LOS ANGELES -- One might assume that a story already covered by a trilogy of documentaries, numerous books and countless articles and with a trail of celebrity supporters including Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines had already earned enough attention. The young men known as the West Memphis Three -- Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley -- became modern-day folk heroes as the story of their imprisonment over the graphic, sensational 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., spread during their nearly two decades in jail.
For many of their supporters, it seemed their only real crime was being outsiders in a small town. The men were freed from prison in 2011 in a surprising twist that used the legally obscure Alford plea that allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty. This set the stage for them to be released while also absolving the state from any admission of wrongdoing or misconduct.
When shooting initially began on director Amy Berg's documentary West of Memphis, opening Friday at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the Angelika Dallas, the situation was much different. Damien Echols, alone among the three because of his age at the time of the crime, had his life hanging in the balance on Death Row.
When the premiere of West of Memphis was announced for the Sundance Film Festival last year, the participation of Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings filmmaker Peter Jackson was something of a surprise, not only as a producer on the film but also as an active participant in the defense. His behind-the-scenes role had been almost entirely unknown.
"You could say that I was hired to help get them out of prison, and I'm OK with that," said Berg near her offices in Venice. "That was really the directive that was given to me. I was totally an activist and advocate first."
Help from very far away
West of Memphis has its origins in Jackson and partner Fran Walsh watching the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills at their home in New Zealand more than seven years ago. After viewing it, they looked up the case online and were surprised to find that the West Memphis Three were still in jail.
After making a donation to the defense fund, Walsh struck up a correspondence and friendship with Lorri Davis, who married Echols in 1999.
"It very quickly became personal," said Jackson recently from New York, juggling duties promoting The Hobbit and West of Memphis. "It very quickly stopped being about Arkansas or a miscarriage of justice, and it became about us trying to help Lorri save her husband's life. We got emotionally entangled with it; it really became something we weren't expecting it to become."
Jackson and Walsh then began financing an investigation and DNA testing to exonerate the three men, becoming a core part of Echols' defense team.
When the original trial judge declined to hear the new evidence in court, the idea of a documentary entered the picture. In late 2008, Jackson and Walsh reached out to Berg, an Academy Award nominee for her documentary on sex abuse within the Catholic clergy, Deliver Us From Evil.
Berg initially had only a passing knowledge of the case, and after many months of her own research -- watching the two then-existing "Paradise Lost" films, reading the nonfiction book Devil's Knot, examining court materials and making her own trips to Arkansas -- she agreed to undertake the project.
In some ways, rather than deterring her from pursuing the story, the fact that the West Memphis Three were already well known only charged her interest.
"I really do migrate toward things that have had a lot of coverage that need the gray explored," said Berg. "You think you know everything, but there's so much more to the story."
Berg spent more than two years traveling back and forth to Arkansas, interviewing numerous subjects who had not spoken publicly about the case before, at times even beating the defense lawyers in getting someone to talk.
"Sometimes I know that people were responding to me because there was no legal apparatus to it," she said. "But the truth is, after a certain point, the film became part of the investigation for the case."
Legally speaking, the guilty-while-innocent twist of the Alford plea essentially shuts the door on the case. Yet Jackson holds out hope that some higher justice will prevail, with full exoneration for the West Memphis Three and the real killer found.
"We're continuing the investigation. We are uncovering new evidence all the time," said Jackson. "The story is far from finished yet. The movie is finished, but it's not about a movie anymore. And it never really was for us."