Amy Berg on 'West of Memphis' and Adding to What 'Paradise Lost' Started

The Oscar-nominated filmmaker discusses her film investigating the Robin Hood Hills child murders and working with producer Peter Jackson.

This interview was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on December 24, 2012.

It’s very hard not to think about Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost films when seeing West of Memphis. But the latter documentary, which opens this week, does work on its own and has been a necessary, instrumental part of the case of the West Memphis Three. It was produced in part by one of the Three, Damien Echols, along with his wife, Lorri Davis, and Hollywood big shots Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (who also currently have The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in theaters). To direct the film, which presents the continued investigation of the Robin Hood Hills child murders, in the hope of exonerating the wrongfully convicted trio, they got Oscar nominee Amy Berg (Deliver Us From Evil).

I talked to Berg very briefly last week, and again it was difficult to approach the conversation without addressing the Paradise Lost trilogy or discussing Jackson’s role in the production of West of Memphis. With more time, it would have been nice to get into the issue of convincing the audience of another suspect’s guilt and the process of adding in last-minute twists all the way up to its Sundance premiere last January. Perhaps another time. For now, you can read our conversation about Berg’s approach to and process in contributing to this story below.

This project began with Peter and Fran wanting to revisit the case with a new documentary. Not to say you’re not a great filmmaker, but why do you think they didn’t just try to get Berlinger and Sinofsky to do another Paradise Lost film instead of making something new? Did they explain how they wanted a different approach?

Well, you’d have to ask them why they didn’t approach the other two. To me, they approached me because it had been ten years since Paradise Lost came out and things were just at a standstill and they just wanted to do an investigative documentary. And that’s what I do. That’s not what the other films do. I have an investigative journalism background, and they wanted somebody who would just hit the ground and start asking a lot of questions.

Did they want you to see the other films? Because I know you hadn’t seen them before. Or was that something you took upon yourself to get familiar with what had been covered?

That was part of my process, to see anything that had been done on this case. I watched the whole original trials and watched Paradise Lost 1 and 2 and read [Mara Levitt’s book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three] and started reading through all the investigative work that had been done in my research process.

Once you heard they were actually making a third Paradise Lost film, was that a concern for you guys?

We were already two years into it at the time when they started showing up. We were doing something totally different, and the media started taking attention to the case around that time as well. The summer of 2010. That was when that big concert happened and Eddie Vedder showed up. Then, all of a sudden there were a lot of camera crews in town. But up to that point, we had not really run into anybody. It was clear that there was a shift at that point.

There’s almost a circular thing going on in that they made the first film, which influenced Jackson and others to continue investigating, and then Jackson produced this film, which got the ball rolling for them to make a third film. Do you think a multitude of perspectives and focus on a story like this is necessary?

The thing is that when there’s a wrongful conviction, it takes a miracle to get the case reopened. So you can never really point it to one specific thing. This case needed major manpower because you weren’t dealing with just any state, you were dealing with a state that never made a mistake — in their own words, they don’t make mistakes in this arena. There were so many elements at play. There was a very old Southern justice mentality down there. This is a daunting thing to take on. I’m not just saying for me. I’m saying for everybody. This is not something that’s an easy reform.

This film stands out for how cinematic it is. It’s not just point and shoot documentation. Can you talk about wanting all the scenic shots and the importance of making a movie as much as a work of investigative journalism?

Capturing the environment is a way that you can really explain what it feels like to be there. So, I was just trying to capture things we would see every day because they would remind me of things that people were saying. I think that’s the best way to illustrate this.

Do you see yourself as more of an investigator or a documenter of an investigation?

I guess I’m not that great at the labels. I was following my instinct and doing what seemed right at the time.

Well, for instance, I love the part with the snapping turtles. I’m shocked nobody ever had the idea about how they could have factored into the mutilation of the bodies. Was that something you guys came across while filming and doing your own investigation or had it already been discussed before and you just went and filmed the turtles for illustrative purposes?

It was in all of those reports. I talked to investigators and forensic experts to see what was the best way to illustrate that, and they said that the carcass of a pig would be comparable to a human corpse. We didn’t expect John to offer his arm. We were just shooting and then next thing you know he’s allowing this turtle to bite his arm. That was crazy. But it was very visual and actually made the point that we couldn’t have made otherwise.

Was it weird to interview Peter Jackson for the film given that he was producing the film? Certainly, it makes sense for him to tell his part. But did it feel like you were interviewing your boss?

No, because he was really hands-off in the actual filmmaking process. And he was such a big part of the investigation that I felt it necessary to show his take on this. I felt that they were so instrumental in getting the case from the dead zone to information trickling out and the DNA and forensics and all of that information that ultimately led to these guys getting out of prison. So, I had to document that. I asked him if he would go on camera.

So that was your idea?

Yeah.

Reprinted with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.