"It's a living, breathing thing," says director Amy Berg of Sundance doc "West of Memphis," backed by producer-financeers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. The film, which Sony Pictures Classics opens in NY and LA on December 25, revisits the 18-year imprisonment of the innocent “West Memphis 3”: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. The documentary presents new witnesses and forensic evidence that exonerates the three men and points to others as responsible for the murder of Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore. It reveals a gross miscarriage of justice by the Arkansas justice system.
Over the past few months a number of free screenings of "West of Memphis" in Arkansas and Tennessee have helped to focus attention on the film and the ongoing investigation. There is a confidential tip line and a $200,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for the murders: 501.556.1775. The filmmakers are still trying to get the film in front of former Arkansas governor and president Bill Clinton, says Amy Berg, who sat down with me after a Sneak Previews screening (Q & A is below).
An Arkansas judge recently ruled on reopening the case of the released West Memphis Three. New evidence has been unearthed by investigators hired by Jackson and Walsh during the filming of "West of Memphis." Crittenden County Circuit Court Judge Victor L. Hill ruled that state prosecutor Scott Ellington’s ongoing investigation should continue.
According to the decision by Judge Hill, "The prosecutor has the right and obligation to ascertain whether a miscarriage of justice might have occurred…That is his prerogative and he might even be said to derelict in that duty if he failed to conduct such an investigation."
The hearing was in response to a suit seeking access to police evidence in the West Memphis Three murder case filed by Pam Hicks and John Mark Byers (two of the parents of the three West Memphis children murdered in 1993). Hicks stated that she wants closure: “I am asking for everything! Everything I can get, use and know so that an investigation allows for the right person to pay for this crime.”
Anne Thompson: When were you enlisted for the film?
Amy Berg: Three and a half years ago.
AT: And when did Peter Jackson get actively involved in trying to free the West Memphis Three, who were in prison from 1993 until they were freed in 2011?
AB: He got involved about 8 years ago. He was privately involved until they were released from prison. He just did not think that having his name affiliated with this would help the case, because it's Arkansas and it's seen as a Hollywood influence rather than common sense.
AT: So he spent money to make this happen. What did he and Fran do to advance the case?
AB: Well they spent millions of dollars. His first expense was hiring all of the forensics experts. And once there was this opinion that this was post-mortem activity it just went from there. But they spent so much money investigating the case.
AT: And he literally saved this trio's lives. Would they have been freed otherwise?
AB: There's no way. I think it's all in the film, but there's just no way anything would have happened if he wasn't involved.
AT: When you took this on there was already a movement that had grown over the years, Johnny Depp and a whole lot of people just fighting for this cause.
AB: There was this great movement behind the scenes, but when I came onto this project, nobody was public about it because it was so negative to have a celebrity behind you in Arkansas. They just discredited everything, so about a year and a half after I started this project there was the event, which we documented in the film and you could feel public opinion had shifted at that point. From then on, until they got out, it was obvious they would get out, but it was just the State continuing to delay and it's still going on today. There was an (October 24) hearing in Arkansas. The prosecutor watched the film and has now interviewed witnesses that are in the film, that was actually edited in a week before Sundance. And they're now investigating Terry Hobbs in Arkansas, but this is just happening… It's like a living breathing thing.
AT: What was the most frightening interview you had to do? The most stressful?
AB: Cindy Hobbs for sure, Terry's sister. She chased me down the street — and she had a baseball batt within reach while I was filming her. But I had this amazing sound man. He was like an ex-vet and I was so glad that I had him. I just met him that day. He was very strong and that was the only way I was going to be able to do that interview. Butshe was intimidating me with this baseball bat, this wooden slugger, she was defending her family…
AT: Over your career you have explored other instances of judicial injustice, such as your Oscar-nominated "Deliver us from Evil." Have you ever seen anything like the corruption and the institutionalized way Arkansas was locked down? This is really outrageous.
AB: It reminded me so much of the Catholic Church when I took this on. [Child-molester priest] Oliver O'Grady just got arrested a year ago. My film came out four and half years ago and it took that long. This reminded me exactly of that. That level of systematic abuse and for some reason it's like rodeo justice down there. It's scary for the victims' families who are still fighting every day. That's why I took it on, I guess.
AT: Another movie coming out, Ken Burns' "Central Park Five," takes place in New York City, where they also put the wrong people in jail.
