In 1996, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released the first of three Paradise Lost films, which document the Arkansas judicial system's corrupt handling of the West Memphis Three, a trio of misfit teens wrongfully convicted of murdering three boys in their conservative Christian hometown. In mid-August of this year, Berlinger and Sinofsky had just finished editing Paradise Lost 3, in which critical new DNA evidence is introduced, when they learned that the three men (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin), now in their mid-thirties, had been freed. (They were not exonerated; rather, they entered the extremely rare Alford plea, which allows them to walk free even though they are still convicted murderers.) After a screening of the reedited version and an intense Q&A with the West Memphis Three hosted by HBO this week, Vulture spoke with Berlinger about the surprise ending, inevitable comparisons to The Thin Blue Line, and how their lengthy imprisonment made him think differently about his own life.
The West Memphis Three were freed just four days after you finished editing Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. I saw the original cut of PL3 in Toronto, before you had edited the new ending, and something I appreciated most this time around is that you really avoid sensationalizing their release — the tone isn’t really celebratory. You were careful not to overshadow the fact that there’s still a lot that needs to be done.
It's a raw deal. We were mixing the finished product for Toronto, and we got a call saying, “Get down here. It's as big as it gets.” We hopped on a plane thinking they were just being exonerated. Of course we go through this range of emotions, from the selfish concern, “Oh my God, the film is called Paradise Lost: Purgatory, what are we going to do about the title?” But then when I saw them in the courtroom, pleading guilty, I was fully comprehending what had gone down. Shock. Tears. Indignation. Happiness. It’s so outrageous that there's no prosecutorial accountability with the state, there's no ability for these guys to sue for wrongful conviction and be compensated for eighteen years of their life being stolen at such a critical time.
I’m interested in the psychology of the people responsible for putting the three of them away for so long. When you were interviewing them did you sense any guilt, any contrition on their parts at all?
I saw very little contrition. I’m not so cynical that I think that they rounded up the wrong people and knowingly put them in prison — I do think they initially thought they were guilty — but I also think their methodology was that they would do anything possible to get these guys convicted. I don't know how these people can go to bed at night knowing that the real killer walks free. And if I were the parent of a victim? Basically the state is telling those families, “We're not going to look for the real killers.”
You opened PL3 with the graphic footage of the three young victims lying bound, naked, and slaughtered in the woods.
I think there was this kind of lethal brew that led to the conviction, and part of that was just how horrible the crime was. That’s why we lead the film with that body footage, which we have been criticized for doing over the years. But you have to understand just how horrific the crime was in order to understand how people could be scared.
And so blinded.
Right. It was a combination of religious fundamentalism, a horrific crime, and a lazy, biased media pool more interested in telling the devil-worshiping-teen story than in doing serious investigation. I'm not trying to bust on Christian fundamentalism, but it is a belief system that allows for ghost stories, for devils and angels literally walking amongst us, the belief in Satan. I also found that the tendency for people in this region is to believe the police. Even in PL3 one family member says, “We were told that the three guys are guilty. And until we're told otherwise that's what we believe.”
Would you want to tell more stories about people on death row, victims of the legal systems?
If the right story comes along, then yes. I don't consider myself an issues filmmaker: I think we gravitate towards subjects that have issues in them, but who knows what the next subject will be? I was about 30 when we started working on this, and I’m about 50 now. My entire professional career has had this thread through it, and from an emotional level, I feel it's time to move on.
The span of time covered in your films is really quite incredible: You see all of the characters age and change so much. That’s a lot of dedication on your part.
It’s a very unique set of circumstances: three films over two decades. It's kind of like Michael Apted’s 7 Up series on steroids, because there's a social-justice component to our films that those films didn't have — not that that's a criticism. But there's a part of me that's uncomfortable with all the praise that we were getting because, yes, we made these films, but it's really the 10,000 acts of generosity and selflessness that changed things. It's not selfless to make a film. We get paid to make films. To me the real heroes are the people who had other lives and careers and selflessly devoted themselves to these causes.
After The Thin Blue Line, the relationship between Randall Dale Adams and Errol Morris got pretty sour — despite the fact that the film was instrumental in having Adams freed — because Adams felt that Morris had stolen his story from him. What do you think your future relationships with Jessie, Damien, and Jason will be like?
Well, Randall Dale Adams sued Errol Morris, so I certainly hope that doesn’t happen! If there's a film to be made where we can exonerate these guys, I certainly wouldn't shut the door to the possibility of a fourth film. On the other hand, they need to be able to just live. I feel like just following their lives after prison, like how they adapt or whatever, would be taking advantage of the stewardship we've had over their story. They need a break from the cameras.
Did anyone ever accuse you and Bruce Sinofsky of exploiting their story for your own gain?
One of the stories we're telling in the third film is the impact of our first film, so I was a little worried about people misperceiving that self-reflexive quality as simply being a little pompous, of patting ourselves on the back. But what we're really trying to say is, “Why does it take three well-funded HBO documentaries, funding from celebrities” — and I don't mean that discourteously, I don't even want to use the word celebrity — “and funding from millions of other people to give these guys the kind of defense that they should have had initially?”
How has working on these films affected your development as a journalist and documentary filmmaker?
I’m a storyteller first, a journalist second. The advocacy, I didn't care about at first. But by the time we started the second film, I was haunted by the fact that these guys were still in prison. I thought the story was so compelling that it was going to do for the case what The Thin Blue Line had done years ago.
The first film was a lot more interested in presenting both sides of the story; this one wasn’t. How come?
My philosophy about advocacy filmmaking is that you've got to let the audience come to its own conclusion. If you bang a one-sided message over people's heads, it becomes just a passive experience. If you treat them like a jury member and show the pros and cons, and let them come to the conclusion on their own that these guys have been railroaded, it's a more emotionally engaging experience. That’s what happened with PL1: We weren’t afraid to include the warts, the negative stuff, to show Damien’s narcissism, how a town could come to such negative conclusions. The downside to that is that 20 percent of people walk away from your film not understanding what your film is about.
During the Q&A with the West Memphis Three, I was moved by what Jason had to say about his post-prison life: how much he loves his construction job, going to see live music, showing off his new driver’s license. We all fuss about so many inane little things and we don't realize what we do have. In the process of making this film, and while thinking of them in prison, did you start to view your own life differently, to value things in a different way?
Absolutely. I had my first child when the first PL was being made, and I had my second child during the second film. And I was haunted by the fact that these guys were still in prison and my life was continuing with every milestone: The first steps of my kid, kindergarten, whatever. It did make me appreciate my life more, but sometimes you do fall back into your habitual ways of thinking. I think the profession of social issues non-fiction filmmaking, where you get parachuted into people's lives in these moments of vulnerability — it's emotionally draining, on the one hand, but on the other hand it does make you appreciate the smaller things in life.