the plan, so we’re working away finishing our film. We already had a rough cut submitted to Toronto and had been invited; we had submitted a rough cut to New York (Film Festival) and had been invited. It was August 16. We were literally in the mixing room on a finished locked picture doing our final mix with the gameplan being whatever Monday that was, August 22, being the scheduled day to metaphorically press “eject” on the finished master two weeks before we go to Toronto. “Here’s our film.” That was the plan, so literally that week we get the phone call. “You guys better get down here.” They were legally barred from telling us specifically
CS: I was curious whether they told you what was going on. Berlinger: And we can’t tell you who told us Sinofsky: But we kind of had a feeling. Berlinger: We said, “Hey we need to know a little bit more specifically what’s going on because we’re just about to finish a movie. We need to know.” The person said, “We can’t be specific but it’s as big as it gets.” We falsely assumed “as big as it gets” means full exoneration and they’re walking out of prison. The other choice – if you don’t know an Alford plea is even a possibility, which we never heard of an Alford plea until we got down there. It’s either execution or they’re getting out of prison and execution just doesn’t happen that quickly. So we thought, “Oh, they’re getting out” and we’re getting on the plane and having a range of emotions from “Great, they’re getting out of prison” to “Oh my God, we just finished a movie called Purgatory,’ we gotta change that title. Which ultimately doesn’t have to change ’cause they’re all still in purgatory. Sinofsky: We flew down on a Thursday, drove to Jonesboro Berlinger: That evening we had dinner with the attorneys and finally understood what was happening, which was this Alford plea arrangement. Sinofsky: And the next day, all hell broke loose. Berlinger: Tears of joy as they walked out but utter indignation at the cowardly response by the state of Arkansas to make three people who they’ve taken away 18 years of their life admit to a crime they didn’t commit to transparently–’cause Scott Ellington, the prosecutor, says it in the press conference–“Part of my thinking here is to save the state of Arkansas millions of dollars in a lawsuit.” I mean, give me a break. Sinofsky: It’s an embarrassment.
CS: Let me ask you this. If that hadn’t happened and they weren’t released, would you theoretically be doing a fourth movie to continue the story? Berlinger: Yeah.
CS: Do you consider this an ending or do you feel that this isn’t really the end of their story? Sinofsky: It’s an ending for us. Berlinger: It’s not an ending to the story but look, we’ve done two decades on this thing. The thing has gotten to be a machine unto its own. Books are being written, another documentary is coming out, Atom Egoyan is doing a movie. We’re happy to pass the baton onto others. It was an incredibly, emotionally-draining experience to make these films and we promised ourselves that we would make films until they got out of prison and that’s happened. Sinofsky: They’re out. Berlinger: I feel to make a fourth film, there’s two approaches basically. One is the “How did they adjust to life after prison?” and to me, that just feels like we’re milking the opportunity and taking advantage. Let somebody else make that movie and let them live their lives. Sinofsky: If the other films help exonerate them, great. We have relationships with all three guys and we have a friendship. Berlinger: The other way to make a “Paradise Lost IV” would be if we could definitively solve the crime but that goal has eluded us for 18 years and I’m just not confident that we are in a position with our available resources 19 years down the road. If we could have done it by now, we would have done it.
CS: At this point, it’s kind of a cold case because they stopped looking for the real killers after they decided the three guys did it. Sinofsky: Yeah, the state believed they got the right guys and they let them go. Berlinger: Look, if other people have the resources and the will to find the killer, God bless them and we’ll help in any way we can, but I think three’s a good number, a trilogy.
CS: And you have a good ending. Most trilogies usually falter by the time they get to the third movie and you can’t believe they ruined what came before. Sinofsky: And there’s the thing of “dot dot dot dot dot dot.” This had a defined ending, these guys getting out and nothing made us happier and prouder than seeing these guys having breakfast with us. Everything had always been through glass or in a room like this.
CS: But you didn’t really do any interviews with them afterwards. Was that just a matter of wanting to let them have their privacy ? Berlinger: We did Jason. Jason we made a particular effort to have an interview with the next morning, because we’re very impressed with his development in prison, his lack of bitterness, and he’s the real hero of the story–not to take anything away from anyone else–but he really wrestled with the issue with whether or not he should take the plea deal. He was willing to continue to fight, because it was morally unacceptable to him, and at the end of the day, a guy who was convicted because of guilt by association, because they truly had nothing on Jason other than his friendship with Damien, so a guy who spent 18 years in prison for that who then sacrifices his moral beliefs about admitting to a crime he didn’t commit in order to save his friend from Death Row, I really think he’s the hero of the story. Sinofsky: Absolutely.
CS: But they hadn’t seen each other in that entire time going back to the court case? Berlinger: Right. Sinofsky: No. Berlinger: But generally speaking, we felt like, “They’re out, let them go and have some peace.”
