Interview: Joe Berlinger On the Timeline of ‘Paradise Lost 3,’ the Possibility of a Part 4 and His Response to ‘West of Memphis’
Today marks the digital release of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky‘s Paradise Lost trilogy, the first time that any of the three films is available in this format. So, if you’ve never seen them before (or if you have) and don’t want to bother with physical discs, you can download Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory from iTunes, to rent or own.
For the occasion, I recently corresponded with Berlinger both to promote the new versions of these highly acclaimed — and very consequential — documentaries and to let him respond to an interview I did last month with Amy Berg, director of the other West Memphis Three doc, West of Memphis. In the following interview, conducted through email, he talks about the timeline of production on Paradise Lost 3 in relation to Berg’s film with producers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, and he explains two reasons why Paradise Lost 4 will probably never happen.
When and why did you decide to return to the case of the West Memphis Three for a third Paradise Lost film?
After the release of Paradise Lost 2, we continued to be haunted by the idea that these guys were still rotting in prison. Although the first two films had sparked a growing international movement, we were frustrated that no real progress was being made legally and politically. So, in 2004, HBO gave us a development deal to see if we thought a third film could be made, and we did some shooting and investigating for about a year. Then, in 2005, Paradise Lost 3 was officially greenlit.
The case was moving at a glacial pace, so there were chunks of time with nothing to film, but we just felt we had to keep documenting the story, even if the story was thin at certain times. But this time, we decided that we had to be strategic with the timing of the release of Paradise Lost 3 — we wanted to make sure it came out at a time when it could help the case. We kind of just rushed out Paradise Lost 2 — it was not timed to any key event in the case, and I think that was a mistake
Were you aware of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s involvement with the investigation and that they were planning their own film?
We had been unofficially been told of their involvement in the case in early 2006 and were thrilled that our films had motivated them to take such a huge personal interest, and that they were generously funding a new investigation. We were told they wanted to remain anonymous, so we could never get them on camera (hence why they are not in Paradise Lost 3). And we were denied access to the 2006-2007 actual investigation as it was unfolding because, we were told, of their legitimate concerns about tainting the legal proceedings by giving filmmakers access (and when this was happening in 2006-2007, Amy Berg was a long way off from being hired).
Though frustrating, that all made sense, and of course as you see in Paradise Lost 3, we filmed the defense’s major press conference at the University of Arkansas in 2007, in which they unveiled the results of the Jackson investigation to the public. So, we were able to film John Douglas, Werner Spitz, Richard Souviron, Dennis Riordan and Don Horgan deliver the dramatic findings as they were presented to the pubic for the first time in 2007, including the findings that the wounds were caused by postmortem animal predation and the DNA evidence linking Terry Hobbs to the crime scene.
But while we knew in 2007 that they were mounting an investigation, we were unaware that they were gong to make a film until some of our subjects called us from Arkansas in the spring of 2010 to tell us another filmmaker was in town. We did feel kind of sandbagged by the lack of communication, but hopeful that a cooperative spirit could be worked out.
Why do you think they didn’t just reach out to you and Bruce about making another installment of Paradise Lost?
Well, first of all, we were already making the third Paradise Lost by the time they contacted Amy. So the question is, why didn’t they involve us in their investigation and give us the tools that Amy was given? My guess is that it’s about control. Control of the story and control of the timing of the release of the information. Most importantly of all, control of Damien’s defense, so of course I totally understand. Amy was picked because of her credentials as an investigative reporter, and she agreed to make a film in which the subjects of the film were paying for the investigation and paying for a film about their investigation, with the key players involved telling their own story, and using that film as part of their investigation.
I fully understand and appreciate that decision and think it was the right move for them. At the time they started the film, Echols was still on death row and his case was very bleak. Judge Burnett had turned down the new evidence, and they realized film was a medium to get the new evidence out in a way that they could control, and I trust that for the Jacksons it wasn’t about a film, but about helping Damien in the way they thought best.
