It’s been almost 20 years since directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky started on their journey to tell the story of three brutally murdered children, left in the Robin Hood Hills of West Memphis, Arkansas, and the three teenagers who were held responsible. Arriving on the scene just days after the 1993 arrests, the filmmakers initially assumed they were making a documentary about guilty teenagers. But, after embedding themselves in the community prior to the 1994 trials, they came to question the guilt of the West Memphis 3 and, by the time the trials were over, they were convinced that Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were the victims of a modern-day witch hunt. Now, HBO is premiering Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the conclusion of the award-winning trilogy that tells the complete story of one of the most notorious child murder cases in U.S. history. This time around, the filmmakers chronicled stunning new developments that culminated in the unexpected release of all three men in August 2011, freeing them from prison, and Echols from Death Row, after more than 18 years.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, co-director/producer Joe Berlinger talked about why they decided to make a third film, approaching this as a comprehensive look at the entire case and its developments along the way while including new footage for those who had seen the two previous films, how disappointing it is that the state of Arkansas doesn’t have the courage to just admit that they made a mistake, how fascinating it was to see so many people have a change of heart about their guilt, and that he has marked most of his professional and personal life by this case, having been involved with it for so long. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: For people who still aren’t familiar with the details of this case, what can you say about Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and how this third film came about?
JOE BERLINGER: The third film came about for the same reason that the second one did. We actually started the third one awhile ago, in 2004. We were just still haunted by the fact that these guys were still in prison and, even though our films were attracting a lot of grassroots support, the needle wasn’t moving, so we just felt we had a moral obligation to keep shining a light on the story and do what we could. We’re filmmakers. That’s what we wanted to do. We just wanted to keep helping. The second film just aired when we finished it, and it didn’t have any real measurable impact, in my mind. So, we decided that we would just keep filming for the third one until it made sense and until there was a real pivotal, key moment to release it.
As you see in the film, the first positive step in this case, in 18 years, was that the Arkansas Supreme Court, in 2010, sided, for the first time in the history of this case, with [Damien] Echols, after years of denials. The history of this case is the absurd situation where the original trial judge was also hearing all the appeals. So, dozens of appeals were denied, over the years, and the Arkansas Supreme Court would then affirm those denials. So, in 2010, it was really quite a momentous occasion in this case, when the Arkansas Supreme Court said, “No, Lower Court, you were wrong. The DNA evidence is compelling. They do deserve an evidentiary hearing, and they get to present any of the new evidence that they want, over the last 17 years.” That was a huge watershed moment, in this case.
As soon as they set the hearing date, which ended up being December of 2011, we said to HBO, “This is the time we should finish our film and release it because this could be very useful to them.” We had scheduled the broadcast of this film, originally, before the whole Alford plea arrangement (that they would agree to plead guilty while asserting their innocence). Prior to that, the next step in the case, as we knew it, was the December 2011 evidentiary hearing, and we had a year to prepare for that. So, we said, “Look, we’re going to do a Fall festival run – hopefully, we’ll get invited – and we’re going to put the film on HBO in November, as a way of putting a spotlight on the case and saying to Arkansas, ‘Hey, the world is watching, and you better be fair. We’re previewing for the television audience what this evidence actually is, and everyone is going to know, so be fair.’”
That was the whole idea. We had a finished film, in hand. We were in the final throes of the sound mix and the color correct, and all the things you do once you have a locked, completed picture. And, we had been invited to the Toronto Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. So, the week we got the phone call telling us, “Oh, wait a second, something big is happening,” we were actually finishing the film and getting it ready for that November broadcast.
How did you decide what to include in this third film?
BERLINGER: You had to see Paradise Lost 1 to understand Paradise Lost 2, and we wanted the third film to do something that sounds, on the surface, mutually exclusive. On the one hand, it should stand as a self-sufficient viewing experience. It surprises me how many people have never heard of the case, despite it being the most important part of my world. So, we wanted the film to be self-sufficient for those who know nothing about the case and haven’t seen the films, while simultaneously being rewarding for those who have seen the other films, and that’s a difficult juggling act. You don’t want to be repetitive to the old-comers, but you need to give a certain amount of information for the newcomers.
First of all, we decided that the film would begin the days the boys went missing, and originally it was going to end with the evidentiary hearing, but not it ends with them getting out of prison. It really tells the whole story, which we actually hadn’t done in the first film, as comprehensively. Obviously, we can’t repeat every detail that the first two films had, so the choice of what to include from the old films really revolved around what, in our estimation, at the end of the day, despite all the problems and all the absurdities of this case, what were the things that convicted these guys and what were the key elements that demonstrate the absurdity of a conviction, based on those elements. If you had to boil it all down, it’s the fact that there was this absurdly bogus confession, and this ridiculous satanic expert, and the rush to judgement that was inflamed by the local media. We use local media as a narrative spine, and you see in the film how the local media goes from helping to convict these guys, at the beginning, by making sure they didn’t get a fair trial because of the reporting that was going on, and then you see that arc, over time, where the local media eventually embraced the innocence story and the national movement. And then, by the end of the film, the media is giving them a fair shake. There were also those overwhelming pieces of evidence that demonstrate their innocence. That was the framework.
