Sundance Redux: West of Memphis Director Amy Berg


In 1994, three young men named Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley were convicted of murdering three boys in rural Arkansas in a ritual-style killing. Even though there wasn’t enough solid evidence supporting the prosecutor’s claims, Echols faced the death penalty while the other two were sentenced to life in prison. The original trials and their time in prison was documented by directors Joe Berlinger and Joe Sinofsky in the “Paradise Lost” fims, and recently, the third movie Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was nominated for an Academy Award in the feature-length doc category, having premiered on HBO weeks earlier.

Those first two movies were hugely inspirational and influential in gaining support for the trio dubbed the “West Memphis Three” from famous names like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, as well as filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who began to use their own funds to help support the three men and find new evidence that might get Damien off Death Row and all three acquitted. Those films also introduced Echols to Lorri Davis, the supporter and activist who would fall for him and become his wife in 1999. He would remain on Death Row for almost twelve more years before being released on a controversial decision by the same skewed system that put them in prison 18 years earlier.

Having been nearly ten years since the second “Paradise Lost” film, Jackson and Walsh commissioned Oscar-nominated doc director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) to make a new film, West of Memphis, that would take a detailed look at the new evidence. Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week, it’s a very different film than the “Paradise Lost” series, because it’s far more comprehensive about the evidence as well as including interviews with many people whom have never spoken on the record before, including jurors, the prosecutor, witnesses who testified against them three men at their trials and Judge David Burnett himself.

Berg’s film is especially damning of Terry Hobbs, stepfather to one of the three kids, as it presents new evidence confirming the likelihood of his involvement with the crime the WM3 were accused of, including an interview with Hobbs best friend (and alibi) David Jacoby denying the timeframe Hobbs has testified to and his own daughter claiming he abused her. It’s an absolutely riveting and sometimes heartbreaking film that’s very likely to keep the campaign began by “Paradise Lost” alive to get the West Memphis Three acquitted of all charges and find the real killer or killers. spoke to Berg (on the right) at the Sundance Film Festival last week, and while we waited for her to arrive, we had a chance to chat with Echols and his wife Lorri, who are also producers on the film, an interview we’ll run sometime soon. How did you get involved making this movie? Did Peter call you or approach you some time after “Deliver Us From Evil?”
Amy Berg:
Yes, this all came out of the 2008 denial by Judge Burnett to hear the new evidence was when Peter and Fran decided to make a documentary because at that point, they thought all this evidence would be presented to the court at a new trial and something would happen. It was just refused and Damien exhausted his last appeal. There was literally no media coverage going on at the time, and it had been 10 years since “Paradise Lost” and they were just trying to figure everything out and they decided, “Okay, well let’s make a film and get this out.” They contacted me and it took me probably about six months to sign onto the project. I didn’t know that much about the case, I mean, just hearing bits about it.

CS: So you never saw any of the other movies?
Well, I did then. At that point, I went and rented the films and I bought Mara Leveritt’s book. For some reason, “The New York Times” totally misquoted me on that, because all I said to them was I hadn’t seen the films at the time, and they made it as if I never saw the films and I just went off and did my own thing.

CS: As a documentary filmmaker, I think people might assume you would have seen them since they’re such pivotal movies in the art of documentary filmmaking.
Yeah, of course, but I went and saw them immediately at that point. Somehow, I missed it the first time around and many people are still watching that film today and it has a long life.

CS: Since you hadn’t seen them, were you already aware of how the movies were pivotal in people getting behind them? You did include them in your movie as well.
Yes, of course. That’s how Fran and Peter found out about it, that’s how Lorri saw Damien for the first time and that was the beginning of the movement, when those films came out.

