MRR Interview: "West of Memphis" director Amy Berg

Movie Description(Click Here To Hide)
West of Memphis is an examination of a failure of justice in Arkansas. The documentary tells the hitherto unknown story behind an extraordinary and desperate fight to bring the truth to light. Told and made by those who lived it, the filmmakers' unprecedented access to the inner workings of the defense, allows the film to show the investigation, research and appeals process in a way that has never been seen before; revealing shocking and disturbing new information about a case that still haunts the American South.
Photo Credit: © Olivia Fougeirol
December 22nd, 2012

Director Amy Berg has directed and produced several brilliant and successful documentaries including Bhutto, and 2006‘s powerful film Deliver Us from Evil.  Amy sits down and talks with Movie Room Reviews about her new film West of Memphis, about the West Memphis Three, which comes out Christmas day.

Movie Room Reviews- Amy! How are you doing today?

Amy- I am doing fine.  I almost got hit by a taxi! but I’m I’m OK now.

MRR- Walking or driving?

Amy- Walking.

MRR- Oh geez.

Amy- We were panicking because we knew you were waiting.  So we just got out of the car and started running, and I did the typical Non-New Yorker thing ,and just ran right through a red light; it was awesome.

MRR- Well Movie Room Reviews definitely appreciates the effort.

Amy- All for you! Just think about what would happen if it went the other way?

MRR- I may have never got to talk with you!

Amy- I know.(laughs)

MRR-  Amy You have done a lot of great films about controversial topics including clergy abuse in your 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil, which garnered you an Oscar Nomination, and now we are here to talk about your new film West of Memphis, which is being released Christmas day. Where will it be released?

Amy- I think it’s just LA and New York, then it goes wide after the New Year; probably mid January.

MRR- Will this have a wider release than Deliver Us From Evil?

Amy- Yes.

MRR - Well Amy it’s almost been a year since the film premiered at Sundance, and I am sure you have spent many hours and breaths between now and then talking about the film.  I thank you for giving us here at Movie Room Reviews a couple minutes of you time.

Amy- You know what, thank you so much for saying that.  You’re like the first person who has ever said that, in terms of interviewers.  You don’t realize it but it has been a year since the film premiered, and that’s a long time to have a lead up to a movie.

MRR- You’re probably working on other projects and thinking about other things.

Amy- Yes I am.

MRR-  West of Memphis covers the injustices done to three boys in the early 90‘s who were accused of murdering three young children. Would please give our audience a rundown of the film, and who the West Memphis Three are?

Amy- The West Memphis Three are, or were, three teenage boys who were convicted of murdering three eight year old boys. On the surface the film is about the West Memphis Three case, and what ultimately released them from prison, but really it’s a love story about Lorris Davis and Damien Echols and how this horrific murder, and this erroneous charge, brought them together. How Lorris galvanized this mass of support in order to bring justice to this case.  The job is not finished.  The film is literally a work in progress, as we say, because they’re free but they’re not free. The film shows what it takes, and it’s about the survival, and faith, and hope, and love, but it’s also looking at the failures in the justice system. 

MRR-  I read that the these three boys, now men after 18 years behind bars, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Miskelly approached you. What it was about their story that got your creative juices flowing?  I know Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh both got involved in the project before you did and got the process going.  How did you all begin to work together, and how did that all work out?

Amy- Well in terms of my creative juices, basically the thing that got me going was the injustice, and the thought that I might be able to do something to help.  That was what initially what brought me into this story, and this case, and this film.  Creatively it paid off in a huge way because I felt like this is a really cinematic story that needed to be told from a very personal perspective; which was Damien’s perspective behind bars, and Lorris Davis fighting from the outside. From there I just started knocking on doors, and finding anything I could that had to do with the original trial. 

When Peter and Fran got involved they weren’t making a film, they were just helping with the case.  They had all intentions to just investigate, finance investigations, and take it into the next level; which was an appeal at the local court.  When the three men were refused immediately, they decided that they needed to get the information out in another way, and obviously the refusal was a representation of the failure of justice.  They decided that outside the system would be a better way to take this to the next level.

MRR- From what I see, a lot of this started with Jessie Miskelly’s testimony; which kind of started the case against them.  What about this did you find to be an injustice, and was this the piece of information that set in your mind that these boys might be innocent?

