Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hill and it's subsequent followups, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory are arguably some of the most rousing documentaries in cinematic history. The riveting trilogy chronicles the wrongful conviction of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr, known as the "West Memphis Three," who were charged with the murder of three eight year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.
The 1993 case would most likely have faded from the public's concessness had it not been for Joe Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky. Their initial Paradise Lost film, released in 1996, caught to attention of various high profile figures like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and members of Metallica--many of whom rallied for the men's release.
Yet they would not walk free until 2011, after taking an Alford plea deal, which allowed them to maintain their innocence but plead guilty. By the time of their release, the three had spent a total of18 years behind bars.
Their story was recently explored in the documentary West of Memphis inspired the upcoming feature Devil's Knot.
In a new interview, Berlinger reflects one his lengthy battle for the men's freedom and how he views the case today.
The initial Paradise Lost film opens with images of the victims bodies. Why were graphic images essential to the film?
We debated endlessly about whether that was fair to the families. About whether it was the right film-making decision. How much is too much. It was debated right up until picture lock. Just how much was too much and is it too much. At the end of the day we felt it was very important to bring people immediately into that world of shock and horror. So that you can take people on the same journey that actually we went through, which I think the community went through and unfortunately didn't come out the other side of the journey, and specifically what I mean is, to me what was most fascinating about spending eighteen plus years making these films.
To me, the irony of what the films have come to represent is that when we first went down to Arkansas is that the press reports were so overwhelmingly negative. HBO sent us a little clipping. Shiela Nevins, head of documentaries at HBO, sent us a little clipping that ended up buried in the New York Times that it's open and shut, black and white, teen devil worshippers, satanic murderers, confession, an overwhelming amount of evidence.
We went down to Arkansas because we were thinking we were making a film about guilty teenagers. And the first couple of months we spent primarily with parents of the victims and were listening to all the hysteria and the evil stories that circulated, and we felt we were making a film about bad guys, and only when we started digging into the evidence, and only when we actually, by November, they were all being held without bail in county lockup awaiting trial.
So in November of 93 when we first finally negotiated access to them and we did our first series of interviews that you see in the first film, we came away from those interviews just deeply troubled because we just in our heart of hearts even though we had not, you can't just - in other words, we didn't just turn on a dime and say 'oh my god they're innocent', that would be irresponsible journalism, but the deep overwhelming feeling was something is really wrong here and these guys seem completely innocent, completely credible.
By Christmas we were convinced that these guys were innocent. But naïve enough to think it was going to work itself out at trial, and that surely with this lack of evidence, this would all work itself out at trial and they would be acquitted. That's how we went into the trial and then witnessed this incredible witch-hunt, so again, the plunging of people into the horror and the arrest of these guys kind of mirrors the approach of Paradise Lost. At first you think these guys may be guilty and then as the film wears on and the truth rises to the top you understand the fundamental miscarriage of justice, so for all those reasons, that's why that body footage is in there.
Damien has said that they would have killed him had it not been for the attention the case got. Do you believe that without the attention the case received from the films Damien (who was on death row) would have been executed and that Baldwin and Misskelley (who were sentenced to life) would still be in prison today.
I don't want to be falsely humble. I think the Paradise Lost series played a significant role. Had Paradise Lost films not been made, Echols would have most likely have been executed by now, and Baldwin and Misskelley would be forgotten inhabitants of life without parole.
I'm proud that we were the only media at the time down there covering it, and there were some nationals, you look at some of the national news stories at the time, like CBS evening news, and little three, four minute pieces, there was a Geraldo piece, they were all negative, they were all telling the lazy story of devil-worshipping teens and satanic murderers.
We were the only people who said 'hey, something is fundamentally wrong here and made a very objective thorough film on that subject. But as you see in Paradise Lost 2, the WestMemphis.org people are some of the unsung heroes of the story, because I believe that the film without that advocacy group would not nearly have had the impact that ultimately happened with this kind of world wide attention and world wide movement and I think it's actually quite miraculous, Kathy Bakken is one of the founders of WM3.org, happened to be working for the ad agency that was doing a poster for HBO for its broadcast of Paradise Lost after its theatrical run and she was so enamored of the film in 1996 seeing and advance copy that she circulated it to her friends Grove and Burk in the early days of the internet, when the internet was just being born as a social media tool.
They did tremendous work to put case files and case information up on the internet. I'm disappointed that for some reason its been taken down, I don't know why but when people saw Paradise Lost on HBO and then had a place to go to and people could find each other. It created this explosion of interest and of course Lorri Davis (who later became Echols' wife) saw Paradise Lost at one of its early screenings at the Museum of Modern Art at the New Directors New Films series and that brought her into the case so of course I think the film's played a major role but I also think the activism... the celebrity support has been incredible, Peter Jackson obviously deserves tremendous credit for reinvigorating the investigation.
We carried the case to the point where the injustice could get the attention that would help ultimately bring additional resources to the case and I think peter Jackson after seeing paradise lost and deciding to get involved I think the baton was handed to him to actually get them out. I'm praising that, I'm praising the Eddie Vedders and the Johnny Depps, all that stuff is super important but I think the unsung heroes are regular people, the tens of thousands of people who agitated for years, who went down to the appeals, who rolled pennies to make contributions.
