"I really do believe these people would have gotten away with murdering me if it would not have been for what you guys did — for being there in the beginning and getting this whole thing on tape so the rest of the world sees what's happening." That's Damien Echols, talking to filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky a couple of years ago when they visited him in prison for the most recent installment of "Paradise Lost," their HBO documentary series about the West Memphis Three that aired last year.
He's referring ("these people") to Arkansas law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In 1994, Echols and his friends Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted of the murders of three 8-year-old boys.
From the beginning they maintained their innocence. The "Paradise Lost" films (the first of which aired on HBO in 1996) took their claims seriously, analyzing the trial evidence (or lack thereof) and capturing the circus-like atmosphere of a small town desperate to find someone guilty for the grisly crimes.
Among those who saw the films were "Hobbit" director Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, who became involved with the case and supplied substantial funds and emotional support to Lorri Davis, who married Echols in 1999 (while he was in prison) and spent the better part of the last decade working to free him.
Based on evidence uncovered by their efforts, the state of Arkansas begrudgingly agreed to release the men (now in their 30s) last year after nearly two decades in prison. They have yet to be officially exonerated, however, though Echols and Davis continue to pursue the case.
"West of Memphis" is the new documentary from Jackson (made with Echols and Davis) that offers a comprehensive look at the case from start to finish. It opens in Chicago Friday and is a separate project from the "Paradise Lost" films, which is somewhat confusing for those of us who have followed the story through the HBO films. Why make another documentary — and why do it without the "Paradise Lost" filmmakers? That was the first question I asked Echols and Davis when they came through town recently to talk about the film. The following is an edited transcript:
Q: The most recent of the "Paradise Lost" documentaries tracking your case was released just last year. So why make another film?
Echols: We were at the point where, whenever we started coming up with new DNA evidence, new forensic experts, new witnesses, we would present it to the judge, and he would say, "I'm not going to hear it. It doesn't matter. This case is closed." So Peter (Jackson) said, if we can't get it heard in court, let's do the only thing we can do and get it out to the public. Let's let people see what the judge is trying to cover up. So that's when we started making the documentary. They hadn't even started on "Paradise Lost 3" yet.
Q: Why not work with the "Paradise Lost" filmmakers, though?
Echols: Because we weren't comfortable with them. What they do is like a really early version of reality TV where you set the camera up and watch the train wreck. We wanted the movie to be much more personal. We would never have been producers on one of their movies. They would have never given us that much say in our own story.
Davis: What we wanted was to film an investigation. Bruce and Joe have a different style; it's not investigative journalism, whereas Amy Berg (who directed "West of Memphis") had worked with CNN.
Q: I think that will surprise people, because the "Paradise Lost" films were so instrumental in publicizing your case and illustrating how likely it was that you were wrongly convicted. Do you dislike those films?
Echols: Never saw 'em. I saw 15 minutes of the first one, and it was one of those things that I can only compare to Vietnam vets having flashbacks. I understood why the movies had such an impact on people because when I was watching the first one it felt just like being in the courtroom again. For me, that wasn't a pleasant thing. So after about 15 minutes I said, "I'm ready to go back to my cell."
Davis: "Paradise Lost" is the reason I got involved in the case (and met Echols) and it's the reason a lot of people got involved. It's a really important part of this story and we want Bruce and Joe to get the credit that they deserved.
But by the time I was involved in the case, I wanted to see them come down and set up camp and start doing an investigation. and that wasn't their style. I think what they do is more sensational. They like to get the biggest impact from the crazy things that are going on.
Q: What was Peter Jackson's involvement?
Davis: He funded a great deal of the investigation and the work.
Q: All told, how much was spent on the case over the years?
Davis: Oh my goodness, I don't know. Millions. You don't get much pro bono work. And if you have to hire forensic pathologists and all these other experts, you have to pay for them. Who has that kind of money?
Q: How do support yourselves now?
Echols: I published a book that came out in September (called "Life After Death"). We've been on the road since then, doing a book tour. I'm already working on another one; I have lots of journals that I was able to save from prison that no one has ever seen before, so maybe someone will want to read those. And in January I have an art show opening of painting and collage work that I did while I was in prison. I don't want it anymore. There's too many bad memories connected with it.
My long term goal is to set up a meditation center.
Q: It's a tough economy right now. Is money a concern at all?
Davis: No. We don't worry about stuff like that.
Q: How have you made that work on a practical level, in terms of income?
Echols: It really is based on a lot of metaphysical concepts, the way we deal with money and the way we view money. I think the minute you get scared and start rationing out your pennies and things like that, it gets harder and harder.
Q: Well, for almost two decades you didn't have to financially support yourself or balance a household budget. This is a new facet of life you now have to juggle. What has it been like for the past year? Has it been a comfortable adjustment?
