Makers of real-life crime film plan triumphant new scene as men are cleared of 1993 killings. Meanwhile, Atom Egoyan plans big-screen dramatisation
The makers of a new documentary about the West Memphis Three are to change the ending of their film following the release of the men, as the Oscar-nominated film-maker Atom Egoyan revealed he is bringing his own dramatic version to the big screen.
Teenagers Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr and Jason Baldwin were convicted in 1993 of the murder of three eight-year-old cub scouts in the Arkansas town. Local police and many residents believe the boys were killed as part of a satanic ritual, but follow-up investigations have thrown doubt on the original enquiry.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the film-making team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's latest attempt to prove that the West Memphis Three have been wrongly convicted, following previous films in 1996 and 2000. The Arkansas supreme-court ruling which freed the men did not go quite that far: it required the trio to file an Alford plea, which allows them to assert their innocence while accepting that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. Like its two predecessors, Purgatory will be shown on the HBO cable channel in the US once it has completed a round of film-festival screenings.
"We've made the decision to let the film play as is in Toronto," Berlinger told Deadline. "We worked on it for a long time and it didn't seem right to rush a new ending. We'll tack on one more scene that changes the ending from a question mark to a joyous triumphant moment, but we'll aim for the New York film festival or for HBO."
The duo criticised the judge's decision not to overturn the original verdict, following which Echols was sentenced to death and Misskelley and Baldwin were ordered to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Instead, Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to time already served and allowed to go free.
"That the state of Arkansas did not have the courage to exonerate them and admit they made a mistake was shameful," Berlinger said. "These guys still have murder convictions hanging over their heads, and that will be there for the rest of their lives. And at the Arkansas press conference, they maintained these guys were guilty, and washed their hands of accountability.
"The real killers are still out there. It was a cover-your-ass deal to make sure there would be no lawsuit for a wrongful conviction. Damien was on death row for 17 years, hasn't seen sunlight in the last seven or eight years and was by all reports terribly treated. To not be able to seek compensation is just wrong."
In a separate interview with the Wrap blog, Berlinger said that Echols would have been unable to afford an expensive series of appeals without the help of an internet fundraising campaign and would have been executed by now.
The first two Paradise Lost films attracted attention after the rock band Metallica allowed Berlinger and Sinofsky permission to use their songs in the documentary. All three of the men had been fans of Metallica, and critics of their convictions suggested it was their appearance and choice of lifestyle which contributed more to local suspicion than any hard physical evidence.
As well as the documentary, Armenian-Canadian director Egoyan is working on a drama about the West Memphis Three, based on the book Devil's Knot by journalist Mara Leveritt. The director told the Hollywood Reporter he was delighted the men were finally free. "[It's] very exciting news, obviously; quite shocking and sadly predictable," he said.
Egoyan revealed he hoped to uncover the "human drama" behind the convictions. "It's a contemporary Salem witch-hunt," he said. "The screenplay beautifully examines the ebb and flow of grief, disbelief and anger that flowed through the community in the wake of this catastrophe. 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. 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."