HBO Documentary Czar Sheila Nevins Wants a 'Paradise Lost 4' (Exclusive Q&A)
Sheila Nevins, the longtime president of HBO’s heralded documentary division, was reading The New York Times one morning about 18 years ago when she noticed a little story abut a cult murder in Arkansas. “I thought, “This could be an interesting story. Why would three teenage boys kill three little children?” she recalls. “What kind of worship would that be?” So she called up filmmaker Joe Berlinger, whose resulting documentary with Bruce Sinofsky, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), began a three-film crusade that galvanized Hollywood (director Peter Jackson helped back the men's defense and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines were among their most ardent supporters). The effort culminated with the Aug. 19 release of the so-called West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin.
Nevins agreed to chat with The Hollywood Reporter about her long journey toward that day and the next steps she plans to take.
THR: What’s the first thing you did when you heard about the release?
Nevins: You burst into tears. Then you say, “Shit, we better get this story. Get down there fast!” [She sent Berlinger and his team to Arkansas to witness the court hearing and interview the men.] Yet there’s still an irony. Under the law, they’re now “innocent but guilty.” Guilty but innocent? What the hell is that all about? Don’t tell Joe but maybe there’s another film there. I think we’re ready for Paradise Lost 4.
THR: Have you thought about what a fourth movie would look like?
Nevins: If you’re guilty, how can you be innocent? Something’s wrong with the system. They have to be free because they are innocent. We have to prove that, and I don’t know how we do that. We’ll have to really work on that.
THR: As the case drew more media attention, did any of the Hollywood people who got involved ever approach you for support?
Nevins: No, never. We were just telling the story, we didn’t feel we could advocate, we felt the facts spoke for themselves, and they did. As we got deeper and deeper into it, and god knows how many hours of film we looked at over the years, it became so obvious—these kids weren’t even there. They weren’t even at the scene.
THR: Have you heard from any of them since their release?
Nevins: No. Joe has filmed them and we can’t wait to see the footage.
THR: Was there talk about trying to get a new ending onto the third film before it premieres in September at the Toronto Film Festival?
Nevins: We can’t. We physically can’t do it. But it’ll be there for the New York Film Festival [which runs Sept 30 - Oct 16] and it’ll be there for an HBO screening. They have to move quickly. They have a lot of footage and there’s a lot to wade through.
THR: And you’re going to release it in theaters for Oscar consideration. What would it mean to you to win for this one?
Nevins: The truth is, the guys are free. We did something for neither the right nor the wrong reasons in the beginning—simply because it was of interest. And it turned out to be innocence. Damien [Echols] said if not for these films, he would be dead. You can’t get an award for that. He has been in solitary confinement for 10 years. He hasn’t seen the sun. His whole body is arthritic. All due respect to awards, nothing’s better than him being in the sunlight.
THR: It’s not often that the end of the documentary gets to be re-written.
Nevins: I keep splashing water on my face. How many sad stories have I told in my many years at HBO? You can’t go back to Afghanistan and save the soldiers who lose their arms and legs. So finally we reported a story that was sad and made a difference. It’s like pulling up the Titanic or undoing the Hindenberg.
THR: There’s at least one feature film in development about the case. What do you think about that?
Nevins: Why not? Mississippi Burning reignited interest in what happened to the civil rights workers. But in my business, you can’t beat the true story.
THR: Do you still send clippings to filmmakers to check out?
Nevins: Always. I’m wrong a lot. (Laughs.)