Award winning and Oscar nominated Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan needs no real introduction, and neither really does the subject of his latest big screen outing Devil’s Knot (in select Canadian cinemas this Friday). An artist who has already explored his loves for mysteries, familial strife, and the limits of the human condition under great suffering in some of his best known works (The Sweet Hereafter, Where the Truth Lies, Chloe), Egoyan turns to one of the most heartbreaking, botched, and still largely perplexing murder cases of all time.
It’s a dramatization of the still very much talked about and still very much active West Memphis Three murder case, which previously inspired the trilogy of Paradise Lost documentaries from filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky and the Peter Jackson and Johnny Depp produced doc West of Memphis. The case, for those unfamiliar, surrounds the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. The crime scene was one so horrifically staged that many believed some kind of satanic cult was to blame, leading to the arrest of threeteenagers, none of whom could actually physically be tied to the crime. It was a legal quagmire and a mystery unsolved that has dragged on for decades, only recently resulting in the freeing of the three young men accused of the murders.
With a script based on an account written by investigative journalist Mara Leveritt of the same name, Egoyan set out to tell a dramatic version of the tale told largely from the points of view of Ron Lax (played by Colin Firth), a private investigator working pro bono to help the young men seek acquittal in the trial’s early days, and Pam Hobbs (played by Reese Witherspoon), the distraught and increasingly conflicted mother of one of the deceased boys. It’s a look at a media circus and a procedural nightmare told from the perspective of two people desperate for answers who can ultimately affect very little change on the situation.
We talked to Egoyan (who just saw the debut of his latest on stage opera – an adaptation of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte – this past weekend at the Canadian Opera Company) on the day of his film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year about what drew him to make a film about one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history, the film’s adherence to the facts of the case, the film’s hectic shooting schedule, and why his talented cast was such an asset to the production.
We’ve seen this story told many, many times before in the past, so what was it that drew you to want to make what is, for lack of a better word, a fictionalized version of this case?
Atom Egoyan: I don’t think it really is a fictionalized version. It’s really just another interpretation. But what really excited me was this idea that it’s this really unique story that ultimately has no resolution. I was attracted to the fact that there was this openness at the end where we could still see all these different paths that might have been pursued and everything that wasn’t followed and not necessarily point towards any one particular person to say something or suggest anything. We may never find out what happened.
Then for me it became really exciting to make a movie about how we live in doubt. There’s no third act, ultimately. These characters are all really just suspended in space to this day. To me, dramatically, that was just something interesting to explore. It had to be a true story because it is one of those things that if you had written it, no one would believe it. It’s just so improbable that a crime this visceral where three kids are attacked, mutilated, killed, stripped bare, tied up, and meticulously submerged could not yield any evidence. There was no blood, no fingerprints, no traces of anything. All of that just feels so supernatural. The human response is that people want an answer. People want something logical, but in fact, there is no answer to this case still, and that’s what’s exciting and very unusual.
I think what happens with the documentaries and with the books is that they like to tend towards pointing at answers, and that wasn’t what interested me so much.
Do you think there’s something that makes a situation like this more of a tragedy in a dramatic sense because it’s a continuously ongoing thing? Because quite often we don’t really classify something as a tragedy unless there’s absolutely no answer that we can give to describe what happened.
AE: That’s a really good question. I think that is what ultimately makes this so tragic because one is left questioning and there is no resolution. That becomes way more troubling. I wanted to put the viewer right in that place. There’s no comfort to be drawn by the end of this. Yes, you could say that there’s a comfort that it has all been brought to some sort of attention. There are a lot of cases that are never brought to attention that might play out in similar fashions, and that’s kind of what makes this case even more amazing.
What I really wanted to explore with Reese and Colin’s parts are to tell the story from the point of view, especially in Reese’s case, of people who think there’s no logical reason why this case shouldn’t be solved. She wants to move on, but she has the incredible healing capacity to over time begin questioning what she initially though. She doesn’t necessarily at first have the capacity to know what to do with those questions, exactly. It could be that she’s a religious woman. The whole thing with the knife could be just a need for her to place some sort of superstitious value in a single object. It’s not resolved, and it’s never sure if it even leads to anything. And now 20 years later we’re still not sure if it does or if it ever will lead to anything.
