I reviewed the film at the London Film Festival (you can read what I had to say here) and even picked it as one of my top ten of 2012. An extraordinary film, West of Memphis is one recommendation that is very easy to make.
I was lucky enough to speak to director Amy Berg in October we spoke at length about the process of making the film and the case itself.
What was your first involvement with the film and the story?
I came in very late. I came in after Peter [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh] had presented all of this new evidence to the judge. Well, they didn’t even get to present it, it was denied immediately. And then they had to regroup and decide how to get the information out because they thought Damien [Echols] was going to get executed. They contacted me in 2008 and I spent six months just reading up on it. It had been fifteen years since Damien was convicted. They had been funding his defence, which had ultimately been getting involved with everyone working together. There was just so much information, a conviction means everything’s on the public record. There was a camera pool at the trial, so all the news stations had recorded it. So I got to watch the entire trial and really go fact for fact on the case that was presented in court. That’s where I started.
So you started in very much an investigative way?
Yes, I wanted to take their [the prosecution’s] case and look at everything they presented to prove these guys were guilty. And every single point was disputed in one way or the other. I had to personally feel that Damien was innocent before I could sign on to do this film because obviously there was a slant towards getting him out of prison. I’d heard of the West Memphis Three and I’d heard of the case but I didn’t really know anything about it. So I spent that six months looking at everything; his alibi, the confession, the forensics, the DNA evidence. Every single thing that had happened and every single time I kept finding that there was no connection for him. He didn’t know those kids, he didn’t know Jessie, he offered his own hair when they said they were going to test the DNA. It was obvious to me that he didn’t do it, that Jason didn’t do it, that Jessie didn’t do it. It was just a bad circumstance that brought the three of them together and a huge miscarriage of justice.
Was there any particular thing that clinched it for you?
Well the forensic evidence. That really made sense to me. They were presenting that these guys had stabbed these kids to death and the autopsy showed that there was no depth to the wounds, that there was no organ damage. That these were scratch wounds. It just seemed so obvious that if that was a universal thought amongst all of the forensics experts, you have to take science seriously. The fact that the medical examiner is an arm of the prosecution is such an unfair system. The medical examiner should be on behalf of the citizens of the state and the state. It should be an unbiased entity and instead it’s about getting conviction. Arkansas is the only one left like that. It’s not a new idea it’s just that that’s the only place that’s not dismantled their medical examiners. It’s crazy.
One of the most extraordinary moments in the film is seeing the turtle bites side by side with the wounds on the children. It’s such a great way of showing the evidence. Were there any other ways of showing things that you didn’t end up using? Obviously you’re representing something that’s very much on paper.
Yes, there’s so much. There was something that was really shocking to watch but it ended up on the floor. Vicky Hutchinson’s son was brought in for questioning and he was eight years old, and he was a school friend of the boys that were murdered, and watching the prosecutor and the police investigator try to get information out of eight year old. They were willing to take anything. He was changing his story and they were just going for it. You are seriously trying to get information out of eight year old who wasn’t there about what happened? It was just shocking.
And obviously there’s a parallel there with Jessie and the way they spoke to him.
Yeah, he’s on that level. It’s awful.
Coming on to the project did you know who you were going to get access to?
No, I had no idea. Every single character had something interesting to share but it was hard to find them.
How did you manage to persuade them? Terry Hobbs’ daughter, for instance?
It wasn’t persuasion it was just literally persistence. That’s what it was. Just being there and listening. I didn’t show up with a camera. I spent months talking with people. Just letting them feel comfortable. Me understanding who they were. I think that ‘s really important.
Obviously the documentary is a mixture of compiling footage and new footage. What sort of process did you go through? Did you do a rough assembly edit before going back again?
We did character assemblies for each person. Their arcs and then found the intersecting points. We built scenes and started with that.
I assume there was a process of cutting things down too?
I never had a cut over three hours. It was just mixing and moving things around. You just keep changing things. It was hard to manage a film at two and half hours. It’s hard mentally to manage all that information. That was about as long as it could be. I always wanted it to be under two and half hours but it’s hard to do.
And you used ‘pillow shots’, shots of sky and so on that are in-between interviews.
Yeah, I really felt that the visual concept was really in line with Capote. I love that film and I feel like that was a really similar type of story because there was so much intensity and chaos but there was the quietness of the story. I just felt like setting up each environment was really important for transitions in and out. So whenever we would wrap we would go and grab a few of those shots. If for some reason an interview got cancelled I had a long list of shots that I had that I wanted. Like the shot with the birds and the train, I was like, ‘I missed it again, what time does that happen? I’ve got to get that.’ Then of course you go the next day and then it doesn’t happen.
The investigation obviously needs to begin now as it never really started properly. Are you optimistic about the future?
It’s hard to be optimistic after seeing so many who are unwilling to even admit that they made a mistake. In England you guys used to have the death penalty. Then you executed an innocent man and you got rid of the death penalty. That’s an admission that we have a faulty system. We aren’t willing to do that in America. We not willing to admit that we made a mistake. You never hear somebody saying that. Come on, we’re not above errors as human beings. It’s obvious just from looking at this case that a lot of mistakes were made.
West of Memphis is out in UK cinemas today.