Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have been working on their Paradise Lost films for nearly 20 years, much longer than either ever imagined when HBO first sent them down in 1993 to cover the gruesome murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, by three teenagers who were said to be devil worshippers. What started a film about teenage criminals became a story about injustice and wrongful conviction as Berlinger and Sinofsky became convinced Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley were innocent. When the first film aired in 1996, it spurred a political movement that grew through the production of the second film. Berlinger and Sinofsky vowed to keep making films as long as “the West Memphis Three” were still in prison. They kept that promise, shooting a third and final film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which airs on HBO on Thursday and charts the appeals up until the three men are finally released from prison after 18 years under less-than-ideal conditions. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Berlinger and Sinofsky to talk about this long journey, the role of a documentary filmmaker, and their future plans.
The A.V. Club: This has been a long journey for you. Do you feel you’ve finally reached the end now that the West Memphis Three are free, or is there more to be done?
Joe Berlinger: There’s satisfactions and dissatisfactions. Having stuck with this story for almost two decades—Bruce and I and HBO pledged to make these films until these guys got out of prison. We didn’t imagine—
Bruce Sinofsky: It would be that long.
JB: Or it would be that complicated, so in terms of having stuck with something and having contributed to a positive outcome, which doesn’t always happen in this business so tangibly, it’s exceptionally gratifying. It’s also deeply, deeply disturbing as to what the actual resolution is. The Alford plea is a cowardly last minute—I don’t blame the defense for doing it of course—but it was presented to the prosecution, I believe, on August 9, and they were out of prison on August 19. What that says is when it’s convenient, when it’s in the interest of the state because things are going so poorly, boy, can they get people out of prison quickly! When you watch our film though, in 2001, the DNA statute was passed and they argued for several years if they could even file an appeal under the DNA statute. Then they argued who would do the testing, where the testing would take place. Finally, the test took place in 2006. The results are released in 2007 that you see in the movie. In 2008, Judge Burnett says the data isn’t compelling enough, so they have to go to the Arkansas Supreme Court. They go to the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2010, and finally they agree with Echols for the first time in 18 years and say, “Yes, it is compelling and yes, you can present all evidence over the last 17 years,” which is what triggered the evidentiary hearing that the prosecution is scared to death of. So, 10 years for the DNA justice to unfold; 10 days for them to come up with a solution when it’s finally going poorly for them. That to me is deeply disturbing.
AVC: Do you see another chapter in this story?
BS: Not one we’re going to film. Their lives should go on.
JB: We feel like we’ve been really good stewards of this opportunity. We’ve done it for 20 years. There’s a machine now that’s much larger than us. Peter Jackson is making a film. Atom Egoyan is making a film. I feel it’s our time to pass on the baton to other people who want to shine a light in part because, as Bruce has said, sticking a camera in front of people’s faces post-release would feel that we’re taking advantage of them.
BS: We’re happy they’re our friends. We’re going to have access to them as friends. Yes, as a filmmaker, it would very interesting to see what they’ve done with their lives five years from now, but I don’t need to put it on film. I can call them on the phone and say, “What’s happening, Jason? What’s happening, Jessie?” If I’m in Memphis to see Jessie, that would be great. If I’m in Seattle where Jason is, that would be great.
JB: The work is not over, obviously, and we want to see these guys exonerated. Pardoned by the governor, which is probably the only vehicle for exoneration. We’ll continue to do what we can to help the case. I’m just not sure us making another film will help in that goal.
AVC: In Brother’s Keeper, you wondered what the role was for the documentary filmmaker in terms of helping your subjects. Did you also wrestle with this as the subjects in Paradise Lost became your friends?
BS: It’s always a tough thing.
JB: It’s an interesting question. What’s the line between journalism and advocacy? I think we really grew up in our youths and matured throughout the course of these films. In the first film, there was no advocacy impulse that sent us down to West Memphis, Arkansas, originally. We thought we were making a film about disaffected youth, about kids who had done something rotten. Basically, we thought they were guilty because the local press reports coming out were very one-sided.
BS: At the beginning when we first went down there, the only people we were talking to were people that thought they were guilty.