They are both completely powerless outsiders in that same respect, too.
AE: Completely. In Colin’s case, he’s a very well established private investigator who is doing this pro bono, and he’s doing this because he’s against the death penalty. He then realizes that he’s seeing an almost complete misfiling of justice, and he’s completely without agency. It’s Kafka-esque, in a way. He can’t even venture into the courtroom at certain points, and he’s excluded from what’s going on. To me it takes on the feeling of an urban myth precisely because there is no other case like this. It’s ripe for re-examination and reinterpretation. It means something else to the public at large and something different and more personal for the people involved.
You treated not only the victim’s families with great compassion, but seeing that the case is now largely seen as a modern day witch hunt, you treated everyone in the town with compassion across the board and didn’t paint everyone in a black and white kind of tone. Was that something that you wanted to consciously do to set yourself apart from other ways this story has been told?
AE: Yes, it was. Absolutely. One of the things I felt while I was watching the documentaries in particular was that there was something really unnervingly performative about John Mark Byers and the judge. They seemed to know there was a documentary crew around, and it seemed to modify their stance and probably modified their own performances. I talked to this a lot with Reese; that there’s this cliché about the South and that things can happen there that couldn’t happen anywhere else. I wanted to get away from saying that this could only happen in the South. It could be happening anywhere. Therefore, here the police aren’t made to be awful, stupid people. We understand at every point why people made the decisions that they made. And there’s no attempt to kind of downplay that Damien Echols was an outsider. He was an odd kid, and he never did much to help his own case, like taking the stand in his own defense.
But that’s my job: to make it as human as possible. And when you have this cast what we try to do is paint this really tough road. At the end of the day, as a viewer you are left in this very, very unexpected place, so it all has to be infused with a great deal of humanity. You have to be invested, but you can’t always be entirely sure why you are there.
Was that why, in a scene like when the bodies are found, that you focus on the grief that the officers investigating the scene are feeling rather than the specifics of the crime scene that have been previously talked about?
AE: Yes! Thank you. Those were some of my favourite scenes. Robert Baker, the actor who plays the detectives that finds the bodies, was a guy who was from West Memphis. I wanted someone there who had kind of been at the core of this all. I thought all of that was really important to the detail. This is such a devastating event to have happened to this place. And it comes up again later with the same character and his shame at having lost the blood evidence. I think that’s a beautiful moment in the film. I talked to the police chief in West Memphis now and he said that the documentaries always made all of them feel stupid. (Inspector Gary) Gitchell was a smart guy, and they admit that they made a mistake with the blood evidence, and that wasn’t deliberately lost or anything like that. If I showed you how the blood evidence was kept back in 1993, I would have just shown you what was just a piece of paper on a desk, and someone misplaced it. That was a terrible mistake. So when Robert says that there was a mistake and that he lost the evidence, there’s a real shame in that. I wanted that to be human.
A lot of what I do is just paying attention to these actors and what they’re committed to doing, and to then find those details.
You’re working once again with people like Colin and Bruce Greenwood again on this film. When you are dealing with something that takes this much attention to detail, is it beneficial to work with people with whom you already have a more established reputation?
AE: It is, totally. I love that shorthand, but I also really love finding those moments with the actors that I don’t know. To see and sense when an actor is fully open and willing to go to any number of different places that you need them to go. But it’s great to have people like Elias Koteas come back and play this one particular character that he plays here, because you know he can come in and deliver the kind of intense, crazed, manic energy that the part needs.
It was a very, very tough shoot, though, so there were definitely times when that helped. We shot the movie in 25 days, which is insane when you have a script that’s 130 pages, and with the courtroom stuff in particular we had to move very, very quickly. It was great to have experienced actors that I had been familiar with, like Colin, Elias, Bruce, Stephen Moyer. They always came memorized and ready to go with all this dialogue so we could just go right into shooting it.
