The documentary West of Memphis, from director Amy Berg and producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, tells the story behind the fight to stop the state of Arkansas from killing an innocent man. While it examines the police investigation into the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, the film also uncovers new evidence surrounding the arrest and conviction of the three other victims – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who became known as the West Memphis 3 – who were imprisoned for 18 years for crimes they did not commit.
At the film’s press day, filmmaker Amy Berg spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how she came to be a part of this moving and powerful story, the aspects of the case that stuck out the most once she started delving into it, the unique challenges in taking on something that was constantly changing and evolving, going through 800 hours of footage for the editing process, her thoughts on the Alford plea deal that ultimately got the three men out of prison, and what it was like to collaborate with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. She also talked about the first narrative feature she’ll be directing in the Spring, called Every Secret Thing, which is a drama about a detective who looks to unravel a mystery surrounding missing children, that stars Diane Lane. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
AMY BERG: They said they were looking for a filmmaker to do a film on this subject. I did six months of research, and then took it on. We just ran with this story and followed the leads, wherever they would take us. It was a massive undertaking, but it was definitely worth it, in the end.
When you delved into this case, what were the aspects that stuck out most for you?
BERG: The main thing that stood out was the fact that they completely interpreted the autopsy reports wrong. The fact that these were post-mortem wounds and not stab wounds was basically the game-changer. Then, you don’t have this satanic crime that they were investigating, and everything should have been pulled back. But, they didn’t want to hear that. They had every resource to know that was wrong. They knew about snapping turtles. The medical examiner was a snapping turtle expert with his own turtle farm where he was breeding turtles. It’s a huge mishap that led to this scam where everyone believed that this was satanic. People will believe things like that when there are three eight-year-old children that were murdered. They will believe the most unbelievable story.
What were the unique challenges in taking on something like this, where it was constantly changing and evolving?
BERG: You just have to be fluid, all the time, but I knew that, going in. I was going to work for two amazingly talented, passionate, hard-working producers, with Fran [Walsh] and Pete [Jackson]. There was no room for error there, with them, and I took that on and embraced it. I was on my game, from start to finish, and had to not be attached to everything ‘cause I knew the story was still evolving and a lot of what we were doing was forcing the evolution of the story, in terms of getting information from one person that would lead to something else. So, it was a really amazing process.
How many hours of footage did you have to go through for this, and what was that editing process like?
BERG: We had 800 hours of footage, but it was always pretty organized. We started with an assistant editor, right when we first started shooting. You have to really organize. I learned that from past films, where we just had so much footage. You just have to keep it organized, all the way through. The filming of all these interviews and talking to all these people was just staying with me as I was on the journey. I was always matching things up in my head, on how things would work. But then, putting it together in the edit is just another whole crazy thing.
BERG: No, because that’s exactly the system that we’re living in right now. Who would have thought that we’d have a presidential election where we’re spending a billion dollars for a campaign. Money is driving the justice system in this country. Anyone who thinks it’s not needs to do some further research. It’s really, really unfortunate that the judges, the prosecutors and the police chief, who are in elective positions, are beholden to the community. If they don’t make the decision that satisfies the public and the media that is feeding into the frenzy, then they won’t get re-elected and they won’t be able to feed their families. Self-preservation shouldn’t be playing a part in it.
What would you say to people who have been following this case and have seen the Paradise Lost films, as far as why they should see this documentary, as well?
BERG: On the surface, you might think it’s a story about the case of the West Memphis 3, but really, this is a love story about two people (Damien Echols and Lorri Davis) who believed in each other, about a whole world who believed in his innocence, and what it actually took to change the system to let him go free. Unfortunately, the deal that they had to take was just a bittersweet deal. It’s a lie, in premise, because everyone knows they’re innocent, but they have to allow the state to say they’re guilty, so that they don’t have to pay. It’s fundamentally wrong. I think this is a really strong narrative piece that should be scene, and you’ll feel good, at the end. You’ll feel sad and dismayed at the system, but you’ll see the inspiration of hope and change. It just reminds me so much of that dream.
BERG: I met Lorri right away and we hit it off immediately. She’s just an amazing woman and has this plight and just believed in his innocence, to the degree that nothing was going to get in the way of that. And Damien was just amazing. He’s articulate, intelligent, well read and spiritually connected. It was great, across the board.
How much were Pete and Fran involved with the film? Did they just let you make the film you wanted to make, and then give you their input?
BERG: They gave me notes, towards the end, but they let me make the film I wanted to make. They were always accessible and available to me, so I would say they were very involved.
BERG: Just being around Fran and Pete, it’s inspiring. They’re so committed and passionate, and they know their craft so well. I feel like this film has just elevated my work, as a filmmaker, just having them there. I really wanted to deliver on a different level than I did on my last films. And I am doing a narrative project in the Spring and I’m really not as daunted as I might have been, before making this film, just after being around Pete so much and watching him operate. It’s great! I’m excited about the future and filmmaking. I love doing what I do.
What is the narrative feature that you’re directing?
BERG: We’re shooting Every Secret Thing with Diane Lane in March. The Jeff Buckley film (Mystery White Boy) will be after that.
BERG: It’s a great script. I’m so excited about working with Diane Lane. She’s so passionate about this part. A friend of mine read the script and said it’s like Mystic River, but with women, and that’s what it is, in a strange way. It’s just a really great story, and it’s very surprising and unexpected. It’s got a lot of stuff in it. I can’t wait to be able to go make it.
Were you nervous about making the transition to narrative features, or was that always the goal?
BERG: Sure. I haven’t done it yet, so I’m totally nervous. But, I know I’m going to do a great job, if I just focus in. I know I can do it. I’m pretty sure that this is the right one. It’s scary, but I have Frances McDormand producing it. Who is better? I love talking to her, so it’s great. She’s amazing. I love her! And then, we get defacto Joel Coen, as a consultant. There are always fringe benefits.
West of Memphis opens in theaters on December 25th.