West of Memphis is a film that makes you realize that our justice system is not blind. That if you look different or are poor that you can be caught up in a witch hunt of epic proportions and lose years of your life in jail. This film is also the story of one woman- Lorri Davis – who read about the case and then miraculously began writing to and then fell in love and married with Damien Echols while he was on death row. She worked tirelessly for over a decade to gain his freedom. Watching this miscarriage of justice just takes your breath away and should make every citizen livid.
Women and Hollywood was able to interview director Amy Berg and producer Lorri Davis.
WaH: Amy, what made you want to make this film?
Amy Berg: First it was the injustice. When you’re talking about the film, it was solely driven by the fact that there were innocent men in prison and there was a terrible injustice that happened within the system. That’s what drove me there. But on a more more creative level I think I was really struck and moved by Lorri and Damien’s love story and I thought that was something that needed to be told, and it just showed how powerful love is in the big scheme of life.
MS: When we see versions of people who fall in love with people in jail they are somewhat like stereotypes. You’re a New Yorker and you gave up your life and went down to Arkansas. When you started corresponding you were a landscape designer in New York City.
Lorri Davis: Well Damien is extraordinary. When we started writing, the letters that I would get back from him would just spur me on to write another, and next thing I knew we had a thousand letters back and forth. And once we started actually talking on the phone, I’d never met anyone like him. And I was pretty sure I wasn’t ever going to meet anyone like him, and once that starts happening it’s hard to turn back. Unfortunately, there was this whole other big issue tied into him that I had to figure out how to deal with. But little by little, we figured it out.
MS: He’s self educated right?
MS: He comes off as really smart. And also what I took out of the movie was your drive and your personality. Where did you find that inside of you?
LD: I don’t know. I know I had to work really hard.
MS: Were you alone most of the time.
LD: Most of the time. But Damien and I stayed in really close contact most of the time. And we supported each other through everything. But, as things started developing in the case and the story, we started drawing a lot of attention and a lot of support from people who became really good friends. And making this film with Amy, she was an amazing—we’ve gotten to be friends.
MS: Talk about what does a movie like this say about our justice system? And, how people are treated when you’re not rich and don't have lots of lawyers and can fight for you?
AB: It says a lot about that. But it also shows how fallible human beings are and how much corruption actually goes on. So in the case of Damien, Jason and Jesse, they would have needed probably some kind of a attorney with a national reputation to fight off what was going on in Arkansas. It’s such an old boys’ club there and they were fighting tremendous odds because they weren’t being judged on the evidence. They were being judged on emotion. So I don’t know what legal team would have been able to usurp that system.
MS: What was the biggest travesty that you uncovered while doing your research on what was going on?
AB: Well, I think there are so many. The most visible, tangible travesty was obviously that turtles actually caused the wounds, and that when Vincent DeMayo said “If you look at this autopsy, look at these photos, there’s no depth to these wounds. These are not stab wounds. These are scratch marks.” There’s no disputing that. If someone took a knife, there would be organ damage. So for me, I’m thinking of all these different things in the case that just hit me over the head.
MS: What were the challenges for you in making this film?
AB: Well, there were environmental challenges. It’s extreme weather sometimes, and the drugs — people who are not coherent that you’re trying to talk to. The disappearance of many of the witnesses, and Arkansas is not a huge state, you can pretty much get across the state in like 7 hours or so, so we were constantly driving 2, 3 hours here, there, knocking on someone’s door to find out they’ve moved. It's really frustrating. And it takes a lot to drive 3 hours with a crew and then—so that’s why you see lots of beauty shots.
MS: It seems to me that in the beginning of the film for you was a way to get Damien out of jail, but now he’s out, so it must be something else for you. What is the movie for you now?
LD: It’s a few things. It’s first and foremost a way to keep generating interest and pressure on the state so that they can be exonerated. That’s the most important thing.
MS: You are still pushing for that?
LD: Yes. Secondly, Damien and I feel it’s very important that this movie inspire people. Just to do something with their lives or to overcome a huge thing that they may be dealing with. We’re hoping to give some inspiration to people. And we also hope that it brings about more discussion about the problems with our justice system.
MS: How do you create a life for you and Damien after something like this? I mean you live in the city now, you can disappear in the city, but you gotta figure out how to make a living — how do you go through the day?
LD: It’s just day by day. We actually out of the city in September, and we’ve been in our house just two weeks. We’ve been on the road for the past three months, actually for the last year. So every day just becomes about getting this message out, talking about this case and this film, our film, and Damien’s book. That’s what our lives are right now. Whatever the future holds, we’re just looking forward to it.
