West of Memphis (Director Amy Berg arrives at the Hollywood screening of her movie "West of Memphis" during AFI FEST in Los Angeles, California November 3, 2012. Photo: Gus Ruelas, Reuters)


Documentaries rarely get the attention West of Memphis got at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Of course it helps when Johnny Depp shows up to both your film’s public screening and its press conference in order to lend his support.
 

“We pulled up and there were probably a couple thousand fans there,” recalls director Amy Berg. “So he gets out of the car, and it was screaming crazy... That screening still will go down as the best screening we ever had.”


Depp is not the only celebrity to take up the West of Memphis cause. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson produced, financed, and appears in the film, which explores the arrest, conviction, imprisonment, and eventual release from prison of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr., and Jason Baldwin, a.k.a. the West Memphis Three.


For those unfamiliar with the case, the West Memphis Three were Arkansas teens put on death row in 1994 for the murders of eight-year-old local boys Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, despite there being virtually no evidence against them. Their cause was taken up by the likes of filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who produced three HBO documentaries on the case, and musicians like Henry Rollins and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who have spearheaded fund-raising albums and concerts.


“It’s interesting because these celebrities that you’re mentioning are so passionate about this case because they felt a personal connection with the story, and like Henry says in the film, ‘It could have been me.’ It’s like every person that was a misfit in middle school or high school is going to connect with this. So it’s interesting that the things that connect Damien with those really talented advocates for the film have made them less celebrities and more supporters and friends of the cause.”


The biggest friend of the cause is without a doubt Lorri Davis. The former New Yorker started corresponding with Echols shortly after seeing the Berlinger/Sinofsky film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996). The pair was married in 1999.


“It’s like a fairy tale,” Berg says of Echols’ relationship with Davis. “Laurie has a really interesting background herself, and she was a fighter from her early days. She was fighting for the underdog and always wanted to make statements, and I think that the injustice of this case and her connection with Damien has brought a bond to those two that is a fairy tale story. They needed to get through so many hoops just to be together, and their love is so strong as a result of it.”


Partly as a result of the investigation financed by Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh, which Berg started documenting in 2008, Echols, Misskelley, Jr., and Baldwin were all finally released from prison in August 2011 after taking an Alford Plea. This legal manoeuvre allowed the three men to plead guilty to the boys’ death, as mandated by the state of Arkansas, while still asserting their innocence.


While his co-accused have receded from the spotlight since their release from prison, Echols, along with Davis, accompanied Berg to Toronto for the film’s premiere, and continues to speak out about his experiences. He also wrote a book, released last September, called Life After Death, which documents his life in prison. I ask Berg if she thinks Echols can lead a normal life, having spent nearly 20 years in prison.


“I guess what is normal? You know what I mean? I think his biggest challenge is how does he become someone other than one of the West Memphis Three? He has given up his years where people would generally create a career for themselves; find a way to earn money. So now he only has his story and his art, and those are things he’s pursuing. But he’s living his life, loving his wife, and enjoying freedom and getting a lot of tattoos. He’s getting one right now actually.”


Berg’s next film is an adaptation of Laura Lippman’s 2004 mystery novel Every Secret Thing, about a pair of 11-year-old girls convicted of the murder of an infant who are released back into the community at age 18. Actress Frances McDormand (Fargo, Promised Land) optioned the novel years ago, and writer-director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money) wrote the script. Elizabeth Banks and Diane Lane are attached to star, and filming is set to start this month.


I ask Berg how, if at all, her documentary background will inform her fictional filmmaking. Will it be completely separate, in her mind?


“No, it could never be separate,” she says. “I feel like the thing that I will bring is experience with non-fiction and truth. The kind of films that I love are films that feel real and authentic and really kind of thorough; characters are thoroughly sussed through and details are accurate.”


Does she think she will be as emotionally attached to a fictional film as she obviously is to her documentary work?


“Oh that’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean I think I will for the time period that I have to… I guess if it becomes a piece of art, so I haven’t really thought of that before. So, yes, I will. I always get really attached to everything I do, but it would be hard to compare anything to Lorri and Damien. They are like living, breathing friends now.”


West of Memphis opens February 1 in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.