The biggest surprise in Sundance last year was seeing Peter Jackson in a very different guise. The New Zealand director and his wife and collaborator, Fran Walsh, were in town as the producers of West of Memphis, a documentary detailing the wrongful imprisonment of three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, for the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old Arkansas Cub Scouts, who were found dumped and supposedly molested in the most horrific manner. The case had captured the American psyche and the American media in a manner similar to the murders of Charles Manson.
It was a constant investigation
Jackson and Walsh had become involved after watching Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's 1996 HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 2005. They discovered that, despite the best efforts of tireless campaigner Lorri Davis (now Echols' wife), little had been done. They hired the best forensic experts and lawyers to prove the innocence of the three men–the so-called West Memphis Three–whose convictions had been based on false testimonies about satanic rituals, sloppy forensics and shoddy police work accepted as fact by a politically ambitious judge.
To direct a film following the case and trial they hired Amy Berg, a veteran producer of news stories for CBS and CNN, whose 2006 priest-molestation documentary, Deliver Us from Evil had been nominated for an Academy Award. As the ensuing film, West of Memphis, shows, Berg, like Walsh and Jackson, continues to campaign for the exoneration of the West Memphis Three, who accepted a plea bargain in order to be released from prison. This was essential, especially for Echols, whose health had been deteriorating after he'd spent eight years on death row in a high security cell with little light. Baldwin and Misskelley received life sentences and ended up spending 18 years in prison for life sentences.
I spoke to the affable and highly articulate Berg over breakfast at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
HB: What was it like working with Fran Walsh, who in many ways is the unsung hero in this saga?
AB: Fran is a powerhouse. Her wealth of knowledge on this case, her attention to detail is amazing. She's great to work with.
How do you see her working relationship and dynamic with Peter Jackson?
They have so much respect and love for each other. It's a beautiful thing that they do so much for so many different people all the time–and with their family and The Hobbit, they've had a lot going on. They are just such respectful people. They treat people very well.
How much financial aid did they give to the film?
The thing is, I don't even know. All I know is that there were things that were happening all the time. So they put money into the case, into DNA testing and filming. They spent millions. I don't know what was spent on the film per se, because a lot of the time I was going down to Arkansaw filming things that weren't for the film. It was just following things to see where they were going because I had access to people who weren't going to fit into this story. Though who knows what information would be revealed? It was a constant investigation.
And it wouldn't have happened without their money?
No way, no way. Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) and Johnny Depp also contributed financially. Not to the film, to the case over the years. Everyone was spending millions of dollars to try to get information out. I don't know everything they did with the case but I know that Eddie was funding lawyers before Fran and Peter even got involved. He was hiring attorneys, conducting investigations and he stayed in contact with Lorri and Damien all through the trial. He has a woman named Nicole Vandenberg (longtime Pearl Jam publicist), who is like his advocacy person. Eddie has been committed to this for 15 years and they've organised benefit concerts and events.
Has Echols managed to assimilate back into living a normal life? Has the film given him an impetus to do that?
I feel like it's a new life. It's such a different world today than when he was convicted and it's kind of like being with an innocent child in an adult's body. It's like everything is not so weighted down by the social baggage that we accumulate in our 20s and 30s. He's fresh, you know what I mean? So he likes everything or he doesn't like it. He is very clear and everything is a new experience for him. It's interesting. It's something you don't see very often. Like somebody who is 38 years old who hasn't had all the human contact.
How is his eyesight going?
Oh my God, it's so tough.
It's something that hasn't been talked about much.
Yeah. When he was in prison he would run in the same place for hours. So now he is running and I am a runner as well so we went running together. But he has a very hard time running because of his vision so he can only run at certain hours in the day when the light isn't so strong. When he looks at a menu he brings it very close to his face so it's a big issue. His teeth and his eyes were his two big issues and there was the question that maybe he had diabetes, but he doesn't. This is a guy who has been living on junk food for 18 years and the last time I went to visit him in New York he was making kale smoothies and juicing every vegetable and fruit you could imagine. He has found this juicer and he is totally into it and has gotten very healthy, which is great. He is happy and he has written a book (Life After Death) and is living his life. I think he deserves that after all this.
He got married in prison and Lorri has been like his saviour.
Lorri is such an amazing human being. She was so moved by his story and is such a strong person that she was willing to take it on and thank God. And their love is strong.
Can I ask the toll this has taken on your personal life or your bank account? I don't imagine you've made that much money out of it.
No, it's okay. We are documentary filmmakers, and so I guess there are two sides to it. One is you feel really good about what you do and the itch of being a journalist doesn't go away so it satisfies a lot of curiosity and questions. Then the other side of that is it depletes you in a way where you feel like you are giving so much to people who are in such fragile states and in such trouble and so it's emotionally hard. There are days when after spending a whole day in West Memphis talking with different people, you are just like, 'I don't know how I can do this again tomorrow'. But then you wake up and you still have all those questions and you are out the door again, so it just keeps going.
West of Memphis is in limited release from February 14.