Sometime over the past year it was revealed that Peter Jackson, the talented, Oscar-winning director behind the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy (and, more recently, the more morose "Lovely Bones"), had been a quiet, but very involved supporter of the West Memphis Three, as he was responsible for paying for an investigation that helped to free the wrongly convicted young men for killing three 8-year-old boys back in 1994. The story of the teenagers had been brought to light in a series of documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky called "Paradise Lost" (the third entry hits HBO in January). Now, as things come full circle, Jackson has announced completion of "West of Memphis," a new documentary by Amy Berg, who directed the Academy Award-nominated "Deliver Us From Evil," about the same case that just today, was announced to be premiering at Sundance next month.
So, to sum up: the "Paradise Lost" documentaries got the ball rolling on the media attention for the case (something Berg fully admits); Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh helped pay for a new investigation that ultimately ended up freeing the boys (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jesse Misskelley Jr.), there's a new "Paradise Lost" film coming out, and there's also a Peter Jackson-produced documentary coming out as well.
But wait! There's more! According to the New York Times report on the new documentary, there's also a narrative film in the works, based on a life-rights deal sold by Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the murdered boys (it's not clear if this is "Devil's Knot" being directed by Atom Egoyan or something completely different). Hobbs was going to be interviewed by Berlinger and Sinofsky for the third 'Paradise Lost' (she had been interviewed for the previous films), but worried that her deal with the fictionalized film wouldn't allow her involvement in "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory." While that deal was being ironed out, Berg secured her own deal with Hobbs, which said that she couldn't appear in the 'Paradise Lost' film.
Other people involved in the case, like Terry Hobbs, Pam's ex-husband (and potential suspect), and John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of one of the murder victims who becomes one of the central figures in the new documentary (thanks largely to his change of heart, going from thinking the West Memphis Three should "burn in hell" to becoming one of their biggest supporters) have appeared in "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" but not in "West of Memphis."
The competing films each paid participants around $500 a week as a "consulting fee," with the "West of Memphis" legal team telling HBO that Ms. Hobbs "chose to work with us exclusively and felt committed to our investigation and our investigative film." One of the West Memphis Three, Damien Nichols, and his wife, are producers on the Jackson project, further muddying the waters.
What's particularly interesting about this is that, since it's a real life subject matter, with three young men's lives on the line (at one point, at least) and a multiple child murder still left unsolved, is how righteous both projects make themselves out to be, both citing the importance of their independent investigations. It's like when "Volcano" and "Dante's Peak" were coming out except much, much bleaker.
The Times report reveals that "West of Memphis" has no studio or distributor attached, but that will likely change after Sundance. We got to see "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" at this year's New York Film Festival, with the all-new ending showing the three men freed, and we found it to be pretty powerful stuff (if somewhat shaky, ethically-speaking). It'll be interesting to see what new information or angle Jackson and company bring to this well worn case. Usually three documentaries on one subject is plenty, unless it's World War II.