Colin Firth heads to Memphis, Olivier Assayas stays local, and Sullivan Stapleton goes Persian. 
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24 Feb 2012 - 4:19 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2012 - 9:30 PM

The story of the West Memphis 3 – a trio of Arkansas teenagers who were tried and convicted in 1994 for the brutal murder of three young boys and whose innocence became a cause celebre that culminated in their release last year – has already spawned numerous books, news media accounts and four feature documentaries. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky followed their travails, which have taken in police coercion, a death penalty and issues with DNA evidence, to produce the trio of acclaimed Paradise Lost documentaries between 1996 and 2011, while West of Memphis, directed by Amy J. Berg and produced by Peter Jackson, premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Now that the story of Damien Echols, who was on death row, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin has reached a conclusion of sorts (in August last year, following new DNA evidence being produced, they entered pleas that maintained their innocence but conceded that the prosecution had had the evidence to convict and were sentenced to the 18 years time already served), a long in development feature film is moving towards production. Canadian director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter, Chloe) will take Devil's Knot into production, which is based on a 2003 book about the investigation, trial and subsequent shift in public opinion.

Two leadings actors have been cast. Brit Colin Firth will play Ron Lax, a private investigator who was one of the trio's original supporters and whose investigations eventually suggested that a stepfather, Terry Hobbs, of one the victims, Steven Branch, may have been involved. Reese Witherspoon, who needs to put This Means War firmly behind her, will portray Steven Branch's grieving mother and Terry Hobbs' wife, Pam Hobbs, who initially believed in the trio's guilt but gradually became an advocate for their innocence.

The eclectic career of Olivier Assayas continues. The French writer/director, who has moved through 1996's Irma Vep and 2002's Demonlover before hitting a peak with the trenchant 1970s terrorism epic Carlos in 2010, has finished shooting Something in the Air, the story of a teenage Parisian schoolboy at the start of the 1970s caught between his artistic ambitions and the heightened political circumstances of the era. Assayas' young cast includes Lola Creton (also in Mia Hansen-Love's forthcoming Goodbye, First Love) and Dolores Chaplin (The Counterfeiters and, yes, Charlie's granddaughter).

The competition to see which local cast member of 2010's Animal Kingdom could translate the masterful crime film's breakthrough into an unexpected part is deepening. The early pace was set Jackie Weaver, whose Academy Award nomination was followed by snagging the mother-in-law role in the Hollywood comedy The Five-Year Engagement (with Emily Blunt and Jason Segel), before James Frecheville picked up the American teen comedy The First Time. But now Sullivan Stapleton has shot to the front, being cast as the Persian leader Xerxes in 300: Battle of Artemisia, the prequel to Zack Snyder's ludicrously stylised 2006 swords and sandal epic 300. The original Xerxes, played by Rodrigo Santoro, appeared to be nine feet tall and believed he was a god, so those are literally big shoes to fill.