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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Joe Berlinger (“The ‘Paradise Lost’ Trilogy”)

I can still remember the first time I watched “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” about the so-called West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers – Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley – who in 1993 were accused of the murder and sexual mutilation of three prepubescent boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Maybe Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley weren’t the most clean-cut teens imaginable, but watching the sad but undeniably enthralling “Paradise Lost,” it’s pretty easy to believe that their imprisonment was unjust, a case of the justice system gone horribly wrong.

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Indeed, I was sufficiently affected by it that I continued to keep tabs on the case over the years, right up through when Baldwin, Echols, and Misskelley were finally released after almost 20 years behind bars. Similarly, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the gentlemen behind the camera for “Paradise Lost,” continued to follow the saga of the West Memphis Three, resulting in two sequels, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.”

The whole trilogy has just been released in a four-disc set – one for each film, plus an extra disc of bonus material – and upon receiving a review copy, I was pitched an interview with Berlinger. At first, I hesitated, thinking, “Geez, do I have any place to run this?” Then I realized, “Hello, technicality: all three films made their debut on HBO, so I’m calling in a loophole and putting this baby in ‘The Light from the TV Shows’!” The next thing you know, I’m on the phone with Mr. Berlinger, having the chat that sits before you now. Read on…

Bullz-Eye: I should probably start by telling you that I’ve just spent a fair amount of the preceding 24 hours plowing through the new “Paradise Lost Trilogy” set.

Joe Berlinger: Oh, my God. Watching it in one fell swoop…

BE: Yeah, I said on Facebook, “This is a whole lot of depressing footage to watch and know that you’re only going to get a semi-happy ending in the end.”

JB: Yeah, I know. Imagine me living it! [Laughs.] At least I spread it out over two decades. But to pile it all on like that…I’m actually curious: how does it feel watching one after another? Does it feel repetitive?

BE: No, it doesn’t. [Hesitates.] Well, okay, there are moments, I guess. But they’re acceptable knowing the fact that each one was made several years after the next.

JB: Okay, so it holds up as a trilogy, watching one after another?

BE: I’d say so.

JB: Cool!

BE: Okay, let’s go all the way back to the very beginning. You’ve probably discussed this elsewhere, but how did you and (fellow “Paradise Lost” director) Bruce Sinofsky first begin your collaboration?

JB: Our collaboration together as filmmakers? Or do you mean our collaboration on (the “Paradise Lost” films)?

BE: As filmmakers.

JB: We met years ago. The Maysles brothers are famous documentarians. They kind of were one of the pioneers of what we do. Y’know, cinéma vérité. They did films like “Grey Gardens,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Salesman,” and, y’know, classic cinéma vérité films in the ‘60s, when that art form was just becoming discovered. [Hesitates.] Do you know “Gimme Shelter,” by any chance?

BE: Absolutely, yeah.

JB: Okay, so these are the guys who made those films. The Maysles brothers, (Richard) Leacock, (D.A.) Pennebaker…all these guys are the godfathers of cinéma vérité, and we were of disciples of that form. Bruce was an editor at the company, mainly working on television commercials, ‘cause they…like many documentarians, including myself, we support ourselves not just by making documentaries but also by doing TV spots and corporate filmmaking. I actually had been working… [Hesitates.] This is, like, way too much detail.

BE: No, no, you’re fine.

JB: Well, I had actually been working in the advertising business, for a big ad agency called Ogilvy & Mather, and we had hired the Maysles brothers to do some real-people commercials. This was, like, years ago. When I was 25 years old. [Laughs.] I was a junior producer, and David Maysles – who died in 1987 – and I kind of hit it off, and I wanted to get into the film business, and I loved documentaries. And they wanted someone to try and get them more TV commercial work, so I was asked to come join the…well, Maysles Films is what it was called, but to join the Maysles brothers to help them push into commercial work. I mean, they were already doing commercial work, but I was being hired to kind of push that business along. For me, I kind of used it as my film school, because I was a language major in college and didn’t have any formal film training. So it was a great opportunity for me. And that’s where Bruce and I met.


