No Closure Whatsoever: Amy Berg on West of Memphis

The director of the new West Memphis Three documentary on the disappointing way they were eventually freed.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Joe Berlinger’s trilogy of Paradise Lost films chronicled the conviction of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly, Jr. and Jason Baldwin for the murders of three second graders  in Robin Hood Hills, and subsequent attempts to prove their conviction false. Amy Berg’s West of Memphis is a slightly different angle. It shows how Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh got involved in the case, hiring their own investigators which uncovered evidence that led to the freeing of the West Memphis Three, although they still had to plead “no contest” to the murders as part of the state’s deal. Echols himself joined Berg on the film festival circuit for West of Memphis, at the Sundance and Santa Barbara Film Festivals. We spoke with Berg in Santa Barbara. Mark Byers, the father of one of the murdered boys, even joined the filmmakers because he now feels united with the three due to the injustice they all suffered. West of Memphis opened Christmas Day.

CraveOnline: We asked Damien about the troubling deal he had to accept. How do you feel moving forward from the end of the film?

Amy Berg: I mean, like [Echols’ wife] Lorri’s final bit in the film, she talked about how this isn’t exactly the way they saw this. They were hoping for an exoneration and a celebration and moving on, but now it’s at this point where Damien is out of prison. He’s been freed, he’s able to sit here and he’s traveling with us. It’s amazing to be able to experience life with him, but he still has this hanging over his head. Even to take it a step further, there are three families who have lost their children who will maybe never know who murdered them. There is no investigation. There is no closure whatsoever.

It’s reassuring that there are some people who can do the job right, as long as Peter Jackson hires them to do the investigation.

Right, I mean this case represents a miracle. That it took this long is very normal. A wrongful conviction case, on the average for them to re-evaluate the evidence and possibly get a new trial takes 15-20 years. The amount of resources that went into this case is so amazing. You wonder how many other cases there are that exist just like this.

This started when Damien Echols was still a teenager, and now you meet him as an adult. We asked him if he wishes he could tell his younger self not to act out so dramatically. How important was that juxtaposition in the film you crafted?

I look at Damien and I’ve had so many conversations with both Damien and Lorri about this, but there is a level of integrity that carries. I can’t compare it to anything else so I feel like it’s an interesting question that you’re asking. I feel like the fact that he never takes a day back in his life, with all that he’s been through, it just shows this integrity. He’s always been honest and when you’re in the system, when you know you didn’t do something, you expect the system to work for you. So it shouldn’t matter how he acted. The system failed him over and over and over again for almost 19 years and it’s still failing today because they still have not stepped up to do the right thing. I feel like the proof is the man sitting across from us right now [Mark Byers]. How amazing is it that this man thought that Damien murdered his son almost 19 years ago and here they are. It’s a full circle, so to see that these people who were both on opposite sides of the fence are now working together to try to find justice because the state is still not doing anything, there’s nothing really more powerful than that if you ask me.

Is that a profound effect as a filmmaker to feel what a film can do?

Honestly, and I am a filmmaker with my heart and my career, but this experience, and I think I say this every time I make a film, the experience is one that I would not trade. There is no explanation. The feeling of experiencing something like this firsthand was just…

At what point did you know there was a new film to be made, and if they hadn’t been freed would you still be filming?

Our film was finished a few different times for the past almost three years, but when they were granted a new trial… In just over 18 years, for the first time there was going to be a new judge who was going to be hearing their case, we were so worried about the film having a negative impact on the trial that we decided to just let our film sit there and continue to document everything, but we didn’t want to put the film out and have it possibly impact what justice was due to these men. Now obviously, things didn’t turn out that way but they’re out.

Was Joe Berlinger cooperative about using clips from the Paradise Lost movies?

Can I get back to you on that? We had to fair use it. They said no. They didn’t let us license the footage but I want to make sure that I’m not saying the wrong thing because that is a legal thing. We requested it, they said no and so we had a fair use claim put in by our attorneys.

How early on did celebrities like Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins come and speak with you and be involved in the film?

I think that I asked Eddie Vedder for an interview probably three or four times over the course of the film. It just worked out by the end. With everybody in this film, it was an over time trust building thing and I feel like it took a while. Now Henry is the busiest man in the world. Have you ever seen his tour schedule? He’s just booked all year long. So it was just finding the right window, but everyone obviously is supportive of the case and the guys and they knew that we were doing this for all the right reasons so when it worked out, it worked out. It was persistence with every single interview in the film. Even with [Echols] because you’ve got the prison system to deal with. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get in there. There was something else that I wanted to say about Damien. Beyond the fact that his health was failing, he was on Death Row. He was also in a place where everybody was poking away at him all the time. For example, we would be on the phone and after a couple of minutes, if we’re talking about something that is important to his case or the film or something would benefit Damien, suddenly you start hearing these beeps on the phone, the operator. It’s like we’re trying to have a conversation, and this is going on all the time. So then we would go into the prison to interview him, and I went in to visit him another time also, and the guards would make the loudest possible noises and laugh right next to where [we are]. And this guy is talking to me about his life. His life is on the line, he’s on Death Row and we’re trying to get this story out and they are making everything about our existence and our relationship with him miserable. So you have to think about just the basic darkness of the case but adding that to the mix, the energy work [Echols] did was so powerful. I remember one time I went to interview him, he was doing Reiki. He did it on me before we did the interview because these guys were so just poking away at him at every tiny turn.

These are the questions I had upon viewing the film, but I imagine any person you talk to has a different set of questions.

What did you think of it?

I gave it a positive review.

Oh, good.

It left me with a lot to think about. If Damien can go through what he did and still be productive and positive, then that’s an inspiration.

He goes through a lot. I don’t know that there are many people like Damien out there honestly, that could have gone through that and come out from this. I couldn’t have. He’s been so strong with amazing spirit.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.