West of Memphis: An Unpredictable Ending

    When Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and Fran Walsh approached Oscar nominated director Amy J. Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) to direct their documentary about the plight of three apparently innocent men on death row in Memphis, there was little hope for their release.

    The idea of making a documentary was in fact secondary, Jackson and Walsh’s aim was to do their own investigation into the plight of the notorious West Memphis three: the teenagers who were convicted of murdering three young boys and had already spent a decade in prison. Jackson and Walsh were so moved by their plight, that they decided to fund a forensic investigation into the cases themselves and it was then that they had the idea of filming the process.

    The findings turned the whole case around and the three men walked free.

    Film director Amy J. Berg spoke to the CIJ about the resulting documentary, West of Memphis, which is the opening film at the London Investigative Film Festival on 7 February.

    CIJ: You've started filming not knowing how the story would end. How did feel to film a process?

    AJB: As much as I love following a story as it unfolds, it was both exciting and a bit nerve wracking to watch because so much was at stake for the guys.

    CIJ: Was it hard to convince Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley to be part of the film? How did you find it working with them and making a film about their plight? What was the reaction from their families?

    AJB: I was actually approached by [the producers] Fran and Peter Jackson who already had a relationship with Damien and Lorri [a campaigner for his release who later became his wife]. It was very difficult making the film as so many of their basic human rights were ignored and such a mass of information was available that made their innocence seem so obvious. Every time I would leave Varner (the correctional facility), it seemed terribly dubious and unfair.

    CIJ: Did you always believe they were innocent? Did the public?

    AJB: I did not know all the facts when I was first approached but I spent a good six months just doing my homework and reading about the case and developments since their sentence and the first documentary. So much had been researched and it needed to be compiled and triple checked before I could take on the film.

    CIJ: Did the job of helping the Memphis Three to get out of jail and making a documentary ever clash? Did you ever have to step back?

    AJB: The premise of the film was to show the systemic failures of the justice system and the hope was always that they would be released when the information became available. Every turn I took led further away from the guys so there was not a clash in that regard. The system was so firmly against the facts and in favor of the original determination so this was our greatest challenge.

    CIJ: How did you find working with Peter Jackson? What kind of guy is he?

    AJB: Peter and Fran [Walsh] are true filmmakers and great collaborators. I found working with them and their accessibility surprising. Amidst full production of the Hobbit, they were always available to me. Peter often called me in Arkansas from the set of the production if I needed something.

    CIJ: When the compromise deal was struck and the guys were released - what was the feeling among the film crew?

    AJB: I think we were all in shock on the day it happened. But there is no way to describe the feeling of watching them walk free. It is an image that will be forever implanted in my memory and my heart.

    CIJ: What did your protagonists think of the film?

    AJB: They have been very supportive of the film. Damien had not been able to watch the other films for some reason [there were a number of other films made about them, including Paradise Lost, which moved Jackson so much that he decided to get involved] and he actually was able to step back and appreciate the film. Jason has been to numerous screenings and offered a lot of support. Jessie has remained close to his home but has seen the film and participated in Q&As.

    Amy J Berg will be taking part in the Q&A session after the screening of West of Memphis at the London Investigative Film Festival on the 7 February at Oliver Thompson Theatre, City University London.

    Drinks reception from 6pm, screening at 7pm after the screening there will be a Q&A session with Amy J. Berg.