That seems like it would play very well into your theatre background, as well, especially in those courtroom scenes where if you don’t have that much time to shoot, you have to be able to deliver a set performance in a set amount of time.
AE: That’s right. They do. I think Stephen was very surprised when he saw the film that his summation at the end was all one master shot. It’s a performance that’s completely intact, and for me that’s important because from my perspective that’s really the only true moment of magic in the real life story: what he does with that summation. It’s someone saying “Okay, so there’s no physical evidence. There’s some circumstantial evidence, and you see how weird these people are and that you see them as evil, and that therefore makes them demons without any souls.” And the fact that something like that can be delivered in one take shows that there’s nothing to be manufactured other than the vision this person is actually manufacturing for himself.
There’s an interesting parallel between this film and the one at the heart of The Sweet Hereafter, in that there’s a tragedy that there can never really have any sort of emotional closure with.
AE: It’s funny because that is definitely there and I can see it now, but I have to confess that I wasn’t really thinking about that. Sweet Hereafter is kind of different for me. I know in the minds of a lot of people who see it, the film is like looking at a form of communal response, but it’s so focused on this one survivor, Sarah (Polley)’s character, and her coming back from being a victim of incest and the bus is almost secondary to that. For me, that’s a film that does have elements of communal grief, but it’s mostly about her grief and the grief of the lawyer. That film is also quite poetic, and this one is rather objective and just shows the information as it happens. I’m sure the more I think about it the more I’ll see the similarities.
It’s just interesting when you look at the characters played by Reese and Colin, they are playing characters within a community dealing with their own forms of grief and learning things that they never knew about themselves in the process. For her, she’s having a crisis of faith for the first time in her life, and for him it’s the first time he’s ever been made to feel helpless and useless no matter how right he thinks he is.
AE: Right. That’s a great observation, and that’s what we definitely talked about with the actors, especially with Colin. He’s playing a man who is at the top of his professional game, and then he realizes he’s out of his element. When one of the younger lawyers says “Well, if you wanted a say, you should have gone to law school,” he realizes that he has no agency or power to change this terrible course of events.
It becomes dangerous to theorize about what happened – it almost becomes like the great Shakespeare myth after a while when lining up lists of suspects or circumstances. Was that one of the most delicate things for you when taking on this project and ultimately putting the final cut of the film together to avoid doing?
AE: Well, there are these hard facts. There was this call of a bloody man inside the diner. The police came, but they didn’t go in at that time. Then that person disappeared, and there was a blood test done, and then that blood test disappeared. Someone else was brought in as a suspect, as we also show here, and they were questioned and admitted to the crime and withdrew it. All of these specific things were documented, and that was one of the appeals for me and one of the challenges. It was meticulously documented.
When we found out the shooting schedule was going to be less than we planned for it to be, we knew that we couldn’t really cut down the script because there was nothing there that we could cut, so we shot it all and then had to look it over in the editing process. I spent more time in post on this film than any other film I have worked on. We had to be sure that nothing we were saying was conjecture. The only thing here that is conjecture… well, it’s not conjecture, but it is conflation, is what happens with Pam. She didn’t come to question her feelings about the case during the trial itself, but that happened in the years after. We had to compress that into the trial. And again, maybe something like Ron’s divorce didn’t affect him that much, you know what I mean? These are the dramatic touches, of course, but in terms of the hard facts, everything else is rock solid. Some of the locations are more heightened or locations would look different from what they looked like – certainly the trial was a much more beautiful setting here than it was – but I think that’s what’s ultimately exciting about it!
These are the real facts and this is where we are with it. That means it’s not an arbitrary dramatic decision to leave these people hanging. It would have been a disservice to try and theorize or give some sort of conclusion. In the original draft of the script, one of the things that was really weird was that it had this coda where the boys are actually getting freed and they come out of the courthouse and into this press conference, and I thought, “That’s not really even how that happened.” It’s not a “good news” story, and to kind of tack that on to make a happy ending is false. Even when they were freed, they never even so much as smiled at the press conference, so to make something that that feel good is disingenuous.