JB: That’s what’s so fascinating about this mission. That it started out with the exact opposite intention. We were in it for the cinema. We wanted to make a cool movie about disaffected youth. Several months into the process, most notably when we finally got access to the West Memphis Three—although, they were not called the West Memphis Three back then—Bruce and I felt there was something not quite right. The more we dug into it, the more we realized that this was not a case about guilty teens run amok. These guys have been wrongfully charged. We were still naïve enough to believe that it would all work itself out at the trial. We arrived right after the arrests in June of 1993 and shot for eight months before those trials began. We thought it would all work itself out, and we were stunned to witness this modern day witch-hunt. I think that’s where the advocacy started. That’s when the dual role of filmmaker and advocate kind of started taking hold. When those guys were wrapped up in chains and led off to prison—you see it in all three movies—we were just devastated. At that point we realized, “We’re not just filmmakers. We have a responsibility to tell these stories.” We struggled with how to do it and what the balance between advocacy and journalism. I think the second film wears its advocacy on its sleeve to the detriment of the film. It’s a little too bang-it-over-your-head. I think the third film is a nice blending of the two impulses.
I was 31 when we started; I’m 50 now. We’ve both raised families during this time, watched our kids grow up and had all these wonderful experiences while these kids were rotting in prison. A week wouldn’t go by when there wasn’t some event in our lives where we would not think, “Oh my God, our lives are moving on in such positive ways. Look at these guys, just fucking rotting in prison. We have to do something about it.”
BS: We did say after the first film that we would continue on the story until hopefully they got out of jail. We’d still be filming if they didn’t get out of prison on August 19.
JB: Exactly, if they were still in prison, there would be a Paradise Lost 4. I feel like them getting out is kind of our time to duck out.
BS: And let them live their own lives without a camera in their faces.
AVC: There’s a moment in Purgatory where you go back to see Damien after 10 years. Was it challenging coming back to the project after all that time?
BS: We’d been doing filming, but we hadn’t been back to see Damien on death row there. It’s not like we could just roll off the street and say, “Hey.”
JB: There were a number of years when we were blocked by the prison from seeing him, so that was part of the 10 years. We actually started Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in 2004. We were filming many years before the prison would let us in to film Damien again.
AVC: Was it harder to gain access into the prison as the films’ popularity grew?
JB: There was a period of time when Damien was in a more serious lockdown. I don’t think we were singled out versus any other media. It was just there was a period of time of a different regime of prison officials that kept the access more restricted. It started to loosen up around 2009, which is when we shot him. What’s fascinating to me about the 10 years is the passage of time. Local Arkansans weren’t sure of what to think of us during the making of the first film. Some people were suspicious, some not. When we went back to make the second film, we were literally spit upon. People had no use for us in Arkansas. They thought that we had made them look bad purposely. That we had an agenda.
BS: [Hillbilly accent.] “You make us look like rednecks!” Well, we didn’t put a redneck filter on them.
JB: Most of the local population was still utterly convinced of their guilt. Over time, the local population started to embrace the idea as teenagers, who were around for the trial listening to their parents say, “These guys are guilty,” actually became adults themselves and began looking into the case. There was a big swing in local opinion. The local media went from convicting those guys during the first trial to championing the cause of innocence in the mid-2000s. By the time we came back for that August 19 hearing, that was the thing that impressed me the most, because I was expecting people to be very negative towards us. I can’t tell you how many regular Arkansans embraced us.
BS: Also, the media wanted to talk to us. Before they didn’t want to have anything to do with us. Some of the same people from 1993.
JB: It’s pretty remarkable that the regular Arkansan would say, “Thank you for doing this. It’s been a stain on our state. We’re so glad you kept shining a light on it.” That was very powerful to be embraced by the locals after being literally reviled when we came down for the second film in 1997/’98. People hated us.
AVC: And John Byers, who was the stepfather of one of the murdered boys and very vocal about the West Memphis Three being guilty, had the biggest 180 of them all.
BS: That was pretty amazing.
JB: One of the most touching scenes in the movie to me is him reading the letter from Damien. The exchange of apologies for misunderstanding each other.
BS: And him in the end criticizing the Alford plea as bullshit.
AVC: The film ends with the suspicions of the other stepfather, Terry Hobbs, being the real murder. What do you make of that?
JB: We’re in the truth business. We make documentaries. What seemed extremely relevant 10 years ago is dead wrong in some cases. How does one process that? Intellectually, it’s fascinating for filmmakers to be able to revisit their archive of footage and revisit their work and update it and tell the story from a 2011 perspective. The fact that Paradise Lost 2 banked on was the idea that there were human bite marks. The idea that these guys were innocent and railroaded is still the constant, but the fact that that was a theory that has now been discarded troubles me deeply. That we made a film stating that, and now the third film doesn’t say that.