AB: We had a BAFTA screening last week, and a gentleman in the audience had just gotten out of prison after 36 years in Los Angeles County, wrongful commission. And the prosecutor just got a conscience a couple of years ago. It happens everywhere, I shouldn't just say Arkansas, that's just what we're talking about tonight.
AT: So DNA becomes the thing, but you have to have money to get DNA.
AB: Right. The Innocence Project doesn't really involved unless there is DNA. And I think it's important to know that every single case of a wrongful conviction takes a miracle, so Laurie Davis [who married Damien Echols while he was in prison] was really the miracle in this story. I just think it's so outrageous that fifteen years is the kind of minimum amount of time that any wrongfully convicted person spends in prison.
AT: Tell me about working with Peter Jackson. What kind of input did he give you? It seems that this must have been more collaborative than you might have been accustomed to in the past as a documentary filmmaker?
AB: Yes. they are filmmakers. So as producers and filmmakers they allowed me to make the film, they were available and I like being collaborative…It was really great. He's incredibly passionate. Fran is unbelievable, she's so smart. They work like 23 and a half hours a day. I would get calls from the set of "The Hobbit." I'm undercover, wired up and Peter's like "make sure you ask him this." It was hilarious, and it was always welcome. They're great and I feel very fortunate to have this experience.
AT: So you were a reporter, journalist, muckraker: the new role of journalism in documentary filmmaking. You're doing work that actual newsrooms are not doing.
AB: It was so nice not to have a corporate agenda behind the film and to let the story be whatever it was. And I do feel a certain amount of responsibility in that realm, because I came from CBS News and CNN and it was always corporate agenda first: you get so involved in the story and you're told to take it from 23 minutes to 3 minutes and suddenly it just doesn't exist anymore. So I do feel like documentarians are that new forum and I love what I do. It's exhausting and painful at times, but I think it's a necessary thing.
AT: You must feel a certain amount of real gratification – not just for the work you've done on the film, but its impact in real life.
AB: Just every step was like that, just watching the passion behind the scenes was like that every day for me. Of course, I put a lot into it, and it was amazing when we got people on the record. All that stuff was very gratifying. It's just a testament to how much it actually takes just to implement some kind of change. I came in so late to the game compared to everybody else but I feel like it was the right time because they needed a fresh take, someone who was not afraid to just go and knock on doors. I didn't have the history of the other films or anything like that, I was able to go in clean and obviously what this needed at the time.
AT: The "Paradise Now" trilogy are really good films, but they were pursuing the wrong people, in retrospect. You were able to come at the end and actually put it all together the right way.
AB: That's the testament to time, there had been so much time that had past, and I wasn't being caught up in the emotion which is what happened at the time of the trial, everything was a moving target. Whereas, I said hey – that Satanic Panic, does that really exist? It's such a crazy thing that people went for.
AT: And you had resources that made this possible.
AB: Absolutely, I think it's also important to note that, they're independent filmmakers, it's not HBO or any kind of corporate, they were just about being free and exploring and that's why the film breathes the way it does. And I'm so thankful that I had that experience, I've had other experiences that were not like that. It's the right way to make a film. Especially when you talk about the power of documentary filmmaking, you can't really have a slant, financially, you can't have a slant on the end goals.
AT: Also, when you're talking about breathing – this is a longer film (two and a half hours) than some would consider the conventional length. And you needed that. There was so much there. What is the release plan now for the film? When are people in theaters going to be able to see it, and is it going to be on television?
AB: We're coming out at Christmas in theaters and it goes wider in January. Sony Pictures Classics are so passionate. They have offered the film for two months in Arkansas with free screenings, which is kind of unheard of for a studio. I don't know the TV plan.
AT: Do you think that if they hadn't been in prison– Damien Echols especially seems to have been enriched intellectually by this experience– would he have become as sophisticated?
AB: I feel weird answering that question for him, but I will, because I've talked to him about it enough. He wouldn't say that this wouldn't have happened if this didn't happen– it sounds so awful–but I think Damien would have found a way to get out of West Memphis. It's very difficult to get out of there when you're from there. But of all the cases I've read about he's definitely the unique story.
AT: We see at the end of the film, he and his wife Laurie finally in New York enjoying being together. What has happened to them? He helped to produce the movie? And what else is he doing now?
AB: We felt that it was only fair [to make him a producer] at the point that he was released from prison, because he never felt that he had any say in his story up to this point. And you become so vulnerable, allowing someone to make a documentary about you and obviously that was the point for this film, so he felt a certain ownership of his own story. Recently he has released a book [Life After Death], it's like #5 on New York Times bestseller list, and he's touring. It's difficult for him — he can go and go and go and go and then suddenly it's just too much. But they just got a house and they're settling in a little bit. But they will be out for some of the screenings. They're just so happy.
