EXCLUSIVE: Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh last came to the Sundance Film Festival in 1993 to debut their splatter film Dead/Alive at a midnight premiere. It was that same year that three boys were murdered in Arkansas, and teens Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were convicted in a sensationalized trial in which prosecutors portrayed them as satanic ritualistic killers. Despite the lack of any physical evidence, the West Memphis 3 were sent to prison for life, with Echols given the death penalty. Jackson and Walsh return to Park City this week to introduce West of Memphis, an Amy Berg-directed documentary. Not only did Jackson and Walsh finance the film (which they produced with Echols and his wife Lorri Davis); much of the docu is based on evidence that came to light after Jackson and Walsh began quietly paying bills for DNA testing, forensic experts and investigators to force a retrial. In the face of overwhelming evidence, the defendants were finally freed after 18 years, forced a accept a plea agreement where the trio maintained innocence, but also pleaded guilty to perhaps the most notorious murders in Arkansas history.
Jackson and Walsh, who are on sabbatical from shooting the two-film adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, began paying legal bills just after they wrapped King Kong in 2005. Last Sunday, as Berg hurried to finish the documentary that premieres Friday at the MARC Theatre, Jackson and Walsh took Deadline through a seven-year legal odyssey that grew from a desire to help into one of the high profile Sundance docus, a film Jackson and Walsh hope will help get the West Memphis 3 exonerated. And get a heinous murder case reopened.
DEADLINE: In the documentary, singer Henry Rollins said he related to Damien because he too was a loner and often depressed as a teen. What about Damien Echols or his co-defendants personalized the case for you?
JACKSON: I’ve got a very different background than Damien. We share a sense of humor and a love of Stephen King and horror. I wasn’t into black t-shirts and all that, I was much too mild. What I related to came from seeing the original Paradise Lost film, which did a brilliant job at just making you feel angry. Something very wrong unfolded, not overt, almost insidious. Institutionalized injustice, where a system decided to convict these guys before they’d even begun a trial, which wasn’t a fair trial anyway. I just felt that they were ganged up on and didn’t have the means to defend themselves. When we got involved, the thing that became apparent very quickly was, the best thing we could do to help was bring in what they never had. Funding to get adequate experts. Expert forensics, expert pathology, expert investigation. At the original trial in ’94, the state could throw anything it wanted at these guys, and they didn’t have the means to defend themselves. There isn’t really anything presented in this movie about the case that couldn’t have been presented in court back then. DNA science certainly wasn’t as advanced, but a lot of these forensic experts would have testified in the trial if they had the means to get them there. We were not really interested in funding a legal fight; there were thousands of people already contributing money for that. We would focus our funding on paying bills for experts, and to get science involved.
DEADLINE: Had either of you ever taken on a justice crusade like this before?
WALSH: No. We’re not crusaders, at all.
DEADLINE: How much did you spend on the case?
JACKSON: We honestly don’t know. We’ve been paying our bills on the case since 2005, right along. It’s not like we gave them lump sums of money. It was more a matter of doing what we needed to get the momentum in the investigation. If there was a piece of evidence that need to be tested, we’d say okay, send that to the lab and we’ll pay the bill. If there was somebody we wanted to talk to, we’d send the investigator down to get the statement, and we’d pay that bill. I haven’t a clue how much we spent. (more…)