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'West of Memphis' Director Amy Berg Talks New Evidence in Arkansas Case UPDATE: New Trailer

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 13, 2012 at 6:27AM

"It's a living, breathing thing," says director Amy Berg of The Sony Pictures Classics film "West of Memphis" (December 25), backed by producer-financeers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, which revisits the 18-year imprisonment of the innocent “West Memphis 3”: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. The documentary presents new witnesses and forensic evidence that exonerates the three men and points to others as responsible for the murder of Stevie Branch, Chris Byers and Michael Moore. It reveals a gross miscarriage of justice by the Arkansas justice system.
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Peter Jackson and Amy Berg of "West of Memphis"
Peter Jackson and Amy Berg of "West of Memphis"

AT: What was the most frightening interview you had to do?  The most stressful?

AB: Cindy Hobbs for sure, Terry's sister. She chased me down the street -- and she had a baseball batt within reach while I was filming her. But I had this amazing sound man. He was like an ex-vet and I was so glad that I had him. I just met him that day.  He was very strong and that was the only way I was going to be able to do that interview.  Butshe was intimidating me with this baseball bat, this wooden slugger, she was defending her family…

AT: Over your career you have explored other instances of judicial injustice, such as your Oscar-nominated "Deliver us from Evil."  Have you ever seen anything like the corruption and the institutionalized way Arkansas was locked down?  This is really outrageous.

AB: It reminded me so much of the Catholic Church when I took this on. [Child-molester priest] Oliver O'Grady just got arrested a year ago.  My film came out four and half years ago and it took that long.  This reminded me exactly of that.  That level of systematic abuse and for some reason it's like rodeo justice down there.  It's scary for the victims' families who are still fighting every day. That's why I took it on, I guess.

AT: Another movie coming out, Ken Burns' "Central Park Five," takes place in New York City, where they also put the wrong people in jail.

AB: We had a BAFTA screening last week, and a gentleman in the audience had just gotten out of prison after 36 years in Los Angeles County, wrongful commission.  And the prosecutor just got a conscience a couple of years ago.  It happens everywhere, I shouldn't just say Arkansas, that's just what we're talking about tonight.

AT: So DNA becomes the thing, but you have to have money to get DNA.

AB: Right. The Innocence Project doesn't really involved unless there is DNA.  And I think it's important to know that every single case of a wrongful conviction takes a miracle, so Laurie Davis [who married Damien Echols while he was in prison] was really the miracle in this story.  I just think it's so outrageous that fifteen years is the kind of minimum amount of time that any wrongfully convicted person spends in prison.

AT: Tell me about working with Peter Jackson. What kind of input did he give you?  It seems that this must have been more collaborative than you might have been accustomed to in the past as a documentary filmmaker?

AB: Yes. they are filmmakers.  So as producers and filmmakers they allowed me to make the film, they were available and I like being collaborative...It was really great. He's incredibly passionate.  Fran is unbelievable, she's so smart.  They work like 23 and a half hours a day.  I would get calls from the set of "The Hobbit."  I'm undercover, wired up and Peter's like "make sure you ask him this."  It was hilarious, and it was always welcome.  They're great and I feel very fortunate to have this experience.

AT: So you were a reporter,  journalist, muckraker: the new role of journalism in documentary filmmaking.  You're doing work that actual newsrooms are not doing.

AB: It was so nice not to have a corporate agenda behind the film and to let the story be whatever it was.  And I do feel a certain amount of responsibility in that realm, because I came from CBS News and CNN and it was always corporate agenda first: you get so involved in the story and you're told to take it from 23 minutes to 3 minutes and suddenly it just doesn't exist anymore. So I do feel like documentarians are that new forum and I love what I do. It's exhausting and painful at times, but I think it's a necessary thing.

'West of Memphis' at TIFF: Bernard, Depp, Berg, Echols
'West of Memphis' at TIFF: Bernard, Depp, Berg, Echols

AT: You must feel a certain amount of real gratification - not just for the work you've done on the film, but its impact in real life.

AB: Just every step was like that, just watching the passion behind the scenes was like that every day for me.  Of course, I put a lot into it, and it was amazing when we got people on the record.  All that stuff was very gratifying.  It's just a testament to how much it actually takes just to implement some kind of change. I came in so late to the game compared to everybody else but I feel like it was the right time because they needed a fresh take, someone who was not afraid to just go and knock on doors.  I didn't have the history of the other films or anything like that, I was able to go in clean and obviously what this needed at the time.

AT: The "Paradise Now" trilogy are really good films, but they were pursuing the wrong people, in retrospect. You were able to come at the end and actually put it all together the right way.  

AB: That's the testament to time, there had been so much time that had past, and I wasn't being caught up in the emotion which is what happened at the time of the trial, everything was a moving target.  Whereas, I said hey - that Satanic Panic, does that really exist?  It's such a crazy thing that people went for.

AT: And you had resources that made this possible.

AB: Absolutely, I think it's also important to note that, they're independent filmmakers, it's not HBO or any kind of corporate, they were just about being free and exploring and that's why the film breathes the way it does.  And I'm so thankful that I had that experience, I've had other experiences that were not like that.  It's the right way to make a film.  Especially when you talk about the power of documentary filmmaking, you can't really have a slant, financially, you can't have a slant on the end goals.

AT: Also, when you're talking about breathing - this is a longer film (two and a half hours) than some would consider the conventional length.  And you needed that. There was so much there. What is the release plan now for the film?  When are people in theaters going to be able to see it, and is it going to be on television?

AB: We're coming out at Christmas in theaters and it goes wider in January.  Sony Pictures Classics are so passionate.  They have offered the film for two months in Arkansas with free screenings, which is kind of unheard of for a studio. I don't know the TV plan.