So, certain things from the first two films aren’t included because they fell out of that framework. By and large, the film is a self-sufficient viewing experience, but it also rewards those who have seen the first two films because it puts things in a fresh perspective. There is plenty of new information, and any of the old material that we re-tread, it is almost exclusive done with new footage. There are exceptions, like the opening body footage, but for the most part, we went into our archives and deeply mined this material, and tell the story using outtakes that haven’t been seen before, using archival photographs that either I took, or the cinematographer took, at the time. We had never used all of that black and white footage in the films before. All of that old media that we use as the narrative spine – all that local news – doesn’t even exist anymore. You can’t go find that. I just happened to have been a pack rat and kept everything. So, I pulled out these boxes from my storage closet.
We were actually struggling with how to keep the cinema verite vibe of the film, for an old story. We didn’t want to use a narrator, which is sometimes what you have to do when you’re telling a past tense story, but we realized we had this old news footage. All of that is new, for people who are very familiar with the case and our films. Hopefully, we ride that line.
Having taken this journey for so long, and having started out thinking that these guys were guilty, what was it like to learn what the terms of this plea deal would be? These men are finally free, but doesn’t it still feel somewhat wrong?
BERLINGER: Oh, it feels very wrong. In many ways, from a cinematic standpoint, it’s the perfect tragic ending to a very sad indictment of the American justice system that rings throughout the entire series. On a human level, it’s just devastatingly disappointing that the state of Arkansas does not have the courage to just admit that they made a mistake. Does anybody really think that government officials, prosecutors and judges would allow the three of these guys, if in their hearts, they truly believe that they sacrificed three eight-year-old children in a devil-worshipping ritual, wielding knives, and did all these horrible things that they allegedly did? Does anybody really think that if they truly thought they were guilty, that they would let them out the door? Of course not!
If in their hearts they feel these guys are guilty, and they bowed to outside pressure and they bowed to pressure from Johnny Depp, then shame on them for doing that. But, I don’t think that’s the case. To me, it’s shame on them for trying to protect themselves from political fall-out, and for trying to protect the state from being sued for wrongful conviction, which is the transparent reason. The prosecutor, at the end of the movie, says as much. It was very much on his mind to save the state millions of dollars for wrongful conviction. So, when I saw them emerge, it was tears of joy and pangs of righteous indignation. It’s very upsetting, that this is the outcome.
A lot of the individuals surrounding this case that were so convinced of their guilt, in the beginning, have really changed their opinion now. What was it like to see that transition, over time?
BERLINGER: It was fascinating, and it says a lot about the positive qualities of regular people, as opposed to the self-interest of those political players involved, who are looking to cover their asses. One of my most memorable experiences of this entire experience was when we showed up on August 19th to witness and film them getting out of prison, there was a huge crowd at the courthouse. I wasn’t sure if people were going to throw rocks at us, or how they were going to handle us. After the first film, people loathed us. Not literally, but if looks could imply. When we showed up for the second film, people wanted to spit on us. Doors shut and people thought we were just the worst. They thought we had made fun of the state. So, I had no idea how people were going to receive us this time. A lot of time had gone by, and a lot of people who were teenagers, growing up listening to their parents decry us and talk about the guilt of the West Memphis 3, were now adults. I don’t even want to limit it to those people.
At the August 19th hearing, people from all walks of life, all ages and all stripes made an effort to come up to us, shake our hands, give us a hug, and thank us for our persistence because this was a huge stain on the state. Frankly, that is the thing that was starting to scare the local officials, in my opinion. For most of this time period, they were secure in insisting on the guilt because the state population went along with the story. But, that started to change.
With that change of heart and the local media starting to give them a fair shake, the local population started to understand that there were some real problems. The original prosecutor, John Fogleman, became a judge and then ran for Arkansas Supreme Court, but lost that election. People very much believe he lost that election because the West Memphis 3 came back to haunt him, as supporters demonstrated. That change of political vibe, the change of the population and the change of the media is very much what Arkansas had on its mind, when they cut this Alford Plea deal.
When you do something like this, that has such an impact on your life, as well as the viewers, how do you determine where you want to go next with your career?
BERLINGER: First of all, I have marked most of my professional and personal life by this case. I was 31 when we started, very young in my career and my life, and I’m 50 now. I had a child during the making of each film. My eldest daughter is almost 18 and is going to go to college this year, and she was an infant during the editing of the first film. I had my second kid during the second film. One of the reasons I was haunted by this case was the image of these guys getting chained up and carted off to prison, at the end of the trials. We were there filming that, and that image has just haunted me. And, with each passing positive stage in my life, like my daughter being born, first steps, elementary school or whatever, not a week would go by that I wouldn’t measure the positive growth in my life against the fact that these guys were being screwed and in prison.
It has very much been a part of my life. I’m very much relieved they’re out of prison because it’s time to move on. Other people are planting flags, writing books and making other movies, and that’s great. I’m happy to hand the baton off to other people who can continue telling the story because I really feel like our time is done. Bruce [Sinofsky] and I pledged that we would continue making films until they got out of prison. It’s an imperfect getting out of prison, but I feel like our time is done and it’s really time to move on.
It was very emotionally draining, dealing with the multiple tragedies of three eight-year-olds being slaughtered. Some of the images I looked at, like the autopsy photos and the police crime scene footage, for the few minutes that it is in the film, we waded through stuff that people shouldn’t look at. It had a deep emotional impact and I’m totally ready to move on, and happy to move on. Conversely, it’s not like these films were the only things we’ve done, over the years. We’ve managed to do many other great things. But, I’m really glad that this has been a big part of my career.