Dual doc projects clashed over access to interviewees

Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” bows today in Sundance’s Doc Premieres — with an audience that’s likely familiar with the subject.

The Peter Jackson-produced docu about the West Memphis 3, who were jailed for murder and recently freed under the Alford Plea, comes on the heels of “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” the conclusion of the 18-years-in-the-making trilogy on the case; docu bowed on HBO this month.

Also in the Sundance section is “Under African Skies” from Joe Berlinger, who, along with Bruce Sinofsky, directed “Paradise Lost 3,” which is shortlisted for the Oscar documentary feature category.

All the filmmakers would like Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. completely cleared. But the two teams have had disagreements over access to the films’ subjects.

Jackson decided to get involved in 2004 after watching the first HBO pic, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.” He and Fran Walsh helped reinvigorate the case in 2005 when they funded a new probe into the conviction of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley.

In September 2008, after a judge rejected a motion for a new trial, Jackson decided to make a doc, and Berg was hired that year; Jackson did not directly contact HBO, Berlinger or Sinofsky.

“By the time Judge Burnett turned down all the evidence in 2008, we had become friends with Damien and (his wife) Lorri Davis,” Jackson said. (Echols and Davis serve as producers on “West of Memphis.”) “We were trying to save his life, which is why we went into this film. His prospects were grim, and all that new evidence wasn’t going to count for a thing. So we felt that we were making a movie that was trying to save him, and we were not going to entrust that job to anyone else,” he added.

There was a dispute regarding access to Pam Hobbs, the mother of victim Steve Branch. (Reese Witherspoon is attached to star as Hobbs in Atom Egoyan’s West Memphis Three drama “Devil’s Knot.”)

Hobbs, who was featured in the first “Paradise Lost” film, signed a documentary rights agreement with Berg’s camp that prevented her from appearing in “Paradise Lost 3,” receiving a weekly consulting fee.

Berg says she signed Hobbs only after hearing that Berlinger and Sinofsky had signed an exclusive deal with Pam’s ex-husband, Terry Hobbs — the only person close to the case who can be connected to the crime scene via DNA.

Berlinger, who has been reluctant to discuss any differences with the “West of Memphis” production team, felt he had no choice but to sign Terry Hobbs in August 2010 after receiving a letter from a “West of Memphis” lawyer denying him access to Pam Hobbs.

“I signed Terry Hobbs only after realizing that the ‘West of Memphis’ production was not going to be mutually cooperative with a character who had been part of our story for 17 years,” Berlinger contended. He also disputes the “West of Memphis” teams’ claims that no film crews were on the ground garnering interviews and investigating the case in 2008. He cites receipts, emails and footage from 2004 though 2011.

Berg countered that Berlinger and Sinofsky had compensatedcertain individuals for their participation in the first two installments of “Paradise Lost,” saying, “Those first two films set up a precedent in Arkansas by paying people for interviews, which I had never been exposed to.”

Berlinger disputes that characterization. “Three months into filming ‘Paradise Lost’ in 1993, we saw that some of these families couldn’t afford basic necessities. We felt bad that some of these people were having trouble making ends meet, so we gave each of the six families who had lost a child or who had been accused of the crime a one-time honorarium as a basic humanitarian gesture.”

He continued, “Compensating people for their time is very different than blocking access. Over the 18 years we have been involved with this case, we’ve helped any other media outlet that wanted to tell this story by giving footage or access to people or information, including CNN, ’48 Hours’ and the Discovery Channel. I don’t believe in monopolizing access when three people’s lives were on the line. We found it frustrating that we were prevented from filming certain characters who we introduced to (“West of Memphis” producers) through our films and whom we had been covering for almost two decades.”

But having another film about the Memphis 3 case at Sundance, 15 years after “Paradise Lost: The Childhood Murders at Robin Hood Hills” first premiered, will ultimately keep the public’s attention on the case.

“There can’t be enough films about this miscarriage of justice,” Berlinger said. “I believe that they had the best of intentions and Damien’s best interests at heart, and I admire what they did with regard to pushing the investigation forward.”

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