Because he was the senior editor for TV commercials and I was the guy who went out and brought that work in, Bruce and I just developed a really nice friendship in those years. And then I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. I made a short film called “Outrageous Taxi Stories” in 1989, which was basically…y’know, I found taxi drivers telling me the most outrageous things that ever happened in their cabs over the years. It was a half-hour film that actually did quite well on the film-festival circuit. I asked Bruce to cut that film for me – he and I just really were hitting it off both as friends and collaborators – and we kind of observed that, after the death of David Maysles, Maysles Films wasn’t really making those kinds of cinéma vérité films that made them famous…maybe because they were a victim of my successful efforts to get them commercials. [Laughs.] So Bruce and I decided to go and make our own kind of ambiguous human-portrait cinéma vérité film called “Brother’s Keeper.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with it.

BE: I am.

JB: Okay, so Bruce and I went off to make “Brother’s Keeper” kind of on the weekends, y’know, maxing out every credit card we could get our hands on, and it was one of those Cinderella stories where, even though we were shooting the film part-time and really going broke and investing everything we had at the time… I was 28 when we were shooting “Brother’s Keeper,” and Bruce is almost five years older than me, so he was 33 or 34, and when we were literally down to our last penny and maxed out on a bunch of credit cards, the film got into Sundance and won the audience prize and kind of launched our careers…which leads to “Paradise Lost.”

Sheila Nevins at HBO saw “Brother’s Keeper,” really liked it, and wanted us to make a film for her. This was literally…”Brother’s Keeper” came out in ’92, and in June of ’93 Sheila sent us a newspaper clipping. It was not a big story. It wasn’t even on the front page. It was basically an AP wire service story that had gotten picked up and buried somewhere in the New York Times, but when a local story gets reduced to the AP wire, it kind of makes it very cut and dry, so the story we read…one of the ironies of our three-film, two-decade journey on this story is that we were sent an article by Sheila that made it seem like these kids were guilty. And that’s the story that HBO wanted us to look into: how could three kids be so twisted and disaffected from life that they could do such a horrible, rotten thing as murder three eight-year-old boys in a devil-worshipping ritual? And that’s really what sent us down on that mission. [Laughs.] Which is kind of funny when you think about what the films have come to symbolize and the amount of time and effort that’s gone into them, but at the time…

Just a few years before, there was that Jamie Bulger case in the UK that I was also trying to make a film about, but I couldn’t get it together. You know, there were those two young kids who lured a younger boy out into the railroad tracks and murdered him and beat him senselessly, and it was all caught on closed circuit television. So when we were sent this article by Sheila, we all talked about how, boy, there seems to be a pattern of teen killers, and let’s go find out what that’s about. So we went down to Arkansas thinking we were making a real-life “River’s Edge” about bad guys, and the first couple of months… [Hesitates.] By the way, do you want me to stop?

BE: No, no, no!

JB: Okay, because I’m off and running…and I’m just kind of running off at the mouth here. [Laughs.]

BE: It’s cool. Hey, it’s your story!

JB: I just hope you’re recording. [Laughs.] Because no one could possibly be writing all of this down! But that’s what’s so fascinating to me about this whole experience. The first couple of months…we literally arrived within days of the arrest. June of ’93 was when we started embedding ourselves in that community, a full eight months before the trial started. And just to go off on an aside, I think that’s the real… [Hesitates.] While I think the third film is really good and the second film is deeply flawed, I think that first film is…in addition to being an important film in the sense of its advocacy result of kind of launching this worldwide movement, I’m actually just very proud of that film aesthetically. We just did a lot of really hard work and deeply embedding ourselves into that community. And when you think about the access that we got to all of the families of the victims, all of the families of the accused, the defense, the prosecution…I mean, the fact that it was us, the “Paradise Lost” filmmakers, who convinced everybody to allow cameras in the courtroom…there would be no footage of the trial being used by many other productions – not just ours – and news organizations if it wasn’t for the work that we did to convince everybody to let us film those trials. So I think that first film is just a pretty amazing example of just getting incredible access.