CS: Was it intimidating covering a subject matter that had already been covered so thoroughly in those other movies? Or did you always know you had new information and a different approach to presenting it?
I mean, I wasn’t planning on covering the trial since that had to happen in 1994. That was a whole different thing of what they were coming to. It had been 16 years at the time, and I never attempted to try to do another “Paradise Lost.” I actually wanted to look at the evidence about the case and get the lay of the land, go down there and knock on doors and see what was going on with the case. For the first six months I was just investigating, which ended up throughout the entire filmmaking process investigating and investigating. In the beginning, it was just research and trying to understand how this was still going on because that’s what everyone does when they see “Paradise Lost.” You look it up and you can’t believe that nothing happened after that; it should’ve created something and they should’ve been out of prison at that point. The information was damning enough just in the trial itself, but then when you go deeper and you see the knife and all that stuff, it’s just thrown out the window.

CS: You can’t walk out of this movie and not think Terry Hobbs did it and there’s so much evidence against him, so while you were making the movie did you end up finding stuff that wasn’t already part of the evidence while investigating?
Yeah, a lot of the Terry Hobbs investigation came from our interviews with Pam and the sisters and David Jacoby. Nobody had ever spoken to David Jacoby, who disputed the timeline, and Amanda revealed that she was sexually abused. We spent months with her watching her progress. I think there were a lot of revelations that came through our investigation. Outside of the Terry Hobbs story, there were also witnesses that recanted on camera with us, and had never spoken to anyone. People like Steve Jones, who nobody had talked to before, there were all of these people who recanted on their stories, people who had never been approached and we found them and stayed on them.

CS: How did you get so many people to talk to you on camera, particularly Judge Burnett and the prosecutors, who it’s literally against their best interests to be in this movie or go on record.
Right, totally. Well, you asked me about “Paradise Lost” earlier, and this was one thing that I had in my pocket: I didn’t have a history down there. Everyone kind of knew about “Paradise Lost” and Joe Berlinger, and they would not be as willing to talk because they already know what his slant was. I had a fresh name and a fresh take, so it was a little bit easier for me to get access I would imagine.

CS: In many ways, you do have an advantage coming in as a fresh person, but you would think people would already be in a place where they don’t want to talk about any of this stuff. How were you able to get these people to talk when there were people investigating this case for 18 years who weren’t able to get as much as out of these people as you did.
Yeah, I was on the ground for two years. It wasn’t an easy thing and it’s just another aspect of this film, working with Fran and Peter, they have an intensity and a drive to make things happen. They make major films and they expect things to happen at a certain pace, and I work the same way, so I was willing to put the time in. I gave everything of my life to do this because it was that important to me. Many times I didn’t get in on the first knock. I’ll tell you that. There were months and months of reaching out and exchanging of information and trying to build up some type of a trust with people, and it worked. Every single person that I went after eventually came around. Like I said, Michael Carson (who originally testified against Echols and Baldwin), it took me a year to get him to talk to me. In the first phone call–I’m not going to say the words he used, but he ripped me a new one on the first phone call and Vicki Hutcheson disappeared over and over and over again. So, it was about putting the time in. I feel like the film shows that we put a lot of time into this movie.

CS: I’m not sure if you want to answer this, but obviously Joe and Bruce were making another movie by the time you were into this, so was there any sharing of information and did you have any communication with them?
Yeah, well, I think it’s important that you understand that they didn’t go into production until over a year after we were down there. I know they covered some things in 2008, but part of the reason this film came about was because they hadn’t worked on it in ten years and Damien was still on Death Row. We were only ever in the same place I think twice. The first time I saw them was during the concert with Eddie Vedder end of August 2010 and then at the release, so it wasn’t like we were constantly running into each other. At these events, everyone was there – CNN, 48 Hours, all the local news.

CS: News outlets are always trying to get an edge over each other, so I wondered if that was the same with filmmakers covering the same subject matter. I really liked “Purgatory,” but after seeing your movie, I felt like they came late into the game.
Well, he had that huge lawsuit going on at the time also so I guess he was pretty busy, and anyway, what I see to be the intention of their film was ultimately to do like the “where are they now,” 30 minute follow-up, and that was totally different from what we’re doing. We were doing something totally different. I’m happy that they made their film because here we are, you know? Peter and Fran wouldn’t have seen it. Damien would not be out of prison. It’s just a combination of so many different things that takes a wrongful conviction to this light, so I think that that’s the lesson of all of this. Someone was asking in one of our screenings the other day, he had a friend who was on death row for a murder he hadn’t committed and he was asking Damien what advice he has. I’ve done a lot of research on a lot of different wrongful convictions. When they get exonerated, it takes a miracle and it takes a village. There’s always a different story. It’s not one formula that works. The truth is 15 to 20 years is the average. That is the average when you’re convicted, no matter how wrong it is.