Echols: Not yet. It's more comfortable than when I first got out. For the first two or three months I was in a state of complete shock and trauma for a long time. I didn't get used to being in prison in a single day and I won't get used to being out of prison in a single day. It's a definite learning experience.
Q: Where do you live now?
Echols: Massachusetts. We moved there about two months ago. We went up there to see the Red Sox and visited Salem. We went back a couple more times and when it came time to leave New York, that's where we decided to go.
Davis: When Damien was released, Peter and Fran had a place in New York and it just seemed like the logical place to stay because we didn't have any other place to go; it all happened so quickly, we didn't have time to plan, so we stayed in their place until we could get our act together.
Q: Is there symbolism in the fact that you moved to Salem, a town infamous for persecuting the innocent during its 17th century witch trials?
Echols: We think of it like this: Salem made its mistakes a long time ago and learned from them, so it's a lot more tolerant than other places now.
Q: Are you able to envision a life where you're not asked to talk about this all the time?
Echols: That's what I live for. I mean, this is f---- miserable.
Q: The press tour?
Echols: Yeah. Just having to talk about it every single day, day after day. You never get a chance to rest, you never get a chance to heal. You're just constantly ripping wounds open again.
But if we ever want to have a sense of closure, this is what we have to do. We have to make the state of Arkansas understand that we're not going away until they do the right thing. And if we do try to just have a normal life and fade off somewhere, we'll never get that. We'll never be exonerated; the person who belongs in prison will never be in prison; and the people who did this to us will never be held responsible for what they've done.
Q: How has it impacted your marriage now that you live with each other and have to deal with banal day-to-day things like, "Hey, you left the cap off the toothpaste"?
Davis: This sounds weird to say but we haven't experienced that yet. I don't know. We've been so busy and there have been so many different transitions and changes. For Damien, just getting used to being in the world, that hasn't settled down. We're on the go all the time. I mean, we've owned our home since September but we've only been in it for two weeks. We don't even have the curtains up yet. So there's not much normal life for us yet.
What was a big shock for me was the trauma and the stress that he really was undergoing day-to-day after he was out. No one was prepared for that.
Echols: I didn't even anticipate it.
Q: Are you still in touch with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh?
Davis: Oh yeah. We were down there in New Zealand right after Damien got out to work on our film, so we were there for three months, and "The Hobbit" was being filmed at the same time. So we were traveling around with them, working on our film while they were making "The Hobbit," so strangely we feel like we were part of it. They're very kind and generous people and very inclusive. They're like family at this point.
Q: What is your involvement with "Devil's Knot," the feature film slated for next year based on your case starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth?
Davis: We don't have anything to do with that. That's fictionalized. We read the script and it was a complete character assassination. We tried to do something to get it stopped, but we couldn't.
Echols: They're calling it a fictionalized account of the mythology of the West Memphis Three case. What the hell does that mean? Lori did 85 percent of the work on this case. She did more than the attorneys and investigators put together. There were times when we couldn't afford legal bills and she was taking out personal loans. She's the one snooping through people's garbage and trying to find DNA. And she's not even a character in their movie.
Q: They didn't have to secure your life rights?
Davis: No, because his case is in the public record. It was hard, but we finally chose to stop thinking about it.
Echols: There's nothing we can do about it. People are going to do what they're going to do, with no regard to what we think or what we say. In the original script, they had me doing bizarre and crazy stuff. And it wasn't even real, it was dream sequences. And we were telling them, this is character assassination.
Davis: And it won't help our case for exoneration. People will see that character in the movie and think, who's gonna want to help that guy?
"West of Memphis" opens in Chicago Friday .
"Skokie: Invaded But Not Conquered," the new documentary from the Illinois Holocaust Museum that reexamines an attempted neo-Nazi march in the town that was home to thousands of Holocaust survivors (and about which the Tribune's Howard Reich wrote about so insightfully earlier this week) airs Thursday through Jan. 27 on WTTW. For air times, go to schedule.wttw.com.
"Imagine corals as the barometer of climate change," says the artist and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth. "Imagine we are the pivot point." Her project "Coral: Rekindling Venus," offers an "immersive film experience that takes viewers underwater through the mysterious realm of fluorescent coral reefs in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia," and will debut in Chicago with "full-dome" screenings Saturday through Jan. 27 at the Adler Planetarium, presented by the Sundance Institute. Go to adlerplanetarium.org.
The Reno stubble
A prepubescent, pre-Oscar winning Natalie Portman co-stars alongside French actor Jean Reno (playing a reclusive hit man) in "The Professional"— or, as the 1994 film was known in Franch, "Leon." It screens 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Alliance Francaise de Chicago. French wine will be served and local theater actor Barbara Robertson will lead a post-show discussion. Go to af-chicago.org.