The case of the West Memphis Three has been dissected, inspected and interpreted for years. In 1994 three teenagers were tried and convicted of the murder of three young boys in Memphis, Arkansas. They were accused of involving Satanic ritual in the killing. During their life sentence in jail, their innocence was in question. Musicians, activists and artists have raised the question for years: Who was really to blame in this modern day witch-hunt?
The Paradise Lost documentary trilogy explored the verdict, gaining support when Metallica offered their music to the soundtrack. Amy Berg's documentary West of Memphis premiered with success at Sundance in 2012, produced by Peter Jackson. Novels have explored the case as well, such as Blood of Innocents by Guy Reel and Devil's Knot by Mara Leveritt, the latter of which inspired Atom Egoyan’s film.
Egoyan, known for his incredible The Sweet Hereafter and breakout film Exotica, directs this narrative adaptation. Reese Witherspoon came on board the project on early to produce and star as Pam Hobbs, mother to one of the deceased children. Colin Firth, Dane DeHaan, Mireille Enos, Stephen Moyer and Kevin Durand round out the cast.
I had a moment to speak with Egoyan, eager to discover his own intention in revisiting the case. He reveals his personal motivations for making the movie, how he handles actors, their boundaries and his troubling search for justice.
MA: The West Memphis Three were released from prison in 2011. Did you spend any time with them or immerse yourself in study of the judicial system in preparation for the film?
AE: I spent time with Jason [Baldwin] certainly. In terms of preparing for the film, really it was a film that was concentrated on what happened in that town 20 years ago. Looking at all the possible other avenues that the court did not explore, to me, that was the intention. I think what’s most troubling about this case is that there were so many routes that were not followed. The trial was handicapped by a judge who clearly had an agenda. This was the most horrifying crime scene imaginable. It was also supernatural because there wasn’t any hard evidence. It’s as though these evil perpetrators had to be created. The film is trying to show that you cannot use circumstantial evidence unless all other avenues are completely exhausted. The film is presenting the full spectrum.
MA: Both Devil's Knot and The Sweet Hereafter center on a tragedy that affects a community. What fascinates you about exploring this ripple effect of mourning, sanity, and blame?
AE: I’m Armenian, and April 24th was the 99th commemoration of the genocide. The perpetrator never admitted the crime. I was raised with that, this question: how do you actually find the truth of such a traumatic event? I’m obsessed with that issue. I find it deeply upsetting when I see justice not being served. How do we as human beings deal with the unknown? The West Memphis Three trial is a joke on so many different levels. The documentary [West of Memphis] actually finds in its structure a person who should have been followed. Even that is a dramatic solution that’s convenient. But there so many other elements of drama and mystery. We’re still living with this ambiguity. That is so troubling. I wanted to create this sense that it's unresolved.
MA: Many of your films have elements of the thriller genre, withholding key information from the audience early on. You did so in this film and also in Exotica. Tell me about this withholding and how you use it to build tension.
AE: That’s a really good question because it's a little perverse, the way it's done in this film. The audience expects Colin Firth to come in as the knight in shining armor, Atticus Finch. He’s the gentleman in the southern court. To see he’s excluded in the court in one scene subverts our expectation. It has all the elements of a courtroom thriller. It was also very unusual and I’m actually obsessed with the idea, because I’ve seen justice not served, that the only justice is acknowledgement between two individuals. This happens between Reese and Colin in the forest at one point: something is fucked up and is deeply upsetting. Sometimes that’s where healing can maybe begin.
MA: Reese Witherspoon really championed this film early on. What was your relationship with her on set, considering she also produced the project?
AE: The thing that’s amazing about Reese in this movie is that she’s so generous. She’s part of this fabric, and she was prepared to plunge into that and not look like a Hollywood star. She was prepared to be this mom who lost her son. She was so concerned that it be tonally right, that it not use any clichés. Ultimately, the forest is a place steeped in religion and belief. What happened in the forest was so demonic. In absence of evidence, demons had to be conjured in the courtroom.
MA: Colin Firth is an incredible actor and Dane DeHaan has an incredibly promising career ahead of him. What did you learn from working with both actors, given they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to experience?
I have to admit that this whole
experience is overwhelming because I couldn’t believe the caliber of
actor drawn to this project. I was in awe of these actors. Dane was mind-blowingly great in
this role. Mireille is so great in this tiny role, I cast her in my next film. Kevin Durand, every one of these actors,
became really possessed. The film was unique this way, it existed in this pocket of consciousness. Chris Morgan’s interviews in that room are online. Dane got to reincarnate that character. He’s replicating what’s on that tape.
MA: Many directors have pushed their actors to dangerous places. We recently read the backlash from the actors in Blue is the Warmest Colour. Have you ever had a moment where you had to pull an actor back from that place? That, or push them forward, but with a watching eye?
AE: Every actor has a different temperament. Part of my job is to know what those boundaries are. The actor has to know you’ll be there at the other end, that you’re trying to represent them in the best light, who they are as they’re harnessing these roles. The methods vary from actor to actor. With this film, all these great actors in the courtroom were in this place together. They got to share that with their fellow actors in this theatrical way.
Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview showm
"All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.