For almost 20 years, documentarian Joe Berlinger (along with Bruce Sinofksy) has chronicled the complicated history of the West Memphis Three, a trio of Arkansas teenagers who were found guilty of a triple homicide despite questionable evidence. His first film about the trial, “Paradise Lost,” was released in 1996; Part 2, 'Revelations' followed in 2000, and Part 3, 'Purgatory,' just received a nomination for Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards. Berlinger never aspired to be the only filmmaker or news outlet pursuing the story, and in the last year or so, a couple of high-profile projects were initiated about the trial, including the documentary “West of Memphis,” produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh and directed by Amy Berg, and an adaptation of the book “Devil’s Knot,” an account of the crimes written by Mara Levirett, with Atom Egoyan set to direct and Reese Witherspoon to star.
The announcement of these competing projects (particularly Berg's documentary) has stirred its own share of controversy, especially since, as Berlinger acknowledged, they experienced some “friction” as he and Berg were trying to complete their films. But in this exclusive interview with The Playlist at Sundance, where he's unveiling his latest effort the Paul Simon doc "Under African Skies," Berlinger revealed his feelings about those other films, specified what caused problems during production, and proffered what he hopes will come out of these competing efforts to document the case.
It must give you a feeling of validation to receive an Oscar nomination after the decades of work that you put into this documentary series. But when someone comes in and makes one film where you made three, as Peter Jackson has done, how do you feel about that?
I think it's great. Look, we've been credited with having saved Damien [Echol]’s life, and having inspired people to get involved, that's very humbling. One of those people who was inspired to get involved was Peter Jackson, because of the films, and Peter Jackson deserves tremendous credit for reinvigorating the investigation. He's responsible for a lot of the investigatory leads that have come about, so I fully support this film. But the story is not over, and I hope the Oscar attention of “Paradise Lost III” and the future release that will happen sometime with “West of Memphis” will lead to what we're all looking for, which is the exoneration of these guys fully and the finding of the real killer. So as far as I'm concerned, every member of the Directors Guild of America could and should make a film about this case until those goals happen.
But “Paradise Lost III” for me is kind of an end of an era: I was 31 when we started this series, and I'm 50 now. I literally raised two children in the shadow of this tragedy. My first kid was born during the making of the first film, my second kid was born during the making of the second film. Every positive step in my life I have measured against the fact that these guys were rotting in prison — my daughter’s first steps, her first bicycle ride, whatever was happening in my life; I would always think, my god, these guys are frozen in time, locked in prison. And so Bruce and I said we would make films until these guys got out of prison, but now that they're out of prison I really feel like it's truly the end of an era for me. But the "West Memphis" mythos has gotten so big that a lot of people are planting flags — there's the feature film, there's another book, there's Peter Jackson's documentary, and I'm happy to hand off the baton to new storytellers and I wish them all the luck in the world. Obviously it's been reported that there was a little friction between the making of the films, and that was unfortunate. But I believe that everybody had the West Memphis Three's best interest at heart. Because at the time of the friction, Echols was still on death row, the others were still in prison [facing] life without parole, and the stakes were much higher — I don't think for anybody it was about a film. It was about doing what we all thought was best. And at times there was a little friction, but now that they’re out, now that Bruce and my film has been so well received, I’m happy. And I haven't seen “West of Memphis,” but by all accounts it's a terrific film. So if that can help, I'm fully supportive of it.
Do you want to see it?
I do, I just haven't had a chance. I've heard some of our footage is in the film, so I would like to see it (laughs). I literally got here Saturday, and I'm promoting my own film, so I'm not sure I'll see it at this festival, but I'd love to see it. Amy Berg is a very talented filmmaker; her “Deliver Us From Evil” is a terrific film. And I wish them the best.
There was some confusion as to whether Berg had seen the the 'Paradise' Lost' docs before she had started making her doc, because of a New York Times article [ed.'s note, The Times reported that she had originally not seen the 'Paradise Lost' films before making her documentary, but according to this Nashville Paper, she said she had watched it right after being contacted by Jackson, Walsh and Davis about the project].
I'm not sure why she said that to the New York Times. Because I find it odd that if Peter Jackson became inspired to get involved in the case by having a jaw dropping experience watching “Paradise Lost,” and Peter Jackson then hired a filmmaker to make a film, I just find it odd that she hadn't seen our films. I would have expected her to see them, and would not have a problem [if she used them]. Many people around the world, including the defense attorneys, have used the films, and the book “Devil’s Knot,” but in terms of audio, visual material, [others] have used the films you know as kind of the definitive account of what happened. Dennis Riordan, one of the defense attorneys who successfully argued in front of the Arkansas Supreme Court – and I'm sure that footage is in Amy's film — spent several years to generate interest in the case, giving lectures at law schools using clips from “Paradise Lost.” At their 2007 new evidence press conference that's in our film that we shot, Dennis Riordan's showing clips from the film. So the film has become an integral part of the case. So I do find it odd that she would not have watched the film, but I’m sure she has her reasons.
How would you characterize that friction, or describe maybe where it came from?
I think some of the friction between the films has been misreported as a turf war, and it's really not been about that. We have never blocked other people from covering the story. When three people's lives are on the line, I have never felt like you can monopolize somebody's tragedy that's still unfolding. And the proof's in the pudding — CNN did multiple one hour specials with Larry King, Anderson Cooper, Dave Mattingly, the Discovery Channel did an hour with a woman named Aphrodite Jones, “48 Hours” has done multiple hours, and we have always been very helpful in giving footage or information or both over the years. I have never felt I could monopolize [the case]. So whatever friction there was wasn't — about there should be only one documentary about this — the friction was there at a point where Amy Berg locked up the rights to Pam Hobbs and members of that family in an exclusive contract and wouldn't give us access to them. We have never blocked other media makers from the story, and I just felt that was an overly aggressive move. Again, I think they had the best intentions, but I think that was an overly aggressive move to the filmmakers who introduced them to those characters, and to then block us from those characters. I tried to reach out and have a more cooperative vibe, and it wasn't forthcoming. I do believe they were acting in the best interest of Damien, so for me it's all water under the bridge and I totally wish that film well, because it can be a tool for exoneration. But I just wanted to clarify the reported friction in the press was not that we felt another film shouldn't be made, it's that we were surprised that we were blocked from access to characters that we introduced them to.
It doesn’t seem unreasonable to hope for a sense of reciprocity and respect, or maybe more accurately, professional courtesy.
That film has made some comments that we weren't around for a really long time, and that's not true. “Paradise Lost III” was greenlit in 2004, actually it was in development in 2003 and greenlit in 2004, and we have production records and receipts and emails that show we were making this film from 2004 to 2011. So I'm all for their film, and I haven't seen it, but I heard it's great. I think it can be a great tool in exoneration, and we never had a problem with them actually making the film. But I think there's some confusion over timelines, and some unnecessary friction.
Joe Berlinger's "Under African Skies" screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival. We'll have more from our interview with the director soon.