Amy Berg is back in the director’s chair with her new documentary movie West of Memphis which focuses on the conviction of the West Memphis Three and the new evidence that has come to light in their case.
We caught up with the filmmaker at the BFI London Film Festival to chat about the new movie, how she got involved in the project and what lies ahead.
- West of Memphis is your new movie so can you tell me a little bit about it?
West of Memphis on the surface it is a film about the case of the West Memphis Three but it is really a behind the scenes look at the love story between Lori Davis and Damien Echols, who has been on death row for eighteen years.
But it also looks at the movement that got them out of prison because these men were wrongfully convicted and served over eighteen years in the Arkansas prison system for a murder that they didn’t commit.
- The story of the West Memphis Three is one that is very well known so where did you interest in their story lie and how did the documentary come about?
My interest in the film came from a phone call that I received from Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh in New Zealand.
They had been funding and investigating the case for some years and they brought it to the original trial judge and hoped to get a new trial after discovering someone else’s DNA at the crime scene and numerous other bits of information that they thought were pertinent to the case.
But they were just denied immediately so they deliberated with Lori Davis and Damien Echols and they decided that the only way to get this story out was to do a film - they brought it to me at the at point.
- Was it a project that you immediately jumped on because I imagine it is the kind of movie that does take over your life?
I didn’t immediately jump on it as I wasn’t familiar with the case and there had been fifteen years since these guys had been convicted and so there was so much information to look through.
I wanted to make sure that I would be able to tell the story properly and so I spent a good six months researching it and trying to understand what had happened and follow up on the various leads that existed within the case files.
After meeting Damien on Death Row was actually when I signed on to do the movie.
- When you started making this movie there was no suggestion that Damien, Jason and Jessie were going to be freed so what made you so sure of their innocence?
If you look at the case file you can see that everything that was presented in court just did not hold up and it didn’t prove that they had anything to do with this - and I believed that whole-heartedly.
When the state finally allowed for there to be DNA testing of all the evidence in the case the first person in line to give his hair was Damien Echols and if that is not a testament to his innocence.
There were so many other things that were wrong with the case: he had an alibi and there were people who hadn’t been looked at.
Then there were the forensic experts who unanimously agreed that all the wounds that were being judged as stab wounds in court were actually post-mortem.
So there were just so many things that stood out and to me proved that this case needed to be re-opened.
- Damien Echols plays a huge part in this film and to look at him he doesn't seem to carry a lot of anger for what has happened to him so what did you think of him when you first met him?
He found his way towards a very spiritual path in prison and I think that it saved his life.
When I first spoke to him he would tell me how he was meditating five to eight hours a day, running, reading, corresponding with various people and he was writing a book - he was finding ways to keep himself distracted from the case.
It has become such a source of his identity and he wanted to protect himself for that as he wasn’t the West Memphis Tree until he was imprisoned for this and technically he should have had nothing to do with this.
- And Lori Davis is such a strong woman what did you think of her while you were working with her?
She is wonderful. You hear stories about women in this situation and there are things that pop into everyone’s mind but Lori believed in Damien’s innocence and that is what drove their love and their partnership and everything that came along with that.
I just cannot believe how amazing a person she is as she was able to galvanise so much support and she kept the defence going for so many years - running it herself for a certain number of years. She is just an incredible person.
- There is so much information in this movie from the actual murders themselves to the new evidence as well as looking at individual people and the effect that it has had on them so where did you start when you were editing this movie together? And how difficult was the editing process?
It definitely was a difficult edit but there were so many similarities in the different storylines that we were able to really inter-cut people and create the same sentiment.
It was everywhere and everyone was affected by this case so there were just so many similar storylines that intersected with each other.
But it was a difficult edit for sure and we just had to simplify the information over and over again.
- I suppose with a movie like this there are just layers and layers and you find something new to add all of the time so where was the cut of point for you where you went 'right that is enough' because this is a project that could go on forever?
Right (laughs). We were in New Zealand finishing off the movie for the Sundance Film Festival in January and some tips had just come in on the tip line - there were some new witnesses who had information about somebody who is being investigated for the murder on the side of the defence.
So we were basically doing a Skype interview a week and a half before Sundance and that made it into the cut (laughs).
I think that it is a work in progress and I really do believe when there is so much injustice and so many errors and lies and manipulations that you can’t really set an ending because you never know what is going to be around the corner.
Fran and Peter have remained committed to keep the options open to add more into the movie is necessarily.
- The likes of Eddie Veder and Peter Jackson has been long timer supporters of the trio so how eager were they to be a part of this movie? And what do you felt they brought to the project?
There is such a passion there and I think they would have done anything to get the story out because the more people that read the information and understand what really went wrong are convinced that these guys were wrongfully convicted and are innocent. So I just think that it is so important to get the word out.
- There are also some very emotional moments with Pam Hobbs so how did you find your time with her? And how keen was she to revisit this for the film?
She needs justice to be served at this point. It is a constant thing and every single day this is on her mind that her baby was murdered and it has been twenty years and there are still no answers. The alpha plea is almost like a slap in her face.
- How did the community respond when you went back to do little bits of filming?
Well the community has dispersed all over the state of Arkansas and crossing boarders as well and so it was very difficult to find some of these people let alone to gain their trust and hear their story and see what they have been through since then.
- What were the major stumbling blocks if you will when you were making this movie?
I think the major stumbling blocks, which is a good way to put it, was that on the side of the officials there is a complete unwillingness to make a mistake and that is the source of all the problems.
I use England as an example because when you guys got it wrong with the death penalty you got rid of the death penalty and that was a massive admission of something that was an error.
But there is just no one there who is willing to admit that they made a mistake and so it is so difficult to get beyond a certain point with that in mind.
- It has been playing on the festival circuit this year so how have you personally found the response to the movie so far? Because it is still a divisive subject?
We played at Sundance, Toronto, and here (London) and now we are just going into the market place further.
But I have had a positive response at the festivals so far. People are angry and emotional and they do feel satisfied that they understand the case by the end of it.
- The movie is playing at the BFI London Film Festival this week so how excited are you to be in London?
Great, I love London. It is such a great festival and feels like such a great place to launch this movie internationally.
- And what do you hope people take away from this movie when they see it?
That there is hope - you have to really stick with something but there is hope for change. But the power of the movement outside of the system than what happens within of the system.
- Finally what is next for you?
I am working on my first narrative feature called Every Secret Thing and it was a book that was adapted for the screen. We begin shooting that in March.
FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw
Tagged in BFI London Film Festival