CS: With a documentary like this, the point must be to get it out to as many people as possible, in order to have some effect on what is happening to these guys. In the third movie, we see how the previous documentaries are affecting the case. They’re being brought up during testimonies. This is a good thing because it’s having an impact, but it’s also altering the story because the movie is part of the story. How hard is it making a third movie knowing your movies are now part of the case you’re documenting? Sinofsky: We felt fine, because we felt the first film didn’t do everything we hoped it would do, although it did a lot, as did the second film, and then the third film, it’s okay to acknowledge the work that we had done and our presence was having an impact. We had material and things that nobody else could have had because we were the only two people that were there from the beginning and at both trials. It felt great obviously at the end that Damien would say, “If it wasn’t for the films, I might be dead,” things like that. It’s nice to have that impact. It feels good, and I’m glad it became part of what the defense was using to help free these guys. It couldn’t have felt better and I’ve never experienced that before in any filmmaking situation. It made me feel great about the work we had put in and the commitment to be there until the very end. It’s not like we turned down other work but there may have been another trilogy out there that we would have participated in but we always felt like we have to be a little bit free to continue following this story. Berlinger: I guess I would look at it in the sense of you could say there’s a slightly self-aggrandizing aspect to making the impact of our films a central character. That would be the more cynical view. For me, the theme of this entire series, and therefore justification for acknowledging our presence and the impact of the films, is “Why does it take three well-funded HBO documentaries and the millions of dollars of celebrity contributions (and regular people) to give these guys the defense that they deserved initially?” Sinofsky: True. Berlinger: The justice system can devolve into the place where it’s not about the sacrosanct search for the truth but rather “Who has the most money to spin the best tale?” and that is something we need to guard against. These guys were outgunned financially cause they had no money to mount a proper defense. Every time our films air, we get dozens of letters from people in prison saying, “Hey, we’re innocent, too.” And not that everyone who writes from prison is innocent, but you have to believe a certain percentage and so why is it that the circumstances came to be that this particular case had filmmakers attached to it? These guys would be dead. So it’s not a self-aggrandizing pat on the back to include us in the narrative. It’s a very cautionary tale. “Why does it take two decades of films to bring justice?” That’s a deeply disturbing question so for me, our presence is actually part of the very important question that the films ask. Sinofsky: Part of the fiber.
CS: How has the internet and technology changed how you made this movie compared to the first two? It’s probably a big question but the first two you shot on film, this you probably had digital cameras. Sinofsky: We actually went back to the footage from ’93 and ’94 that we shot on film. Joe and I screened all of it over close to a year of screening all these things from back then. Berlinger: We went back to all of our dailies, because I think we decided early on that we needed to do something that seems almost mutually exclusive, which is to make the film a self-sufficient viewing experience so you don’t have to see the first two films to fully appreciate and understand this film while simultaneously appealing and giving some value to those who have seen the first two films and are deeply involved in the case without making them feel like we’re regurgitating the same stuff. The way we chose to do that was to delve into our archive and most of the footage of the old events in “Paradise Lost III” is old outtakes you haven’t seen before. Most notably the biggest example of that is all the archival news footage that we use as a narrative spine. All that old news coverage exists only because we kept it in our storage locker. You can’t go to news stations and get that. It’s all been eliminated or the stations have gone out of business and that’s also an important thematic element because the media was very much part of the reason these guys got convicted in the early years, and you see that bias in the film. The media as the years unfold and these very same reporters start growing up and becoming more professional, you see the very same reporters covering this case and they become part of the solution because they start championing the idea of their innocence and again, it’s important and disturbing theme in this film, the power of the media to shape our perceptions about these events.
CS: What about the internet and its effects? The internet was around in the mid-to-late ’90s but nothing like it is today. When the news broke that they were released, it was all over the internet creating instant publicity for the movie. How has it change while making this movie? Sinofsky: Well, in the first film, we were largely cutting film and we didn’t know there was a world out there that was aware of the case, certainly for the second and third film, but it was a joy to go back and look at the physical film and get your hands dirty again. Now it’s somebody pushing a button, using the same great brain that they have but it’s a different skill set. Berlinger: Because we shot on film and editing on film takes so long. Back in the day, HBO said, “Okay you can take two years to cut this film,” which would never happen now. I think the timing of this film is part and parcel to why this movement exploded. If this film had been rushed out a year earlier, it wouldn’t have had the same impact, because right when the film was coming out, the birth of the internet as a social media tool-not social media as we mean today, but literally in ’96 is when websites were starting to be created and people of like interest were starting to find each other. This movie came out at exactly the time that people were finding each other on the internet and this whole WM3.org and this group kind of exploded. The combination of the film and the internet kind of pushed this thing over the edge. If the film had come out a year or two earlier, I’m not sure that would have happened. Sinofsky: I always let the attorney general’s office know that somebody was watching, which was a good thing.
CS: Where do you guys go from here after finishing this chapter? I know you’re both doing your own movies, can you talk about them? Sinofsky: Joe’s going to Sundance. Berlinger: I have a film at Sundance on Paul Simon called “Under African Skies.” I went back to South Africa with Paul this summer for a 25th Anniversary of “Graceland” reunion with all the musicians and we used that present tense narrative to look back on how that album was created–because it’s a great musical achievement–but more importantly, people forget that album was greeted with a lot of criticism because he was accused of having broken the UN cultural boycott designed to bring down the Apartheid regime, so he was kind of wounded by that and we explore those old ghosts and tell the story of how the album was created. It’s a musical film with obviously a big political element to it that kind of talks about what the role of an artist is in society.
CS: Are you doing a movie on Clive Barker as well? Berlinger: I’ve been working on it for a long time. The funding has kind of fallen out on that, so I’m not sure if that’s going to necessarily see the light of day, but I’ve shot quite a bit and can’t seem to pull the money together on that one so we’ll see what happens.
CS: What about yourself, Bruce? Sinofsky: I’m just going to watch my kids grow up. (laughs)
CS: What? You’ve given up filmmaking and this is it? Sinofsky: Pretty much. Unless something jumps at me that pushes me out, I’m happy being at home. I’ve been working since 1977, almost 35 years. Berlinger: He’s planning on moving to France. You have to give the bigger picture. Sinofsky: Oh, yeah.
CS: Well, if you go to France, you’ll probably fall in love with filmmaking again. Sinofsky: That’s true, but I want to open up a rib joint in the South of France.