MS: Was the film completely funded by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson?
AB: Yes. It’s an independent film.
MS: What was it like getting that phone call? Did Fran call you first? Did Peter call you first?
AB: It was an email. It was a combination of flattery and curiosity, and just like the pure heaviness of this case and this story.
MS: Do you feel a lot of responsibility?
AB: Huge responsibility, and that was before I ever talked to Lori. I know for me, at least, once you start incorporating real people and real discussions and meetings and all that then it’s like you fall in love. I did take 6 months to really go thorough the evidence and the case and I needed to eliminate any sense of doubt before I could take this on because obviously the people involved all believed in his innocence. I had to come to that place on my own without any kind of bias.
MS: Lorri – what was it like for you, like, to have Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh get involved in this case? How did they find out about this?
LD: It changed the dynamics of everything. They first sent a donation to the legal defense fund through the internet in 2005. And I was just stunned.
MS: I assume they used their real names?
LD: They did. And then they sent a note that said, “If there’s anything we can do from New Zealand, please let us know.” I’m sure they just rue the day they sent that note, because I was on it immediately. I wrote to them and explained where we were because the case was going nowhere at that point, and we desperately needed help. Little did I know that they were legal geniuses. Fran had an unbelievable knowledge of how to put a case together. And that’s what we did.
MS: She writes scripts.
LD: They both were helpful in a lot of ways. But Fran was in there, she was in the day to day sending me out to gather evidence out of garbage cans in Memphis. Like it’s the easiest thing to do. She’s like, “Figure it out, figure out when these people are putting their garbage out.” Which I had to look up, but that’s a whole other story. It was gross.
MS: When did you finally meet them?
LD: I think it was the King Kong premiere which was December 2005?
MS: So you had been talking to them for a couple months.
LD: For months. Fran was very smart about it, they both were. And they took the time to correspond with me and Damien, so they knew what they were getting into.
AB: I think it’s important to point out that for the earlier discussions and conversations that were had that they were very particular about not having their name associated.
LD: They were, yeah. I had to promise not to discuss them publicly, and I had so much respect for that.
MS: And they clearly wanted to step out and be a part of it, which is amazing.
AB: But it was also the same arrangement with me on starting the film. It’s important because they felt their involvement would actually hurt Damien.
MS: Fascinating. And this film’s rolling out on Christmas Day. Any thoughts on that?
AB: First of all I think it’s a great release date if you think about people being off work and having time to really digest something and get involved in a cause. The holidays it’s not just about happiness. There are a lot of people that are in need who don’t have that Christmas. But also it’s an inspiring love story, and so I think it’s important to not just stress the heaviness.
LD: And I think another important thing is that the films over the holidays really do get people talking. They’re spending time with their family, they’ve got time off. We wanted people to start talking about it.
MS: What advice do you have for other female filmmakers, especially documentarians, in terms of their work?
AB: We have a corner on that market. And I think that if you have an idea and you have passion for something, that you should go for it. I think that there’s no better way to make a living if you can do it. It’s just so fulfilling.
MS: And Lorri, you’re now a film producer. Do you want to make more movies, or do you want to just get on with your life and put this stuff behind you?
LD: I think we’re—I think we’re definitely gonna make one more, and work with Amy on it. It’s an extraordinary experience. All the things that I learned. But like Amy said it’s so rewarding in the end. And wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
MS: How are Damien’s eyes?
LD: He’s trying to go without the glasses more and more. They are getting better, but it’s going to take awhile. As is everything about his health and his reentrance into the world. It could take a few years.
MS: What are the hardest things for him to adjust to?
LD: The hardest thing was contact with people, navigation, it’s the little things. The world has changed so much. He was an 18 year old. He was a kid when he went in and he came out an adult and he was expected to understand. I sent him to the bank one day. And I said, “Could you fill out this deposit slip?” And he would never say to me, “I don’t know how to do that.” He’ll go and try to do it. But he gets there and he hasn’t the slightest idea how to go to the bank or fill out a deposit slip.
MS: Probably didn’t have ATM cards when he went to jail.
LD: They didn’t. None of us realized what he was going through in those first few months.
MS: Are you still in touch with the other guys?
LD: He and Jason text each other. And Jesse, we didn’t really know Jesse that well, but we do hear that he is having a harder time than Jason and Damien. The transition is gonna be tough for him.
AB: He’s so close to where everything happened that he could get pulled over for failing to stop at a stop sign and end up in prison again. Because the cops are so corrupt down there. They’ll pull you over and then just drop a bag of pot in the car.
West of Memphis opens on Christmas Day.