Neither we as independent journalists nor HBO would allow the subjects of the film editorial control or to dictate the timing of a release, so hiring a filmmaker that reported to them makes perfect sense. And while I am confident that we could have negotiated certain holdbacks and other confidentiality arrangements that would have made them more comfortable, we would not have, as a general rule, given up our independence. And I totally understand Damien’s view that this is the first time that they get to tell their own story and control what get puts in the film about his and Lorri’s life together, as opposed to “outsiders” telling their story, although part of that story does appear in Paradise Lost 3.
Was it increasingly more difficult for you to get access or continue documenting the story since everyone knew you and had seen the previous films?
Yes and no. It obviously was a lot harder from a filmmaking standpoint to create a compelling narrative after the first film, because we were banned from the courtroom for all of the appeals. And after the second film, we were unable to get Judge Burnett and prosecutor Brent Davis to talk to us, although we shot so much of Burnett for Paradise Lost 2 that we were able to draw upon those interviews for Paradise Lost 3.
But I was surprised at how many people did talk to us for the third film, including the then-prosecutor (and now Judge) John Fogleman. And perhaps most significantly, we were able to get exclusive access to the juror misconduct allegation witnesses, which at the time was very important to us to document because we thought that the jury misconduct was a way for the State of Arkansas to save face. Because jury misconduct is a constitutional issue, the State of Arkansas could have hidden behind releasing the three on a legal technicality without admitting they had made a mistake in the original arrest and convictions. But then the Alford Plea arrangement was negotiated, so the jury misconduct argument became kind of moot.
Amy Berg makes it sound as if the production and investigation of the West of Memphis filming led the way for you guys to return to the case. Does your film owe anything to that film (as theirs obviously owed a lot to your original film)?
I am very surprised that Amy seems to be so confused about the timeline, that she keeps incorrectly asserting that she started her film before we started ours. A simple analysis of the footage contained in each of our films is the clearest guide as to who started first. We have an interview with Lorri Davis about her relationship with Damien in 2005, for example. We were there as well for Natalie Maines’s speech on the Arkansas State House steps that triggered the 2008 Hobbs lawsuit against the Dixie Chicks. Again, we have it as original footage that we shot; Amy uses a brief archival clip that she seems to have acquired. In 2009, we have footage of Lorri Davis driving to visit Damien, and there is a 2009 interview with Damien on death row, all of which is our original footage.
But the most telling example is the 2007 press conference at the University of Arkansas that we use extensively in Paradise Lost 3 to reveal in cinéma-vérité style the release of all of the new evidence. In Amy’s film, there is a brief glimpse of that event that she seems to have acquired from a news source, but she primarily uses talking head interviews several years after the events to talk about the new evidence, whereas we were actually there in 2007 covering the press conference as it unfolded, when the experts (FBI profiler John Douglas, Dr. Richard Souviron and Dr. Werner Spitz) and the lawyers (Dennis Riordan and Don Horgan) present the new evidence to the public for the first time.
In short, she was not there to cover the release of Jackson’s own investigation to the public, but we were there. She was not there because the Jacksons, according to their own interviews, weren’t even thinking about making a film until after Burnett turned down all of that evidence one year later, in September of 2008. And then, again according to the Jacksons’ own statements to the press, they chewed on the idea of making a film for yet another year. And Amy herself has said she spent about six months researching the case to make sure she felt the West Memphis Three were innocent before she signed on to making the film, which puts her production starting to roll cameras in the spring of 2010.
In fact, when I became aware that she was starting to contact people I had been working with for her film, I sent her a very polite email on May 12, 2010, asking for clarification about what kind of project she was doing because we were in production on Paradise Lost 3. And on May 13, 2010, she wrote me an email in which she informed me that she “was hired to do some research on a ‘possible’ film that may or may not get made,” acknowledging that this “is not ideal for you to hear as a filmmaker but as an advocate for Damien, Jason and Jesse (sic), I am sure we can agree that any coverage on this most tragic story is positive.” She also acknowledged in that email the role Paradise Lost has played in bringing the case to the public’s attention, but added: “I hesitate to say much more as I am so new to this whole story.”
In that email, Amy also informed me that the producers of this film, who she says had spent their own money on investigating the case, were not interested in my offer to have a dialogue about mutual cooperation, saying “they would prefer to stay independent at this time and be given the space to explore their ideas for a potential film,” adding: “At this stage, it is not a sure thing that a film will even happen.” She went on to reassure me that “the direction they plan to pursue, if it goes, is based on their own personal involvement and therefore will be very different from the ongoing Paradise Lost series.”
