How West Memphis Three's 'Paradise Lost' Doc Veered Into 'Overt Advocacy Journalism'

West Memphis 3 Paradise Lost DVD

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger tells THR, "We went down there thinking we were making a film about rotten teenagers."

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were in the edit room on Wednesday putting the final touches on their third film about the West Memphis Three when they got a call from defense attorneys telling them that they better get to Jonesboro, Ark.

"We were literally sitting in a mixing room mixing the film and doing the color correct," says Berlinger. "We had a completed locked picture and on Monday will have a completed master of our movie. So the timing of this is a little odd, but great."

Berlinger and Sinofsky arrived in Arkansas on Thursday in plenty of time for Friday's hearing that finally freed Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelly, who have spent 18 years in prison for the 1993 murders in West Memphis, Ark., of three eight-year-old boys. Echols has been on death row. And Baldwin and Misskelly were serving life sentences.

There was no DNA evidence, which was not available at the time of the trial, linking them to the murders. And the case hinged largely on the confession of Misskelly, who has been diagnosed as borderline retarded.

Berlinger and Sinofsky were not allowed to film the hearing, though they did film the post-hearing press conference.

“To see those three sitting together, it was amazing," says Sinofsky. "Who could have predicted that on Wednesday we’d get that phone call?”

Their third film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, will bow at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. They will not have time to put the new ending on the film, though they will both participate in a post-screening question and answer session. They may be able to get the new ending on the film in time for the New York Film Festival in October, according to Berlinger. But by the time Paradise Lost 3 premieres on HBO in January, it will have its new, happy conclusion.

“We had a very well-crafted film that tells a certain story and this adds to it,” says Sinofsky. “It’s the ultimate ending.”

Paradise Lost 3 will recount the entire saga: from the arrests in 1993 to the growing movement, through the appeals process and the uncovering of new evidence and concluding with the defendants' release.

"Our films in the past have been accused of being really dark and unresolved," says Berlinger. "So we finally have an opportunity to do a happier ending and a complete resolution.”

Berlinger and Sinofsky were alerted to the case back in 1995 by Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films. 

"She sent us a little newspaper clipping [from a local West Memphis paper], back in the days when people sent clippings to each other," recalls Berlinger.  

The media and prosecutors had portrayed the murders as a gruesome satanic ritual and Berlinger and Sinofsky went to Arkansas with the notion that they would be doing a film about devil-worshipping, disaffected youth.

"We went down there thinking we were making a film about rotten teenagers," says Berlinger.

“It was a real River’s Edge story,” adds Sinofsky, referring to Neal Jimenez and Tim Hunter’s 1986 film inspired by the true story of the murder of a 14-year old California girl by a mentally disturbed 16-year-old boy. 

But as they interviewed the defendants, they became convinced that it was in fact the story of a gross miscarriage of justice. The 1996 film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills, aired after the convictions and brought the case national attention. Soon the West Memphis Three, as they were dubbed by the media, became a cause célèbre with a cadre of celebrities including Johnny DeppPeter JacksonHenry RollinsNatalie Maines and Eddie Vedder speaking out and raising money for the defense.

The first film, says Berlinger, was "a work of pure artistic journalism." By the second film -- Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, released in 2000 -- they had veered into "overt advocacy journalism."

And it was an emotional journey for both men whose own lives progress while those of the convicted remained stalled by incarceration.

"I was 32 years old when I started these films, I'm now almost 50," says Berlinger. "With each positive milestone in my life -- children, new films being released -- I would often think, my God these guys are still in prison for something i knew deep in my heart they didn't do." 

"The impact of the three little boys dying was immense," says Sinofsky. "At that time my son Alex, who is now 28, was about the same age. We both had children during the making of the films. We got to know the prosecution and the defense lawyers and the families. It became important to us. We wanted to see these guys, who we believed were innocent, get out." 

"It's been an incredible emotional journey for us and I'm glad it's over," laughs Berlinger. "Because I really didn't want to make a fourth film."