The Documentaries That Freed The West Memphis 3: Q&A With "Paradise Lost" Director Joe Berlinger

In 1993, three eight-year-old Arkansas boys were brutally murdered and dumped in the woods. Three innocent teenage boys were arrested and convicted, despite the lack of evidence.

Jan 12, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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In 1993, three eight-year-old Arkansas boys were brutally murdered and dumped in the woods. Three innocent teenage boys were arrested and convicted, despite the lack of evidence. Damien Echols was scapegoated because he wore black, listened to Metallica, and had a youthful fascination with Wicca; incredibly, he spent his youth on death row.

His friend Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life in prison. A false confession was wrangled out of mentally handicapped Jessie Misskelley, Jr., who later recanted, but got a life sentence anyway.

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsy have followed this case for nearly 20 years in three documentaries. The series reveals some scary shit about our justice system, and inspired a huge movement with celebrity supporters like Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp. The West Memphis three were finally freed in August, taking a deal in which they were allowed to say they were innocent despite a guilty plea.

The third film "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" airs tonight on HBO. It was also just short-listed for an Oscar. (Aside: Joe and I met in the dorm when we were freshmen at Colgate University; sophomore year, we lived in the same fraternity, which rented its third floor out to a group of my girlfriends. I enjoyed living there immensely, while simultaneously writing anti-fraternity screeds in the school paper. I am a mass of contradictions, and not so bad at foosball.)

Christina: You recently said that there were things in the films that you wouldn’t put in today. I was curious: which things?

Joe: When we first started making "Paradise Lost,"  we thought we were making a film about guilty teenagers, a real life "River’s Edge" about disaffected youth. Months into the process, we realized that these guys were innocent. I think the film succeeds on both a cinematic and an advocacy level , but the film is too long.

The second film is not that satisfying from a storytelling standpoint, but it clearly has its advocacy niche in it and we wear it on our sleeves. I think the third one is a nice synthesis of the two.

Christina: I didn’t feel that the first movie was long at all, and I am usually very impatient. I always say: Give me a pair of scissors and I will cut this thing myself. I could NOT believe the access that you had. It was incredible.

Joe: I marvel at the access we got, and one of the pieces of good fortune for the West Memphis Three is the fact that we made that film when we made it. We made it right at the end of an era. A few years later this film would have been impossible to make.

When we shot "Paradise Lost," the 24-hour news cycle wasn’t what it is today, and there was a certain naiveté on the part of our subjects. If these murders had happened today, we would have been competing with 80 trucks from world wide media, Hollywood agents would have signed the West Memphis 3 and the families to deals. There would be media handlers and publicists and it would just be a very different scene.

Christina: How quickly did you figure out that they probably did not commit the murder?

Joe: Jason Baldwin dripped with credibility. I just believed him. He was this shy little kid. He had these tiny little arms and wrists. According to the prosecution, he was the one wielding this big tribal knife and inflicting all of these terrible wounds on these kids. We now know they were caused by post mortem animal predation.

The idea that this kid with scrawny arms, who is a pretty good student -- it just didn’t seem believable. Echols was slightly harder to read, because he was an alienated kid who wanted the attention. He couldn’t imagine that they would actually find him guilty. He was a bored goth teen, and by the time we finished our first interview, it just didn’t feel right.

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It’s not like this miniature light bulb went off and was like “Oh my god! They are innocent!” There were huge red flags that something is not right here, like that there was no blood at the crime scene. We were still naïve enough to think that it would all come out in the trial. Never did I think I would witness this kind of jaw dropping witch hunt.

The movie came out two and a half years after their conviction so they had been rotting in prison for almost three years. I thought it was going to blow the doors off the case and it really didn’t. The film won an Emmy and a Peabody and went to Sundance, all the things that you would want for a film. Not to sound falsely humble, because I’m not falsely humble, but it was also a strange and guilt-inducing experience, standing on a podium accepting an Emmy award while the subjects of your film are still, four years later, rotting in prison. Echols was on death row under brutal conditions. So we just resolved to keep doing this until it helped.

Christina: Did your feelings about objectivity as a documentary filmmaker change during the making of these movies?

Joe: We could talk for hours on this subject. First of all, I don’t think any film is objective. All filmmaking, all media and all news reporting is inherently subjective . I do believe it is important to have a balanced presentation of subject matter. The best way you can be an advocate is by honoring the journalism. That’s why I don’t believe in narration in our films, because I think a narrator tells you what to think as opposed to letting the audience discover what they should think.

A good 20% of the people who walked away from the first film have told me, oh I think they are guilty. That’s the price you pay for a level of objectivity. But those who believed in their innocence, I have never seen such passion in people. It attracted this whole worldwide movement.

Christina: What are your thoughts on "West of Memphis" [the film produced by Peter Jackson, premiering at Sundance].?How do you feel about somebody else coming in and making a movie about something you have been covering for 20 years?

Joe: There was a little friction while it was happening. We were blocked from access from our own sources. On the other hand, Peter Jackson made tremendous contributions to this case, paying for some of the investigatory leads that have really been life-changing. To me, it’s all water under the bridge. We had the extreme pleasure of having our film come out just as they were getting out of prison. We had the premier at the New York Film Festival with 1,200 people, and the West Memphis Three on stage getting this rousing standing ovation. It was really the highlight of my professional career. We are on the Oscars short list. It’s all good. There can never be too many films about this terrible miscarriage of justice. There needs to be an exoneration from the governor of Arkansas, and Peter’s film can help that.

Christina: Would you make a fourth movie about what their lives are like post release from jail?

Joe: If they were still in prison, we would continue to make films until they got out of prison or we were incapable to make films. Now that they are out, I feel like it is an end of an era and it’s time to pass the baton on to others. Atom Egoyan is making a Hollywood movie, ["Lord of the Rings" director] Peter Jackson is making a documentary, and books are being written . I feel like our job is done.

I went from being 31 to 50 while making these films. I literally raised my family in the shadow of these films. My first daughter was born during the making of the first film. My second daughter was born during the making of the second film.

Every positive step in my life, my daughters’ first steps or first elementary school or whatever , I would think to myself: “Oh my god, these guys are still rotting in prison. The killer of those three eight year olds has gotten away with murder.” Particularly when my daughters got to that eight-year-old range, I was haunted by this case, from both sides. It’s been very emotionally draining to stick with it.

"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" premieres tonight on HBO at 9 ET.