As the tagline from the latest Atom Egoyan film, Devil’s Knot (review), states, “They say the crimes were satanic. The truth may be scarier.” Based on the convictions of the men accused of the “West Memphis Three” murders, it focuses on the families and legal aspects of the case.
We recently chatted with director Egoyan about how he became involved in the project, which describes how Jessie Misskelley, Jr., Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols (aka the West Memphis Three) were exonerated and released after serving nearly 20 years in prison.
He also touched on why he chose to focus on some lesser known principals from the case, the challenges of bringing this story to the screen, what he learned about the U.S. justice system while making the film, and more.
Dread Central: So, how did you first become aware of the West Memphis Three story, and what was it about it that stuck with you the most because there are so many different elements to it?
Atom Egoyan: Well, I saw the first documentary, Paradise Lost, when it came out in ’96 I think it was, and I’ll just never forget those images of those bodies. The film starts with these really graphic images, and I’ve never seen that before. And I think that you can’t imagine a more extreme crime scene, that these three young boys were found naked, bound, mutilated, tied with their own shoelaces in a swamp, and there’s absolutely no evidence around them. There was no blood, there was no DNA, no footprints, not even branches had been disturbed.
So it’s deeply supernatural… and that this happens in the Deep South in this very religious community, I just think that it was an explosive situation, where it was clearly an act of evil, and if demons couldn’t be identified immediately, then they had to be created, and that’s what happened over the course of the following weeks.
I think that what I wanted to show with this movie was that there were so many avenues that weren’t explored. There were so many other possible suspects or possible reasons to raise during the trial, but, either due to incompetence or to sheer will, once the system identified these three outsiders, everything else was excluded. So I remember leaving the documentary and subsequent similar films thinking, ‘Oh it must have been that person or that person.’ In reality it’s not that clear. I think that any one of these other finger pointings might have created another witch hunt.
In fact, the troubling reality is we still have no idea, 20 years later, who actually did it or why they would have done it. It’s such a graphic, extreme crime and it’s deeply unsettling to live with that. The film is trying to show the effects of living with doubt and what that means and how that grows an individual.
DC: You story does concentrate mainly on two people who are lesser known to the general public, Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) and Ron Lax (Colin Firth). Why did you choose to go with that angle, and why those two in particular? Was it a matter of book rights or…?
AE: Because they seem to represent the two extremes. Pam Hobbs is this person who had every emotional reason to believe that the killers had been found. She was a mother whose precious eight-year-old kid was found in the most shocking, degrading sort of way possible. How could she live with that? Of course, she has every reason to believe that it would have been one of these three Satanists. The fact that she came to a turn-around, that she began to question that through her emotional intuitive sensibility, and then to contrast that with Ron Lax, who is this very polished professional, highly successful private investigator who attached himself because he didn’t believe in the death penalty. And for him to be in the courtroom and suddenly realize that he’s not here defending against the death penalty, he’s actually witness to a huge mistrial and the public employee lawyers that he’s working with are not experienced enough to really hold this for what it is, are not able to actually change anything, and his frustration.
That idea of having a strong sense of conviction but not having the agency to do anything about it seemed to be such an unusual way to tell a story. I really felt that the meeting in the forest of these two individuals who were both not the primary subjects that most people would identify… in the drama we’re telling they are united in their doubt and in their desire to look further and to keep pressing those questions. That, to me, was really moving.
DC: That’s a good answer. I have seen all of your movies. I love Where the Truth Lies; it’s probably my favorite. And I enjoyed Chloe, too. Usually your storytelling style is more mysterious so I’m wondering what made you decide to present Devil’s Knot in a more linear and procedural way. Was it a challenge for you to be less stylistic and more straightforward?
AE: That’s a great question because yes, it was a huge challenge. It took me like a year to edit this because I just felt that I had to stick to the facts. You are actually bound by what actually happened, and in this case I wanted to use actual words that were spoken, the actual transcripts of interviews, what happened in the trial, so in a strange way you’re bound in a way that’s very different than in a film like Where the Truth Lies, which is entirely fictional, or which has completely different rules. Tonally, this film is really moving between the elements of courtroom procedural and horror and thriller and murder mystery and domestic drama and a lot of different genres. Where something like Where the Truth Lies is probably more coherent stylistically, that’s not how this story could be told… It just felt that it needed a different approach.
DC: Well, it seems like there are a lot of different choices. I think that when it comes to documentarians, for example, Werner Herzog is a master because he can make them seem very labyrinthine and almost like a mystery as they unfold; yet, he’s still sticking to facts. So yeah, it must have been quite a challenge. I’m curious now that you’ve mentioned it, it does have a lot of genre elements… Our website Dread Central is mainly for horror movies, and so I’m wondering, do you mind that fans of horror movies will be drawn to Devil’s Knot?
AE: I think especially the first part of the film functions like a horror [movie] and you’re sort of plunged into this world and it has this tone. But I’m curious to see how someone who is in that world… I’m not sure what the expectations would be of someone. I have no problem with anyone watching this. I think that it’s a story that needs to be looked at. I think it’s a piece of urban mythology. I think it has tones of different ways of being told, and this is the particular approach we took. Maybe someone would choose a more horror approach. It’s interesting given the pedigree of the writers and you know, Scott Derrickson. There’s lots of ways that the story could be told.
DC: What do you think of the real-life outcome for the West Memphis Three? Was justice served or not? And what did you learn about the U.S. legal system in the course of making this film?
AE: Like any legal system, it’s based on narrative being applied and making a jury believe that narrative. In this case, the only real act of dark magic in the whole story was what the prosecution team was able to do in summation where you take a whole bunch of circumstantial evidence and as the prosecutor says himself, quite explicitly, you mix it all together and what do you have? You create demons. That, to me, is very troubling. I don’t think it’s very specific to the U.S. I think it happening elsewhere in the world. But it’s almost as though what we can’t live with is the idea that some things might be unresolved, especially when it affects a community and when it’s about children. People need answers. What happened in West Memphis is that three young boys were killed and three young men were then sacrificed at the altar of justice, and that is very troubling. I’m happy that this case has been kept alive and that they are still alive and that they are now out of jail, but I don’t think that the case is in any way resolved. I think it’s still an open question as to who killed those young men in that forest 20 years later.
Image Entertainment is releasing Devil’s Knot on May 9th.
From Academy Award nominated director Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) and starring Academy Award winner Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) and Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), comes the true story of a crime that would grip a nation for almost two decades and that continues to be one of the most high-profile trials of all time. Based on the bestseller by Mara Leveritt, DEVIL’S KNOT recounts the trial and conviction of teenagers Damien Echols; Jessie Misskelley, Jr.; and Jason Baldwin in the savage murder of three 8-year-old boys in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, in 1993.
Dubbed the so-called “West Memphis Three,” the defendants, each of them a social outsider, quickly found themselves up against a community crying out for justice as well as a lack of physical evidence that led police to believe the murders were carried out as part of a satanic occult ritual. Firth stars as Ron Lax in the film, a local private investigator and one of the first people to support the teens in their defense. Witherspoon plays Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the murdered boys. Together, they allow an uncompromising look at both sides of a town that was torn apart… and will probably never be the same again.
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