Director Atom Egoyan Reveals Details of His Movie About the West Memphis Three (Exclusive)

Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, the West Memphis Three, in 1996.
Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, the West Memphis Three, in 1996.
 HBO

Even before the news broke Friday that the three men known as the West Memphis Three were being released after 18 years in prison, director Atom Egoyan was already at work on a feature film about the case based on Mara Leveritt's non-fiction book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. The project had originally been developed at Dimension Films, and when it was put into turnaround, producer Richard Saperstein, former Dimension president, took it over. Scott Derrickson and Paul Boardman, who wrote The Exorcism of Emily Rose, have written a screenplay, which Boardman has been reworking with Egoyan, who boarded the project, about two months ago.

The plan is to begin shooting a $20 million independent production in the spring, with Elizabeth Fowler and Clark Peterson producing along with Saperstein and Boardman. The Canadian-based Egoyan – best known for 1997’s The Sweet Hereafter, for which he earned writing and directing Oscar nominations – is a big admirer of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost documentaries, which exposed how three teens, accused of taking part in Satanic rituals, were unjustly convicted for the murders of three eight-year old boys in West Memphis, Ark. in 1993. But he’s also convinced there’s another story – about the “human drama behind it” – waiting to be told. Speaking by phone from Amsterdam, the director talked about his reaction to the latest developments in the case, the questions still unanswered and how the men’s release could affect his film.

The Hollywood Reporter: What was your immediate reaction to yesterday’s news?

Egoyan: Very exciting news, obviously, quite shocking and sadly predictable.

THR: Why did you become involved with Devil’s Knot?

Egoyan:  My longtime agent at WME, Robert Newman, suggested to producer Richard Saperstein that this was material that I might respond to. He was right. The screenplay beautifully examines the ebb and flow of grief, disbelief and anger that flowed through the community in the wake of this catastrophe. I responded to the emotional detail of the script, and its extraordinary dramatic possibilities. I am attracted to stories that examine the way we perceive reality, and the consequences of seeking truth and justice in extreme situations. And it’s an amazing story of a community and the conflicting emotional needs of seeking and finding justice, but also the complexities of jumping to conclusions. In this case, it was very clear to me that there was a miscarriage of justice. But more interesting to me were just the emotional human elements of the characters. It’s against the backdrop of this horrifying crime and this really unfortunate miscarriage that we all witnessed. I think the documentaries have done a really amazing job of showing that. But there’s a human drama behind it all as well. I think this script has been able to capture that. Drawing from the book, there’s a whole other narrative that I think presents itself, and that’s what really got me excited. Against this almost mythological story, it’s a contemporary Salem witchhunt. Of course, we’ve seen that story told before, but I think there’s also the story of other characters who were peripherally connected to this, whose lives have been changed as well.

THR: The story is now an 18-year saga. What are you going to focus on?

Egoyan: The script is focusing on the events around the time of the first trial. Our concentration is on this process of a rush to justice, this idea of trying to make sense of something that is just so abhorrent, the most extreme, evil crime imaginable. I think about what the community must have gone through when its children were found murdered this way, and then to find three of its other sons guilty of the crime, it’s a cataclysmic event for this community. The script examines some of the members of the community who were affected by this. I don’t want to go into the details yet, but we’re seeing it all against the backdrop of the trial itself. We’re certainly seeing the lives of the three victims and aspects of the accused’s lives. We’re seeing all of that, but it’s the backdrop to this other story that is also running concurrent to all these horrifying events.

THR: So the three teenagers who were convicted aren’t necessarily the protagonists of the movie?

Egoyan: Not the boys, but others in community. I think what we’re trying to do is create something of an ensemble drama here, looking at all these characters and looking at how the events ripple through the lives of a number of different characters.

THR: Now that the three men have been released, will you have to make changes in the screenplay?

Egoyan: We’re going to have to absorb that. Unquestionably, it will have an effect on the way the movie is seen.  What I think is clear from the book is that these three young men could not have done the crime. But the onus is not on our film anymore to have to prove that, which is good for the drama. It allows us to actually do what our cript sets out to do, which is to look at the larger dimension of what actually happened.

THR: Have you yourself talked to any participants in the case?

Egoyan: We’re finishing the new draft, and there are conversations that we’re hoping to have. We couldn’t have secured the life rights of the three young men, because they were in prison and by law they couldn’t sell their rights.  But the rights have been secured for all the other people in that community. Not to mention the book itself and the transcripts to the trial as well. We’re really looking at the questions that are set up in terms of the drama of the piece and the characters that we’re following. The script is in really good shape as it is. There are certain things that we are now really refining. We now have to look at the new circumstances, but it’s really not going to change anything, except maybe the titles that roll at the end. In the script that we have, nothing had been resolved and questions were still up in the air. Now we have answers to one part of the story. But there’s a whole other element that’s still open: Who did this, who’s capable of this horrifying crime?

THR: Who are you thinking of casting?

Egoyan: We have some really rich roles, and so I don’t think that will be challenging. What we’re really trying to do now is strengthen those roles, make them as complex as they can be. We’re looking at a spring shoot, so our focus now is to get the script in as good a shape as it can be. We should be ready to send it out early in the fall.

THR: You mentioned the Paradise Lost documentaries. What role do you think they’ve played in keeping this case in the public eye?

Egoyan: I think the documentaries have done an amazing job. The only other documentary like that I can think of is Errol MorrisThe Thin Blue Line. What’s exciting is that they are modifying the third installment because of the news that’s come out. I think that must be incredibly gratifying for those filmmakers. It’s clear how powerful the media can be when people are committed to telling a story.

THR: In your own case, do you see a connection between Devil’s Knot and any of your earlier work?

Egoyan: This story is not dissimilar to The Sweet Hereafter, [which looked at how a fatal bus crash affected a small town]. There’s this terrible tragedy, and people looking to make sense of it. How could this happen? The Sweet Hereafter had a clear perpetrator that actually concentrated the energy in a very different way. What’s haunting about this story is that the perpetrator is still free. Does the case now get reopened? There are a number of possible avenues to pursue. What’s wonderful is that these young men are free. What’s terrible is that justice has not been done for the three young victims. It is the most horrific crime imaginable. When you look at the crime scene, when you look at the circumstances around it, it is unspeakably terrible.  That has to take a toll on the minds of the victims’ families.

I’m really interested in this question of how a sense of truth is arrived at, and what the process is for people seeking justice at a persona level, at a communal level, at a social level. Such a distorted sense of reality was presented to this jury. It’s quite jaw dropping really when you look at the legal process. The travesties were not really addressed in terms of process itself. We can’t do everything with this film, but I think we can touch on that as well, to understand when a situation is as extreme as this, and when there’s such a need for closure, how compromised our search for justice can be. I am trying to feel a sense of compassion for why characters behave that way – while also considering the consequences.

Email: Gregg.Kilday@thr.com; Twitter: @gkilday

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