I then responded very politely that I would still appreciate the opportunity to speak on the phone because “some of my subjects have called me confused about there being two documentaries; we also tried to book some time with Judge Burnett’s opponent on the day before the elections… but was told by him that most of the day he is being filmed by another documentary crew — is that you? If so, you can see how that is interfering with a story I have been covering for 17 years.”
Amy did not want to have a call, and responded by saying: “…we have no issue with there being two films. It’s highly likely that your third movie will come out first, and you have the considerable resources and distribution of HBO behind you. If anybody should feel insecure, it’s us – but we are focused on telling a very specific story, that we don’t feel any degree of conflict. If we did, we wouldn’t be thinking of making our film, since it’s clear that your movie will be coming out regardless and be continuing a successful series. But the fact that we have a creative concept very different in style to your films is something we’re interested in exploring further.”
So, clearly in May 2010 she indicated to me that hers is a film that “may or may not get made”; that Amy is “so new to this whole story” and that her film will be very different from the “ongoing Paradise Lost series” [emphasis added by Berlinger] and that she was very aware that I was already in production, as I gave her a specific example of how the two films were confusing my subjects. And yet in the interview she did with you, and elsewhere, she states that we did not start our film until August of 2010 when Eddie Vedder came down to do a benefit concert, and that she was already two years into her film when that concert took place, despite having written me the above emails only three and half months before that concert, which seem to suggests that she was just beginning her film as opposed to being two years into it.
By the way, none of this really matters. It’s almost petty to discuss who began whose film first. They have a valid reason for making a film, and its a strong companion to our series. But ever since Sundance, there has been an incorrect narrative being put out there about the timeline which implies that our film was somehow riding on their coattails, and while I support their film and think it is required viewing for anyone who cares about this case, at a certain point, I do feel it’s appropriate to set the record straight when I am asked about these specific issues.
However, even though we began our film long before Amy began hers, I am the first to acknowledge that the West Memphis Three and Paradise Lost 3 clearly owe a huge debt to Peter Jackson’s investigation, just as West of Memphis and the investigation itself never would have happened had the Jacksons not been influenced by our own work on the first Paradise Lost film. Some of the most dramatic sequences in Paradise Lost 3 are because of the investigation that the Jacksons mounted, so I have deep, deep appreciation for what they did for this case and it certainly strengthened our film, and clearly the West Memphis Three were able to negotiate a release from prison because of Jackson’s heroic reinvestigation of the case.
But Amy came along long after that work was done (i.e., Jackson’s reinvestigation that triggered the Alford Plea), so I don’t have the same feelings towards her, but I do admire the very strong film that she made and hope that it can become the exoneration tool that they aspire it to become in order to fully clear the names of the West Memphis Three.
She speculates in another interview that you were busy with other matters, such as your Crude legal battle and perhaps other films. As a documentarian, what are your thoughts to how much attention you give to a project or subject? Certainly the West Memphis Three has been a continued interest of yours but you also make a lot of films and don’t just focus on one cause at a time the way some filmmakers might.
Well, again, by my calculations, we had been into Paradise Lost 3 for almost five years before she started her film. A review of HBO’s and West of Memphis‘ respective production and accounting records could certainly clear that up. If she speculated to you that my Crude legal battle might have prevented me from starting Paradise Lost 3, then that is very ironic, because right in the heat of my legal battle with Chevron in the summer of 2010, I received a legal communication from the West of Memphis production blocking me from filming Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims — a character we introduced West of Memphis to by virtue of making the Paradise Lost films years before. Given all of my negative dealing with certain kinds of lawyers at that moment because of my Crude litigation with Chevron, it was an especially unwelcome email, but we were very much in production on Paradise Lost 3 during the time of the Crude lawsuit.
