Well, that was fast. No sooner were the West Memphis Three freed on Friday that Hollywood struck while the iron was hot. Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan ("Chloe," "The Sweet Hereafter") revealed his intentions to direct a feature-length drama called "The Devil's Knot," based on the true-life story of three teenagers, known collectively as the West Memphis Three, who were convicted of the murder and sexual mutilation of three 8-year-old boys in 1993. As the teenagers were fans of heavy metal music (and especially Metallica), the prosecution in the case suggested the motive behind the slayings was part of a Satanic ritual. Even with incredibly questionable police work -- which many felt to be outrageous -- sensationalized media, fear and panic from the satanism angle in the trial led to the teens' conviction and sentence of life imprisonment.
This decades-long story took a dramatic and triumphant turn on Friday when, under a plea bargain, the three individuals, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were freed immediately after 18 years in prison.
However, before you deem Egoyan's movie a quick, cynical cash-grab, know that a script by Scott Derrickson and Paul Boardman, the screenwriters behind "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," has been in the works since 2006. Perhaps presciently -- or aware of the behind-the-scenes actions being taken towards the trio's freedom -- Egoyan began working to refine the script six weeks ago with Boardman. It's based on Mara Leveritt's 2003 investigative journalism book "Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three." The picture is aiming to start production in the spring of 2012. The project was once set up at Dimension Films, but they put it in turnaround when the company's then-president Richard Saperstein left and then became involved as a producer afterward.
Since 1996, documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky ("Brother's Keeper") have been chronicling the story of the West Memphis Three. The first documentary in what is now a trio of pictures, "Paradise Lost," followed the arrests, trial and conviction of the three men (due to the heavy metal connections and condemnations, "Paradise Lost" is the first film to feature the music of Metallica, a band who up until then were notorious for never licensing their music for any commercial venture).
In 2000, Berlinger and Sinofsky made "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," a sequel documentary that brought further light and evidence to the case that could have exonerated the men, but eventually came to no avail. However, in the court of public opinion, many felt the men were innocent, making the trio a cause célèbre for artists like Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Metallica, Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and more to lend their support to the case (Jackson and Walsh were privately funding the case for years, it was revealed recently).
While the men were freed on Friday, their victory was bittersweet and legal absolution did not arrive. Under the terms of the plea bargain, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley all had to plead guilty and were credited with time served. "I am innocent of these charges but I am entering an Alford guilty plea," Echols, who was on death row, told the judge in the case.
No physical evidence connected them to the crime, but prosecutors maintained that the murders contained the signs of "the occult" and that the teenagers shared a "state of mind" that suggested they were the killers. Making matters worse, after eight hours of dubious questioning, police announced that one of the men had implicated himself and accused the two other teenagers. While he recanted hours later, the damage had been done.
The timing could not be any better for Berlinger and Sinofsky, who have been working on "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," which will now receive an Oscar-qualifying limited theatrical run before it airs on HBO. Creatively, however, the timing couldn't be worse, as the duo has essentially completed the documentary which will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month as is without a new ending. But Berlinger and Sinofsky were in court in Arkansas on Friday to document the trio's belated victory and a revamped and final version of the film will be completed by the time the doc airs on HBO in January.
With so much attention on the West Memphis Three this week, it will be interesting to see if Egoyan's picture is one that audiences turn out for and critics endorse. He threatened a mainstream comeback with 2009's sexually-charged drama, "Chloe," starring Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried and Liam Neeson which was touted as his most accessible work to date, but critics savaged the picture and the film came and went without notice. Fiercely independent and uncompromising, Egoyan was on the precipice of a big Hollywood career after his sexual obsession drama, "Exotica," was released to critical acclaim. He was then offered a studio thriller called "Dead Sleep," but famously walked away from the project when he wasn't allowed to cast Susan Sarandon in the lead (Warner Bros. wanted a younger, sexier starlet instead). Tinseltown kicked themselves when 1997's "The Sweet Hereafter" earned two coveted Oscar nominations (Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay) and three awards at the Cannes Film Festival (including the Grand Jury Prize). But Egoyan never fulfilled the promise of becoming a well-known director and followed up 'Hereafter' with the little-seen "Felicia's Journey" and continued on an esoteric path of filmmaking that left him squarely in the quarters of the arthouse shadows. Ever since his work has been as far away as possible from commercial filmmaking, even though name brand actors like Kevin Bacon and Alison Lohman appeared in 2005's "Where the Truth Lies" and the aforementioned actors starred in "Chloe."