CS: At one point were you in the movie when you heard that something was happening and you had to go down there.
I mean, it’s an interesting story because we had our film pretty much finished. We were considering going to Toronto and New York (the film festivals). I’ve never told anyone this, but there was a little bit of anxiety about us doing that to be totally honest from the legal team because finally there was a good judge who was set to hear the case. Finally, here is a judge that actually will hear this case. They were so confident in their case. There was a trial coming up in December, so we thought, “Okay, well, let’s just take a chill pill and wait for the trial. We don’t want to have this film scare the judge. We don’t want to create any kind of negative impact on the case.” So we decided to step back. I was in New Zealand, we were editing the film and in two weeks we were going to go out with it, and we got the call about the deal that was being done.

CS: Was it the same thing where they couldn’t tell you what was going on and you just had to come out there?
This time, they had to tell me. They knew that I was going to have to be down there, and the lawyers knew that obviously, because so much of the film has to do with the evidence that we had put together for the film. So then I had to go from New Zealand to Arkansas, and we were there to document the few days before when they were getting out, to interview the lawyers and document the whole thing, and at that point, “Paradise Lost” had announced they were going to Toronto, so we just decided they deserve this time. Let’s them have their campaign and that’s why we decided to wait for Sundance.

CS: What’s amazing is that the film could have been used as evidence for the defense in their retrial, so was that ever a thought to invite the judge to see the film?
Maybe. We didn’t trust the process, because in the past, the justice system down there has proven so faulty, so I didn’t want to be responsible for getting in the way of this trial, personally.

CS: I spoke to Joe and Bruce about how when you’re making a documentary, you’re trying to tell a story, and what happens when your movie becomes a part of the story. How have Damion and Lorri been as producers? Have you ever made a movie where the subject matter was so closely involved before?
It happens a lot in documentaries. I mean, I worked on a film with the Bhutto family and sometimes it can be an exchange for intimate access that they still want to feel some part of it. I know like, Martin Scorsese has George Harrison’s (widow). It happens a lot in documentaries if you’re dealing with a legacy. With Damien, he always felt that he was taken out of context, and so for him, it was very important that this was his life. I respect that. Whenever I interview somebody, I want to get the real version of them, so I spent a lot of time with all my subjects. I feel like I do a fair depiction of who they are. They’re usually comfortable enough with me after spending a lot of time that I can get a real read from them, so it’s a different style of filmmaking than a lot of filmmakers.

CS: Has he been able to watch a lot of the stuff?
Damien? No. Lorri saw a few scenes I did hear, but they didn’t even see anything until October. He was out in August. They went down to New Zealand in October and then I showed them a cut. He was really complimentary and they didn’t give us that many notes. There were a couple of things he wanted to see or didn’t want to see and that was it.

CS: He’s a really sharp guy and if you talk to him, he has very clear taste in movies and music and he’s very opinionated.
Yeah, the thing I really respect about Damien is that even though so many people really sent him down the river including Michael Carson and all these people that testified against them, he was so non-judgmental about that in order to tell the story. He’s so grateful they would even come forward. That was something that I was worried about showing him, because these people are the reason why he’s in prison. How is he going to endorse this? But, it was the opposite. He’s a smart guy.

CS: Any idea what you’re going to do next? Where do you go from here?
Goodness, I don’t know. I’m really not sure. It’s so weird because I get so exhausted after making a movie. I’m trying to find a way to do more than one at a time. ESPN has asked me to do something, and I’m kind of excited about maybe doing something that’s a little bit…

CS: Lighter?
Yeah, lighter.

West of Memphis hasn’t found distribution yet, but look for our interview with Damien Echols himself and his wife Lorri Davis sometime soon. You can also read our interview with Berlinger and Sinofsky, referenced in the above interview, here.