How people contend with the unpredictable and unbearable loss of a loved one, as well as how they cope with the more complex characteristics of an unknown situation, is a difficult position society regularly faces. But when those unanswered questions come with the more challenging exploration of how to also deal with the drive for revenge after the physical and emotional inquiry to a community, even the seemingly most correct legal retribution doesn’t seem to be enough to satisfy everyone. Those tough emotional, moral and legal struggles are passionately presented in director Atom Egoyan’s new biographical crime drama, ‘Devil’s Knot.’ The film is based on Mara Leveritt’s 2002 crime book of the same name, which explores the harrowing story of the West Memphis Three.
‘Devil’s Knot’ follows the disappearance of three eight-year-old boys, Stevie Branch (Jet Jurgensmeyer), Christopher Byers (Brandon Spink) and Michael Moore (Paul Boardman Jr.), on May 5, 1993 from their small town of West Memphis, Arkansas. When their parents, including Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of Stevie, reported them missing, the police began an extensive search, and their bodies were found the next day submerged in a nearby stream. Their bodies were bound with their own shoelaces and beaten. With the lack of evidence and blood at the scene, the police had no immediate suspects, until a month later. The officers announced the arrests of three teens, who allegedly killed the children as part of a satanic ritual.
After twelve hours of questioning, 17-year-old former special education student, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (Kristopher Higgins), implicated himself and his friends, 18-year-old Damien Echols (James Hamrick) and 16-yearpold Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether), in the killings. While the latter two immediately denied their involvement, and Jessie recanted his confession hours later, all three were charged and convicted of capital murder.
With a lack of substantial physical evidence, and Jessie’s confession filled with inconsistencies about the evidence police did have, private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) worked with the teens’ lawyers to prove their innocence. With a growing number of recent supporters who believe Damien, Jason and Jessie are innocent, including Johnny Depp, filmmaker Peter Jackson, Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam member Eddie Vedder, and the help of a new defense team that presented never-before-seen in 2007, assertions of the original prosecution were completely negated. Following a successful decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding newly produced DNA evidence, the three defendants entered Alford pleas in 2011, and were released from prison.
Egoyan generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Devil’s Knot’ over the phone. Among other things, the director discussed how he thinks the case is most troubling murder mystery he’s ever encountered, and how he believes it’s troubling that when the true culprits weren’t found, they were created through the Justice system; how he couldn’t have imagined making this film without Witherspoon playing Hobbs, as she embodies what the character’s about, and wanted to make sure she wasn’t presented as a caricature; and how starting the shoot with the courtroom scenes brought the actors together, and led everyone to meet after shooting every day to discuss the case.
Question (Q): You directed the new biographical crime drama, ‘Devil’s Knot.’ How did you become involved in the film? What was it about the story of the West Memphis Three that influenced you to helm a movie about it?
Atom Egoyan (AE): I think it’s the most troubling murder mystery I’ve ever encountered. I think what happened 20 years ago in West Memphis, Arkansas is almost unbelievable. I can’t believe how three young boys went into a forest, and the next day, their bodies were found naked and bound by their own shoe laces. They were also assaulted and submerged in a swamp, but there wasn’t any evidence around the crime scene. There weren’t any footprints, DNA or blood, and no branches were disturbed. It was a deeply supernatural crime scene.
It happened in the Deep South, and this is clearly an evil act, so demons had to be found. When the demons weren’t found, they had to be created. They were formed through the Justice system, and that was a story I couldn’t have made up. The way the case transpired was so troubling and shocking, and there were so many avenues that weren’t explored, I felt it was an extraordinary world to plunge into.
Q: The film was based on the book Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt. How much research did you do into the West Memphis Three case before you began shooting? Did you do any additional preparation besides utilize the book?
AE: The book was a starting point, as it’s extremely well-written and researched. I also spent time in West Memphis and interviewed the people I could. I gathered as much detail as possible, which was essential. Everything that happened in the film is based on fact-even the scene where Pam goes to the classroom with the finished homework of her murdered son. So everything was based on a degree of reality. But of course, finding the structure and tone was my concern as a filmmaker.
Q: Speaking of Pam, Reese Witherspoon played her in ‘Devil’s Knot.’ What was the casting process like for her, as well as the rest of the main characters in the film?
AE: I couldn’t even imagine making this film without Reese Witherspoon. She embodies so much of what that character’s about. From the first meeting we had, it was so important for her that Pam was represented in a way that felt real. She wanted to make sure it wasn’t a characterture. She really understood the deep mentality of the deep faith in Southern culture. Reese was extraordinary in the movie, because she appeared in a way that she wouldn’t usually appear. She inhabits this southern mom with such generosity
Q: Pam Hobbs and Jason Baldwin were both on the set of the movie as you were shooting. Why was it important to you to have his involvement in the project’s development and release?
AE: It wasn’t as important to me as it was to some of the actors. I was really concentrating on what the performances needed to be. I was happy they were there, and I think it was important for them to see we were respecting the story.
With that being said, I spent time with Jason after the shoot, and he’s a wonderful man. I have such a respect for how he’s been able to survive this process. There was a strange moment when I was shooting his character saying he was innocent on the set. Turning around to see the real Jason there is an experience I’ll never forget.
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsal period with the cast before you began filming? Is it beneficial to discuss the characters’ arcs with the actors on a film like this, since it’s based on a true story?
AE: This is a very unusual film because we started with a lot of the courtroom scenes. So a lot of the actors were in a room together, watching each other perform. There was a tremendous sense of camaraderie. We were all obsessed about the case. We would meet up in bars after shooting and talk about the experiences we had meeting the real people. The actors all tried to track down the real people the characters were based on. It was the most social set I’ve ever been on.
There was such an amazing array of talent-they’re all amazing actors. So it was a real privilege to work with them. Due to the way we were shooting, we needed to rehearse, particularly the courtroom scenes. The actors overall were very much present for each other’s performances in the courtroom. That was a magical set. It was also essential that Reese and Alessandro Nivola form a bond, so it was believable they were really a couple in the film.
Q: ‘Devil’s Knot’ is mainly told through the perspective of Pam Hobbs, as well as Colin Firth’s character, Ron Lax. Why did you feel it was important to tell the perspectives of both sides of the case, particularly since there have been several documentaries in recent years about the case?
AE: What was difficult about this film was to inhabit all these different perspectives, and not be judgmental about it. It was also challenging to understand the improbable, and even unprofessional, behavior on the case.
Like with the detective when he puts his hands in the swamp, and he lifts the bodies out of the water. Of course he makes the mistake of touching the dead body and placing it on the shore, since he was supposed to wait until the forensics team came in. We know that rationally, but emotionally, we also understand why he would do that.
So it was important for the actors to inhabit their characters, and understand why these mistakes were being made, and not be judgmental. So it was also important for them to understand this was an extreme situation, and people did extreme things.
It was also important to understand that these two characters of Pam and Lax both went through emotional time-one in an intuitive way, and the other in a rational way. It was also significant for them to see the craziness in the courtroom, and question what was going on. It’s a very ambitious film, and I think it needed great performances to bring it to life.
Q: ‘Devil’s Knot’ had its world premiere was held at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. What was your reaction when you found out the movie would be playing at the festival, particularly since you live in Canada?
AE: It was great to show it to a room full of people who weren’t familiar with the case or the documentaries about it. It was nice to see how they were affected by the story during the first time they hearing about it. It was a great way to premiere the film. It was also emotional to bring it back home, since Toronto’s such a great festival.