AT: Do you think that if they hadn't been in prison-- Damien Echols especially seems to have been enriched intellectually by this experience-- would he have become as sophisticated?

AB: I feel weird answering that question for him, but I will, because I've talked to him about it enough.  He wouldn't say that this wouldn't have happened if this didn't happen-- it sounds so awful--but I think Damien would have found a way to get out of West Memphis.  It's very difficult to get out of there when you're from there.  But of all the cases I've read about he's definitely the unique story.

AT: We see at the end of the film, he and his wife Laurie finally in New York enjoying being together.  What has happened to them?  He helped to produce the movie?  And what else is he doing now?

AB: We felt that it was only fair [to make him a producer] at the point that he was released from prison, because he never felt that he had any say in his story up to this point.  And you become so vulnerable, allowing someone to make a documentary about you and obviously that was the point for this film, so he felt a certain ownership of his own story. Recently he has released a book [Life After Death], it's like #5 on New York Times bestseller list, and he's touring. It's difficult for him -- he can go and go and go and go and then suddenly it's just too much.  But they just got a house and they're settling in a little bit. But they will be out for some of the screenings. They're just so happy.

AT: But it must be a difficult adjustment as well.

AB: I was just telling a friend tonight. It's so interesting to watch Damien in the world. He doesn't have the social damage that most of us have, and he's 38 years old.  And he looks at everything like it's just brand new, the first time that he's trying everything. It's so beautiful and it's amazing to watch that. He just doesn't have the baggage that we have in city culture, but he has a different level - the things that happened to him are just horrific.

AT: What about the other two?  What's going on with them?

AB: Jason is studying in Seattle. He wants to be a lawyer, but he can't be a lawyer unless he's exonerated.  With his record, he'll never…

AT: So where are we with that?

AB: If they really investigate another person that would nullify the plea, so that's a good hope.  The other thing that could happen is that the Governor could exonerate them.  I don't think he will but it's possible.  Jesse is very vulnerable.  His father is very ill and he's living in Memphis and the cops are known to just plant evidence for running a stop sign. It's really scary. Jesse is the one that everyone worries the most about.

AT: What's the political climate in Arkansas?  Is the Governor a Republican now?

AB: Yes, and [state prosecutor] Scott Ellington is actually making strides towards investigating the case [he lost his bid for Congress]. Judge Burnett ran uncontested again. We have been screening the film for two months free for the citizens of Arkansas and it's created a lot of information, so we're following up on a lot of leads.  The film is still growing as we sit here.

Audience question: Were there options aside from the Alfred plea?  Is clemency from the Governor an actual option?

AB: The worst part of it is that they would have won if they went to trial.  Who knows if Damien would have made it to that point, so that was really the only other option.

Q:  Do they have no legal recourse for all these years of their life that was taken away?  They can't do anything because they pled guilty?

AB: And you heard Scott Ellington do that math you know, $60 million, your life is worth a million a year if you're wrongfully convicted. That's the running total he came up with.  It was a financial decision for sure, that's why they made the plea.  And the guys actually don't really care about the money, but they need their freedom, so hopefully something will happen.  They deserve, Jesse deserves, they all deserve money for sure.  You hope they can better their lives somehow.

3: What's the story with the daughter?

AB: Oh so sad, she has been in prison twice since we finished filming. It's so sad for me with Amanda, she came to us initially and she wanted to find out what she knew and she had so much anxiety and pain around this.  She was only 21 at the time.  We just kind of hoped that she would go to school. She tried to go to school a couple of times.  But now she's gained like 70 pounds, she has been in prison twice and the father of her first child died very young and her mother is taking care of her children.  She keeps going forth between her mom and Terry and she gets back into heroin and she goes back home.  It's a cycle.  We could have made a movie just about that family, which was not… it's not a pretty life unfortunately.

Q: Is Terry still living in West Memphis?

AB: No, he lives in Memphis in this tiny place called Albert's Cabins, a little motel.  He works in a building supplies factory.  He lives in hiding mostly.

Q: Two questions about the original case. Number 1, all of the talk in the courtroom about the satanic cult and all the alleged things people were doing in terms of maiming and eating animals, which would have possibly explained the horrible maiming of the kids which later came out, was this completely made up by the policeman or was there any truth that these boys belonged to that cult?

AB: It was the culture of the time; it was fear-induced investigating, so people were just reacting with emotion and so everything was construed. And Damien did not do himself any favors. He was a teenager who just couldn't believe the things that were being said to him so he reacted as one would react, he was completely alone so it just spun out of control.  It was rumors that were turned into facts and the police believed it and everyone wanted to believe that.

Q: Were the West Memphis Three polygraph tested?

AB: Well, Jesse was given numerous polygraph tests, but I don't think the results were ever presented in trial. The other two were not. The witnesses were the same witnesses that were referenced in the hearing in Arkansas, those people have now been interviewed by the state and taken very seriously.  There were a lot of polygraph tests. Michael Carson took a polygraph and passed it. So who knows how it was done?

Q: In the movie the one defendant of the three had an alibi, and he was at the wrestling match. There was no information about the other two, did they have alibis that were just uncorroborated?  

AB: Damien and Jason were both on the phone with Jennifer who was in the film.  They actually came in and asked her some questions and never called her to the trial.  So they all had alibis but it was all kind of twisted up and due to Jesse's confession it didn't matter at that point; they weren't going to bring anyone else into the alibi discussion at that point.

AT: What are you working on next?

AB: Oh goodness… a feature. My first.

This article is related to: Interviews, West of Memphis, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Peter Jackson, Sony Pictures Classics, Interviews


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