Premiering today at Sundance is the much-discussed new documentary about the West Memphis Three case, “West of Memphis.”
With an over two-hour running time, director Amy Berg’s exhaustive investigative journey includes discovery of new evidence within the last five years and last summer's release of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr., after the trio agreed to give Alford Pleas. The result is as chilling as it is moving.
Taking the lead from Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh, who since 2005 have given financial support to the West Memphis Three defense team, Berg lays out findings that they hope will one day exonerate the three men. These include DNA testing that proves they were not at the scene of the crime; a new theory as to how the victims' bodies were mutilated; and most importantly, building a case for why one of the victims’ stepfathers, Terry Hobbs, could be the murderer. Today's premiere also included just-added interviews with witnesses who claim they were told by Hobbs’ nephew, Michael Hobbs Jr., that Terry Hobbs murdered the three children.
Indiewire interviewed Berg, Jackson, Walsh, Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis -- all of whom are producers on the film -- today at the Stella Artois Cutting Room in Park City, just hours before the film's public premiere.
Can you talk about how recently you learned about the witnesses who have come forward accusing Terry Hobbs of being the murderer, and how you were able to get that into the film?
Amy Berg: Around September, "48 Hours" did a follow up to one of their earlier stories and at the end, people were encouraged to reach out with any new information going forward. And on December 11, Damien’s birthday, there was a call on the tip line. I didn’t hear about this until I got to New Zealand a few weeks ago, but somebody called in with information and that turned out to be one of the people we have in the movie. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to include it or not. I was in New Zealand editing and things stared to develop, so we had a remote crew back in the states do a remote interview and we decided off that to add it to the film.
But the West Memphis Three defense team had already vetted these guys before the conversation began about putting them in the film?
Peter Jackson: This is where the film and the defense starts to get interesting because Fran and I have been with the defense for several years now, so Amy wasn’t told immediately [laughs] because we always put the case before the film.
Berg: I’m always the last to know.
Jackson: So after the call came in on the tip line, a few weeks went by over the Christmas/New Year’s period and two more witnesses came forward who had separate experiences with Michael Hobbs Jr. hearing the same story. Fran and I funded the investigation and flew the three to D.C., they did polygraphs with them, they did affidavits with them and then two of them agreed to go on camera and this happened literally a week ago. So we were editing their footage in last Saturday or Sunday in New Zealand.
Lorri Davis: Every time something new comes out that’s so compelling, I just feel like we’re moving closer to the truth and finding out who actually murdered these children. So it’s incredibly exciting.
Damien Echols: It was great. I really wanted to be involved in this project because this is the very first time Lorri and I have been able to tell our story. Everything that has been done on the case in terms of documentaries or TV shows has always been someone else’s project, someone else’s vision and that’s one of the reasons why I was so enthusiastic about doing this and it does want me to get more into the case.
You have to keep the pressure on them or they’ll just cover it up again and that’s what we’ve seen from the very beginning. For me, one of the things I like about this movie is just that it shows that it’s just not going to go away. People are going to keep digging.
Jackson: It’s an interesting position to be in because we’re obviously fighting for exoneration, but you literally can’t fight for exoneration without trying to investigate the truth about who committed the murders. The two are so bound together. For the state [of Arkansas], with the Alford Plea, the book is closed so the state will never reopen the case and consider exoneration unless there is evidence that points to another person. That’s the way it is, whether it’s good or bad that’s just what has to happen. So a lot of the defense work that’s happened over the last seven years isn’t just to prove the innocence, it’s actually to try and find out what other suspects should have been investigated at the time. The defense finds that it’s doing the state’s job. It botched it completely back in ’94 and now here are bunch of strange people from different parts of the world, plus thousands of supporters, who are trying to do what Arkansas should have done properly 18 years ago.
Amy, were there conversations on how much Fran and Peter should be included in the storytelling because they are so involved behind the scenes with the case?
Berg: It just came down to how to tell the story. This is such an important part of the investigation and I didn’t know going in that Peter was going to offer himself. When he did, I was so excited about it because it’s actually the truth, it’s what happened and [otherwise] you don’t see how difficult it was to get that information out there; to find DNA and find all the important results that led to the freedom of these guys. So it would have been a more difficult story to tell without him.
Peter, why was Amy right for the project?
Jackson: Different reasons. It’s been a very interesting and organic relationship because Fran and I are primarily in this as part of the investigative defense team. I mean, we were doing that for four years before the film ever came about. But the film was born at a time when the judge had turned down all the new evidence that we presented them in September of 2008. We thought that they were trying to cover things up and trying to suppress this information from getting out, so we thought a documentary was a wonderful medium to let people understand what was being suppressed and the potency of it and the importance of it. Yet we had to have someone who was prepared to jump on for the long haul. Amy’s involvement is much more than a filmmaker; she’s essentially been an investigative journalist and a lot of the interviews Amy’s done has uncovered information that has helped the defense enormously. I mean completely separate, she wasn’t part of the defense team. In a way, our motivation with the film was to give evidence out there but Amy wanted to also tell the personal story. The evidential part of it is what we’re used to because we’ve looked at it for years, but I just find the film so incredible as it’s a broad range of humanity. There’s good people, there’s horrible people, there’s people with bad motivations and good motivations, there’s love and hate. Every conceivable part of the human condition is exposed in this film.
Amy, was there a point in making this that you become more of an advocate than a filmmaker?
Berg: This was just about the truth. It doesn’t matter if you’re on the defense of not; the state should be looking for the truth just as much as we were. We talked to people who had never spoken to anyone before, we had numerous witnesses that recanted their testimonies, there’s an injustice and it need to be exposed.
What’s next for the investigation?
Jackson: Well, the film has always had its own independent path; it’s Amy’s film. As far as Fran and I are concerned, the case continues. Literally, things are unfolding on a daily basis at the moment and we’re in contact with the legal team virtually every day and continue to do so. The film is coming out at this particular point because Sundance seemed like the best vehicle for this film. We contemplated keeping it for Berlin or Cannes, but it’s an American story and an American injustice and only the American justice system can fix it, so Sundance seemed like the perfect place. But really the case is still ongoing and we’re still involved with it 100 percent.
Fran, it seems from the movie you and Lorri have quite an e-mail correspondence, has that continued?
Fran Walsh: We Skype now. [Laughs]
Damien, I’m sure there’s a huge list of things you want to do next, so what’s upcoming for you and Lorri?
Echols: I’ve really just been in a real sense of shock. For probably the first two months that I was out, every single day you come out of it a little less. Today was first time in 20 years I’ve felt snow.
Davis: I’ve just been trying to bring Damien into the world, which has been huge. It’s like having an alien come into your home. A lovely alien. [Laughs] But that’s what it’s like. Just that whole process of reentering him into the world has just been overwhelming.
Echols: I have a book coming out in September. It’s going to be published by Blue Rider Press, so I’m really excited about that. I’m going to do an art show at MoMA. So it’s just following up on any opportunities we can get right now. I just want to live and make life more magical.