But the first couple of months, we were primarily spending… [Hesitates.] The reason I mention that is not to pat ourselves on the back but to make the point that we arrived within days of the arrest and really…I mean, we just camped out in town for eight months, which I think was the last time I have so invested that much time in a project. The Metallica film (“Some Kind of Monster”), we certainly spent a lot of time, but we went back and forth. This was really descending into this world and staying and doing everything we could to build relationships, and it’s the building of those relationships that produced that access. That’s what news organizations and television coverage just isn’t able to do. Anyway…

BE: Um…

JB: Sorry, sorry. Go ahead.

BE: No, don’t apologize, you’re fine. I’ve been enjoying this. But I was just curious: you were talking about how you went in knowing what HBO was looking for with the film, but was there a particular point where you told them, “Um, I don’t think this is going in quite the direction you anticipated”?

JB: Yeah. Y’know, I wouldn’t say the light bulb went off one day and we said, “Oh, my God, they’re definitely innocent!” It’s not like one day we just completely turned on a dime. But as I said, the first couple of months we primarily spent with the families of the victims. We were tentatively getting access to the families of the accused, but that took a little more time. But when you come down making a film, thinking you’re making one about guilty teenagers, and you spent time mainly with the families of the victims, and the police and the prosecution are trying to convince you of the solidity of their case…we had no reason to suspect otherwise. But by the third month, we had actually started spending time with the families of the accused, and they seemed very credible and sympathetic. And that, of course, troubles you. But the thing that really made us question that something was wrong here was…well, by November, we finally negotiated access to the West Memphis Three – although obviously they weren’t called the West Memphis Three at that time – and their lawyers. The guys were being held without bail in county lockup awaiting trial, and we did a series of interviews with them that you see in the film, and after those interviews were over, we just…I mean, again, the light bulb didn’t go off in terms of us saying, “Oh, my God, they’re innocent,” but it did in the sense that we were, like, “Something is really, really wrong here. They don’t feel like they did this.”

The thing that had the most impact on me was when I was interviewing Jason Baldwin, who you see in the film as a sweet, shy, credible kid. And over the course of the three films…by the time you see him in “Paradise Lost 3,” he’s developed into an incredibly morally upright, incredibly positive person, but that quality you saw even in that little kid. And when I looked down at his wrists…I mean, the kid was scrawny. He had the tiniest little wrists. And when I looked at those wrists and thought about what the detectives had told me he had done with a survival knife, it just didn’t add up. Echols admittedly was a tougher read because he seemed to be enjoying the attention, didn’t quite realize what he had gotten himself into, and kind of liked the spotlight, but he too was extremely credible. And Misskelley is not the most intelligent communicator, but he also felt very believable. And so after we had done several rounds of interviews with these guys, I remember with great trepidation calling Sheila Nevins up at HBO, thinking they might actually pull the film or something, and telling her, “Bruce and I feel like these guys might not have done it.” And much to her credit, and thank goodness, she became even more excited about the potential of the project and said, “Go wherever the story takes you. If these are innocent guys, then that’s an even better story.”

BE: Wow, a network exec with a journalist’s instincts. That’s impressive.

JB: Exactly! And, again, at the time, the outrageous Salem witch hunt of rumor and innuendo that actually took place, that was the farthest thing from our minds. Back in November of ’93, when we realized something was amiss and that these guys seemed like they were innocent, we actually assumed it would work itself out at trial. That’s another reason we kind of stayed for such a long period embedding ourselves: we felt that, from a film standpoint, it’s not the trial that’s going to be the most important part of the film, but the events leading up to the trial. Because we assumed that these guys would ultimately be acquitted, because, y’know, how could they be convicted on such flimsy evidence? That was when I still had faith and belief in the justice system. Because, of course, I had just come off of…I don’t remember if you said you knew “Brother’s Keeper” or not, but I had just come off an amazing situation where the truth had come out at trial and the guy was acquitted. So we were not prepared for the media to descend like vultures.