BS: But it was pertinent at the time.
AVC: At the time of the trial, Satanism played heavily into the prosecution’s case for motive in that kind of single-minded witch-hunt mentality. Do you think this made it harder for them to change their minds even when new evidence was presented?
BS: Satanic panic. If you believe in Jesus, you believe in the devil. If you believe in good, you believe in evil. When you have ministers and preachers on Sundays casting aspersions on these guys saying they are guilty, who do you believe? You’ve got the police chief investigator Gary Gitchell saying on a scale of one to 10, [the case’s strength] is an 11. You’ve got the newspapers every day putting something in about these guys. The news opens with them being brought into hearings every day. It was part of their package, so it was very difficult to not feel that they were guilty. People didn’t have any access to the opposite. When they did, eventually, the people of Arkansas started to say, “Well, maybe we made a mistake. And if we made a mistake, how do we correct it?”
AVC: Do you think things have changed in West Memphis to the point that this wouldn’t happen again?
JB: I think definitely things have changed. The country was coming off of this national satanic-panic hysteria. The FBI said, “We haven’t found one case of satanic ritual killing.” And yet, 20/20 in 1986 is showing all the cases of satanic panic and the FBI is saying it’s nonsense. I think you have a part of the world where people are extremely religious and people have these beliefs and believe in their authority figures. These authority figures, from the priest to the media to the police, were telling them that this was devil-worshipping. I just don’t think this could happen today. I think people getting railroad and police manipulation of suspects and false confessions and shoddy police work… I think public officials who have a vested interest in the outcome of a case will put their careers over the liberty of somebody—that will happen again. It happens day in and day out all over this country. They’ll be a different set of circumstances that will make this happen again in West Memphis or in New York City. One of the major themes of this series is, “Why does it take three well-funded HBO documentaries and the celebrity millions of Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines and Eddie Vedder and Peter Jackson to give these guys the kind of defense they deserved in 1993?” That’s profoundly disturbing.
BS: When we did Brother’s Keeper, it was about poor man’s justice. That was 20 years ago. It took 20 years for justice to percolate in the trilogy. After this broadcast, there are going to be people who will approach us. I’ve gotten calls from lawyers who have sent me their entire case saying, “Could you look into this?” And you can’t look into every single case as much as we’d like to. It was fortunate that HBO and Sheila [Nevins, executive producer] were smart enough to send us down there. We were there from the beginning, and were a catalyst [when people saw the film] to get involved. Damien would probably be dead. He admits that.
JB: He couldn’t have afforded the DNA appeal if he was on his own. That just wouldn’t have happened. He had exhausted his state appeals. Then in 2001, that DNA statute was passed. If he was an unknown guy sitting on death row who exhausted all his appeals through local counsel, he’d be dead. No question. Millions of dollars had to be raised for his defense.
AVC: What’s next for you guys?
BS: Joe has a film that’s going to be in Sundance.
JS: I made a film where we go back to South Africa with Paul Simon on the 25th anniversary of his Graceland record. It had a very turbulent birth because Paul recorded in South Africa during apartheid, and a lot of people accused him of having broken the cultural boycott that had been instituted to bring down the apartheid regime. Despite the great musical achievement, he was put on the UN blacklist, and a lot of terrible things wounded him relating to having made that album, yet to him it was an exercise in humanity because of that tour using South African musicians. Part of the boycott was that South African musicians weren’t allowed to tour, so going out into the world and putting the human face on South African musicians did as much to humanize [the struggle against] apartheid as anything less. It’s a nice music film with a heavy political component. That’ll be at Sundance in the next couple of weeks.
AVC: Are you thinking about working on a new film together?
BS: I don’t know. I’m kind of thinking about retiring. I’ve been doing this since 1977. We have an opportunity to maybe move over to France where we have a home. I’m a little tired.
AVC: Do you have another passion you want to explore?
JS: You’re going to open up a rib joint.
BS: Yeah, I want to open up a rib joint in the little village where I live in the south of France. That’s kind of been a dream of ours. Joe can’t possibly stop working, but I could.
JS: I’ll work ’til I drop.