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, first-time film producers Damien Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, talked about seeing this documentary as just another extension of the case, what it’s been like to have the support of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, finding themselves on the set of The Hobbit, the desire to get to a point in life where the sensory overload isn’t as overwhelming, the double-edged sword of having to keep talking about the last thing they’d like to be reminded of on a daily basis, in order to make sure that people don’t forget that they still have not been exonerated, building a home and life for themselves, and how they’d like to express themselves creatively and artistically, in the future. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
DAMIEN ECHOLS: In a way, it doesn’t even feel like it’s connected to film. It still feels like a continuation of what we’ve always been doing, which is working on the case. The film itself is almost just a side effect of that. I don’t even really think of it like that. To me, it’s still just the case. It’s not a Hollywood movie, or anything.
LORRI DAVIS: It’s not what you would typically think of as film producing. It’s working on the case. It’s making sure we have the resources. It’s the constant shaping of the story. Maybe it’s the same thing, but it was all in working on this huge case that we’d been working on, for a long time.
What does it mean, to both of you, to have people like Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh reach out to you for this, and not just hear what you had to say, but really wanted you involved?
ECHOLS: It saved my life. Peter and Fran becoming involved was when we really started to feel like we actually had a fighting chance. We were fighting against the state, with all of its assets and power, and everything else. You’re like an ant, getting steam-rolled by a tank. Finally, when Peter and Fran came on the case, we felt like we had the intelligence and the fire power to finally fight back in a way that would matter. It made the difference between life and death.
DAVIS: It was daily support from them. In the beginning, it was just the correspondence through which we got to know each other. We were assessing the situation, and they were trying to figure out who we were and what we were all about. But then, when they came onto the case and actually started working it, it was daily contact. It was like, “Let’s do this. Let’s try that. Let’s hire this person. Let’s look into that.” It was intense, but it really felt like we finally had a hold on a direction, and that’s when the case started really coming together. When working on the case, they attacked it, just like they do their films. It was amazing! They worked as hard on it as we did. That’s the amazing thing about Fran and Pete. We’re out here working and it’s tough to do all this media (for the film), but then I stop to think that they’re doing the same thing. They worked just as hard, and continue to.
ECHOLS: It probably would have been more surreal, if I were in a normal frame of mind. We went over there within a month of the time that I was out of prison, and I was in a state of deep, profound shock and trauma, for at least three months after I was out. I couldn’t take in much of anything. It’s not like I was just excited and thinking, “I’m on the set of The Hobbit, and I’m looking at what’s probably going to be a piece of Hollywood history being made.” I was just trying to hold myself together, at that point. During that time period, I would sit down in a chair and, five minutes later, I would immediately go into a sleep. I couldn’t even concentrate on anything going on around me.
Have you gotten to a point where the sensory overload isn’t as overwhelming?
ECHOLS: No. We’ve been really running for the past year, just trying desperately to form some sort of foundation that we can build a life on. We don’t have many days where we can actually sit and think or enjoy ourselves. Especially over the last few months, when we’ve been on the tour non-stop, I wasn’t ready for this. I wasn’t ready for the book tour or the movie tour, or anything else. I don’t have the resources that a normal person has. When I was in [prison], it destroyed me on so many different levels and I haven’t even had time to heal from it. We’re doing photo shoots that I have to run out of because I’m so exhausted that I’m starting to dry heave. It doesn’t stop. It doesn’t slow down. It’s just this case in my face, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and I can’t ever get away from it.
ECHOLS: Exactly! That’s exactly it. That’s hitting the nail on the head, right there. Having to talk about it, day after day, over and over, is fucking miserable. It’s one of the most miserable things you can imagine. It’s like being trapped in a hell where you can’t ever get away from it. But, at the same time, if we don’t keep talking about it and we don’t let the state of Arkansas know that we’re not going anywhere until they do the right thing, then they’ll sweep it under the rug and we’ll never get a sense of closure. The thing we’re fighting, for and the thing that’s motivating us and makes us keep getting up and doing this, yet again, is that we want to be exonerated. We want the person who belongs in prison to be in prison, and we want the people who did this to us to be held responsible. If we don’t keep doing this, none of those things will ever happen and we’ll never be able to rest or have a sense of closure. It really is a necessary evil, almost.
Are you looking forward to going back home and getting the chance to find a life without all of the craziness?
DAVIS: Yeah. We haven’t had much of a normal life, since August of last year. We’re really hoping for that, once this tour ends. Maybe in the new year, we’re go and try to set up our house and have some time.
ECHOLS: We got a new house about two months ago, in Salem, Massachusetts. We can’t even relax in because, if we get a day off and fly home real quick, we’re trying to put up curtains or get a stove that we can cook something on or try to unpack your boxes, but you can’t because you don’t have time. You don’t really get a chance to relax because you’re living in a hobo camp. We haven’t even got our house set up yet. That’s just wearing.
Damien, what’s it like to have a big showing of your artwork at Sacred Gallery in NYC on January 5th?
ECHOLS: I really haven’t even had time to think about it very much. But, when we were taking pieces to the framers and deciding the best way to frame them to make them look best on display, it was just this feeling of relaxation. I didn’t have to talk about the case or think about the movie. It was about finally doing something that I want to do, instead of the draining work. It’s the kind of work that you enjoy doing versus something you have to do. That’s what I’m looking forward to, in the future. While you’re doing it, you get that feeling of, “Why can’t I be doing this? This is what I would like to be doing.” And one day in the near future, it will be. Things like that will be what we go on and do.
ECHOLS: Maybe not visual art, so much as other types of art. I love writing, so I’m already working on the next book. It’s insane, the way I’m basically writing it on the place, between one stop and the next, but I’m already working on it. I hope that people will like the voice in Life After Death enough that they’ll want to read about something other than the case. I’d like to maybe do some performance art type of pieces, in the future, that would be meaningful to people, on some level. That’s what I want to do. I might not go back to the painting or the stuff that I was going in prison, but move on into a new genre.
Lorri, what are you looking to do, once the craziness dies down a bit?
DAVIS: I can’t wait to get back to design and doing something creative. Sometimes I find myself just dreaming of the next thing I want to do. Starting to sketch again really feels good.
ECHOLS: I feel the same way, on a different level, about working out. We’ve been on the road for two and a half months, and we never really get a chance to work out. So, when you get a day where you have a whole hour without something crammed in, you run to the gym and work out as hard as you can, real fast, it’s like you come alive again. You wake up whatever it is in you that’s finally functioning the way it should function, when you’re not trapped in a chair, all day. It’s the same way with the creative process. For me, it’s mostly been writing. When I do that, I finally feel alive again. I finally feel like I’m functioning in the realm I’m supposed to be functioning in.
West of Memphis is now playing in limited release.