Amy- Well the injustice actually stated way before Jessie Miskelly.  The injustice began when they diagnosed this murder as satanic, and they were on a witch hunt, and Damien Echols was the witch that they were going after.  So Jessie was just a tool in their overall plan.  Their plan was to focus in on this satanic crime, and there was no clear vision on what actually happened because they were totally focused on “satanic panic”, which it was called at the time.  So Jessie unfortunately was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If anyone were to just listen to what they have on tape, it’s very obvious that he was being fed information, and it’s shocking to me that that was actually able to serve as a confession.

MRR- Does small town America have a role to play in this do you think?  I’ve lived in small towns before, and I know what they can be like.  Maybe unexperienced police, a town out for blood.  My guess is things may be done a little different in West Memphis, Arkansas than a lot of other towns, and guys like Damien are maybe proven guilty before they even commit a crime.

Amy- Yeah, it was small town America.  That’s a good way to put it.  But it could happen anywhere and that’s the thing.  When you don’t look at the facts, and you become emotionally charged in your own investigation, I’m talking about the police and the prosecutors, you are just perpetrating another type of crime.

I blame the media as much as I blame small town America because the media was trying Damien Echols before he ever stepped into the court room.  That can be so detrimental to justice.

MRR- Is that why in the film you mainly focused on Damien and talked to him a lot on the phone, or in person?  I noticed you didn’t talk with Jessie or Jason.

Amy- Well Jason and Jessie’s attorney did not allow them to speak to anyone while they were behind bars.  This was Damien’s story, and it was presented to me as Damien’s story, and him leading this investigation. 

I did speak to a lot of people besides Damien that were involved in the case.  I felt like I was capturing their story through people that were impacted by their conviction.  For Jason there was Joyce Cureton, and Jason’s mom, and Michael Carson.  Those were the people that directly were effected or affected by his conviction.

As for Jessie, I was speaking with his family and Dan Stidham, his attorney, so I felt like they were represented. 

MRR-  In the film we can see the deception behind some of the testimonies, how did you feel when you heard these people retract their statements?

Amy- Well in the beginning I thought it was shocking, but then it just became the status quo.  It was clear that this was happening over and over again, and this was police manipulation, and these were people that chose the preservation of themselves rather than telling the truth.

MRR- I can’t imagine the guilt these people must feel.

Amy- Yeah, to hold on to that and allow it to sit there for that many years has got to be tough.

MRR- There were two films about this prior to West of Mephis; Paradise Lost, and Paradise Lost 2. Were you familiar with the film Paradise Lost before you took on this project?

Amy- I became familiar with everything when I took the project on and was researching it.  It was the film, it was Mara Leveritt’s book, the original trial, and all the transcripts.  There were so many things to become familiar with. 

MRR- That film brought up a lot of questions for people and I know it brought on a lot of celebrities like Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, and Johnny Depp, and a few other people that did a lot of support for them. Do you feel like that film was really important for their case?

Amy- Absolutely.

MRR- Can you talk about the people that helped you on the film that deserve a lot of credit?  I personally think the composers did a great job. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.  How important were all these people to making the film?

Amy- Every single person that worked on this film was incredibly important.  Creatively Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, as well as Billy McMillin, my editor. Also, Maryse Alberti and Ronan Killeen, my cinematographers.  I mean that formula works really well for me, so creatively I am very happy when I have that little of triangle around me.  Also, my support staff was an amazing team of people on the ground who were really great.

MRR- What advice would you give to a documentary filmmaker that wants to undertake a project like this and help someone they feel really needs their help?

Amy- You just have to go for it.  You have to trust your instincts and trust yourself.  I encourage anyone to just pick up a camera and just start shooting what you want to shoot. You can do things for relatively cheap these days, and so I encourage anyone and everyone to follow their heart.  If you’re going to do it right you have to see it through.

MRR- Were there moments when you wanted to throw in the towel on this project?

Amy- Not really. There were moments when I thought, “oh man I can’t do one more day of this”, but then you go home and chill out a little bit, and then back at it again.

MRR- Thanks so much for talking with me and it’s such a great film.  If our audience lives in LA or New York they will be able to see the film West of Memphis Christmas day and hopefully it will be all across the country soon enough.

Amy- Thank you so much Nick.