So do I think paradise lost was responsible? I think it's one part of amazing confluence of events. This'll sound funny, today with digital editing, computer editing, we would never be given the amount of time we had to edit Paradise Lost. We were still editing on a flatbed moviola, a Steinbeck, a very particular kind of old fashioned editing before computers and because we were editing that film on a Steenbeck and in those days HBO never pressured you to finish a film, there weren't these compressed television schedules the way they are now so we took two years to edit that film and I think in many ways that was a blessing because our film then came out at a time when the internet was just being born as a social media--and I think this whole result of these guys getting out of prison is this miraculous combination of events.
We went down to Arkansas for one set of reasons, discovered a story of injustice but we were able to talk our way into a courtroom where officially the state did not allow cameras in the courtroom. It was then the person doing the movie poster then created this huge website resource that created this big movement that gave people like peter Jackson, Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp a place to go to get more information and to just see how outrageous this was and of course that then led to more financial contributions and this thing that happened that is so unique.
The sad lesson and the sad reality is that the fluke in the case is not that there was a miscarriage of justice, because I think this goes on all the time, the fluke is that there were filmmakers around that were around to capture it on film.
When did you realize that you weren't just making a film but embarking on a long journey and battle?
Paradise Lost, the first film, did everything a creative person could ever want a film to do. It got tons of prizes, it was on critic's top ten lists, it was HBO's, it had a theatrical release that did really well, it got incredible reviews, it was being touted as an instant classic, it got Emmy awards, all that stuff that of course anybody who is in the business of making films, you feel good when your work is recognized in that way. It was the highest rated documentary program up to that date on HBO. We have since been eclipsed by other films, we no longer hold that record but at the time.
I can't tell you how many younger filmmakers have said to me, Paradise Lost made me want to become a filmmaker, and it's been taught at law schools. All that stuff is great, that's the part that I don't you to quote. But it was during that time of getting awards and pats on the back that that both Bruce and I were just tortured by the idea that these guys were still in prison.
Not to sound falsely humble, but you're at the Emmys, getting an Emmy award, and being patted on the back and giving an acceptance speech but you know the subjects of your movie are real people. This isn't just storytelling, these are real people, and that the needle wasn't moving on their case at all and I really thought that when Paradise Lost was done and because of the response we got at Sundance 1996 which was overwhelming, lines around the block, I've been involved in a lot of films over these years, I've made quite a few films, and paradise lost Q+As were just the most energized, people wanted more information, people would follow us out of the theater 'how can I help?' I really thought that Paradise Lost was going to blow the doors off the case immediately just like the Thin Blue Line had done for the case against Randall Dale Addams.
I was convinced that within a year they'd be out. Then we watch as we received all of these awards and I was almost embarrassed to be taking the stage and giving a thank you speech knowing that the films hadn't done anything.
That's when we thought 'okay, we've got to make another film.'
It's interesting that the men have been involved in a number of projects at the moment. Do you think you've had a role in their ambitions and facilitating that kind of creative and artistic growth?
I think Damien was on the path of being an artist long before me, my understanding, he hasn't even seen the first two films so I think I have nothing to do with whatever Damien is pursuing. I feel very much that Jason Baldwin and I have a deep connection, like he's my lost son and we have developed that relationship significantly since his release. He along with my family have spent a lot of time together and I care very much about his future which is not a traditional artistic future, he wants to be a lawyer, he wants to do some social justice projects which I'm helping him with but no, I don't think I've had any influence on any of them.
Has your journey ended with the case at this point?
Well, my filmmaking journey has ended because I feel like 3 films over 20 years, I've raised two children in the shadow of these cases, my first daughter was born when we were making the first film, and my second daughter was born during the making of the second film, and every time I saw them take a positive step in life I would think about these guys rotting in prison, their lives kind of frozen in time, so Bruce and I pledged to do what we can to shine a light on the injustice until they got out of prison, unfortunately, they've gotten out of prison under a cloud which needs to be continued to be pushed forward but I feel, and I'm happy to do what I can on a personal level but I think there's a new generation of storytellers about the case, notably Peter Jackson (who produced West of Memphis), he's controlling the investigation and controlling access to it so it makes certain practical questions of filmmaking more difficult, and emotionally, I've fulfilled my responsibility as a storyteller.
Going back, the second film to me was advocacy in search of a story, I don't think it's the strongest of the three films, the impulse to make the second film was to help as opposed to go make a cinematic story, which was the impulse of the first film, even though that changed once we saw the injustice there and the third film which we started in 2004 was clearly a continuation of this feeling, with all these films, why isn't more happening? And now that there's been some dramatic shifts in the case and now that those people who are in control of the investigation are also storytellers, it just seems like it's time to ride off into the sunset.
Clearly I'm interested in the case and would do anything to make things happen and in fact Jason Baldwin, and I can't speak publicly about it yet, but Jason Baldwin and I are about to embark on a project that will help bring more attention to both the case and other cases, but not a film project.
The collectors edition of Paradise Lost films, which features rare footage and bonus interviews, is currently available.
Those who wish to get involved in the re-opening of the case, which will allow the men to be exonerated of the crime are encouraged to call prosecutor Scott Ellington at 870 932 1513.