AT: But it must be a difficult adjustment as well.
AB: I was just telling a friend tonight. It's so interesting to watch Damien in the world. He doesn't have the social damage that most of us have, and he's 38 years old. And he looks at everything like it's just brand new, the first time that he's trying everything. It's so beautiful and it's amazing to watch that. He just doesn't have the baggage that we have in city culture, but he has a different level – the things that happened to him are just horrific.
AT: What about the other two? What's going on with them?
AB: Jason is studying in Seattle. He wants to be a lawyer, but he can't be a lawyer unless he's exonerated. With his record, he'll never…
AT: So where are we with that?
AB: If they really investigate another person that would nullify the plea, so that's a good hope. The other thing that could happen is that the Governor could exonerate them. I don't think he will but it's possible. Jesse is very vulnerable. His father is very ill and he's living in Memphis and the cops are known to just plant evidence for running a stop sign. It's really scary. Jesse is the one that everyone worries the most about.
AT: What's the political climate in Arkansas? Is the Governor a Republican now?
AB: Yes, and [state prosecutor] Scott Ellington is actually making strides towards investigating the case [he lost his bid for Congress]. Judge Burnett ran uncontested again. We have been screening the film for two months free for the citizens of Arkansas and it's created a lot of information, so we're following up on a lot of leads. The film is still growing as we sit here.
Audience question: Were there options aside from the Alfred plea? Is clemency from the Governor an actual option?
AB: The worst part of it is that they would have won if they went to trial. Who knows if Damien would have made it to that point, so that was really the only other option.
Q: Do they have no legal recourse for all these years of their life that was taken away? They can't do anything because they pled guilty?
AB: And you heard Scott Ellington do that math you know, $60 million, your life is worth a million a year if you're wrongfully convicted. That's the running total he came up with. It was a financial decision for sure, that's why they made the plea. And the guys actually don't really care about the money, but they need their freedom, so hopefully something will happen. They deserve, Jesse deserves, they all deserve money for sure. You hope they can better their lives somehow.
3: What's the story with the daughter?
AB: Oh so sad, she has been in prison twice since we finished filming. It's so sad for me with Amanda, she came to us initially and she wanted to find out what she knew and she had so much anxiety and pain around this. She was only 21 at the time. We just kind of hoped that she would go to school. She tried to go to school a couple of times. But now she's gained like 70 pounds, she has been in prison twice and the father of her first child died very young and her mother is taking care of her children. She keeps going forth between her mom and Terry and she gets back into heroin and she goes back home. It's a cycle. We could have made a movie just about that family, which was not… it's not a pretty life unfortunately.
Q: Is Terry still living in West Memphis?
AB: No, he lives in Memphis in this tiny place called Albert's Cabins, a little motel. He works in a building supplies factory. He lives in hiding mostly.
Q: Two questions about the original case. Number 1, all of the talk in the courtroom about the satanic cult and all the alleged things people were doing in terms of maiming and eating animals, which would have possibly explained the horrible maiming of the kids which later came out, was this completely made up by the policeman or was there any truth that these boys belonged to that cult?
AB: It was the culture of the time; it was fear-induced investigating, so people were just reacting with emotion and so everything was construed. And Damien did not do himself any favors. He was a teenager who just couldn't believe the things that were being said to him so he reacted as one would react, he was completely alone so it just spun out of control. It was rumors that were turned into facts and the police believed it and everyone wanted to believe that.
Q: Were the West Memphis Three polygraph tested?
AB: Well, Jesse was given numerous polygraph tests, but I don't think the results were ever presented in trial. The other two were not. The witnesses were the same witnesses that were referenced in the hearing in Arkansas, those people have now been interviewed by the state and taken very seriously. There were a lot of polygraph tests. Michael Carson took a polygraph and passed it. So who knows how it was done?
Q: In the movie the one defendant of the three had an alibi, and he was at the wrestling match. There was no information about the other two, did they have alibis that were just uncorroborated?
AB: Damien and Jason were both on the phone with Jennifer who was in the film. They actually came in and asked her some questions and never called her to the trial. So they all had alibis but it was all kind of twisted up and due to Jesse's confession it didn't matter at that point; they weren't going to bring anyone else into the alibi discussion at that point.
AT: What are you working on next?
AB: Oh goodness… a feature. My first.