I have been able to juggle multiple projects and responsibilities because I am very lucky to have assembled an amazing team to support me. In addition to Bruce Sinofsky, my filmmaking partner on the Paradise Lost series, we had tremendous producers on that project — Mike Bonfiglio and Jonathan Silberberg, and a great editor, Alyse Spiegel. But perhaps the best decision I have made in my career in this regard was joining forces with @radical.media, where I have had an overhead for the past 12 years. With offices in NY, LA, Europe, China and Australia, @radical has given me tremendous production and creative support, allowing me to focus on producing and directing and not worrying about all of the back office headaches of running a small business that many other documentarians must face when making films. @radical.media has also helped me grow a commercial and television programming career, which has taken some of the financial pressure off of how to staff my documentaries. This has allowed me to juggle multiple projects at any given time, but somehow I always manage to be where I need to be when key stuff is happening.
Related to that, I’m always curious about how documentary filmmakers know or decide when to stop filming when it’s an ongoing story. When does that come for you on these films? Clearly you guys had something in the can before the other production did, but then you also couldn’t have foreseen the developments that came in August of 2011 or the last-minute tips Berg had in her film.
Well, that’s a good question. Sometimes you run out of money, or time, or both. For television, such as our Sundance series Iconoclasts, there is usually a delivery date and you usually have to meet that date (although Sheila Nevins at HBO is great about not focusing on dates but rather on making sure the story is complete). With Crude, I was running out of money, and it looked like the story was going to drag on for years, so when the independent expert handed in his report, it seemed like a good time to wrap the film because I didn’t think I could raise any more funding. Sometimes it comes from your subjects: During the shooting of the umpteenth Metallica concert, Lars Ulrich literally jumped off his drum set riser in the middle of a show and yelled into my ear, “Enough, Joe… it’s time to go home and finish the film!”
For Paradise Lost 3, we had a very specific advocacy goal in mind when we wrapped production. When the Arkansas Supreme Court finally sided with Damien in September of 2010 and then ordered the lower court to hold an evidentiary hearing in which all new evidence could be presented, we realized we had a real opportunity to affect a positive outcome for that December 2011 evidentiary hearing by letting Arkansas know the world was going to preview all of this new evidence on HBO a few weeks before the evidentiary hearing. So HBO originally scheduled Paradise Lost 3 for late November 2011, so that all of that new evidence that would have been presented at the December 2011 evidentiary hearing would be previewed all across America during the weeks leading up to the hearing.
That is why we were putting the finishing touches on our film, readying it for Toronto, just as we got word of the surprise Alford Plea arrangement and the WM3′s subsequent release from prison. We had to then scramble to get the miraculous new ending, but it allowed us to push the broadcast to January in order to maximize the fall festival schedule and to have an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, which we would have originally skipped if it had been broadcast in November.
After the acclaim for Paradise Lost 3, there were reports that HBO wanted a fourth film. Is there a need or interest in that still?
I think the reports that HBO wanted a fourth film were a little exaggerated. And for me personally, this feels like our job is done and it’s the end of an era. Look, Paradise Lost 3 had a great reception — an Oscar nomination, two Emmy nominations, great reviews, Best Documentary awards/nominations from the National Board of Review, the Director’s Guild and Cinema Eye. The Trilogy has been one of HBO’s best performers in terms of ratings and certainly has been highly praised by critics and highly decorated over the years with various honors. It’s all very humbling that the films have been so well-received and seen by so many people and, more importantly, to have been part of such an amazing real-life experience. Bruce and I pledged to make films until these guys got out of prison, and that’s what happened. I was about 30 when we started making these films and 50 when we stopped — it just feels like it’s time to move on. Besides, three feels like the right number for this particular story.
But even if we wanted to make a fourth film, there are really only two ways to make Paradise Lost 4: one would be to follow their lives post-release, which to me feels exploitative and would feel like, for the first time, we are trying to cash in on the opportunity; and the second would be to definitely find the real killer, which Peter Jackson has taken on as his mission. And since he controls the purse strings and the access to that investigation, there really doesn’t seem to be any room for us even if we were so inclined, so we wish the Jacksons well in their mission and pray they are successful. On a personal level, I will always be interested in this case and will do whatever is called upon me to help, but at this time I would say making another documentary about the West Memphis Three is not in our future.
All photos copyright (c) Joe Berlinger or Bob Richman. All rights reserved.