One of the reasons we structured “Paradise Lost 3” through all of that media over the years was to show just how the media polluted the situation. Just the printing of the confession…not in its multipart problematic form, but they printed just the final result, as if it was given as one contiguous problem-free statement. That was what was printed in the newspaper. And they had a ceremonial change of venue 150 miles to Corning, Arkansas, but in a television and radio age, that is largely ceremonial and meaningless, because the entire state was blanketed with that confession and news about that confession. So by the time the trial started, we realized that we were into some other place, that there was no way these guys were going to get acquitted, that it was a trial based on rumor and innuendo and fear and all the things you see in the film. So it was really in November of ’93, when we did those first series of interviews, that we just felt like, “Wow, this is not what we came down for…”

BE: You said you consider the second film to be deeply flawed. What about it is flawed to you?

JB: Um, well, it’s…it’s my least favorite of the three. Y’know, it’s not a bad film, but it’s, uh, not a great film, either. [Laughs.] It was borne out of…okay, the first film was initially borne out of trying to tell a story. It had a cinematic impulse, a storytelling impulse, at its core, and we had tremendous access and an unfolding, evolving story to literally capture as it unfolded before our cameras because we were there and made ourselves be at the right place at the right time. The second film is kind of the opposite, in a sense. It’s advocacy in search of storytelling.

First of all, cameras – most specifically our cameras – were banned from the appeals process, so there was no unfolding dramatic narrative of courtroom material to film, which, structurally speaking, purely from a cinematic standpoint, gives you something to hang things on. We lacked that. The appeals process is inherently un-cinematic and slow-moving.  And in hindsight, the information contained in that film is not wholly accurate. I mean, it’s accurate in the sense that it’s a time capsule of the state of the investigation in 1998 and 1999. I remember we shot that film just two years after the first “Paradise Lost” movie came out, and at the time…

You know, some have accused “Paradise Lost 2” of pointing the finger at the wrong person, meaning Mark Byers. I don’t subscribe to that theory. That is not why I think the movie is flawed. Because at the time…well, first of all, we the filmmakers did not create the suspicion, we were following the suspicion. At the time, the state of the investigation…and, interestingly, the state of forensic science at that time, and that particular profiler, those forensic experts that were hired by the WM3.org people…the prevailing theory was that the wounds were human bite marks, and the fact that Byers had removed his teeth, as well as some of the many other areas of suspicion that were directed towards him, made him somebody that the investigation was looking at.

As somebody in the truth business, it troubles me that that film at the time documented the then-prevailing theory, so it’s truthful in the sense that we were documenting the theory at the time, but…the theory is wrong. And that troubles me that, in hindsight, the footage and…you know,  the document that was put out into the world about what these guys felt was the theory of the crime was incorrect. So that troubles me. But it is a correct retelling or recapturing of that particular time. Now, some people have accused us of doing to Mark Byers what was done to Damien in that film, the rumor and innuendo, and that is a charge that I don’t agree with. I guess a lot of people don’t see it this way, as I’ve learned over the years, but the fact that he was allowed to take a lie detector test and the fact that he willingly participated in the film in which he confronts his accusers – the accusers weren’t us, they were many, many people all around him, including WM3.org – ironically, the fact that the film includes the lie detector test that he passes at the end, in many ways the inclusion of that underscores the very theme that it is quite dangerous to point a finger at somebody based on rumor and innuendo. And I think the film takes you on that journey of suspicion and then, at the end, he passes the lie detector test and leaves that question open for others to investigate.

So my feeling that it’s a flawed film is not the Byers question. My feeling that it’s a flawed film is that it lacks a driving narrative the way the first film did, and, y’know, it ultimately presents a theory that has now been discarded. And that troubles me. At the time, it felt very credible and real, but that theory now is no longer valid. I believe the forensic work that has been done courtesy of Peter Jackson’s reinvestigation is extremely rock solid, but 10 years from now, will we look back and say that there were problems with that investigation? That’s the question that I guess the second film causes me to have.

BE: Actually, I was just going to ask you what your thoughts were on “West of Memphis.”

JB: Um…what did you think of it?

BE: A-ha! Well, I haven’t seen it yet – it hasn’t shown in my area – so I have that to fall back on.

JB: [Laughs.] You know, I think it’s a very strong film. I think it’s a strong companion film to the “Paradise Lost” series. Um…I think it’s aesthetically and philosophically a very different film. “West of Memphis”…well,  I want to say first of all that there can’t be enough films about this injustice, both for the specific need to exonerate these guys, which is unfinished business, and for the general need to remind people that these kinds of wrongful conviction cases happen all the time. You know, the fluke in this case is not that three teens were wrongfully convicted. The fluke in this case was that there happened to be filmmakers around to capture it. And so I’m fully supportive of “West of Memphis” as a strong companion piece to the whole canon of books and movies about this case. I think they’re coming at it from a different place, which is great.

I look at the “Paradise Lost” trilogy as independent journalism. Objective independent journalism, meaning we are independent of our subjects. Whereas “West of Memphis” is being made by the film’s subjects. The people who created the news of that specific reinvestigation, the people who paid for that investigation, are the people paying for this documentary. And so, to me, that is probably one of the greatest examples of impassioned advocacy filmmaking that I can think of. But I think it’s different than the independent journalism, the independence from our subjects that the “Paradise Lost” trilogy represents. [Hesitates.] Does that make sense, what I’m saying?

BE: It does.

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JB: And I think the other major difference between the films is that…I believe (director) Amy Berg started shooting this film at the end of 2009, so it is more of a retrospective look in hindsight at the actions that some of the people involved in this case took to fight for the freedom of, in particular, Damien Echols. Whereas the “Paradise Lost” series begins days after the arrest and ends when they get out of prison, and we were there for two decades. So we were kind of immersed, and that’s why, when you see six and a half hours of the trilogy, it is immersive twists and turns while it is unfolding. As opposed to the very cogent…she does an excellent job of putting all the pieces together and retelling the story, but it’s being retold in hindsight. I think that’s a different aesthetic feeling. It’s a strong film, but it’s a different aesthetic feeling than being immersed. And I think there’s a fundamental difference.

Again, please understand that I’m not criticizing at all. I’m just trying to distinguish between the two. Because I think it’s a super strong film and people should definitely see it, but I think there’s a difference between our following/uncovering the news as independent journalists versus actually creating the news and putting it on film. The film is largely about Peter Jackson’s efforts to reinvestigate the crime in order to free Echols and, by extension, the other two. But Jason and Jessie aren’t really in “West of Memphis.” Jason Baldwin’s team did some outstanding forensic and legal work that is not in the film. So it is some of the West Memphis Three players telling their own story, and that kind of impassioned advocacy I think is really strong, but it’s different than… In other words, they (the subjects of the film) are telling their own story about the news that they are making, whereas I think the “Paradise Lost” trilogy is covering or following and uncovering the news as it’s unfolding independent of the film’s subjects.

BE: On a related note, I feel like it’s a testament to the level of awareness that people have of this case that, rather than being turned into a Lifetime movie, it’s going to be a theatrical release with big-name actors being directed by Atom Egoyan. (“Devil’s Knot,” starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, is scheduled to hit the big screen in 2013.)

JB: [Laughs.] I know, right? No, it’s great that he’s doing it. Atom and I have been touch about his film, and I’m very excited for it.

BE: Honestly, he’s the biggest reason that I’m intrigued about it. You never know how sensational films like this will turn out, but I have faith that if he’s helming it, it’s going to be as good as it possibly could be.

JB: I’m curious about it, too, and I have tremendous…of all the filmmakers I can think, he would be way high on the list, so I’m glad it’s him and I share your feelings. Over the years we ourselves have been approached about turning the original “Paradise Lost” into a feature film, and I always demurred because I felt like particularly the first film is an incredibly complex weave of a lot of balls in the air, and the very process of dramatizing a story and making it fit the Aristotelian rules of drama that you must do to make a feature film would so oversimplify the power and content of what “Paradise Lost” is that I felt like I did not want to trivialize my own work by making a feature film about it. [Laughs.] But, look, Atom’s a great filmmaker. “The Sweet Hereafter” is one of my all time favorite movies, so I’m truly excited to see what he’s gonna do with it. But we had been approached over the years, and it’s just a job that I did not want to take on.

BE: But if you can’t trust the guy who did “The Sweet Hereafter” to do a good job, who can you trust?

JB: Exactly!

  

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